On a dig in western Siberia, archaeologists have unearthed something startling; a 5,000-year-old grave that holds a unique artifact. Wrapped around the neck of a Bronze Age body is what appears to be part of a cloak. And, strangely, it’s made of birds’ beaks and skulls – something which has baffled the experts.
The incredible discovery, made at the Ust-Tartas site in the Siberian region of Novosibirsk, follows the unearthing of up to 30 ancient graves. Experts have found a number of startling relics believed to be from the Bronze Age – and, as such, the area has given a fascinating insight into a prehistoric Siberian culture.
The discovery of multiple grave sites has shed light on the funerary practices of ancient Russian peoples. The Ust-Tartas, for whom the site is presumably named, are thought to have called western Siberia home over 5,000 years ago. But they weren’t the only humans to make their mark in the area.
Of course, over the last several thousand years, lots of separate cultures have lived and evolved in western Siberia, including a number of societies about which we know very little. The Ust-Tartas date back to the neolithic period, and since then the Andronov, Pakhomovo and Krotovo cultures have also called the place home. But, interestingly, the bird garment didn’t come from any of those eras.
In fact, this most recent find, revealed in May 2019, is attributed to the Odinov culture. A mainly hunter-gatherer society, this group called Siberia home between the 18th and 16th centuries B.C. However, not much information is known about them.
What we do know is that the Odinovs were named after a settlement called Odino, which sat on the lower Ishim river in the west of Siberia. The culture is believed to have represented the start of the Bronze Age – a period characterized by a society’s ability to produce or trade in the eponymous metal.
The settlement of Odino, for its part, was located on an island in the Ishim River. Dwellings were built on terraces lining the shore, while other houses known as dug-outs were also constructed. In relation to their faith, the Odinovs may have practised Shamanism, according to Lilia Kobeleva, from the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography.
Believe it or not, many cultures in Siberia had a Shamanistic basis to their religions, going all the way back to the Bronze Age. A shaman, a sort of priest, is someone who can see and interact with spirits from different worlds.
In Siberian Shamanism, the universe consists of three separate worlds. The first, the upper world, is the home of the gods; the second is Earth, while the third consists of the underworld, which is dominated by demons. And the shaman can communicate with spirits on all three planes, functioning as a healer and priest.
As such, the shaman was one of the most respected members of many Siberian societies of the time. They wore elaborate costumes and often lived in isolation. More importantly, they could perform rituals to help with everything from crop failure to illness. These religious events likely sometimes involved the practitioner ingesting hallucinogenic substances, as well as dancing and singing.
In addition to healing and problem-solving, shamans could also perform a ritual known as divination – which allowed them to see into the future. According to the website 56th Parallel, divination involved shamans “taking the ecstatic journey to the other world and asking ancestors and spirits living there for pieces of advice.” And while all of this might sound like ancient history, a number of modern Siberian cultures still practise Shamanism today.
But let’s return to the discovery of the Odinov grave, announced in May 2019. As it showed, even in this ancient era, people were being buried alongside particular objects or outfits. And it’s this practice that so intrigued researchers in Novosibirsk.
The Odinov grave, for its part, was unique. Lying underneath the body of the so-called “birdman” was what seemed to be a collar made up of some 50 beaks, along with bird skulls. As researcher Lilia Kobeleva told the Siberian Times that month, “The beaks were assembled at the back of the [man’s] skull, as if it were a collar that protected the owner.”
As yet, experts aren’t entirely sure which avian species the collar is made of, but it seems likely that it comes from herons or cranes. Given that the unusual garment is covered in 5,000 years’ worth of gunk, though, perhaps a little uncertainty is understandable.
The Bronze Age remains have since been moved from the Ust-Tartas site so that the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography can clean up and examine them. Given the delicate nature of the-collar, that process is expected to take months. Nevertheless, experts hope it will help solve one of the many mysteries surrounding the incredible find.
For one thing, researchers have yet to work out how the beaks were attached to one another. The experts noted that there are no holes in them, so how they connected to each other or any type of fabric remains a mystery.
And it’s not just the so-called birdman that researchers found at the Ust-Tartas site; the dig also uncovered a double-layered grave, the top of which contained the remains of two small children. But it was below the young bodies – estimated to have been between five and ten years old at the time of death – that experts uncovered something else unique.
Below the bodies of the children lay the skeletal remains of an adult man; and lying next to his head, researchers spotted something completely unexpected. The bronze discovery, which consisted of a bridge with two hemispheres, looked curiously similar to a pair of spectacles.
Had the researchers actually found eyewear from the Bronze Age? The experts aren’t sure; indeed, an alternative theory was that they could have been part of a burial mask. According to The Siberian Times, scientists did find “traces of organic matter” on the rims of the circular pieces, however, which could suggest they were actually spectacles. Furthermore, the ancient “glasses” weren’t the only thing found in the grave.
Along with the spectacles, archaeologists also found five pendants. These adornments – which are crescent-shaped and made of polished stone – were believed to have been used for rituals. Some of them lay next to the dead man’s arm, while others were around his waist. Excited by the find, Lidia Kobeleva told The Siberian Times, “These are unique items, we are very excited indeed to have found them.”
“Nothing of this kind was ever found as part of Odinov culture in all of western Siberia,” Kobeleva continued. “I say so because we have been working on this site for a while and unearthed more than 30 burials. They all had interesting finds, but nothing we found earlier was as impressive as [the] discoveries in these two graves.”
Of course, it’s the uniqueness of these artifacts that has scientists puzzled. It seems that the collar, glasses and pendants left researchers scratching their heads as to why those items were buried in the first place.
But while those items are themselves special, the idea of burying personal or religious items with the dead isn’t that unusual. Interring a person alongside some of their possessions is a funerary practice that goes back thousands of years. In fact, the type and quality of grave goods – as they’re known – can tell archaeologists a lot about the person they’re found with.
Perhaps the most famous and decadent examples of grave goods are the tombs of the pharoahs of ancient Egypt. The country’s enormous pyramids were conceived as huge burial chambers, filled with riches and all the ruler would need for a smooth transition in to the afterlife. But of course, not every ancient grave belongs to royalty.
In fact, the practice of burying grave goods goes back to at least the early neolithic period over 12,000 years ago. Back then, society was far less hierarchical and the items buried were often distributed more or less equally. As time went on, however, this ritual evolved. In later years, high-value items became part of the interment, and they were buried alongside the society’s most important individuals.
So it seems that grave goods also took on a more spiritual significance as these cultures evolved, much as they did in ancient Egypt. And this ritual had significance for the archaeologists in Siberia, who came to a similar conclusion about the owners of the collar, glasses and pendants. As Kobeleva told The Siberian Times in 2019, “Both men must have carried special roles in society.”
Given the time period in which the Odinov society was active, researcher Lilia Kobeleva suggested that both men may have been shamans. This, of course, might explain the unusual goods in their graves.
The beak collar, for its part, may well have been part of a ritualistic costume; alternatively, it could be a piece of armor, or even a headdress. Nevertheless, these incredible items have no precedent in the area, so scientists have little information on which to base their theories.
Although experts in Siberia are still stumped on the use-cases of these items, it doesn’t mean finding these grave goods is any less incredible. Of course, to have survived 5,000 years and still be recognizable is a feat in itself. But once they’ve been cleaned up and restored, the collar, glasses and pendants will provide a small window on the lives of our ancient ancestors. And, in that regard, it seems that Siberia has a very big part to play elsewhere too.
In addition to the incredible Bronze Age items and dozens of ancient bodies discovered in Siberia, the region has even older secrets to reveal. In 2008 a single piece of leg bone was found – again in western Siberia – and carbon dating of the fragment showed that it went back a whopping 45,000 years.
Not only was the fragment – called the Ust’-Ishim man – the oldest human bone to be successfully carbon dated, it also contained intact DNA. Found by Russian sculptor Nikolai Peristov, Ust’-Ishim man then became the oldest human ever to have their genome sequenced.
In fact, Ust’-Ishim man’s leg isn’t just the oldest bone to be carbon dated and DNA sequenced, it’s also the earliest human remains ever found outside of the Middle East and Africa. According to National Geographic, he may have been part of a group called the first foragers. This culture consisted of early humans who migrated into Asia and Europe within the last 60,000 years.
Ust’-Ishim man is also believed to be genetically related to modern-day Native Americans and Asians. His group, however, may have died out during an ancient ice age, leaving little evidence of their existence. Furthermore, he isn’t the only incredible thing to have been found in Siberia in recent years.
According to a report in The Guardian in 2010, the discovery of a small finger bone led to a declaration that it once belonged to a completely unknown human relative. Found in Siberia’s Denisova cave in the Altai mountains, the fragment most likely belonged to a child. And this cave, inhabited by humans for more than 125,000 years, turned up a number of artifacts, including bones and stone tools.
This particular bone, though, belonged to a person who is entirely unique in recorded human history. The discovery was made when scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, ran tests on the bone. According to The Guardian, “Johannes Krause sequenced DNA from mitochondria, the sub-cellular bodies that carry genetic material passed down only the maternal line. Because the DNA came from the mother, they called the creature ‘X-woman.’”
The results of the finger bone’s genetic sequencing astonished the scientists in Germany; the profile didn’t match either early humans or Neanderthals. As Krause told The Guardian, “It really looked like something I had never seen before.” But the surprising results didn’t end there.
According to Krause, the finger bone’s DNA “was a sequence which is similar in some ways to humans, but still quite distinct.” And those similarities suggest that modern-day humans may have a shared an ancestor somewhere on the family tree, around a million years ago. And this new human also has another first under its belt – it was the first entirely new type of human to have been been discovered using just DNA.
So it seems that Siberia played a much larger role in the migration of early humans into Asia and Europe than previously thought. This would, of course, explain why so many ancient and unique archaeological finds pop up in the area. In fact, this new human is the first discovered anywhere in the world since 2004, when so-called “hobbits” known as Homo floresiensis were found in Indonesia.
So if recent finds are anything to go by, it appears that more secrets may yet be discovered in Siberia. From ancient graves to prehistoric art and mummies, this part of the world is a literal playground for archaeologists and historians. But what of the Odinov collar, glasses and pendants?
The incredible discoveries announced in May 2019 still have much to teach us; and once cleaned up, perhaps scientists will have more answers. Until then, we can only imagine what a bird beak collar might have been used for.