Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1874:
JANA RIVER

by John H. Lienhard

Today, old spears, by the cold Jana River. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Jana River is in northern Siberia. It runs into the Arctic Ocean, about two thousand miles north of Vladivostock. It's about as far north as Point Barrow Alaska. Now a group of Russian archeologists have dug into the banks of the river to a depth of around thirty feet, and what they've found is astonishing.

They've unearthed a trove of artifacts. They've found shaped stone scrapers and a spear foreshaft carefully carved from a rhinoceros horn. And these are surrounded by the burnt bones of mammoths, musk oxen, bears, bisons, horses, and cave lions.

This was obviously a lush landscape that fed hunting tribes in this cold region. A few thousand years later, the last ice age settled in with particular ferocity, and they left.

This is particularly interesting for two reasons: First, these people seem to've been in the wrong place. This was soon after the first modern humans began leaving their mark on southern Europe.

Yet this is a part of the world, which, even before the ice age, must've been roughly as cold and unforgiving as it is today. These very early members of our own species both adapted to a very difficult climate and produced surprisingly refined technology.

The second issue this touches is the settlement of the Americas. For years, debate has gone on around the so-called Clovis Culture. We find clear evidence of American settlers from twelve thousand years ago. Remains were first found near Clovis, New Mexico, and they were distinguished by a parabola-shaped spearhead, which has come to be called the Clovis point.

Twelve-thousand-year-old Clovis points have now turned up in other North American locations; and they set a kind of threshold date on the original colonization of America from Asia. In more recent years, other sites have suggested earlier human presences here, all the way back into the ice age. Evidence for the pre-Clovis sites has usually been questioned, but it steadily gains in plausibility.

Now a pre-ice-age Siberian community, only fourteen hundred miles from Alaska! Many anthropologists look at these implements and see a kinship to the later Clovis points. That augurs in favor of pre-ice-age migrations into Alaska. Of course, an engineering designer might point out that two implements, conceived by different designers for same purpose, could well be similar.

We're thus left with a debate unresolved, but a debate enriched. And one element remains to haunt us. That's the glorious restlessness of the human spirit that drove these early hunter-toolmakers to such a remote and inhospitable part of our planet.

People have often commented on the amazing creativity used by the Inuits, along the American border of the Arctic Ocean, to carve out survival in such a landscape. That's what I see here -- the same innate human impulse to hurl the mind against adversity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


See two articles on this subject in the Jan. 2, 2004 Science magazine: R. Stone, A Surprising Survival Story in the Siberian Arctic. Pg. 33; and V. V. Pitulko, P. A. Nikolsky, E. Yu. Girya, A. E. Basilyan, B. E. Tumskoy, S. A. Koulakov, S. N. Astakhov, E. Yu. Pavlova, and M. A. Anisimov, The Yana Site: Humans in the Arctic Before the Last Glacial Maximum, pp. 52-56.

For more on the Jana River site, see this MSNBC article.

I am grateful to Rebecca Storey, UH Anthropology Department for her counsel.


Jana River dig

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.