Man In The Terrestrial Arctic

Human beings, as noted above, are no newcomers to the tundra. Late Palaeolithic hunters roamed over a landscape that enjoyed ecological conditions very different from those that exist in the tundra today. The warmth that caused the ice retreat after the Last Glacial Maximum produced higher temperatures at the icevegetation interface than those that now prevail. Consequently, there developed a more luxuriant vegetation, the tundra-steppe, which comprised a combination of plant communities containing both steppe and tundra species (including prostrate shrubs) that had a productivity great enough to support the nutritional needs of the Pleistocene megafauna (Pielou, 1991). Although the climate was predominantly cold and dry there was a much greater diversity of herbaceous vegetation (grasses, sedges and other herbaceous species) than is found in the modern tundra. Dry watersheds and slopes had cold-tolerant herbaceous and prostrate shrub communities. Meadows in valleys and on slope-pediments were the most productive as pastures for ungulates due to the redistribution of moisture and nutrients within the landscape (Yurtsev, 2001). Vegetation zonation was also different. The latitudinal differentiation into High and Low Arctic had not developed and there was a mosaic of plant communities which added both to habitat productivity and species diversity.

The last remains of this vegetation can still be found on Wrangel Island off the north-east coast of Siberia (Figs. 11.6-11.8) where a continental climate and a lack of moisture kept the land free of extensive glacial ice during the Last Glacial Maximum (Gualtieri et al., 2005). The persistence on Wrangel Island of productive arctic vegetation may explain why a dwarf form of the mammoth was able to survive here at least up to 3700 BP (Kuz'min et al, 2000).

The unrelenting and successful pursuit of mammoth, and woolly rhinoceros, in both the Old and the New World was first described as the Pleistocene overkill in the 1960s and suggested as the prime cause for their extinction (Mithen, 2003). However, the dramatic contraction in mammoth range c. 12 kyr ago, after which known populations were confined to northern Siberia (mainly the Taymyr Peninsula and Wrangel Island; Figs. 11.6-11.8), has been shown to correlate well with the extensive spread of trees after the Allerod phase (14-13 000 BP) of the Late Glacial Interstadial. The return of open tundra-steppe in the Younger Dryas cold phase, c. 11-10000 BP, saw a limited mammoth re-expansion into north-east Europe, followed by retraction and apparent extinction of mainland populations, which matches the marked loss of open habitats in the early Holocene (Stuart, 2005). When evidence from palaeontology, climatology, archaeology, and ecology are combined it would appear that human hunting was not solely responsible for the pattern of extinction everywhere. Instead, it is more probable that it was the interaction of human disturbance along with the impact of pronounced climatic change on the vegetation that brought about their gradual demise (Barnosky et al., 2004). Irrespective of whether or not early man was responsible for the disappearance of the megafauna it was nevertheless extensively exploited by the Palaeolithic cultures as they migrated across the Siberian tundra-steppe 40-30 000 years ago. Ultimately, this migration reached

Fig. 11.6 Location of Russian arctic regions mentioned in text.

Fig. 11.7 Wrangel Island at 72° N lies between the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas and supports a rich and varied vegetation even though the Island is surrounded by ice for most of the year. During the last glaciation Wrangel Island also remained largely ice-free. It has been shown that mammoths survived on Wrangel Island until 3700 BP which is the most recent survival of all known mammoth populations (see text). However, due to limited food supply, they were much smaller than the typical mammoth. The flora still resembles the tundra-steppe that supported the mega fauna of the Late Glacial period (see text). The 417 species of vascular plants present is double that of any other arctic tundra territory of comparable size, and more than any other arctic island. For these reasons the island was proclaimed the northernmost World Heritage Site in 2004. (Satellite image by courtesy of NASA.)

Fig. 11.7 Wrangel Island at 72° N lies between the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas and supports a rich and varied vegetation even though the Island is surrounded by ice for most of the year. During the last glaciation Wrangel Island also remained largely ice-free. It has been shown that mammoths survived on Wrangel Island until 3700 BP which is the most recent survival of all known mammoth populations (see text). However, due to limited food supply, they were much smaller than the typical mammoth. The flora still resembles the tundra-steppe that supported the mega fauna of the Late Glacial period (see text). The 417 species of vascular plants present is double that of any other arctic tundra territory of comparable size, and more than any other arctic island. For these reasons the island was proclaimed the northernmost World Heritage Site in 2004. (Satellite image by courtesy of NASA.)

northern Scandinavia, while other populations pressed eastwards across the Bering Strait to make an early and rapid settlement of North America, possibly between 20000 and 15 000 BP (Shreeve, 2006).

After the disappearance of the megafauna the early Holocene warm period continued and the vegetation still had sufficient productivity to support considerable populations of musk oxen. In the most northerly land in the world (Peary Land - far north of Greenland) Palaeo-Eskimo campsites have been dated from charcoal remains to between 3000 and 4000 BP. Judging from the remains found in these camp sites these early

arctic dwellers were able to survive mainly by hunting the non-migratory musk oxen with little use of marine resources (McGhee, 1996). Such an achievement at these high latitudes points to a vegetation that was more productive in this Post-Glacial Warm Period than that which exists today.

Various cultures have subsequently migrated through these arctic regions. The climatic cooling that took place after the Hypsithermal made the migratory reindeer (with their ability to extract nutrition from lichens and mosses) the predominant large arctic herbivore. The reindeer hunting and herding peoples who still survive today (Sami, Nenets, Chukchi, Inuit, etc.; Fig. 11.9) are the modern equivalent of the ancient Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers that once peopled northern Europe, Arctic Siberia, and Beringia.

The success of these early polar human inhabitants and their never-ending search for food gives an historical perspective to the popular conception of modern man pressing ever further towards the margins of the habitable world and beyond in an unrelenting quest for natural resources. Resource exploration and exploitation is clearly a human characteristic with a long history. Despite the climatic vicissitudes of the Arctic the pursuit of resources has continued unabated, but instead of the ancient quest for fish, furs, walrus ivory (mors), and whale oil, the list is now minerals, oil and gas together with a much more thorough exploitation of the biological wealth of the waters of both the Arctic and Antarctic. This coupled with the marked climatic warming in these regions is creating an ever-growing risk of irreversible ecological damage to the polar biota from pollution and disturbance as well as from overexploitation.

Fig. 11.9 Distribution of indigenous peoples in the Arctic (various sources).

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