World’s oldest fortresses found in Stone Age Siberia

Prehistoric settlements in remote Siberia, Russia have revealed that the hunter-gatherers who lived there 8,000 years ago constructed complex defensive structures.

They are the oldest fortresses in the world.

Finding such ancient fortifications challenges previous understanding of early human societies. It suggests that agriculture wasn’t the only driver for people to start building permanent settlements.

The research is published in Antiquity.

Map of western siberia showing the location of amnya
Credit: Antiquity (2023)

Amnya is the northern-most Stone Age fort in Eurasia, and sits on a promontory created by the Amnya River. It is  just east of the Ural Mountains – about 2,500 km northeast of Moscow.

Archaeologists conducted field work at the site in 2019 and identified 10 Stone Age fortified sites which include pit houses surrounded by earthen walls and wooden palisades.

Person standing in red highlighted pit house ancient remains in a forest
Depression of a pit house in Amnya. Photograph by E. Dubovtseva.

The prehistoric inhabitants caught fish and hunted elk and reindeer with bone and stone-tipped spears. They preserved surplus fish oil and meat in decorated pottery.  Other hunter-gatherer communities around the world in the Stone Age, including the Korean peninsula and Scandinavia, developed large settlements near water.

Annual fish runs and migrating herds probably played a crucial role in the prehistoric people of Amnya’s decision to settle in the Siberian taiga.

The fortified settlements, which were overlooking the rivers, may have served as strategic locations to spot good fishing. Competition arising from growing populations and storage of resources may have played a role in the need to plan and build such ancient fortresses.

“Through detailed archaeological examinations at Amnya, we collected samples for radiocarbon dating, confirming the prehistoric age of the site and establishing it as the world’s oldest-known fort,” explains co-author Tanja Schreiber, archaeologist at the Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology in Berlin. “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.

Diagram showing ancient fortresses in siberia
General plan of Amnya I and II, showing location of excavation trenches and features visible in the surface relief. Credit: Illustration by N. Golovanov, S. Krubeck and S. Juncker/Antiquity (2023).

Amnya’s fortresses are more than 1,000 years older than the oldest enclosures and fortifications associated with agricultural communities, found in central Europe, the Aegean and the Levant.

Of the recognisable stone fortresses and castles, the oldest in the world is the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria. It is considered the largest fortress in the world and has been inhabited for 4,500 years.

Map of eurasia showing oldest fortresses
Regions with enclosed/fortified sites of hunter-gatherers and farmers (hatched) and early pottery traditions (green and orange shades) in north-west Eurasia, seventh to sixth millennium cal BC. Illustration by B. Ahrens & S. Juncker.

Amnya’s forts suggest that the development of societies from simple to complex was not a linear process in human history.

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