The indigenous Nenets, who inhabit the desolate wilds of northwest Siberia, call their homeland Yamal, which means “the end of the world.” But in July 2015 the discovery of a child warrior buried in the region sparked speculation about a mysterious long-lost civilization. Indeed, this remarkable find continues to test the outer limits of human knowledge.
“It follows the contours of the human body,” Dr. Alexander Gusev, a researcher from the Centre for the Study of the Arctic, explained to the Siberian Times. He was describing a birch bark casket, measuring just 4 feet by 1 foot, retrieved from the Yamal Peninsula’s Zeleny Yar necropolis.
Layer by layer, the scientist and his team carefully unwrapped the ancient parcel. The remains inside were cocooned in a thick shroud of fur that is perhaps reindeer hide. And beneath the body, a unique-looking oval-shaped plate gave the first hint of something special.
A second layer of fur, softer than the first, was soon discovered. Meanwhile, hidden between the two shrouds was a bear-shaped bronze pendant, bronze rings and a small axe.
The scientists suspected that the body belonged to a teenager. However, as they gingerly lifted the green copper plates bound against his body, they actually discovered the mummified remains of a young child – perhaps no older than seven. He’s believed to have lived during the 12th or 13th centuries.
“We suppose it was a boy because we have found [a] small bronze axe with the body and some sharp tool which we cannot identify yet,” Dr. Gusev told the Siberian Times. The grave goods further suggested that the boy wasn’t from a poor family.
Due to his unique casket and wealth of funerary offerings, researchers have tentatively suggested that the boy may have been a “noble child warrior.” However, who he was, where he came from and how he lived – and indeed died – remain unanswered questions.
Prior to unpacking the body, though, archaeologists conducted an MRI scan to determine its condition. Moreover, they found that it was almost entirely preserved; only the legs and right hand had succumbed to decay. They believed, however, that the boy wasn’t intentionally preserved.
How could this happen? Well, a fall in temperatures in the 14th century meant that the ground was even colder than normal, which helped to naturally preserve the body. Also, the copper plating over the boy’s body would have inhibited oxidation and decay.
It is, though, highly unusual to discover such well-preserved bodies in sandy soil. “Nowhere in the world are there so many mummified remains found outside the permafrost or the marshes,” the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Dr. Natalya Fyodorova told the Siberian Times. “It is a unique archaeological site.”
Indeed, little is known about the Zeleny Yar necropolis, although it’s believed to have been operational between the ninth and 13th centuries. Plus, more than 30 shallow graves have been uncovered there, with 11 bodies possessing smashed bones and absent or broken skulls.
As with the child warrior, four other bodies were found with copper plates and death masks. Three belonged to male infants and one to a young girl – the only female to have been discovered at the site.
Clad from feet to chest in copper plates, one of the bodies belonged to a man with red hair. And, as is the case with the child warrior, the burial offerings of a hatchet and a decorative buckle indicate a man of high status.
Meanwhile, all of the bodies’ feet faced the Gorny Poluy River, a positioning that may reflect the peoples’ once-held beliefs. Perhaps the river, with its ultimate destination in the vast waters of the ocean, was seen as a conduit to the afterlife.
Further clues about the lifestyles of the people buried at Zeleny Yar have been gleaned from an analysis of the child warrior’s intestinal tract, which contained raw or partially cooked fish. He also appeared to have been suffering from parasitic flatworms.
What’s more, with the help of Korean scientists, the archaeologists are hoping to reconstruct the child warrior’s face. That said, while his skin is intact, his undeveloped facial bones long ago deteriorated; his entire skull, then, needs to be rebuilt.
Professor Petr Slominksy, from Moscow’s Institute of Molecular Genetics, is also hoping to gather DNA samples from the child warrior. Perhaps this will determine whether he’s an ancestor of today’s Komi, Nenets or Khanty peoples.
Among the most exciting artifacts recovered from Zeleny Yar, however, are a collection of millennium-old bronze bowls that come from Persia, over 3,500 miles away. Yet how they ended up in Siberia, or why they were considered sacred enough to be used as burial offerings, remains a mystery.
Clearly, then, the child warrior’s discovery in Siberia has prompted as many questions as it’s answered. For example, what was the symbolic significance of the bear pendant found in the casket? Why were no more females buried at the site? And what was the civilization’s connection with other Siberian cultures?
The child warrior is today kept in a special kind of freezer; Dr. Gusev doesn’t intend to preserve him using chemicals until all the necessary evidence has been gathered. With any luck, though, he and his colleagues will be able to solve the riddle of the long-lost civilization buried at the end of the Earth.