Saturday, April 21, 2007

Monkey people of the Amur

In The Flying Tiger. Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur, Kira van Deusen mentions that the Tungus peoples of far eastern Siberia often refer to the past existence of "monkey" people in their region. One folk-tale describes how these "monkeys" once abducted a man:

So the older sister took the shaman's drum. She started to sing and then said, "Brother, when you go hunting in the taiga tomorrow, you're going to meet two people. Check out their breasts, and then marry them."

The next day, he woke up and set out to go hunting. He walked and walked and came to a hill, a mountain. There were big rocks. He looked up, and then went on. Suddenly he saw two people sitting there. He approached and at that time the ties on his skis broke.

He came up to those people and felt their breasts and they were women. And they took him along with them.

At home time went by. A day passed and another, and still he was gone. Many days went by. And then the younger sister said, "Sister, you made this happen. Now you bring him back. Those two monkeys in the mountain came and took him away and now they are keeping him in the mountains, sucking his blood. He's become just skin and bones."

… So the younger sister sang and drummed, flying to her spirits, but she couldn't get there. She tried a second time and still didn't have the strength. The third time she gathered all her strength and flew to those rocks. She took her brother and dragged him out of there. He flew, looking thin as a shirt. They got him back and healed him. And that's how the younger sister brought her brother back from those monkeys.

… So that's it about the monkeys. They lived in the rocks and when they rolled back and forth, they called, "Tsyoo, tsyoo, papandasyoo!!" (Deusen 2001:126-128)

Macaques inhabit East Asia and may once have existed as far north as the Amur, but none come close to human size, the males having a head and body length of about 41-70 cm. There is, however, another candidate: the last large non-human primate to inhabit the region—Neanderthal Man.

The Neanderthals inhabited Asia as far east as the Tien Shan mountains and Lake Baikal. Southern Siberia has several Mousterian sites, with some yielding Neanderthal bone fragments. The youngest site is dated to 28,000 BP (Goebel 1999). Recent mtDNA analysis has confirmed the Neanderthal identity of 30,000- to 38,000-year-old human fossils from Uzbekistan and the Atlai region of southern Siberia (Pennisi 2007).

When modern humans began to spread out of Africa, they quickly replaced Neanderthals throughout West Asia as far as the Aegean and Black Sea littoral. This wave of advance is attested by cranial remains of modern humans from Crete dated to 51,000 BP (Facchini and Giusberti 1992) and by early Aurignacian assemblages from Israel, Lebanon, and Bulgaria dated to 45,000-42,000 BP (Mellars 1992; Phillips 1987; Schwarcz et al. 1979; more). A secondary wave of advance seems to have spread out of eastern Africa through southern Arabia and into India c. 50,000 BP (Quintana-Murci et al. 1999).

The rapidity of this two-pronged advance should be no surprise, given the ecological similarities between the Middle East and northeastern Africa. The real "Out of Africa" event occurred further north, where modern humans entered environments with wide seasonal variations and different means of subsistence. On encountering boreal and alpine environments, the wave of advance would have slowed and shifted into a "hurry up and wait" mode, i.e., gradual adaptation in areas of ecological transition, followed by rapid penetration and colonization once sufficient adaptation had been achieved.

Modern humans penetrated the extensive alpine environments of central Asia fairly late, probably after the last ice age. It is also from this vast region that we have reports of large human-like creatures, notably the Yeti (commonly known as the Abominable Snowman). Like the "monkeys" of the Amur, the Yeti was believed to live in high rocky places (Yeti means "rocky place bear" in Tibetan).

Was Yeti an eastern Neanderthal? We may soon have an answer, thanks to the soon-to-be completed map of the Neanderthal genome and hair/skin samples that allegedly come from a Yeti.


Deusen, K.V. 2001. The Flying Tiger. Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Facchini, F., and Giusberti, G. 1992. Homo sapiens sapiens remains from the island of Crete. In Continuity or Replacement. Controversies in Homo Sapiens Evolution. G. Bräuer, and F.H. Smith (Eds.). Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema, pp. 189-208.

Goebel, T. 1999. Pleistocene human colonization of Siberia and peopling of the Americas: An ecological approach. Evolutionary Anthropology 8:208-227.

Mellars, P.A. 1992. Archaeology and the population-dispersal hypothesis of modern human origins in Europe. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B 337:225-234.

Pennisi E. 2007. No sex please, we're Neandertals. Science 316:967. doi:10.1126/science.316.5827.967a

Phillips, J.L. 1987. Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in the Wadi Feiran, southern Sinai. In The Pleistocene Old World. O. Soffer (Ed.). New York: Plenum Press, pp. 169-182.

Quintana-Murci, L., Semino, O., Bandelt, H.-J., Passarino, G., McElreavey, K., and Santachiara-Benerecetti, A.S. 1999. Genetic evidence of an early exit of Homo Sapiens sapiens from Africa through eastern Africa. Nature Genetics 23:437-441.

Schwarcz, H.P., Blackwell, B., Goldberg, P., and Marks, A.E. 1979. Uranium series dating of travertine from archaeological sites, Nahal Zin, Israel. Nature 277:558-560.

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