Scythians: climate change and Indigenous rights in the Altai mountains

This page provides the back story to the British Museum’s latest BP-sponsored exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia. For other pages in Crude Connections, click below:

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Climate change and Indigenous rights in the Altai mountains

The Altai mountains, in south-east Siberia, are home to the frozen Scythian tombs which dominate the British Museum’s current BP-sponsored exhibition. It is a remote area where the borders of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet.

Translated as ‘Golden’ Mountains, this largely Russian-governed region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the semi-nomadic Indigenous Altaians (31% of the population) and to many endangered species, including snow leopards.

800px-Ukok_Ak-Alakha Photo Kobsev Russian Wikipedia

The Altai, or ‘Golden’ Mountains, where the bodies of Scythian warriors have been preserved in the permafrost for thousands of years. Kobsev / Russian Wikipedia

The Ukok Plateau, location of many of the frozen Scythian (locally known as Pazyryk) tombs that hold such fascination for archaeologists and other scholars, is particularly sacred to Altaians, making archaeological excavations of human remains there highly controversial. Ukok is also threatened by the building of a natural gas pipeline to connect Russia and China, proposed by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom but yet to get off the ground.  

Jennifer Castner, Director of The Altai Project – an NGO which works to protect natural landscapes and wildlife and support indigenous peoples and traditional lifeways in the region – explains why BP sponsoring an exhibition of Scythian artefacts from the Altai Mountains is so problematic:

‘The British Museum’s selection of BP as the Scythians exhibition’s sponsor is disturbing for two reasons. First, BP is an international resource extraction company that seizes and destroys native lands, interrupts traditional lifeways, and demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for the deep connection between indigenous peoples and their landscape.

Scythians advert

‘Secondly, there are close parallels in Altai, where BP’s competitor Gazprom is seeking to build a pipeline that would destroy ancient sites, disturb documented sacred lands and monuments, and disrupt the Altaian people’s semi-nomadic herding economy while simultaneously sponsoring a major renovation and exhibits at the Altai National Museum.

In both instances, dominant Western cultural attitudes deny the connection between archaeology and modern native peoples, and oil-gas industry giants “launder” their own image at the expense of the Altaian people and others like them.’

In this section:

  • Climate change in the Altai Mountains
  • Melting permafrost: Archaeologists and UNESCO sound the alarm
  • ‘The earth is being exhausted’: Indigenous perspectives on the region and its archaeological treasures
  • Controversy around Ukok ‘Ice Princess’ and Gazprom sponsorship
  • Government crackdown on NGOs opposing the pipeline
  • The British Museum and consent from source communities

Climate change in the Altai Mountains

Like the Arctic, the Altai Mountains are experiencing climate change-induced temperature rises at a much higher rate than the global average. This has already resulted in a significant loss of glacier mass and other changes to the local climate, ecosystems and livelihoods, including desertification, decreased water resources, negative impacts on the pastoralist economy and Indigenous culture, and a decrease in air and water quality. 

South Altai:Ukok - 163

A retreating glacier on the Southern Altaisky Ridge. Photo: Sergei Spitsyn

According to Gleb Raygorodetsky in his new book The Archipelago of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change, which investigates in detail the impact of climate change on the Altai region and its indigenous peoples:

‘Permafrost in Altai has been relatively stable since the Late Pleistocene glaciation about eighteen thousand years ago. During the 20th century, however, the average ground temperature in the region has increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit total.

At the lower edge of the permafrost, where many Altai kurgans [frozen tombs] are found, this slight warming is enough to cause permafrost to melt. As a result of the increasing temperature, more permafrost is melting away—the so-called active layer, where the permafrost thaws and freezes every year, has increased by 23 percent since the 1970s. During the same period, the lower edge of the permafrost has retreated upslope by about two hundred yards, while its total area shrank by 15 percent.

Scientists predict that, as air temperatures continue to rise in Altai, the permafrost will disappear completely toward the end of the 21st century, leaving the ancient contents of Ukok kurgans thawed out and decaying.’

Melting permafrost: Archaeologists and UNESCO sound the alarm


Preservation of the Frozen Tombs of the Altai Mountains: the UNESCO report that sounded the alarm about the threat of melting permafrost to Scythian archaeology

The frozen tombs or kurgans of the Altai Mountains are a quite unique source of information about the otherwise little-known Scythian people. Inside the tombs lie bodies which have been so well preserved by the permafrost for over 2000 years that even their tattoos are still visible.

These tombs’ ongoing importance is such that, in 2008, leading archaeologists joined forces with UNESCO in a major project to raise awareness about the threat posed by melting permafrost to the hundreds of hitherto unexcavated Altai kurgans, and to come up with strategies and proposals for how to preserve them and their contents. One of the eminent archaeologists involved, Dr Hermann Parzinger – President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, put it starkly:

‘Right now we’re facing a rescue archaeology situation. It’s hard to say how much longer these graves will be there.’

The initiative culminated in a detailed UNESCO report, ‘Preservation of the Frozen Tombs of the Altai Mountains’, which sheds light on the historical, anthropological, archaeological and art-historical aspects of the Altai Mountains. It looks at the science surrounding the permafrost melt, and highlights future challenges for research and conservation, including proposals on how to safeguard the material contained in the frozen tombs.

‘The earth is being exhausted’: Indigenous perspectives on the region and its archaeological treasures

Indigenous Altaians treat all nature with reverence, and use ancient cultural practices and ceremonies to restore and maintain their bonds with animals, plants, mountains, wind and water.

Photo 13-11-2015, 09 28 37

An Altaian ceremony in Argut village, part of February’s Chaga-Bayram new year celebration. Photo: Maya Erlenbaeva

Their traditional worldview is explained by Chagat Almashev from the Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai:

“Land has breath, an umbilical cord, nose, mouth eyes and ears… everything that exists on earth is alive. Altai is a harmonious co-existence of humanity and nature.” This is traditional wisdom of the people of Russia’s Altai Republic… “Mountains with glaciers bring blessings to the lives of folk. Valleys with glaciers give pastures for healthy livestock.”

The Altai is a region brimming with unique features that give it a striking beauty and a particular importance for the biological diversity of its plants, mammals, reptiles and fish.

Through the centuries, Altaians have developed a unique ecological culture, including an entire spectrum of moral values and an unusual philosophical view of the world. Altai’s mountains are sacred places to the clans and tribes of the indigenous population. Each valley, each mountain peak, each spring has its own spirits, or masters, known in Altaian as ‘eezi’. All nature is animate; the natural world around humans is full of spirits and each living being is of divine descent and serves a divine purpose…

Slava Cheltuev, a Telengit community leader and shaman in Altai’s high altitude Kosh Agach region, reflects on our 21st century world and stresses the need to revive important traditional knowledge. “Nature is greatly changing. Our summertime comes one month later. It doesn’t rain. The earth is being exhausted,” Cheltuev says.’

Controversy around Ukok ‘Ice Princess’ and Gazprom sponsorship

In 1993 on the Ukok Plateau, high in the Altai Mountains, archaeologists discovered a Scythian tomb that contained the incredibly well-preserved remains of a young woman, buried 2500 years ago. They excavated the tomb and removed the woman’s body for study.

But the so-called ‘Ice Princess’ is believed by Altaians to be powerful and important, and the Ukok Plateau a sacred burial-ground where ancestors continue to protect their descendants. They believe she was buried to ensure the peace and well-being of her people and that her removal has unbalanced the region. They maintain that they should have been given free prior and informed consent, and that they would not have consented to her removal.

Abandoned corrals

The view across the Ukok plateau from an ancient kurgan (burial mound). Photo: Jennifer Castner

Gleb Raygorodetsky, who visited the region and talked to Altaians who are determined to get her back, describes how this imbalance is believed to be evidenced not just by the record flooding, climatic changes and threats of development that the region is experiencing, but from ‘the nightmares reported by the archaeologists during the excavation to the near-crash of the helicopter as the sarcophagus was being airlifted from Ukok, to subsequent powerful earthquakes, one of which levelled an entire Altai village. Altai people feel that to restore the order of things, the Princess Kaddyn must be returned to her rightful place on the Ukok Plateau.’

Local people feel so strongly about this that in 2014 Altai’s council of elders voted to return her body to its grave. However, in 2016 a judge overruled them.

Instead, she was returned to the region in 2012, to Altai’s Anokhin National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, which had been completely refurbished and doubled in size with a new mausoleum especially to house the Ice Princess. Over a billion rubles to fund the renovation came from Russian State energy company Gazprom, who are keen to route a major new gas pipeline from Western Siberian gas fields to China, straight across the Ukok Plateau that was once the princess’s sacred resting place. This is an unabashed attempt to use cultural sponsorship to further their business interests.

Photo 26-09-2012, 11 23 42

Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller visits the Anokhin National Museum of the Republic of Altai, after sponsoring its refurbishment. Photo: Gazprom

In 2006 Gazprom and the Chinese National Petroleum Company signed an agreement on natural gas supply from Russia to China, for which a pipeline would be built that crossed the Altai Mountains, including very ecologically, archaeologically and culturally sensitive regions such as the Ukok Plateau. It is strongly opposed by many local communities and organisations, environmental NGOs and UNESCO.

While currently on the backburner, this is still an ‘official’ project according to the Russian government and remains in their long-term planning documents. It is regularly mentioned in Russia-China oil-gas negotiations, most recently in September 2017: Alexey Miller and Zhang Gaoli discuss gas supplies to China from Russia’s Far East’.

Government government crackdown on NGOs opposing the pipeline

Siberian Environmental Centre CLOSED

The website of the Siberian Environmental Centre, forced to close after being accused of being a ‘foreign agent’.

Several of the local NGOs who raised concerns about the Gazprom pipeline have been forced to shut down, under a Russian law that labels organisations with any external funding ‘foreign agents. The law has been imposed across Russia, reducing the total number of NGOs by a third.

The Altai government has particularly embraced it – partly, it would seem, to effectively silence much of the criticism of the impacts of the proposed pipeline. These include the Siberian Environmental Centre, Fund for 21st Century Altai, Tengri School of Spiritual Ecology, Gebler Ecological Society and Altai Center for Independent Research.

Despite these NGOs having to close down, all of the individuals working for them have found ways to continue their work, often as informal groups, but without their former much-needed official recognition and ease of funding.

The British Museum and consent from source communities

Tattooed skin on display in British Museum Scythians exhibition

Tattooed skin from a kurgan in the Altai Mountains on display in the British Museum’s Scythians exhibition

Were any of these complexities taken into account by British Museum curators when deciding which artefacts to display, and how to describe them? If there were, there is no evidence of this in the exhibition itself. It does include human remains from the Ukok plateau, such as a piece of tattoed skin. But it does not mention any of the controversy around the Ice Princess, nor that fact that Altaians see the Scythians as their ancestors and believe their tombs to be sacred.

There is also no mention of the fact that the permafrost which preserved so many of the objects on display for thousands of years is now starting to melt. There is a display board at the end of the exhibition outlining current research and challenges in Scythian archaeology, including the example of Scythian rock art currently endangered by a dam in Siberia. But there is no mention anywhere of the emergency presented by melting permafrost.

Perhaps the curators of the exhibition underwent a process of self-censorship in order to keep its oil company sponsor happy, or to avoid a professionally awkward situation? Or perhaps they do not see connecting their exhibitions to their current contexts important. Certainly, the museum’s decision not to mention melting permafrost or contested artefacts in the Scythians exhibition speaks just as loudly as if it had.

Jennifer Castner believes the British Museum needs to do better:

‘Museums must work harder to incorporate the United Nations’ principles of free, prior, and informed consent when it comes to exhibits featuring archaeological and cultural artifacts. The Altaian native peoples of Russia have a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the ancient Scythian and Pazyryk kurgans, grave goods, stellae, and petroglyphs on display at the British Museum. Despite the lack of genetic connection, Altaians see these ancient peoples as ancestors who largely shared their worldview and they are thus deeply troubled by these excavations and exhibits.’