A Monumental Prehistoric Discovery In Siberia Rewrites Human History, Scientists Say

Researchers report dating of the world's oldest known fort in Siberia to 8,000 years ago, shifting conceptions of what foraging societies were like.
A Monumental Prehistoric Discovery In Siberia Rewrites Human History, Scientists Say
Image credit: Ekaterina Dubovtseva
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New evidence unearthed from ancient fortresses in Siberia is totally rewriting our understanding of how complex societies evolved. 

Radiocarbon dating of artifacts has revealed that Eastern Russia’s Amnya I and Amnya II sites are around 8,000 years old—centuries older than similar structures in Europe. 

Despite their age, the settlements are by no means basic, consisting of roughly 20 houses dug into the ground to protect from sometimes-frigid temperatures, and fortified with stakes and trenches.


Once occupied by the hunter-gatherers who roamed the boreal forests of the East Siberian taiga, the houses—and the technology and pottery excavated around them—are calling into question the long-held idea that agriculture was necessary for the development of complex social structures and settlements. 

The team behind this latest study, who published their findings in the journal Antiquity, have spent years excavating and gathering artifacts from Amnya I and Amnya II. Their most recent work includes radiocarbon dating of soil and materials from the Amnya houses, solidifying just how ancient these structures are—and the sophistication of the societies that occupied them. 

The longstanding theory for human cultural evolution proposes that agriculture was a big driver for nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to be slowly replaced by sedentary, permanent ones. 

But the Amnya I and Amnya II sites—as well as a host of other recently discovered evidence—say otherwise. These sites show that people were still hunting and foraging, all while also building and fiercely defending fortresses. As the oldest-known hilltop forts anywhere in the world, they date to around 2,000 years before similar structures were discovered in Europe, thousands of years before agriculture had reached the area.


“These complex settlements are part of a broader set of socio-economic and technological innovations and transformations in western Siberia and thus demarcate a phase of accelerated social change that is only partially understood,” the study’s authors wrote.

The ten houses of Amnya I sat on a sandy mass of land above a marshy riverbed, with ten more houses about 50 meters away in Amnya II. Some of the bigger houses sat higher up on the land, indicating some form of social hierarchy.

The settlements were defended by dug-out ditches with rows of wooden stakes, or palisades. Fire pits show that Amnya’s inhabitants might have been there year-round.

What researchers uncovered inside the settlements tells a story of a sophisticated and cutthroat society, unlike anything archaeologists had thought existed at that time. They found weapons like flints, blades, and projectiles made of slate. Layers of rock showed that the houses had been burned down several times and rebuilt—all evidence that those who lived there were defending the forts from outsiders.

The research team also found remains from 45 pieces of pottery, presumably used to process and store food that inhabitants had killed or gathered. Previous paleontological reconstructions show that the area was likely full of fish, aquatic and forest birds, elk, and reindeer, ripe for hunting.


The authors proposed three options for why and how the Amnya settlements first became established. The first two are based around a climatic event 8,200 years ago where the Earth cooled suddenly. This might have meant that the stocks of fish and game that people relished in dropped off, too, and they now needed to store these precious resources. On the flipside, the climatic event might have meant these animals flourished, and people hoarded supplies to increase their wealth and hierarchy within the prehistoric groups. 

The third option is that other hunter-gatherer groups passing through the area brought with them new technology, like fishing traps or weapons, and taught locals how to use them. 

Whatever the case may be, people at the Amnya I and Amnya II sites now had provisions worth defending from pillaging raiders. And, importantly, all of the researchers’ proposals reject the idea that people needed agriculture to develop the kind of architecture and technological innovations that define a complex society.

“A better understanding of the west Siberian pathway is essential for the development of broader insights into early social differentiation, territoriality and conflict in non-agricultural societies and may, in turn, act as a lens through which social change in prehistory may be viewed more generally,” the authors wrote.

Echoing this conclusion, University of Oxford archaeologist Rick Schulting, who was not part of the research, told Science: “To many people,… there’s still an element in archaeology that believes complexity develops over time. This is a nice study that demonstrates you can have alternate pathways to complexity.”