A team of Russian and Norwegian archaeologists reports today in Nature that early humans actually lived north of the Arctic Circle during the last ice age nearly 40,000 years ago. Pavel Pavlov of the Komi Scientific Center and John Inge Svendsen and Svein Indrelid of the University of Bergen discovered traces of human occupation at a Paleolithic site in the European part of the Russian Arctic called Mamontovaya Kurya. In addition to hundreds of mammalian bones, they found stone tools and a mammoth tusk that appears to have been cut by those tools.

Based on these artifacts, the researchers cannot say whether Mamontovaya Kurya's early inhabitants were Neandertals or anatomically modern humansbut either way, the discovery is remarkable. If these settlers were Neandertal, it indicates that they were more capable humans than has previously been suggested. To adapt to such a cold environment would have required fairly robust technology and social organization. On the other hand, were these Arctic dwellers modern humans, it means that they traveled north with tremendous speed. According to other evidence, modern humans had only recently moved into southeast Europe some 40,000 years ago.

The authors tend to believe that these pioneers were modern humans. Whoever they were, though, they had an incredible ability to withstand the cold. Although the temperature is thought to have fluctuated wildly at the time, it was consistently colder in the Arctic than it is today. In an accompanying article, University of Liverpool archaeologist John Gowlett describes an annual average temperature of -1 degrees Celsius. "The new finds show that humans had a hold on the north, if only for a short time," Gowlett writes. "Although there are questions to be answered, the artifacts illustrate both the capacity of early humans to do the unexpected, and the value of archaeologists researching in unlikely areas."