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Sifting in Siberia

Calling Dr. Andrzej Weber an archeological detective wouldn't be far off. When the anthropology professor isn't teaching at the University of Alberta, you might find him digging for clues in Siberia, specifically the region around Lake Baikal.

Weber is researching hunter-gatherer Cultures in Siberia and will use a $2.5 million grant he recently received from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to help compile a database of information on about 400 people found buried in the area. He has formed a multidisciplinary team of about 20 scholars from six different fields, ranging from archeology to molecular biology. The end result will resemble a modern-day census to which people all over the world will have access, says Weber.

"We will look at things like approximate age, genetic characteristics, chemical characteristics, architectural characteristics of the graves, and goods found in the graves," he says. "It is similar to a crime scene, and although we're looking at different clues, the goal is pretty much the same. We want to know what happened, who these people were, how did they get there? We want to find out the chain of events that led them to where they died."

Weber was first attracted to the Lake Baikal region 10 years ago, when the international political climate was changing. The Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet regime was crumbling, and Weber used those events to his advantage. "I was one of the first to capitalize on these new opportunities," he says.

"Scholars recommended the Lake Baikal area because it had a lot of archeological research that was showing potential to be relevant from a North American aspect. In terms of climate and hUnter-gatherers, there were a lot of similarities between Siberia and Canada."

The Russians were receptive to Weber's long term plan to conduct archeological research, so he spent the first few years studying the region before starting any of his digs. He soon learned the area was ripe with signs of habitation and the sites were well-stratified, which meant that deciphering a chronology for the people would be easier.

Another benefit of working in Russia was that many prehistoric cemeteries had been discovered by Russian scholars over the last 100 years. Normally in hunter-gatherer cultures, says Weber, formal cemeteries weren't developed, but for some reason the people around Lake Baikal used formal burial sites as much as 8,000 years ago.

"The richness of food resources would make people return to the same place," he says. "A combination of cultural and environmental factors resulted in a number of cemeteries in a scale, unknown to North America."

After studying the region Weber spent the next few years collaborating with archeologists in North America and Russia to set up a plan to excavate the remains. Because the Russian researchers don't have the infrastructure to analyze the finds, Weber and his western colleagues use "state-of-the art Scientific methods that allow us to learn such detail that wasn't possible to learn even 15 years ago."

Using such methods as DNA and trace analysis, the scientists are able to learn more about the people and their lifestyle. Weber is specifically looking at the transition between two distinct cultures—the Kitoi culture, which existed in the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods, and the Serovo-Glazkovo culture, which dates from the Late Neolithic period to the Bronze Age. Researchers believe there is a substantial gap in the seventh millennium B.C., disconnecting the Kitoi from the Serovo-Glazkovo. Weber wants to learn more about those people and why that gap exists.

Weber has included his students in the discovery process. For the past four years, about 15 undergraduate students from the University of Alberta have partnered with the same number of Russian students in a summer field school in Lake Baikal. Camped out in tents only a stone's throw from the dig, the students spend their days either excavating or cataloguing finds in the makeshift lab.

Normally, students see the end product of archeology in the form of a paper or report, but involving them in the entire process is much more interesting, says Weber. "Some graves are a bit bigger than others, so this may tell us that society wasn't completely egalitarian. A few graves have unique goods, such as green or white nephrite, and adornments, such as semi-precious stones or pendants. Sometimes it's even possible to learn the cause of death.

"Each time we find something different, and that's what makes it all so exciting."

Published Spring 2001.

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