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'On the Eve of the First World War, the single Siberian province of Irkutsk was larger than all of India'
W.Bruce Lincoln

Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia

By Anna Liesowska, Svetlana Skarbo
14 July 2021

The unique artefact was made by humans more than 19,000 years ago.

The Volchia Griva site some 240km west of Novosibirsk, Western Siberia, has the biggest number of woolly mammoth bones in Asia. Picture: The Siberian Times 

The sensational find was unearthed  at the Volchia Griva site close to Mamontovoye village in Novosibirsk region by scientists from Tomsk State University and Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences from Novosibirsk (Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, and Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography). 

The ancient ‘Matryohska’ comprises the femur of a young mammoth inside which is a vertically-placed skull of an Arctic fox, and the lower jaw of an Arctic fox. 

What did this mean to Palaeolithic people thousands of years ago in what is now the heart of modern Siberia? 

Scientists believe that the ancient ‘Russian doll’ - or ‘Matryoshka’ - was likely used for ritual or religious purposes.

‘There was a niche, a deepening, carved in a mammoth femur, a skull of an Arctic fox was vertically placed inside there and then, separately, a lower jaw was added, alike to some kind of Palaeolithic Matryoshka.

‘This was perhaps one of the early worshipping items, or it was used in rituals’, paleontologist and geologist Professor Sergey Leshchinskiy, who led the expedition to the Volchia Griva site told The Siberian Times. 

Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia
Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ - seen here 'in situ' at Volchia Griva site in Siberia, and 'unpacked' at Tomsk University's laboratory - made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox found in Siberia. The unique artefact was made by humans more than 19,000 years ago. Pictures: Sergey Leshchinskiy


It was Prof Leshchinskiy who noticed the mammoth bone with a patch of ancient soil over the carved niche just as the expedition was about to wrap up with an excavator ready to seal the site to preserve it for the next season. 

Having a sample of the ancient soil was very important for the team to study pollen, so Prof Leshchinskiy delayed the departure to get the mammoth bone. 

‘When I started to extract the soil, I saw a tooth, and the skull of the Arctic fox,’ he explained. ‘It was so surprising. Radiocarbon dating showed that the ‘Matryoshka’ is just over 19,000 years old.

‘We are almost ready with a scientific paper about the find, so more details and pictures will be coming shortly.

‘I believe this is just the beginning. I expect a lot more amazing discoveries during the further excavation of Volchia Griva.’

Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia
Paleontologist Sergey Leshchinskiy in the laboratory of Tomsk State University; The Volchia Griva mammoth graveyard in Western Siberia. Pictures: TSU, The Siberian Times


While the discovery was made in summer 2020 it is only recently disclosed. 

This archaeological season answered a conundrum that had puzzled experts for sometime: did prehistoric people visit the site.

Finally, the answer is a clear ‘Yes’, as Prof Leschinskiy’s expedition reached a treasure trove of the Volchia Griva with more than 2,000 tools made by ancient humans. 

The number of the newly-found tools was so big that the team still has not finished sorting and classifying them. 

Hundreds of stunning transparent micro-blades and microliths made of rock crystal were created by prehistoric people nearly 20,000 years ago - more than 15,000 years before The Giza Pyramids rose over the sands of ancient Egypt. 

Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia
Hundreds of stunning transparent micro-blades and microliths made of rock crystal, created by prehistoric people nearly 20,000 years ago were found at Volchia Griva mammoth graveyard in Novosibirsk region during season 2020. Pictures: Sergey Leshchinskiy 


‘At least a quarter of the tools were made from a very interesting flint with micro-paleontological remains of unicellular organisms like radiolarians (marine plankton) and, possibly, cyanobacteria. This part of our discovery is still work in progress, as we are searching for experts to help us study these rocks’, said Prof Leshchinskiy. 

Another intriguing question is where did ancient people source the raw material for the tools. 

The two nearest sources of rock crystals are at least 500 kilometres away from the mammoth graveyard; the third is nearly 1,200km away.

The scientists are certain that humans continued regular visits to Volchia Griva for three millennia between twenty and seventeen thousand years ago to top up on mammoth ivory, hair and tendons. 

Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia


Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia
Dr Vasily Zenin from Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, and The Volchia Griva mammoth graveyard in Western Siberia. Pictures: The Siberian Times


‘We can assume that the site was visited by small, mobile groups of five, six people. 

‘They came here to get raw material like mammoth ivory, hair - good for making nets and traps; tendons could have been used as ropes. 

‘They didn’t settle at the site, they were coming to pick whatever they needed and went away’, Dr Vasily Zenin from Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography told TV2.

Palaeolithic ‘Matryoshka’ made from a mammoth bone and skull of Arctic fox is found in Siberia
Analyses of the upper-level’s woolly mammoth bones found at Volchia Griva showed traces of osteodystrophy, meaning that before extinction mammoths suffered from a huge mineral deficiency. Picture: Sergey Leshchinskiy


The Volchia Griva site has the biggest number of woolly mammoth bones in Asia.

Thousands of years ago its mineral-rich soils attracted hundreds of mammals who used it as a giant salt lick. 

The mammoth graveyard, which lies some 240km west of Novosibirsk, Russia’s third most populous city, was discovered in the middle of 20th century.

Analyses of the upper-level’s woolly mammoth bones found at Volchia Griva showed traces of osteodystrophy, meaning that before extinction mammoths suffered from a huge mineral deficiency.

Scientists described it as 'mineral starvation’.

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