Traces of a Blond Race in Siberia

By: E. G.

Originally Published in 1933

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THE general region of Central Asia has been pointed out as the probable cradle of the Caucasian race. The traces of Caucasoid elements among the living tribes of Tibet have been indicated by researches of recent investigators, such as N. J. Roerich, G. Bowles and others. An interesting discovery in the Minusinsk region of Siberia furnishes additional facts pointing in the same direction.

Drawings of objects in animal style from the Kurgan culture, and a drawing of a burial plan
Figure A.

The varied geographical and topographical conditions of this area have made it an attractive place for settlement from a very remote time. On the basis of the cultural remains, Professor S. N. Teplouhov, of the State Russian Museum in Leningrad, has tentatively established the presence of ten successive cultures from late Paleolithic times down to the fifteenth century A. D. I am indebted to Professor Teplouhov for the material and the illustrations that appear here.

An array of objects from the different cultures found in Minusinsk
Plate VI — Objects of the Minusinsk-Kurgan and Tashtik Cultures From the Minusinsk Region of Siberia

About 1000 B. C. there appeared the fifth culture-that of the Minusinsk Kurgan period, which is characterized by a full development of bronze, and large kurgans (mounds), grouped in burial fields extending over an area of several kilometers. The wooden burial chambers contain beautifully decorated pottery, various bronze knives, cells, axes, arrowheads, mirrors, pots, pole-tops, decorated horse-trappings, various beads, and so forth. This is the period of the classical ‘animal style’ of Siberia, which had a wide distribution, extending from Hungary to China. Figure A. shows some characteristic objects of this culture, which is further illustrated in the upper half of Plate VI. The plan of a burial of this period is shown at the left of Figure A.

About the beginning of our era, this culture was supplanted by the so-called Tashtik culture, which is characterised by the presence of iron and of plaster (gypsum) masks on the faces of the buried. Instead of the enormous kurgans of the preceding culture, we have large burial grounds with the graves barely noticeable on the surface of the steppe. The burial pits contain log chambers with the body placed on a wooden platform. The grave furniture is poor, consisting mostly of pottery somewhat similar in form and technique to that of the preceding culture, but with new motives of decoration: incised or raised spirals. Miniature bronze pots, gilded glass beads, wooden vessels, bone and iron objects, and the remains of food offerings complete the list. Figure B. and the lower half of Plate VI are illustrative of this culture.

A painted plaster funerary mask with a painted on neckalce, and designs on the forehead and sides
Plate VII — Painted Plaster Mask of the Tashtik Culture From the Minusinsk Region of Siberia

Both cremation and mummification were practiced. The skulls were ‘trepanned’ to extract the brain. In some cases the soft tissues are preserved, as well as chestnut-brown hair, braided in the case of a man. The faces were covered by plaster masks, the inner surface of which preserves the complete facial outline, the wrinkles of the face and neck, and in some cases a few blond hairs, stuck in the plaster. On the outer surface of the mask, cheeks, lips, nostrils, and some designs on the forehead were painted red. The impressions of the masks show that we are dealing with a long-headed, beak-nosed , narrow-faced people with brown and blond hair.

Towards the third or fourth century A. D. there appeared the second stage of this culture which is characterized by stone-pile graves containing log chambers. The pottery has new forms of decoration with raised ornaments around the neck [Figure C]. Its surface is not polished as before, but dull; the firing is better and the clay contains quite a bit of tempering matter. The rest of the grave furniture is represented by a few metal arrowheads, buckles and bone knives.

Along the walls were found a large quantity of charred human bones and a number of broken masks. These masks of gypsum plaster were not made by pouring the mass over the faces, but were modelled separately, as there is no impression on the inner side. The physical type represented differs from the previous one: the face is wide and rather flat, the nose is broad, flat, and has a very low bridge. The eye-slits are painted blue; the hair falling to the neck is solid blue with black lines; the cheeks, ears, and lips are red. The red and blue designs on the forehead may represent tattooing. A mask of this type is shown in Plate VII.

Drawings of decorated vessels and tools and a burial plan
Figure B.

We have seen that a few centuries before our era the rich Minusinsk Kurgan culture was displaced by a different, comparatively poorer culture of new-comers. Thanks to their peculiar custom of making masks, we have rare evidence of their appearance. Who were those long-headed, narrow-faced, beak-nosed people with chestnut-brown and blond hair? Chinese historians describe a tribe of ‘Gian-Gun’ in Western Siberia as having red hair, rosy cheeks and blue eyes. Perhaps it is also significant that about the second century B. C. there began the great migratory movement in Asia which reached Europe several centuries later. The Huns, who previous to this time dominated Mongolia and the neighboring tribes, may have been this new element, or they may have driven another group which brought about the end of the Minusinsk Kurgan culture. The time for a more definite answer has not come. Our information is as yet fragmentary, and only further investigations of the various leads may bring us to the final solution of this very interesting problem.


Drawings of three decorated vessels, a funerary mask, and a burial plan
Figure C.

Cite This Article

G., E.. "Traces of a Blond Race in Siberia." Museum Bulletin IV, no. 2 (February, 1933): 40-45. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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