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Placed upright, they could have symbolized the spirits of the dead, akin to "spirit dolls" used nearly world-wide, including in Siberia, among contemporary people.The Mal'ta figurines garner interest in the western world because they seem to be of the same basic form as European female figurines of roughly the same time period.
The lack of these features, combined with an art style found in only one other nearby site, make Mal'ta culture unique in Siberia.
Carved from the ivory tusk of a mammoth, these images were typically highly stylized, and often involved embellished and disproportionate characteristics (typically the breasts or buttocks).
It is widely believed that these emphasized features were meant to be symbols of fertility.
Much of what is known about Mal'ta comes from the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov.
Better known later for his contribution to the branch of anthropology known as forensic facial reconstruction, Gerasimov made revolutionary discoveries when he excavated Mal'ta in 1927.