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.E., 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 portable art – not murals, as is more common in Europe. The remains of expertly carved bone, ivory, and antler objects have been found at many Mal’ta sites. Figurines of birds and human females are the most commonly found items. Some of the most well known examples are the so-called Venus figurines.