Russias Lake Baikal an Anthropological Overview

The Archaeology of Lake Baikal:

Lake Baikal located in Siberia, is about 636 km long, 80 km wide and at 1,620 meters, nearly a mile deep, is the world’s deepest lake. Compared to the other great lakes of the world, Lake Baikal contributes approximately 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. Lake Baikal may seem remote, but in the past it was inhabited by peoples that archaeological and geological teams are beginning to investigate.

The Baikal Archaeological Project:
Since the early 1990s, this Russian-Canadian project, has been examining a seventh millennium BC gap in Lake Baikal history at the site of Bugul’deika. The Kitoi (late Mesolithic, early Neolithic 9000-7000BP) and the Serovo-Glazkovo (late Neolithic-bronze age 6000-2500BP) were two major groups in the area, but their origins are not fully understood. They are known to be bio-culturally the same, but discontinuous as the later Serovo-Glazkovo were culturally-structured, demographically different and more resource intensive than the Kitoi.

The goal of the project is to discern these differences through excavation and mortuary studies. The team also hopes to map spatial/chronological patterns, environment and biological contexts, mortuary and world-views and connections between Siberia and North America. These would be understood through paleo-genetic and osteological (bone) studies, radiocarbon dating, climate modelling and micro-regional studies. Landscape simulation through satellite data, digital analysis and field data would compliment geographic information systems (GIS) studies that will analyse climate and landscape models, and the function of the site through topography, landscape use, lithic and faunal assemblages.

The aim of the project is not wholly geoarchaeological in nature, concentrating more on a cultural/behavioural model. But the wealth of their data from remote sensing, via landscape simulation, could be integrated to give a fuller view of the site. Knowing a fuller geoarchaeological history of the area could serve as an interdisciplinary factor in determining settlement patterns, population movements and resource concentrations. No data from this site has yet been published (as of this writing), though it is available to order privately, which is a disadvantage. An over-arcing history of the Lake Baikal region is in the offering with the integration of the first three sections.

Geoarchaeological studies:
New techniques have arisen over the years that lay bare the underlying foundations of past sites, reconstruct landscapes and environments and assess areas of resources and their exploitation. The use of remote sensing and satellite data from geophysical prospecting around Lake Baikal, Siberia, has helped to reveal new features.

Remote Sensing denotes information gathering on objects by non-contact, distance measurement. This includes pattern recognition, spectral and spatial analysis. Different types of data gathering methods include geophysical, geochemical, core drilling and aerial/satellite pictures.

The aim of the German company GFZ Potsdam with their EU CONTINENTal [sic] project, was to gain a continuous high-resolution paleoclimatic record of Lake Baikal through 150,000 years. The data was compiled from satellite use analysing geochemical and sediment data, where possible. At other times algae, phytoplankton and other detrial (contamination) inputs were used, using optical water sampling devices and a GER 1500 field spectrometer. Once the information was mapped, the different data was colour-coded to visually show the different areas and contexts of the lake. While the satellite was tasked for a specific task, I was not sure if it could be programmed to resolve other features germane to the geoarchaeology of Lake Baikal sites, like former lake edges and thus former settlement patterns. In this way, valuable evidence charting past lake resources could give Lake Baikal archaeologists a valuable insight into the lake’s settlement history.

While the aim of GFZ Potsdam was water-based, the aim for the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP) was to map the land cover around Lake Baikal, via satellite analysis (LANDSAT/TM and LANDSAT-7/ETM) of the phenological (climate/biological) aspects of plants. This is to measure the effects of global warming, land degradation, water supplies and anthropologic damage. This geophysical project is under the umbrella of geophysical prospecting, which details the location, extent and characteristics of modified terrain.’ Surface geophysics can be used in conjunction with magnetic analysis and geochemical prospecting to ascertain man-made contexts. Geophysical prospecting measures contrasts between physical properties of target features and their surroundings’.

The study area was the Selenga basin, southern Lake Baikal. It is a three-river system, prone to tree cutting and forest fires in the dry windy season. The technique used by CRISP, the Linear Mixing Model (LMM), bases it data on mixing the spectral (plant class) proportion data with the temporal (annual fluctuation of plant class) to produce improved classification and reliability. This is a new technique and needs to be tested to ensure accuracy and data biases. It would be interesting to note if the resolution of the satellite could detect crop patterning, that, whether cultural or natural in formation, could predict a past settlement location? Would certain crop types (selected through spectral analysis) located upon old, buried cultural structures indicate a settlement or natural area? Past anthropic activities, such as herding, agriculture, forest tending and landscaping may also have altered the landscape. Have these or any modern developments precluded such methods of detection?

Both the GFZ Potsdam and CRISP satellite data have pertinent applications within geoarchaeology. The eye in the sky’ can often bring out features not seen from the ground, such as wide-scale land and lake changes, settlement formation patterns and resource fluctuations and at a faster and non-destructive rate than human endeavour. Such projects with on-line results should be easily accessible to geoarchaeologists to plan and guide their work. The range of geophysical and remote sensing suites can reach beyond their set tasks retrieving the deep past and deep depths, bringing them to the here and now to be analysed alongside current geoarchaeological and archaeological data, and also to predict future changes.

Both GFZ Potsdam and CRISP data would greatly benefit the Archaeological project saving unnecessary work or duplication of work (unless that is an aim) and saving time and money (an archaeologist’s dream). Knowing how the region formed and developed gives clues into why man settled the region and importantly what happened in the so-called temporal hiatus period, when the Kitoi gave way to the Serovo-Glazkovo. The macro-scale of Lake Baikal’s environs can then be studied through geophysical and remote sensing techniques (e.g. satellites) focusing down through smaller regional sites (e.g. Selenga Basin), down to specific archaeological sites (e.g. Bugul’deika), and further onto human scales (e.g. Kitoi & Serovo-Glazkovo cultures) and finally down to micro-scales in the lake itself (e.g. algae & phytoplankton). A complete joined-up policy in geophysical and remote sensing techniques could re-revolutionise geoarchaeological studies.

Global Warming and Siberian Archaeology:
Geoarchaeological surveys have indicated that global warming is accelerating the arctic thaw, but in Siberia a new threat is emerging as vast stores of methane, twenty times worst than carbon dioxide, start releasing from their permafrost peat bogs. This could have a serious impact on arctic archaeology, as lakes expand and vegetation disappears. Remote sensing and land cover mapping could indicate global warming hotspots in the Siberian arctic.

The Lake Baikal project makes no mention on the origin of Bugul’deika’s (and other sites’) discovery, whether it was an existing surface site, eroded or thawed out of the land by changing conditions or found through remote sensing. Will global warming help or harm the future of such arctic sites? Thawing could bring more floods, bogs, soil erosion, site exposure and/or destruction, pollution and more human encroachment. How can archaeology be protected from such instances? Remote sensing and geophysical techniques could give an early heads-up and record sites and their changing environments until geoarchaeologists arrived with preventative measures to save or at least record archaeological sites themselves. Will global warming be good or bad for arctic archaeology? Time will tell.

Rapp Jr. G. & Hill, C.L. 1998. Geoarchaeology. Yale University Press: London.

Kunzig, R. 2005: The Year In Science: Siberian Thaw Releases Methane And Accelerates Global Warming. Discover. January 2006 (27) 1, 34.