The bear-able likeness of being: ursine remains at the Shamanka ii cemetery, Lake Baikal, Siberia
On the southwestern shore of Eastern Siberia’s Lake Baikal is Shamanka II, one of northern Eurasia’s most spectacular hunter-gatherer cemeteries (Figure 4.1). Shamanka has been subject to extensive excavations, the majority of which have been directed by Vladimir I. Bazaliiskii as part of the Baikal Archaeological Project. Work at the site from 2001-8 resulted in the discovery of 107 graves, yielding skeletal remains from a minimum of 165 human individuals.1 Eleven of these individuals date to the Early Bronze Age (~5400-4000 cal BP), while the remaining 154 fall within the Early Neolithic period (~8000-7000 cal BP) and belong to Kitoi mortuary tradition. Importantly, the depositional environment at Shamanka has been highly conducive to the preservation of bone, antler, and teeth. This has allowed for the presence of the large human skeletal assemblage, but also has made possible the recovery of thousands of well-preserved faunal remains and osseous tools from the graves and surrounding sediments. This paper discusses one set of animal remains widely distributed at Shamanka,
namely, those of brown bears (Ursus arctos). Recovered from numerous Early Neolithic graves were bear teeth, head bones, and bacula (penis bones), and additional fragments of these same elements were present in the surrounding sediments. Typically, the bear head elements were found within the upper portions of grave pits and do not appear to have been buried concurrently with particular human bodies. The presence of these same elements in the sediments surrounding graves suggests that they were sometimes removed from the pits during episodes of grave reopening and reuse. Unlike the bear head elements, the bacula were often found directly on human skeletons or amongst other implements buried in bundles near bodies. Despite many decades of cemetery excavations in the Baikal area, the patterned treatment of bear parts at Shamanka is wholly distinct – few
other individual human graves, let alone other cemeteries, have bear remains in them. Animal remains from cemeteries in the Baikal area have seen little formal analysis
or interpretation (but see Losey et al. 2011). Like many other regions of the globe,
faunal remains from virtually all contexts here have been interpreted from implicitly ‘modern western’ perspectives (see Thomas 2004 for a review speciﬁc to archaeology), where animals are mindless food items, sources of tool materials, passive commodities, and status symbols that all are objects of cold calculations by their human counterparts. While these perspectives have proven informative and overwhelmingly dominate the discipline of zooarchaeology, the resulting portrayal of human engagements with the animal world is narrow and potentially misleading. Furthermore, these modern notions sharply contrast with ethnographic descriptions of human-animal relationships in indigenous societies throughout the North and elsewhere. Seizing upon this contrast, archaeologists working on many fronts have begun to employ interpretive perspectives that explore how peoples of the past understood their relationships with animals, and how these ways of knowing and interacting with fauna are evidenced in the material remains we study (see, among many others, Argent 2010; Conneller 2004; Losey 2010; Mannermaa 2008; McNiven 2010; McNiven and Feldman 2003; Sauvet et al. 2009). Building upon this framework, we develop an explanation for the distinct treat-
ments given to bear remains during the Early Neolithic at Shamanka. To accomplish this, we ﬁrst examine in detail the archaeological context of the bear remains, including assessing how and with whom they were interred. Following this, we review the strong inﬂuence of Hallowell (1926, 1960) on understandings of bear ceremonialism in anthropology, and some questions that follow from his arguments are presented. We then review more recent ethnographic material on bears in Northern cosmologies and ontologies, paying particular attention to how persons (human or animal), bodies, souls, and bodily eﬀects are understood and manipulated. We argue that bears were ontologically similar or equivalent to humans, having unique and powerful souls that cycled through the cosmos. Bears’ deaths, like those of humans, were gradual processes, and their souls and the potencies of their bodies lingered on after what we would consider the time of death. Mortuary rites were held for the bears, in part to help them regenerate, but also as a means of showing them respect and to prevent their retaliation against the living. We suggest that these insights into bear burial practices at Shamanka also allow for new inferences to be made about the meanings behind human mortuary practices in the region.
Around 8,000 years ago, the Shamanka landscape began to be repeatedly used for a distinct set of activities, most of which involved rituals associated with the handling of the human dead. No evidence for contemporaneous residential sites has been found near this landform, suggesting that people placing their dead here ﬁrst had to transport them some distance. Graves were found along the crest of a hill directly on the lakeshore, and down a gentle slope on its southwest side. The view from this place was (and is) spectacular – massive and imposing Lake Baikal, framed by forested mountains, stretches beyond the horizon to the northeast, while a thin ﬁnger of land extending from the base of the cemetery hill grasps out at the water.
This landform, known as Shamanka, is one of the most distinct areas of the lake’s southwestern shoreline. The cemetery was probably used for many centuries during the Early Neolithic
(Weber et al. 2006), and this period witnessed the construction of at least 97 graves, many of which were dug down into the eroded and powdery white marble bedrock underlying the hill’s upper soil horizons (Figure 4.2). Grave pits were typically elongated ovals capable of holding adult-sized bodies. Fifty-six of the graves contained remains of only one human each, while the remaining 41 held elements of multiple individuals. Early Neolithic males or probable males outnumber females and probable females by 69 to 36, with the remaining 48 individuals being unassigned to sex. Such sex ratios in cemeteries are not unusual and appear to be at least partially a product of male bodies being more readily identiﬁable than female ones (Weiss 1972). All age classes were buried at the cemetery, with at least 30 infants and children (0-12 years of age), 15 adolescents (12-20 years), and 108 adults (20+ years) being present.