WASHINGTON -- A people who may have been ancestors of the first Americans lived in Arctic Siberia, enduring one of the most unforgiving environments on earth at the height of the Ice Age, according to researchers who found the oldest evidence yet of humans living near the frigid gateway to the New World. Russian scientists uncovered a 30,000-year-old site where hunters lived on the Yana River in Siberia, about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and not far from the Bering land bridge that then connected Asia with North America.
"Although a direct connection remains tenuous, the Yana . . . site indicates that humans extended deep into the Arctic during colder [Ice Age] times," the authors wrote in the newest edition of the the journal Science.
The researchers found stone tools, ivory weapons, and the butchered bones of mammoths, bison, bears, lions, and hares, all animals that would have been available to hunters during that Ice Age period.
Using a dating technique that measures the ratios of carbon, the researchers determined the artifacts were deposited at the site about 30,000 years ago.
That is about twice as old as Monte Verde in Chile, where scientists have found signs of the most ancient human life known in the American continents.
Donald K. Grayson, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the discovery is very significant because the evidence is so much older than any other substantiated evidence of people living in the Siberian lands that formed the gateway to the Americas.
"Until this site was reported, the earliest site in Bering land bridge area was dated at about 11,000 years ago," Grayson said. "Every other site that had been thought to have been early enough to have something to do with peopling of the New World has been shown not to be so."
During the Yana occupation, many of the high latitudes on the earth were in the grip of an ice age that sent glaciers creeping over much of what is now Europe, Canada, and the northern United States. But the Yana River area was free of ice, a dry flood plain without glaciers. It was home to mammoth, horse, musk oxen, and other animals that provided food for the hunters who braved Arctic blasts to live there.
"Abundant game means lots of food," Julie Brigham-Grette of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in Science. "It was not stark tundra as one might imagine."