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Ukraine — the Land of Mammoths


Wooly creatures called mammoths used to roam the land which is now occupied by Ukraine. As a matter of fact, Ukraine boasts a greater number of archeological and paleontological finds connected with mammoths than anywhere else in Europe.

Nataliya MYKHAILOVA, an archeologist, looks into the co-existence of humans and mammoths thousands of years ago.


The human species of Homo sapiens sapiens are known to have lived in the territory of modern-day Ukraine as early as about thirty-five thousand years ago, that is within the period of time designated by science as “Paleolithic”, or “Stone Age.”

The last mammoths are believed to have lived as late as thirteen thousand years ago, the time of a glacial period that covered most of Europe with ice and snow. Winters in Ukraine were severe but apparently with not too much snow, and summers were hot and arid. In comparison with abundant forests and lakes and rivers of today, the Ukrainian landscape looked bleak and barren, with sparse vegetation and wooly animals, huge mammoths, rhinos and other similar creatures to enliven the bleak wilderness.


Survival in the glacial period

Humans proved to be exceptionally resilient and able to adjust to climate changes, even the harshest conditions. They, for quite a long period of time, coexisted with wooly mammoths.

Statuettes made from mammoths’ tusks and from clay, paintings on the walls of caves and other artifacts discovered in various parts of Europe amply demonstrate the early humans’ interest in mammoths. Representations of many mammoths in paintings indicate that mammoths were part of the humans’ daily life. It is quite probable that such representations were used in some way in rituals.

Mammoths are believed to have died out in Europe around thirteen thousand years ago. Huge skeletons and bones discovered in later times inspired myths and stories of fable creatures. Still later, in medieval times, these bones were believed to have belonged to the race of giants or saints.

As late as the end of the nineteenth century, when the pioneer of Ukrainian archeology Vikentiy Khvoyka unearthed bones of a mammoth in the archeological dig in Podil, an old section of Kyiv, the locals thought that the bones, if boiled, could make an excellent potion used against many diseases, and helped themselves to many of the bones from the dig.

As it turned out, Khvoyka discovered a Paleolithic settlement. Among the most impressive finds was that of a mammoth tusk with an engraving that represented a fantastic animal.

In 1908–1909, Khvedir Vovk, an archeologist and ethnographer, and his disciple, Petro Yephimenko, who made a considerable contribution to the development of archeology of the early humans, discovered a Paleolithic settlement (Mizyn) in the Land of Chernihivshchyna.

Many other discoveries followed and the more finds there were, the clearer it became that Ukraine is the land rich in archeological potential, particularly as far as the Paleolithic period is concerned.

Among the finds, those connected with the interaction of humans and mammoths were especially plentiful and significant.


Mammoths and humans

Paleolithic humans hunted mammoths not only for food — they used tusks, bones and hides as building materials and for other needs.

Tusks were used both for making household implements and as a building material, but also as an excellent material for engraving.

When the first settlements were being discovered, concentrations of mammoth bones were thought to be discarded refuse, but in the 1930s, Ukrainian archeologists realized that those were the remnants of dwellings. Ivan Shovkoplyas and Ivan Pidoplichko investigated the matter and came up with ideas of how these “mammoth-bones” dwellings had been actually erected.

To begin with, the Paleolithic builders placed mammoth skulls in a circle along the perimeters of the future dwelling. The foundation was laid with the lower jaws of mammoths as the main building material. On top of the jaws, another layer of mammoth skulls was laid.

Around the dwelling holes were dug up which were filled with bones, coals and all sorts of refuse. What at first was thought to be just trash pits proved to be a way of additional thermal insulation; besides, the earth removed during the digging, was heaped upon the lower parts of the dwelling that was being built.

The entrance to the dwelling was flanked by animal skulls and two huge curving tusks were installed to form a sort of an ark. Tusks were also used as supporting ribs and big leg bones reinforced the structure on all sides. The tent-like structure then was covered with hides and more bones, antlers and tree branches were placed over the hides to keep them in place. It is likely that the whole structure weighed about a ton. It is also likely that the bones and branches placed over the hides served to allow the snow to accumulate — and the snow was additional insulation that helped preserve the warmth inside. Inside the “mammoth-bone” dwellings, there were places for hearths, and the fact that there were several such places in each dwelling suggests that several families lived in each dwelling, rather than just one family.

These dwellings were rather comfortable — comfortable by Paleolithic standards, of course — to live in, but the dwellers had to venture out even in the dead of winter. The meat brought by hunters was stored in holes dug in the ground which, even in summer, thanks to the permafrost, was cool enough for meat storage.

A lot of refuse from cooking and from the household life were trampled on and into the ground (to be discovered and studied by archeologists thousands of years later). The Ukrainian academician Ivan Pidoplichko called these trampled places of beaten earth “toptalishche” (“the place where a lot of people trample whatever it is down underfoot”), and this humorous reference has become a sort of a term, and possibly it may become established as some other words borrowed into English from the Slavic languages (like “borsch” and “babushka”).

The settlements so far discovered, in which dwellings had been made of bones and tusks of mammoths, had several such dwellings each. It is not yet known whether all of them were used at the same time or possibly dwellers moved to new “mammoth” dwellings after the old ones had become unusable.


Great Mother

Thanks to an ever-growing number of finds, archeologists have more or less figured out how the Paleolithic humans in Ukraine lived, which animals they hunted and what they had for dinner. It is much harder though to establish whether they had any consistent beliefs, and if so, what kind of beliefs they were. Various artifacts can help us find the answers — but only to a point. We can examine the unearthed artifacts for clues, but we cannot watch the Paleolithic people dance or perform rituals under the guidance of shamans. It is even highly impossible to tell whether those artifacts can be, at least theoretically, regarded as works of art or pieces used in some rituals.

Among such artifacts statuettes that represent women are particularly noteworthy. Such statuettes are mostly made of mammoth tusks, and they seem to be one of the universal symbols of the Paleolithic “art” or ritual. Most of such statuettes, discovered in Western Europe and in the Urals, represent very corpulent women with exaggerated references to their sex, the idea evidently being to suggest their fertility.

By contrast, “female” statuettes that have been so far unearthed in Ukraine are stylized to a point that only some features suggest that they are representations of females after all. The triangle of the pubic area is the most suggestive element. Also, they carry a sort of an ornament pattern in the shape that looks like the meander (like the Greek fret or key pattern). Similar patterns are found on such artifacts as bracelets and other artifacts which purpose remains unclear. They are pieces of mammoth tusks with patterns which can be considered “ornaments” and which bear traces of red paint. Academician Serhiy Bibikov is of the opinion that these artifacts could be pieces from Paleolithic musical instruments. This bold idea has received some support.

The female statuettes are also regarded to have been objects that were connected with the cult of the Great Mother Goddess. Thousands of years later, some of the Paleolithic ornamental patterns can be seen in ornamental patterns on Ukrainian embroidered towels, earthen tableware and painted Easter eggs.

Thanks to archeological finds, we can easily imagine what Paleolithic women used to do when the Paleolithic men were away on their hunting expeditions. Among other household chores, they sewed hides together using needles made from tusks to make clothes; to hold the pieces of leather together they also used a sort of pins, whose heads were decorated with representations of animal heads. Such decorative elements are likely to have had some symbolic meaning.


Project “Mammoths”

In 2006, a joint French-Ukrainian project “Mammoths” was launched, with the participation of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU) and the French National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), supported by the French National Research Agency. The project was coordinated by Ste’phane Pe’an (MNHN) and Dmitro Nuzhny (NASU). The participating parties were to study Homo sapiens Paleolithic settlements in Ukraine, in relation to the lost “mammoth steppe” environment.

Different specialized fields of knowledge were invited to join the project: archeology, geology, archeozoology, paleobotany. The resulting team was made up of scientists from France, Ukraine, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and Russia. The expedition began its work in the vicinity of the village of Mezhyrich where four dwellings made of mammoth bones had been discovered.

The expedition’s “headquarters” were based in a peasant house not far from the dig. The working language was English, with Ukrainian and French words used whenever English words were not enough to render the desired meaning. Morning coffee was the “French style”, but the lunch/dinner was typically Ukrainian though, with borsch being the central dish (it was perfectly cooked by the local beauty Alla). Stories about mammoths spread in the village and once I heard a cowherd exclaim angrily when a recalcitrant cow tried to get her own way, “May the mammoth eat you for dinner!”

Work in the archeological dig is labor- and time-consuming. It is also a painstaking and meticulous job — you have to be careful in every move you make. Brushes are used as much as spades or pickaxes. The dug-out soil is sieved and what is left is thoroughly washed. Magnifying glasses and pincers are used in examination, and whatever looks to be of any archeological or scientific interest is collected and sent to laboratories for further analysis.

The Mezhyrich settlement provides enough material for archeological work that may last for years. We are getting to know better and better the life of the Paleolithic humans.

Other Paleolithic settlements which are located along the Dnipro River and other parts of Ukraine are also carefully studied — the Amvrosiyivka settlement in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine (evidently, it was a settlement of bison hunters); the Buran-Kaya settlement in the Crimea (Saiga antelope hunters); the Velyky Dyvlyn settlement in Polissya, the Buzhanka settlement in the vicinity of the Desna River, and others.

At present, the archaeological researches are supported by the French National Museum of Natural History and the Ukrainian-French cooperation program “Dnipro” with the participation of the Shevchenko University in Kyiv. The hunt for mammoths goes on.




Dwelling made of mammoth tusks — it was discovered in the village of Mezhyrich and now it is exhibited at the Zoological Museum in Kyiv.


A drawing made by Vikentiy Khvoyka of a dig at Kyrylivska Street in Kyiv; the excavations revealed a settlement that dates from the Paleolithic times. 1893.


The tusk of a mammoth with ornaments incised into it, which was discovered at the Kyrylivska site in Kyiv in 1893.


A piece of carved ivory discovered at the Mizyn site which got dubbed The Woman-Bird.


A mammoth ivory bracelet made with a meander-kind of ornament; it dates to the Paleolithic times.


The so-called Venus mammoth ivory figurine from the area of Willendorf, Austria that dates to approximately 30,000 BCE (now in Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria).


The Venus of Brassempouy (also known as the “Lady with the Hood”) — a fragmentary ivory figurine about 25,000 years old discovered in France in 1892.


Winson and Maryan, archeologists of the Ukrainian-French archeological team at work in an excavation.



Small pieces of bones of big prehistoric animals.





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