The vast territory of North and Central Asia represents a poorly understood region in the prehistoric era, despite intensive excavations that have been conducted during the past century. The earliest human occupation in this region probably began sometime around 40,000 years ago. Small groups of big-game hunters likely migrated into this region from lands to the south and southwest, confronting a harsh climate and long, dry winters. By about 20,000 B.C., two principal cultural traditions had developed in Siberia and northeastern Asia: the Mal’ta and the Afontova Gora-Oshurkovo.
The Mal’ta tradition is known from a vast area spanning west of Lake Baikal and the Yenisey River. The site of Mal’ta, for which the culture is named, is composed of a series of subterranean houses made of large animal bones and reindeer antler which had likely been covered with animal skins and sod to protect inhabitants from the severe, prevailing northerly winds. Among the artistic accomplishments evident at Mal’ta are remains of expertly carved bone, ivory, and antler objects. Figurines of birds and human females are the most commonly found items.
Paleolithic art of Europe and Asia falls into two broad categories: mural art and portable art. Mural art is concentrated in southwest France, Spain, and northern Italy. The tradition of portable art, predominantly carvings in ivory and antler, spans the distance across western Europe into North and Central Asia. It is suggested that the broad territory in which the tradition of carving and imagery is shared is evidence of cultural contact and common religious beliefs. Some of the most well known examples are the so-called Venus figurines. One such figurine, illustrated here, is from the site of Mal’ta and dates to around 21,000 B.C. It is carved from the ivory of a mammoth, an extinct type of elephant highly prized in hunting that migrated in herds across the Ice Age tundra of Europe and Asia. Like most Paleolithic figurine carving, the image is carved in the round in a highly stylized manner. Typically, there are exaggerated characteristics such as breasts and buttocks, which may have been symbols of fertility.