50,000-yr-old Ivory Tiara from a Woolly Mammoth Found in Siberian Cave

Stefan Andrews
Featured image
Photo by Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography

During the 1970s, Soviet scientists first became aware of the Denisova Cave which sits in Siberia’s Altai mountains. Decades later, ancient relics keep emerging from the site.

A prominent artifact was found during the summer of 2018: a tiara devised from the tusks of the now long gone woolly mammoths which roamed Siberia in the distant past. The ivory tiara most likely graced the head of a male and is roughly 50,000 years old. Experts are still debating what its exact usage was.

Given the age, this is among the oldest items of this type found in the region of North Eurasia. The tiara could have been produced by the now extinct Denisovans, one of the several human branches to which the cave site provided shelter in ancient days. Besides the distinct human branch of Denisovans, Homo Sapiens mingled with Neanderthals as well in the area.

Photo by Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography

The Siberian Times, who first reported on the story, wrote: “the suspicion is that the tiara – or diadem – was made by Denisovans who are already known to have had the technology 50,000 or so years ago to make elegant needles out of ivory and a sophisticated and beautiful stone bracelet.”

The ancient head asset likely served a very pragmatic purpose, to keep the hair back of its wearer. The item was fragmented, with the biggest piece found measuring 5.9 inches. Due to its prominent size, archaeologists concluded that it was designed for a man instead of a woman.

Denisova cave. Photo by Демин Алексей Барнаул CC BY-SA 4.0

The possibility is not excluded that the tiara was perhaps used for identity purposes, to tell the person’s status or belonging to a certain tribe or family.

This postulation is linked to tiara production in the region of river Yana in Yakutia (also Siberia), although in a different time period.

Had this been the case, then the tiara might have functioned as an ancient form of identity card.

Map of Sakha (Yakutia).

Markings on the tiara indicate the item had worn out and was junked in the cave. No religious markings were traced on it, nor any other decoration.

A hole is noticeable on the tiara as well, most likely used for threading a cord to affix the asset on the head.

The finding has excited scientists, needless to say.

Denisova Cave. Photo by Демин Алексей Барнаул CC BY-SA 4.0

“Finding one of the most ancient tiaras is very rare not just for the Denisova cave, but for the world,” said researcher Alexander Fedorchenko of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography which oversees all findings made at the site.

“The fragment we discovered is quite big, and judging by how thick the (strip) is, and by its large diameter, the headband was made for a big-headed man,” he said, according to Siberian Times.

Photo by Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography

With the passage of time, the diameter of the tiara may have slightly altered. Since this is a natural object that underwent bending, it naturally tends to go back to its original form. That is a factor to be considered when contemplating how big was the head of the tiara wearer, according to Fedorchenko.

The 50,000-year-old tiara is not the first mammoth ivory item unearthed from the Denisova cave site, however. Archaeologists have so far stumbled upon dozens of relics and fragments from the same material including arrowheads, bracelets, beads, and rings.

A tiny piece of an ornamented ivory tiara has as well been found in the cave before. But it’s the recent tiara dig that stands out among the rarest of all ancient Siberia finds.

Photo by Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography

The recent dig is a proof for archaeologists that its makers had a thorough knowledge of how to treat and manufacture mammoth ivory. They knew how to carve the tusks and bathe them in water, then how to bend it at the right angle, grind it, polish or drill through it.

Part of these processes ensured the durability of the final product. The recent Denisova cave tiara find is also significantly older than other ivory-made tiaras excavated from other sites across Russia, by at least 15,000 years.

Photo by Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography

Tiara-making knowledge is mostly associated with Homo Sapiens, but in the case of the 50,000-year-old tiara, Fedorchenko says “we likely deal with another, more ancient culture,” such would have been that of the Denisovans.

The species had genes that resemble that of modern humans. They were dark-skinned, brown-haired, and brown-eyed. They also seem to have had a keen interest in head assets, too.

Distant descendants of the Denisovans today survive among the indigenous populations of Papua New Guinea, scientists have found out. Though, the representatives share only a little percentage of genetic material with the extinct ancients.

Read another story from us: Mammoth Discovery! English Road Crew Workers Uncover Ancient Ice Age Beasts

Researchers still need to handle more work on the rare and ancient mammoth ivory tiara, like defining its age more precisely and reproducing in images how it looked like when it was first made. A research paper in a scientific magazine is due to be issued in 2019.