In remote Siberia, hunter-gatherers built complex defenses 8000 years ago.

People who lived in central Siberia thousands of years ago enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle despite the area’s cold winters. They fished abundant pike and salmonids from the Amnya River and hunted migrating elk and reindeer with bone and stonetipped spears. To preserve their rich stores of fish oil and meat, they created elaborately decorated pottery. And they built the world’s first known fortresses, perhaps to keep out aggressive neighbors.

With room inside for dozens of people and dwellings sunk almost 2 meters deep for warmth in Siberian winters, the fortresses were ringed by earthen walls several meters high and topped with wooden palisades. At some point, they were consumed by flame, a possible sign of early battles. And at least one set of structures was built startlingly early: 8000 years ago, 2000 years before the mighty walls of Uruk and Babylon in the Middle East and thousands of years before agriculture reached some parts of Europe and Asia, according to a study to be reported in Antiquity on 1 December.

A centuries-long cold spell that started about 8200 years ago may have made such rich sites particularly desirable. At Amnya and other fortified settlements, burned layers show that pit houses and palisades were periodically consumed by flames, and archaeologists found arrowheads in the Amnya’s outer ditch—possible signs of violent conflict. “These things we think about now, like property ownership and social inequality—people have been thinking about since we became human,” Colin Grier of Washington State University says.

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