Archaeologists Find 13,000-Year-Old Engraved Mammoth Tusk in Siberia

The 13,000-year-old partial tusk of an adult mammoth found in western Siberia has four images of two-humped camels engraved on it.

The 13,000-year-old engraved mammoth tusk from the Tom River, western Siberia. Image credit: Esin et al, doi: 10.1016/j.ara.2020.100180.

The engraved tusk was found in 1988 at a locality known as Parusinka in the lower reaches of the Tom River.

The artifact, which measures about 70 cm (27.6 inches) in length and 10 cm (3.9 inches) in diameter, is a frontal fragment of a 1.5-m- (59-inch-) long tusk from a 35 to 40-year-old male mammoth.

The object was examined by Dr. Yury Esin from the Khakassian Research Institute for Language, Literature and History and colleagues.

The researchers radiocarbon-dated the artifact to about 13,000 years ago and spotted several incisions on it.

“The engravings on the tusk from the Tom River have special features, which make them difficult to document,” they explained.

“They have very thin and shallow lines, making them barely visible and tedious to trace.”

“They are on the surface of a round, long, curved and heavy object which does not allow all the imagery to be seen and recognized without rotating the tusk.”

“The poor condition of the tusk does not permit us to see a complete and coherent composition.”

Engravings on the 13,000-year-old mammoth tusk from the Tom River, western Siberia; numbers from (1) to (5) and letters from (a) to (i) mark main images and their details. Image credit: Esin et al, doi: 10.1016/j.ara.2020.100180.

The scientists then made a 2D model of the tusk surface and identified images of two-humped camels arranged in two pairs.

“All four animals (labeled as #1, 2, 3 and 4 in the image above) were executed in the same style, using similar techniques and tools,” they explained.

“The main stylistic feature of these images is that they combine the figures’ outlines with a series of short transverse cuts on the inner side. In some places, the outline is missing and the short cuts themselves serve as the contour.”

“All camels are depicted with only two legs. The lower ends of the foot contours, in most cases, are not connected.”

“The camels have patches of thick fur sticking out from the upper parts of their forelegs, bellies, under their necks, at the base of the humps (between the front hump and the neck, the back hump and the croup) and on their foreheads. The heads are all small and angular.”

“On two figures (#1 and #3), single dots inside the heads probably indicate eyes,” they added.

“The tails are stretched out and down. All in all, the figures of the animals are quite realistic and demonstrate a good knowledge of the subject.”

Between the rear legs of camels (#1) and (#3), the authors spotted a complex anthropomorphic figure.

“It resembles two legs walking to the right (however, without any outlined feet). It is shown under number (#5) and highlighted in yellow,” they said.

“It is possible that what we see here is an anthropomorphic figure with its upper part delineated by the legs of the animals.”

According to the team, the images on the tusk from the Tom River are the earliest known depictions of camels in Asia.

“The comparative analysis of the stylistic features of the camel figures shows that they correspond to the age of the tusk itself, making them, at present, the oldest camel images in Asia,” the researchers said.

“The discovery of the engravings in this region is consistent with the theory of mobile population groups moving to western Siberia from the periglacial steppe to the south in the Late Upper Paleolithic.”

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