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IN SEARCH OF A "NORTHERN ATLANTIS"

Дата публикации: 01 октября 2021
Автор(ы): Nikolai VEKHOV
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Рубрика: ПРИКЛЮЧЕНЧЕСКАЯ ЛИТЕРАТУРА
Источник: (c) Science in Russia, №2, 2012, C.58-64
Номер публикации: №1633075637


Nikolai VEKHOV, (c)

by Nikolai VEKHOV, Cand. Sc. (Biol.), Likhachyov Russian Research Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage, RF Ministry of Culture

 

Up until the end of the 18th-early 19th centuries the vast expanses of the Arctic were still a mystery. Most of the information, often all too farfetched, came from the yarns as told by fishermen, hunters, or explorers who happened to trek as far north as that.

 

New Siberian Islands as viewed from the Sea.

 
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Many of those who were to high-latitude areas told about unknown islands they had seen in the Arctic Ocean. Many outstanding navigators believed in the existence of such isles. In July, 1741, Vitus Bering*, a Dane by birth and a Russian fleet captain commander, was looking for the Juanda-Gama Land, situated near the Kamchatka peninsula according to some maps of the 18th century. The Americans, straining their eyes, tried to make out Harris's Land north of Alaska. Other instances of such abortive explorations are also known.

 

The most credible of all legends or tales about the unknown ice-locked land were those about the Sannikov Land**. The first to speak about it was Ivan Lyakhov engaged in the 1770s in hunting sea animals, the polar fox and northern deer, and in fishing in the Novosibirsk Archipelago region (between the Laptev and East Siberian Seas). Next came accounts from Yakov Sannikov who headed the hunting team of merchants Semen and Lev Syrovatsky. In 1810, while being on the northern tip of the New Siberia island, he spotted rocky shores in the distance. He ventured three times to get there, but each time was unable to overcome the icy ocean. On the Kotelny island, too, he saw high rocky mountains, lost beyond the horizon; he found numerous bones and stone articles on that island.

 

The third man to see the Sannikov Land (the same year, 1810) was Matvei Gedenstrom, a Russian Polar explorer. He could not get there because of a polynia, an unfrozen patch of water in the midst of ice, known today as the Great Siberian Polynia (Ice Hole). This "sea oasis" in the icy desert of the ocean never freezes because of specific hydrological conditions. This open stretch changes its shape and size every year, and it is ever present; its fauna is amazing, ranging from zoo-plankton to large vertebrates, including fishes, birds, whales, Pinnipedia, and polar bears.

 

Peter Anzhou, another Russian navigator, explored the Arctic in 1821-1823 with an expedition in search of new lands. Equipped with good telescopes, he took exception to the observations of previous explorers. He made it clear that there was no land north of the New Siberian Islands and suggested that what Gedenstrom could see was just the "fog that looked like land". Anzhou collected samples of the bottom soil that proved to be "liquid silt", and found that the sea was about 34 meters deep there-in a word, nothing indicated the presence of a land nearby.

 

Like the other "lands" in the Arctic, the land seen by Sannikov remained no more than just a nice legend throughout more than 100 years. But if so--why did birds fly from high-latitude areas of the continent to the North in spring, but not to the South, as it was noted by almost all industrialists and travelers who happened to be there? Ivan Lyakhov described the deer rushing from

 

* Vitus Bering headed the First and Second Kamchatka expeditions in 1725-1730 and 1733-1741 respectively. He crossed the strait between Chukotka and Alaska, later named after him (the first explorer of those parts in 1648 was Cossack Semen Dezhnev). Bering reached North America, and discovered some of the Aleutian Islands.--Ed.

 

** See: V Glushkov, "Sannikov Land: Fact or Fiction?", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2004.--Ed.

 
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the St. Nose Cape (opposite the New Siberian Islands) in the same direction across the frozen sea.

 

Where did the animals and birds move? To New Siberia? Or still farther, to some unknown land, warm and abundant in green grass? As a matter of fact, legends about the blessed island lost in the ice can be found in folk tales of the Chukchis, Yukagirs, Evenks, Yakuts, and other peoples engaged in hunting and fishing to survive in the rigors of the subpolar regions. Trekking far and wide, they could see many wonders.

 

Probably the Sannikov Land was a symbol of the promised "warm land" in the cold northern waters. However, in 1879-1880 an American expedition aboard the Jeanette ship under George De-Long discovered a volcanic archipelago later named after him. Russian explorers on the Taimyr and Vaigach ships, headed by Boris Vilkitsky, found in 1913 two small islands northeast of New Siberia (now named after Vilkitsky and Zhokhov). It was there, on the rocks, that rookeries were found. This meant that continental birds could fly in after all.

 
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Geological and archaeological findings of the late nineteen-hundreds revitalized the hypothesis on the existence of populated lands in the Arctic. This time, however, the hypothesis was confirmed by numerous facts. In 1967 explorers from a local polar station found ancient hunting tools on the Zhokhov Island. Twenty years later radiocarbon analysis identified the age of the artefacts: eight to nine thousand years. The place where they were found was presumably a camp site or a seasonal settlement of hunters. The fact that one of these islands had been inhabited by people became a sensation: no facts of this kind had been known for the Arctic Ocean, even for the Barents sea, where the climatic conditions are much more benign than north of the New Siberian Islands.

 

Numerous animal skeletal fragments, a well-preserved bird feather (a fragment of an arrow's feathering), a knife made from a mammoth's tusk, several small axes from polished stone, pieces of sledges (almost like the modern ones), a fragment of a basket, and so forth--in fact, a real arctic hunter's kit-were found there. Local people hunted wolves, polar foxes, whales and seals; in summer they ate tasty goose meet, even seagulls. Yet they preferred northern deer and white bears, a shown by numerous bones of these animals. It is amazing that the hunters on the Zhokhov Island went hunting equipped only with stone-tipped spears tied to the wooden staff or fixed in special holds. Even a hunter armed with a good modern gun can kill a bear only if he knows exactly how and where to shoot (the lateral part of the skull).

 

I have been working at problems of man's assimilation in the Far North for more than 40 years. The Zhokhov

 

Island findings suggest many questions. First,--did ancient hunters live there all the year round? Even though the climate was warmer then than now, there could be frosts and snowfalls, even in summer, with cold winds driving ice blocks to the shore. To say nothing of 9-month-long winters, with 30-50-degree frosts freezing the sea all over, and the polar night with its aurora borealis flashes, awesome for primitive people afraid of the elemental forces.

 

Our ancestors were surely stronger and more robust than us; but it is hard to imagine their clothes that could save them from the arctic cold. And what, then, were their dwellings? Mud huts dug out in permafrost to melt as soon as bonfires were made (perforce a regular practice)? Did they live in homes like Chukot chums (tents of skins or bark), Indian wigwams, and Eskimo's igloos (built of blocks of hardened snow)? But fire had to be kept on anyway, what with the total absence of wood on the island!

 

What if it was just a temporary hunting camp? Then, how did the hunters get there? This patch of land was 150-160 km away from the nearest New Siberian Islands! Now recall Yakov Sannikov and Matvei Gedenstrom: it was the water that always stopped them, it did not let them approach the coveted goal. Well, there were years when ice covered all of the straits in the region. (This extremely rare phenomenon was seen by members of the expedition headed by Baron Eduard Toll, one of the romanticists of the Arctic convinced he had seen the Sannikov Land and, therefore, certain of its existence). But such favorable conditions were on hand just once in a blue moon.

 
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And what about the present-day descendants of the ancient hunters of the Zhokhov Island? Where did they come from? Where did they go? Perhaps froze or starved to death? Or back on the continent, they mixed with aboriginal tribes? As it was in the case of the Yamal Peninsula and the Bolshezemelskaya Tundra*: the ancient Samodian tribes migrating thither over centuries from Altai eventually assimilated with the aborigines to give birth to what is now the Nenets people.

 

And finally: why did they hunt the polar bear along with the deer? As the main source of meat? But nothing of the kind is known to science. Or due to its white fur and large size this animal was sacred to northern peoples and thus sacrificed to the chief gods? The "gentle handling" of the killed polar bears supports this version. Skinning a dead bear, the hunters cut off its head carefully, removed the brain through the holes on both sides of the skull; the tongue was cut away, the incisors taken out--presumably, for making decorations or charms. Ethnologists know that many peoples believed in the magic force of a necklace from teeth and nails of large animals--the voodoo charms protecting against foes and evil spirits, and giving extra

 

* Bolshezemelskaya Tundra, a hilly morainic (of glacial deposits) plain, bounded by the Pechora and Usa rivers in the west and south, and by the Polar Urals in the east. See: G. Rusanova, "Bolshezemelskaya Tundra (Cold Desert): Flashback", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2007.--Ed.

 
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strength in search of prey, to show what kind of heroes went hunting.

 

The hunters of the Zhokhov Island took to their camp only the anterior part of animal body (the rest was left on the site of hunting) so as to eat the flesh by themselves--probably an obligatory part of the ritual--or else feed their god. Judging by the size of the bones and skulls, the white bears they killed were comparable to modern ursine females. Therefore, the populations of the arctic predators at that time comprised either rather small animals (which did not agree with the general ecological situation, more favorable than today: the more food, the larger the animals) or the ancient hunters killed only young animals.

 

There is an island in the Russian Arctic Ocean, a place of mass pilgrimage of northern tribes--Vaigach (their Nenets name is Khebidya Ya--Saint Land)*. This island is situated just 2 or 3 km from the Yugor peninsula separating the Barents and Kara Seas. It was easy to get there by ice (even by melting ice)--onto the sanctuaries still seen on its capes and rocky shores; by the way, the ursine skulls held pride of place among the gifts left for the gods there.

 

And what is the relationship between the latest achievements in the Arctic geology and archeology, and the Sannikov Land hypothesis?

 

The Zhokhov camp site fits well into the Beringia concept, also known as the "mammoth continent"--a huge tract of land occupying the territories of what is now the Laptev and East Siberian Seas linking Asia and America. This ancient area was formed during the maximum cooling of the latest glacial period (its peak was between the 24th and 18th millenia B.C.), when the level of the ocean dropped by 100-120 m because of massive ice formation, while later, in the global warming period that begun about 10,000 years ago, it disappeared little by little. And the islands scattered today in this region are presumably what is left of this land.

 

According to the Beringia concept, virtually the entire modern shelf of the Laptev and East Siberian Seas (pale blue on geographic maps) was a boundless plain inhabited by mammals of the mammoth complex adapted to cold and plain food: bulls, wooly rhinoceroses, saigas, polar foxes, wolves, and the like. "They roamed there," Eduard Toll wrote, "over vast expanses which, linked to the modern mainland, presumably reached--via the pole--the American continent and... were not devoid of pastures either." The main animal of this category was a giant of the proboscidean group, the mammoth. Its skeletal fragments are still found in many regions of Siberia and in the Arctic. The fact that the New Siberian Islands remain one of the main regions where the mammoth's bones are still found indicates that the population of mammoths was really numerous.

 

The subsequent climate warming caused continental plants and animals to migrate to the arctic latitudes. Man went next; in search of better hunting grounds he reached the most outlying regions of the Arctic, as confirmed by the age of the ancient hunters' camp on the Zhokhov Island (nine-eight thousand years). However, higher summer temperatures were extremely hazardous to huntsmen.

 

The sea level started to rise because of ice melting. The "mammoth continent" was coming apart. It did

 

See: N. Vekhov, "Northern 'Easter Island'", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2007.--Ed.

 
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not submerge, but... melted away: the loose soil of the "arctic Atlantis" consisted of frozen peat, and ice cords (forming large cords, wedges, bars) buried in its depth; masses of frozen sand broke apart, too, and were carried away by sea currents to the bottom. This process must have been going on by fits and starts for some time and dry strips still linked some fragments of the land composed mostly of loose soil and solid rocks (basalt, etc.), and so the hunters could come to their camp on the Zhokhov Island via those pathways every year. But they were unable to do that with the disappearance of those isthmuses.

 

But how rapidly did Beringia go under? Could the travelers of the 18th-19th centuries see what remained of it? We can trace it in two islands discovered in 1815 in the Laptev Sea, the Vasilyevsky and Semenovsky islands composed of subsoil ice under a layer of silt and tundra soil. Explorers visited them repeatedly in a century and a half. And in 1950, Dr. Yakov Gakkel, an arctic explorer, found just a cliff above the water and a small sand spit in the shape of a crescent. Five years later hydrographs arriving there on the Lag ship saw that the Semenovsky Island was under a 10-cm-thick layer of water--in fact, no island any longer. Both islands--Semenovsky and Vasilyevsky, several kilometers long, vanished within less than 150 years.

 

It is quite probable that the Siberian explorers Gedenstrom and Toll did see some land, not the fog, north of the Novosibirsk Archipelago, but this land eventually disappeared. One more version in favor of the existence of this land was put forward in 1882 by Alexander Grigoryev, Academic Secretary of Imperial Geographic Society in 1883 to 1903, the organizer of, and participant in many expeditions, botanist and ethnographer (who was the first to mention the name, the Sannikov Land, in a published report). He suggested that at the beginning of the 19th century hunters and explorers in New Siberia could see the heretofore unknown Bennett and Henrietta islands, discovered only later by De-Long. He did not wonder how they could see the islands as far as that, about 260 km away. He mentioned cases of abnormally long visibility in the Arctic, particularly in bright spring days, with clouds hanging over the islands, kind of visually elevating them above the sea, and the air being amazingly transparent.

 

Let us add that in the 1950s Savva Uspensky, a Russian zoologist, found artefacts even farther north than the Zhokhov encampment, the traces of primitive man on the Bennett Island. A tantalizing job to invite new explorers!

Опубликовано на Порталусе 01 октября 2021 года

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