The Mal'ta-Buret' culture is an archaeological culture of the Upper Paleolithic (c. 24,000 to 15,000 BP) on the upper Angara River in the area west of Lake Baikal in the Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, Russian Federation. The type sites are named for the villages of Mal'ta (Мальта), Usolsky District and Buret' (Буреть), Bokhansky District (both in Irkutsk Oblast).
According to research published in 2013 and 2016 the Mal'ta people belonged to a now extinct population closely related to a population who contributed substantially to the genetic ancestry of Siberians, Native Americans and Bronze Age Yamnaya people. The Mal'ta-Buret' population were also found to be genetically close to modern-day Native Americans, Kets, Mansi, Nganasans and Yukaghirs.
Mongoloid features had been originally acknowledged in the skeletal remains of a child found at the site of Mal'ta. Alexeev (1998, 323) in his later publication was more cautious, stating that this area was "inhabited by a population of Mongoloid appearance". Raghavan et al. (2014) and Fu et al. (2016) found that Mal'ta-Buret had brown eyes, dark hair and dark skin.
Mal'ta consists of semi-subterranean houses that were built using large animal bones to assemble the walls, and reindeer antlers covered with animal skins to construct a roof that would protect the inhabitants from the harsh elements of the Siberian weather. Much of what is known about Mal'ta comes from Russian archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov. Known in the anthropological community primarily for his contributions to a process called forensic sculpture (the recreation of the face of an individual from skeletal remains), Gerasimov first achieved fame for his excavation of Mal'ta in 1927. At the time, the discoveries he made were revolutionary in the field of anthropology. Until his findings, scientists had not imagined that Upper Paleolithic societies of Northern and Central Asia were capable of the same level of culture as those of Europe. Over the course of his career Gerasimov would twice more visit Mal'ta for excavation and research, each time completing findings that were just as remarkable.
Evidence seems to indicate that Mal'ta is the most ancient site in eastern Siberia; however, relative dating illustrates some irregularities. The use of flint flaking and the absence of pressure flaking used in the manufacture of tools, as well as the continued use of earlier forms of tools, seem to confirm the fact that the site belongs to the early Upper Paleolithic. Yet it lacks typical skreblos (large side scrapers) that are common in other Siberian Paleolithic sites. Additionally, other common characteristics such as pebble cores, wedge-shaped cores, burins, and composite tools have never been found. The lack of these features, combined with an art style found in only one other nearby site, make Mal'ta culture unique in Siberia.
There were two main types of art during the Upper Paleolithic: mural art, which was concentrated in Western Europe, and portable art. Portable art, typically some type of carving in ivory tusk or antler, spans the distance across Western Europe into Northern and Central Asia. Artistic remains of expertly carved bone, ivory, and antler objects depicting birds and human females are the most commonly found; these objects are, collectively, the primary source of Mal'ta's acclaim.
In addition to the female statuettes there are bird sculptures depicting swans, geese, and ducks. Through ethnographic analogy comparing the ivory objects and burials at Mal'ta with objects used by 19th and 20th century Siberian shamans, it has been suggested that they are evidence of a fully developed shamanism.
Also, there are engraved representations on slabs of mammoth tusk. One is the figure of a mammoth, easily recognizable by the trunk, tusks and thick legs. Wool also seems to be etched, by the placement of straight lines along the body. Another drawing depicts three snakes with their heads puffed up and turned to the side. It is believed that they were similar to cobras.
Perhaps the best example of Paleolithic portable art is something referred to as "Venus figurines". Until they were discovered in Mal'ta, "Venus figurines" were previously found only in Europe. Carved from the ivory tusk of a mammoth, these images were typically highly stylized, and often involved embellished and disproportionate characteristics (typically the breasts or buttocks). It is widely believed that these emphasized features were meant to be symbols of fertility. Around thirty female statuettes of varying shapes have been found in Mal'ta. The wide variety of forms, combined with the realism of the sculptures and the lack of repetitiveness in detail, are definite signs of developed, albeit early, art.
At first glance, what is obvious is that the Mal'ta Venus figurines are of two types: full figured women with exaggerated forms, and women with a thin, delicate form. Some of the figures are nude, while others have etchings that seem to indicate fur or clothing. Conversely, unlike those found in Europe, some of the Venus figurines from Mal'ta were sculpted with faces. Most of the figurines were tapered at the bottom, and it is believed that this was done to enable them to be stuck into the ground or otherwise placed upright. Placed upright, they could have symbolized the spirits of the dead, akin to "spirit dolls" used nearly world-wide, including in Siberia, among contemporary people.
The only widely known Upper Paleolithic art from Asia are these figurines from Mal'ta. Although other examples of Paleolithic Asian art do exist, few of them have gained much attention outside of Asia. The reason why these Mal'ta figurines garner so much interest is that they seem to be nearly identical to European female figurines of roughly the same time period. The suggested similarity between Mal'ta and Upper Paleolithic civilizations of Western and Eastern Europe coincides with a long-held belief that the ancient people of Mal'ta were related to the Paleolithic societies of Europe. These similarities can be established by their tools, dwelling structures, and art. These commonalities draw into question the origin of Upper Paleolithic Siberian people, and whether the migrating peoples originated from Southeastern Asia or quite possibly from Europe.
On the other hand, one can argue that, as a group, the Mal'ta Venus figurines are rather different from the female figurines of Western and Central Europe. For example, none of the Siberian specimens depict abdominal enlargement as many European examples do. Also, as breasts are often lacking in the Mal'ta figurines, few offer clear enough evidence of gender to define them as female. More conclusively, nearly half of them show some facial details, something which is lacking on the so-called Venus figurines of Europe. It may not be possible to reach a definitive answer as to the origins of these peoples and their culture.
A 2016 genomic study shows that the Mal'ta people have no genetic connections to the Dolní Věstonice people from the Gravettian culture, which suggests that the similarities are primarily due to cultural diffusion.
Discussing this easternmost outpost of paleolithic culture, Joseph Campbell finishes by commenting on the symbolic forms of the artifacts found there:
We are clearly in a paleolithic province where the serpent, labyrinth, and rebirth themes already constitute a symbolic constellation, joined with the imagery of the sunbird and shaman flight, with the goddess in her classic role of protectress of the hearth, mother of man's second birth, and lady of wild things and of the food supply.
Research published in 2016 suggests that a Mal'ta like people were important genetic contributors to Native Americans, Europeans, Central and South Asians, and minor contribution to East Eurasians. Lazaridis et al (2016) notes "a cline of ANE ancestry across the east-west extent of Eurasia." Mal'ta had a type of R* y-dna that diverged before the hg R1 and R2 split and an unresolved clade of haplogroup U mtdna. Between 14 and 38 percent of Native American ancestry may originate from gene flow from the Mal'ta Buret people, while the other geneflow in Native Americans appears to have an Eastern Eurasian origin. Sequencing of another south-central Siberian (Afontova Gora-2) dating to approximately 17,000 years ago, revealed similar autosomal genetic signatures as Mal'ta boy-1, suggesting that the region was continuously occupied by humans throughout the Last Glacial Maximum.
The term "Ancient North Eurasian" (ANE) is the name given in genetic literature to an ancestral component that represents descent from the people of the Mal'ta-Buret' culture or a population closely related to them. The genetic component ANE descends from Ancient South Eurasian.
According to a 2016 study, it was found that the global maximum of ANE ancestry occurs in modern-day Kets, Mansi, Native Americans, Nganasans and Yukaghirs. Additionally it has been reported in ancient Bronze-age-steppe Yamnaya and Afanasevo cultures.
Genomic study also indicates that the Yamnaya migration from steppes introduced "Ancient North Eurasian" admixture into Europe. "Ancient North Eurasian" genetic component is visible in tests of the Yamnaya people, which makes up 50% of their ancestry. It is also reported in modern-day Europeans (5%-18% ANE admixture), but not of Europeans predating the Bronze Age.