Belkachi Culture

Russian archaeologist Yuri Mochanov distinguished the Bel'kachi Culture in 1966, based upon materials obtained from excavating the multilayer Bel'kachi I Site (Levels V and VI) in the Lena River basin, Sakha Republic (Yakutia).

The Bel'kachi Culture spread over Northeast Asia in the Holocene between the late fourth and the late third millennia BC (5200-4100 years BP), where it has been considered as the Middle Neolithic culture. Researchers have found the majority of sites in the Sakha Republic, in the valleys of the Lena, the Aldan, the Vilyuy, and the Anabar rivers.

Archaeologists have associated the origins of the Bel'kachi Culture with the Neolithic cultures of Transbaikal, and Upper and Middle Amur (Shilkinskaya Peshchera and Gromatukhinskaya), which influenced the Syalakh Culture in Sakha (Yakutia) that preceded the Bel'kachi Culture. All multilayer sites in Yakutia comprise levels in which the Bel'kachi materials overlay those found from the Syalakh Culture. The Bel'kachi Culture shared much in common with Syalakh in terms of stone tool typology and processing techniques.

The basic feature used for distinguishing the Bel'kachi Culture from other Neolithic materials has been the cord-stamped ceramic. Bel'kachi pottery was parabolic with a round or a pointed bottom. The pot surfaces were covered with cord imprints produced in the process of forming and thinning the vessel walls with the cord-coiled beater or pottery paddle. Archaeologists distinguished two types of pattern on the vessels. Some include a series of small holes and engraved horizontal lines under the rim. Other patterns manifest thickened and raised rims. Also identifiable is a rib-stamp design and a beveled grid and zigzag pattern. The vessels measure approximately 30 cm in diameter at the rim and 40 cm in height.

Blade Cores

Bel'kachi Culture artifacts: 1—microblade core; 2—retouched microblade; 3—polyhedral burin; 4, 6, 7—points; 5— retouched adze; 8—scraper; 9—pendant; 10—angle burin on microblade; 11—cutter; 12—slotted knife with chipped-stone sideblades inserted; 13—polished adze; 14—potsherd with cord-stamped design. 1-11, 13—stone; 12—bone and stone; 14—ceramic.

Bel'kachi Culture artifacts: 1—microblade core; 2—retouched microblade; 3—polyhedral burin; 4, 6, 7—points; 5— retouched adze; 8—scraper; 9—pendant; 10—angle burin on microblade; 11—cutter; 12—slotted knife with chipped-stone sideblades inserted; 13—polished adze; 14—potsherd with cord-stamped design. 1-11, 13—stone; 12—bone and stone; 14—ceramic.

The Bel'kachi Culture represents the regional and chronological variant of a microblade industry based on conic and prismatic microcores. Microblades comprise 10-11% of all lithic (stone) findings at Bel'kachi sites, which is fewer than in the preceding Syalakh time; however, the microblade inserts nevertheless played a significant role in the Bel'kachi tool kit. Many microblades were retouched at the edge for obtaining segments to be inserted into bone or antler projectile points or knives as sideblades. Judging by the exposed fragments of such tools, they were flat, with one or two side grooves where the blades were inserted. People also used microblades for making angle and dihedral burins and gravers (engraving or carving tools) as well as end scrapers. Widespread throughout the Bel'kachi Culture were polyhedral burins that had previously appeared in the Syalakh time. These burins were made on worn cores and on retouched preformes.

A significant number of Bel'kachi tools were constructed on flakes, blade flakes, and pebbles. These included points, scrapers, gravers, knives, ground adzes, and axes. Arrow points were bifacially retouched and leaf shaped; these triangular points appeared for the first time in the Neolithic of Northeast Asia. Characteristic for the Bel'kachi, some triangular points feature notched bases. Bifacially retouched spear points or knives, oval or leaf shaped, measure up to 14 cm in length. Another characteristic Bel'kachi tool is the spear-shaped graver on blade flakes. End scrapers with the retouched dorsal surface dominated.

Ground adzes were rectangular in the plane and in the cross-section, and stepped with high backs. Retouched oval axes, with lanceolate (tapered to form the shape of a lance) cross-sections, feature so-called "ears" on the back for fixing conveniently in the handle. Bone and antler tools included not only arrow and spear points but also adze and knife handles, composite fishing hooks, and sinker baits for fishing.

The Bel'kachi people lived in the Arctic and Subarctic taiga and tundra along the banks of rivers and lakes, hunting moose and reindeer; however, the importance of fishing increased over time. For example, numerous composite fishing hooks and stone net sinkers have been found at Bel'kachi sites. The Bel'kachi nomadic way of life determined the surface teepee-type dwelling.

Archaeologists have also identified Bel'kachi sites in Western Chukotka. There, the Bel'kachi complexes were supposed to contain stemmed points on blades with triangular cross-sections.

The Bel'kachi Culture moreover influenced the Upper Kolyma Middle Neolithic Culture, with specific artifacts such as stemmed points with triangular cross-sections and flat round pendants with holes in the middle.

In Eastern Chukotka, some elements of the Bel'kachi Culture (cord-stamped ceramics and stepped adzes) have appeared in the materials of the Ust'-Belaya Grave on the Anadyr River. This site relates to the Ust'-Belaya Culture of the early second through the early first millennium BC. Despite some differences, the Bel'kachi Culture is believed to have been the base for the Arctic Small Tool Tradition formation in the American and Canadian Arctic.

Several single Bel'kachi burials have been discovered in Yakutia: Jikimda (Olyokma River), Rodinka (Lower Kolyma), and Tuoy-Khaya Grave (Vilyuy River). The burials exhibit no stone facing; skeletons, covered with ochre, lie on their backs, with arms bent on the thighs; skulls pointing in the direction of east-northeast; and legs pointing toward the river. Anthropological research of Bel'kachi skulls shows that the Bel'kachi people belonged to the Arctic race with some admixture of the Baikal type.

The burials contained a rich assemblage with many stone tools, mostly points, insert tools, microblades, ground adzes, and art items, as well as bone tools.

Artistic items are represented by nephrite discs, bone-decorated pendants, shell and eggshell beads, decorated bone amulets, and bird figurines. The complex geometric pattern on most items has not been deciphered so far, but researchers believe the iconography bears a range of complex semantic meanings (e.g., as a pictorial calendar).

The dog skull burial in the Tuoy Khaya Grave (Vilyuy River basin)—presumably associated with a type of dog cult or ritual practice—has also been linked to the Bel'kachi Culture. The site contains burial stone tool kits (arrow points), ochre, and a ritual fireplace.

Petroglyphs (carvings or inscriptions on rock) in Yakutia have also been identified with the Bel'kachi Culture. The pictures were either painted or, less frequently, pecked (in which impressions are created by striking with a pointed tool). Artisans contoured some of the painted images; others were filled in with areas of color. Within the iconography, hunting stories prevailed depicting primarily moose and reindeer. Some anthropomorphic pictures represent human figures, most of which are shown in motion, with three-finger hands, rounded heads, and clothing details. Adjacent to the petroglyphs, ritual sites with Bel'kachi stone materials were also found. At the end of the third millennium BC, the Ymiyakhtakh Culture replaced the Bel'kachi Culture.

Sergei Slobodin

See also Arctic Small Tool Tradition; Sakha Republic (Yakutia); Syalakh Culture; Ymyakhtakh Culture

Further Reading

Alekseyev, Anatoliy, Drevnyaya Yakutia: neolit i epokha bronzy [Ancient Yakutia: The New Stone and Bronze Ages], Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1996 Khlobystin, Leonid, Drevnyaya istoriya taymyrskogo Zapolyarya [Ancient History of the Taymyr Circumpolar Area], St Petersburg: IMCH, 1998 Kiryak, Margarita, Arkheologiya Zapadnoy Chukotki [Archaeology of Western Chukotka], Moscow: Nauka, 1993 Kochmar, Nikolay, Pisanitsy Yakutii [Painted Petroglyphs of

Yakutia], Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1994 Mochanov, Yuri, Mnogosloynaya stoyanka Bel'kachi I i peri-odizatsiya kamennogo veka Yakutii [Bel'kachi I Multi-layer Site and Yakutia Stone Age Periodization], Moscow: Nauka, 1969

Mochanov, Yuri & Svetlana Fedoseyeva, "Main periods in the ancient history of North East Asia." In Beringia in the Cenozoic Era, edited by V.L. Kontrimavichus, Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema, 1985, pp. 689-693 Mochanov, Yuri, Svetlana Fedoseyeva & Anatoliy Alekseev, Arkheologicheskiye pamyatniki Yakutii (basseyny rek Aldana i Olyokmy) [Archaeological Sites in Yakutia: Aldan and Olyokma River Basins], Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1983 Mochanov, Yuri, Svetlana Fedoseyeva, Nikolay Konstantinov, Natalya Antipina & Valeri Argunov, Arkheologicheskiye pamyatniki Yakutii (basseyny rek Vilyuy, Anabar i Olenyok) [Archaeological Sites in Yakutia: Vilyuy, Anabar, and Olenyok River Basins], Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1991 Okladnikov, Aleksei, Yakutia Before itsIncorporation in to the Russian State, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1970

Slobodin, Sergei, Verkhnyaya Kolyma i kontinental'noye Priokhotye v epokhu neolita i rannego metalla [Upper Kolyma and Continental Priokhotye in the Time of Neolithic and Early Metal], Magadan: NEISRI, 2001

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