Early humans spread as far north as Siberia 400,000 years ago

A site in Siberia has evidence of human presence 417,000 years ago, raising the possibility that hominins could have reached North America much earlier than we thought.

A site in Siberia where early humans lived has been dated to 417,000 years ago, making it by far the most ancient early human site found this far north.

The archaeological site at Diring Yuriakh, Russia
Vasilij Lytkin

“This site dramatically revises our understanding of when humans reached high latitudes,” John Jansen at the Czech Academy of Sciences told a press conference on 16 April. Other early human sites in the Arctic region are no more than 45,000 years old, he says.

The fact that early people had reached this far north means it is possible that they could have crossed the Bering Strait into what is now Alaska around this time, says Jansen. “It remains possible that people crossed into North America well before the earliest widely accepted timing.”

The site at Diring Yuriakh, near the city of Yakutsk in Russia, was discovered in 1982. It consists of primitive stone tools buried in layers of wind-blown sand. In 1997, it was shown that these layers were at least 260,000 years old, but their actual age remained unknown.

Now, Jansen and his colleagues have used a method called cosmogenic dating to date the layers to 417,000 years ago, plus or minus around 80,000 years. Jansen is presenting the team’s preliminary findings at a European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, Austria, on 19 April.

The timing coincides with a warm interglacial period, he says, so it makes sense that people moved north at this time. “The age perfectly corresponds with the interglacial,” says Jansen. Later glacial periods would have forced them to move back south, he thinks.

No human remains have been found at the Siberian site, but based on the timing it is likely the inhabitants were Homo erectus, a species that evolved around 2 million years ago and spread from Africa to Eurasia.

Beyond this, nothing is known about them. We don’t know if they used fire or made clothes, says Jansen, let alone if they had any specific adaptions to living so far north.

While Diring Yuriakh is 2000 kilometres away from the Bering Strait, it is likely that some people lived closer, he thinks. If they hung on there during colder periods when the sea level was lower, they might have been able to reach North America.

“They would have been within striking distance of crossing the strait during low sea level,” says Jansen. “And also, of course, there is the possibility of crossing sea ice.”

This is just speculation, he says. The earliest evidence of humans in North America is from around 33,000 years ago.

If any early humans did make it to North America at this time, it seems that they went extinct before modern humans arrived, as there is no genetic trace of them within modern American peoples.

It is possible that some human DNA from this time remains frozen in Siberian permafrost, but the site can no longer be visited because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, says Jansen. The samples that were dated were taken in 2021, before the invasion.

“These are really interesting results,” says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London.

“Given the warmth of this interglacial, it is certainly plausible that early humans were able to move even further north in places like Siberia, at least briefly,” he says. “However, I think it is a speculation too far to suggest they could even have reached the Bering Strait and the Americas at this time.”

During this interglacial, sea level was several metres higher than today, says Stringer, which would have made reaching the Americas even more difficult.

Earlier this year, Jansen and colleagues dated another early site in Ukraine to 1.4 million years ago.

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