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