A grassy field fills a swath of land between two dense tree lines along the banks of a river in Siberia. Although from above the site appears to be nothing more than a field, it was once a bustling settlement — home to the world’s oldest known fortress some 8,000 years ago.
Researchers have been exploring the site at Amnya for decades, according to a study published Dec. 1 in the journal Antiquity. The archaeological site is “the northernmost known Stone Age fortification in Eurasia.” Previous excavations revealed house pits equipped with central fireplaces and pottery remains.
In 2019, a team of experts began a new round of archaeological work at the site, according to a news release from Freie Universität Berlin. That’s when researchers discovered that the site was also home to the world’s oldest known fortress.
“The results of their research reveal that hunter-gatherers in Siberia constructed complex defense structures around their settlements already 8,000 years ago,” the university said. “This finding reshapes our understanding of early human societies, challenging the idea that only with the advent of agriculture would people have started to build permanent settlements with monumental architecture and have developed complex social structures.”
Archaeologists used radiocarbon dating and confirmed the age of the site and its ruins.
“The building of fortifications by forager groups has been observed sporadically elsewhere around the world in various — mainly coastal — regions from later prehistory onwards,” researchers said in the study. “But the very early onset of this phenomenon in inland western Siberia is unparalleled.”
Evidence at the site indicates that ancient inhabitants caught fish from the nearby Amnya River and used “bone and stone-tipped spears” to hunt elk and reindeer, the university said. They used “elaborately decorated pottery” to preserve leftover fish oil and meat.
“Our new palaeobotanical and stratigraphical examinations reveal that inhabitants of Western Siberia led a sophisticated lifestyle based on the abundant resources of the taiga environment,” Tanja Schreiber, an archaeologist at the Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology in Berlin and a co-author of the study, said in the university’s release.
Experts hypothesized that “the fortified settlements overlooking rivers may have served as strategic locations to control and exploit productive fishing spots.”
Previously, it was understood that competition and conflict were “absent” among hunter-gatherer societies and defensive structures only appeared as a result of farming societies, researchers said. But the new findings indicate a different pace of change and a distinct social structure of ancient human civilizations.