The locals knew it as Dennis’s Cave, because once upon a time Dennis lived there.
Well, the Russian equivalent. Dionisij.
So, Dennis was a hermit who lived in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia during the 18th century. And the locals named the cave after him, though the indigenous population named the cave less prosaically: they called it Bear Cave.
The cave had long been a curiosity, as caves are wont to be, when in the 1970s Soviet scientists found tantalising remains, and they looked found, not gold and jewels but a greater treasure by far: a fragment of a finger bone.
The bone, they found after analysis, belonged to a young girl who was 41,000 years old.
And not only that, but she was not quite the same as the girls that walk Siberian paths today. She was not Homo sapiens exactly; nor was she Neanderthal, they pronounced. In fact it seemed that she was another kind of human entirely.
Of course, they named her after Dennis the Hermit. Of course they did.
Though she is more often known, these days, as Woman X.
Denisova Hominim’s fifth finger fragment was found with artefacts including a bracelet. They were preserved because the temperature in the Siberian cave remains at zero degrees all year round, keeping ancient remains in stasis.
And the last time she, we and our Neathenderthal cousins shared an ancestor was estimated, by the German team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, to be one million years ago.
What an extraordinary place it is, this Siberia. If one cave can yield such treasures, what about all the rest? Making up 77 per cent of Russia’s territory, only 28 per cent of Russia’s population live there. Conditions are cool at best, frozen wastes at their extremes. Remote, with a modern population forming the beads along the necklace of the Trans Siberian Railway.
But the older population: the ancient Siberians have left us untold treasure. Not gold and jewels, mind,but story. And not written story, but pictures, figures, shadows of a past in a waste of which most of us can hardly conceive.
The American Museum of Natural History caught me unawares with its Siberian collection. From 1897 until 1902 its then President, Morris Jessup, funded an incredibly ambitious exploration. Its purpose? to look at the peoples either side of the Bering Strait, and to fathom their relationships.
Some might say those relationships were fathomless.
Siberia is a vast land peopled by nomadic peoples with names like murmurs: the Yenets, the Nenets, the Huns, the Scythians and the Uyghurs. A land overrun first by Mongols, and then the great empire of Russia.
Some of the artefacts from the great expedition found their way back to the museum in New York, and there they have stayed, on the offchance that some might pass these incredible life-fragments and see them for what they are.
A pair of bears, scrapping; a lone walker with his stick. A peasant, dressed against the cold; hunting scenes etched on wood. Every one a masterpiece of expression; a small, perfectly formed, three dimensional story.
If anything could make me a compulsive anthropologist, this collection could.