Thysagetae (blyd) wrote,

Mezhirich - Mammoth Camp

      One very early type of housing used by hunter gatherers in Eastern Europe during the Upper Paleolithic times was mammoth bone dwellings in Mezhirich, Ukraine. Mammoth bone huts, structures built primarily from the bones and tusks from mammoths, are known from sites throughout Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Poland), with a concentration found in the Dneiper River valley of Russia and. In the upper and middle Dniepr basin, many settlements, built with a large number of mammoth bones, have been discovered: Ioudinovo, Timonovka 1 2, Elisseevitchi 1, 2, Suponevo, Mizine, Kiev-Kirilivska, Dobranichivka, Ginsy (Gontsy), Mezhiriche. All these sites are dated by C14 between about 27,000 and 12,000 years ago. 


The Mezhirich site location is: 49 deg 38' N, 31 deg 24'E. Located on a North facing near the point where the Rosava River flows into the river Ros'. 
Discovered in 1965 when a farmer began excavating a cellar, almost two meters below ground level, he struck the massive lower jaw of a mammoth with his spade. The jawbone was upside down, and had been inserted into the bottom of another jaw like a child's building brick. In fact, as subsequent excavation showed, a complete ring of these inverted interlocking jaws formed the solid base of roughly circular hut four or five meters across. About three dozen mammoth tusks had been used as arching supports for the roof and for the porch, some of them still left in their sockets in the skulls [4]. The dwellings, which are now believed to be some of the oldest known houses in the world, date back to 15,000 years ago. The roof's support was made up of about three-dozen curved mammoth tusks, some of which were still in their sockets in the skulls during their discovery. The mammoth bones were used for the framework and foundation of these huts when wood was scarce and there were no available caves. Separate lengths of tusks were even linked in laces by a hollow sleeve of ivory that fitted over the join. It has been estimated that the total of bones incorporated in the structure must have belonged to a minimum of ninety-five mammoths.
One small tusk weighed about one hundred kilograms. It is likely that this extremely solid framework, when completed, was covered with. 

Inside the Mezhirich buildings are hearts and large concentration of bone and tool. Also, there were some extraordinary finds: amber ornaments and fossil shells transported an estimated 350 to 500 kilometers from their source, and the remains of one of the earliest percussion instruments ever found. The "drum" consisted of a mammoth skull set at the entrance porch and painted with a pattern of red ocher dots and lines. The top of this skull bears depressions where it seems to have been beaten by "drumsticks," the animal long bones that were found to bear corresponding damage on their ends [4]. It is speculated that the building in which the drum was found could have served as some communal function or ritual at which the drum would have been beaten. The oldest map in the world, inscribed on a mammoth tusk it was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It has been interpreted to show a river with dwellings along a river [1]. Also, research indicates that there is a significant quantity of wood charcoal at the Mezhirich site, which is surprising when you consider that most researchers have assumed that the area was essentially treeless. The wood charcoal could perhaps have come from small woody shrubs [6], or those people have lived in zone of timberline the edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing. That also can indicate the worm period of Allerod and Bolling periods. Also, surprisingly there are no fish bones have been found at the site [5]. Areas outside of the huts have fewer artifacts except for a few areas of concentrated trash discard, suggesting a winter occupation when most activities would have been carried out inside [3].

Also, outside of the huts are numbers of pits, some one and half meters deep. Analysis of the remains in one of the huts identified a variety of activity that occurred: stone tool manufacture and repair; use of red and yellow ochre pigment; use of bone needles in sewing; skinning of fox and weasel, living the complete skeleton intact; cooking of large and small mammal; use of bones as fuel in the fires; some possible use of berries and seeds. The food remains include mammoth, rhinoceros, horse, bison, hare and birds [3].  

      The weather of Ice Age Europe some 15, 000 years ago was harsh. The Older Dryas period (14,000-13,700 BC) was a somewhat variable cold, dry period of Europe, named after alpine or tundra plant dryas. The Older Dryas period was preceded by the Bolling(14,650-14,000 BC) and followed by the Allerod period (12,000-11,000 BC) - during which temperatures in the northern Atlantic region rose from glacial to almost present day level. TheOlder Dryas weather Northern Europe offered an alternation of steppe and tundra environments depending on the permafrost line and the latitude latitude. In moister regions around lakes and streams were thickets of dwarf birch, willow, sea buckthorn, and juniper. In the river valleys and uplands to the south were open birch forests.

      During the Older Dryas, the glacier advanced and the trees retreated southward, to be replaced by a mixture of grassland and cool-weather alpine species. This type of biome has been called “park tundra”, “arctic tundra”, “arctic pioneer vegetation” or “birch woodlands.” It exists today in the transition between taiga and tundra in Siberia. Older Dryas species are usually found in sediment below the bottom layer of the bog. Indicator species are the Alpine plants: dryas octopetala; dwarf willow; sorrel; sagebrush or wormwood.

Fauna, plane mammals:  the steppe wisent or steppe bison; the reindeer or caribou; the elks; the red deer; the musk ox; the saiga; equus ferus (the wild horse); woolly rhinoceros; and the mammoth. So much meat on the hoof must have supported large numbers of carnivores such as: the brow bear; the cave bear; the cave lion; the wolf; and the arctic fox. The top of the food chain was supported by larger numbers of smaller animals farther down it, which lived in the herbaceous blanket covering the tundra or steppe and helped maintain it by carrying seeds, manuring and aerating it. It seems that man did not hunt alone. Two domestic dogs (canis familiaris), have been found in late Pleistocene Ukraine. They were a heavy breed similar to a Great Dane, perhaps of use in running down the big plane mammals [7]. 

            Dating between 15,000 and 10,000 years BC, the site of Mezhirich appears to have been a complex winter base camp, occupied several times by up to 50 people. Its occupants depended upon a wide variety of food resources, some of which they stored in pits dug into permafrost. During the summer, they presumable moved elsewhere, returning again in subsequent winter. The location of the site and the characteristics of the dwelling structures are revealing several conditions of adaptation of hunters to the cold and dry climate of last ice age. The open-air camp is installed upon the promontory of a terrace of the slope of a river valley [2]. Such a location presents the advantage to protect the settlement from cold winds and gives a wide view on the river valley where animals are passing through. The choice for the location of the settlement is also associated with mammoth bone concentrations nearby, delivering building elements. 

List of used literature: 

[1] Peter James and Nick Thorpe “Ancient Inventions” New York: Ballantine Books, 1994 (p. 57). 

[2] Iakovleva, L.A. 2000. The mammoth bone settlements of Dnepr basin archeology: 72-83. Kiev (Ukrainian). 

[3] Pidoplichko, I.G. 1976. “The Mejiriche mammoth bone dwellings”. Kiev (USSR).

[ 4] E. Hadingham “Secrets of the Ice Age” at Don's Maps, Resources for the study of Archaeology – “Mezhirich mammoth camp”,

 [5] Nyzhnuj, D. 2007 “Current Archeological research at Mezhirich site” newspaper Den’, №152, September 11 2007 ( 

[6] Mason, S.L.R., Hather, J.G., and G.C. Hillman l994 Predvaritel'nyj Otchet o Sostave Rastitel'nykh Ostatkov iz Raskopok Stoianki Mezhirich l994 g, po dannym flotatsii) (Preliminary Report on the Plant Remains from the Excavations at the Site of Mezhirich in l994, data from flotation). Prilozhenie no.3 (addendum #3) In N.L. Korniets, O. Soffer, V. Sountsov, Otchet o raskopkakh pozdnepaleoliticheskoi stoianki Mezhirich v l994 g. (report on the excavations at the Upper Paleolithic site of Mezhirich in l994), pp. 48 - 53. Report on file with the Field Committee, Institute of Archaeology, Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Kiev, Ukraine. (English version available from the authors). 




Tags: archeology, ukraine, upper-paleolithic
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