Steppe-tundra or mammoth steppe is a very cold dry-climate vegetation type consisting of mostly treeless open herbaceous vegetation. It was widespread during Pleistocene times at mid-latitudes of Eurasia and during some phases in North America.
Steppe-tundra can be divided into two types. East of the Urals vegetation was more tundra-like, analogies have been drawn with a treeless vegetation that presently occurs in scattered patches on well drained south-facing hillslopes in north-eastern Siberia, although the modern-day equivalent is thought to have too dense a ground cover of vegetation.
Ground cover amounted to no more than about 50%, with mainly herbaceous plants but a few scattered low shrubs and occasional stunted trees in sheltered spots. Peat accumulation would have been negligible, and the soil would have had a much lower organic content than most present-day tundra such as Ubsunur Hollow. These characteristics are inferred indirectly from knowledge of the habitat preferences of the individual plant species that were present in this vegetation, and from related zoological and sedimentological evidence.
The western end of the steppe-tundra zone covered from southwestern France through northern Germany and the central European plain. At these temperate latitudes intense sunlight and loess soils permitted a high level of bioproductivity; mosses, lichens, grasses, and low shrubs that fed saiga antelope, mammoths, horses, bison, giant deer, aurochs and reindeer.
Humans colonised the environment west of the Urals, hunting reindeer especially, but were faced with adaptive challenges; winter temperatures averaged from −20 to −30 °C (−4 to −22 °F) while fuel and shelter were scarce. They travelled on foot and relied on hunting highly mobile herds for food. These challenges were overcome through technological innovations: production of tailored clothing from the pelts of fur-bearing animals; construction of shelters with hearths using bones as fuel; and digging of “ice cellars” into the permafrost for storing meat and bones.
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