Thursday, April 19, 2012


For my final post, I would like to discuss a rather large early Upper Paleolithic site found within Russia, that of the Sungir site.  Discovered on the outskirts of the city of Vladimir in the 1950's, it constitutes a rather large size, 1500 sq. m, which was excavated in several seasons between 1957 and 1964 (Hitchcock).

Compared to other sites found during the existence of the Soviet Union, the Sungir site appears to have drawn much interest from Soviet Archaeological groups.  According to this excerpt collected by Don Hitchcock, a well-traveled seeker of Archaeological knowledge:

"Under the guidance of renowned archaeologist Otto Nikolaevich Bader (Institute of Archaeology of the USSR), for 20 years field and desk work was carried out. In the laboratories of the Geological Institute of RAS, Gronningena universities, Oxford and Arizona the findings have been investigated, including radiocarbon analysis, the results of which indicate that the settlement Sungir existed sometime between 20 thousand to 29 thousand years ago."

Interesting it seems that the knowledge was shared with archaeologists outside of the Soviet Union, but to me that seems to further indicate the bonds all archaeologists share even against persecution, that of the desire to examine the past.  While the site is not the oldest site in Russia, it certainly seems to have had something that attracted the attention of so many archaeologists.

 Map of the area around the Sungir site.  It appears that the site is the area contained with the stark blue lines.

A sketch map of the Sungir site.

What was so remarkable about the Sungir site?  Well, the burial remains found were truly extraordinarily.  Within all of the evidence of past occupation, five sets of remains were found to be of the best preservation within the permafrost.  Don Hitchcock has compiled together some descriptions of the five individuals, the condition of their remains and how/where they were buried:

"According to Russian physical anthropologists (USSR Academy of Sciences 1984), these consisted of a 60 year-old man (S1), a 13 year-old boy (S2), a 7 to 9 year-old girl (S3), an unsexed (male?) headless adult (S4) and an adult female skull (S5).  The two adolescents and the adult male were buried in two shallow graves three metres apart, dug into the permafrost beneath the living surface of the site. All three of the corpses were laid on their backs with their hands folded across their pelvises. The fourth individual was represented by an isolated poorly preserved female skull placed beside a stone slab in an area stained with red ochre, and was found overlying the relatively well known man's burial. The fifth skeleton, that of a headless adult, was so poorly preserved as to be practically unrecoverable. It was found immediately on top of the two adolescents, who were buried together in a head-to-head fashion in the middle of an apparently abandoned circular dwelling structure "(Hitchcock).

Looking at this description, one would find this a somewhat odd assortment of individuals, as well as an odd assortment of levels of preservation.  The odd arrangement of the remains also begs into mind many questions, such as why and when they all were buried.  Were they all of the same social group as well?  The research conducted so far seems to indicate so.

Now, the most intriguing aspect about these burial remains was not actually the remains themselves, but the burial goods and personal effects found with them.  In particular, the two adolescents and the 60-year old male, were decorated with thousands upon thousands of beads.  These beads, the majority of which were formed from mammoth ivory, were shaped, painted, and detailed in countless extraordinary ways.

Photo of the 60-year old male.  Note the vast array of beads that would have been attached to the clothing.  On his head would have sat some sort of hat.

Photo of the two adolescents.  Amidst the almost countless number of beads present, there is also artifacts that indicate a sort of wooden spear may have present alongside the massive ivory spear that can be seen above the two skeletons.

Surely these three were of the same social group, perhaps even the same family.  The other remains found are sadly too badly preserved/incomplete to warrant a full answer to that question or others.

Another commonly found element in most of the burial sites was that of the presence of red ochre.  Most notably, a severed neanderthal femur containing red ochre powdered was found by the Sungir site head archaeologist, Otto Nikolaevich Bader.

In the end, the Sungir site represents one of the earliest sites that can be associated with almost religious-like burial rituals, with individuals adorned in thousands of intricate beads.  One can assume the individuals who occupied the region that Sungir lies withing were skilled artisans with either an extensive trade network or had a plentiful supply of animals such as arctic fox and woolly mammoth with which to craft these beads with.  Regarding the poorly buried remains of all but three of the known inhabitants, one could surmise that either time constraints or a change in cultural perspective could have been the perpetrator.  What is known though is that around 30,000 years ago, these inhabitants all died of uncertain circumstances.  Perhaps someday their story will be finally finished, or perhaps not though.


Hitchcock, Don. "Sungir/ Sunghir." 7 April 2012.  Web. 19 April 2012

Saturday, April 14, 2012

White Fortress of the Khazar: Sarkel

In the 830's, the Khazar Khaganate, one of the most powerful and widespread feudal eastern European states, sought out to secure their northwestern border.  In order to do so, they sought out the guidance of their ally the Byzantine Empire, who provided engineers and architects to help design a grand fortress.

Built upon the Don river, the fortress was christened Sarkel.  Sar-kel, means in the Turkish language as "White Fortress", and was named this because the fortress' bricks were made of white limestone (Brook).  Much of the bricks were directed with symbols of warriors and their horses, as the Khazars were formed from a conglomeration of tribal nomads.

 Quite interesting artwork.  I do ponder who did such work, and exactly how much of the walls of the fortress were covered in them.  Furthermore, were they used to recount stories of great warriors, battles, or legends?

Sarkel served more than just a military fortification for the Khazars however.  It's position along the fabled "Silk Road" route that caravans used to transport goods to and forth from Europe and Asia ensured that Sarkel quickly became a vibrant economic center.  Due to this, structures were constructed to accommodate these travelers.

" In fact the remains of Sarkel caravanserais have been identified, each consisting of (1) rooms for visitors, (2) an area for holding cattle, and (3) a courtyard where the caravans were kept overnight" (Brook)

Residential areas were also present.  Examination of the homes of civilians indicated an interesting indication of renovation of one the most principle parts of a home, the fireplace.

"The houses in Sarkel originally had an open hearth in the center, but by the 10th century many of the houses had more advanced stoves and they were located in a corner rather than in the center" ().

This indicates how the once nomadic people of this city were able to settle down and live more productively thanks to the trade route, which brought about new ideals form far away.

Now, regarding who lived in Sarkel.  Besides the typical Turkish garrison of 300 troops, the city was home to people of all religious faiths.  Contrary to most European states stirred to wars of religious frenzy at this time, the Khazars were more tolerant, establishing a state that accepted Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even paganists.  As such, Sarkel was home to a melting pot of cultures.  This is what fascinates me the most about the Khazars.  One could say they were even more tolerant than countries today.

The artifacts that the residents left behind, as told by Kevin Brooks, author of The Jews of Khazaria, were widely varied, and further cement the site as a center place of trade.
"Many productive activities took place in the vicinity of Sarkel. The remains of forges and potter's workshops were identified by archaeologists. Thus, much of the kitchenware, jewelry (bracelets, rings, earrings), belt-buckles, and pottery used by the residents of Sarkel was produced locally. However, a substantial amount of non-local goods was imported into Sarkel, both from other Khazarian industrial centers (e.g., the Crimean and Taman peninsulas) and foreign countries (e.g., the Byzantine Empire)" (Brooks).

This is an illustration that highlights the layout of Serkel.  I would like to point out the corner tower that seems to appear over the river.  To me, that appears to be the observation post for defending the riverfront.  Surely one of the cannons would be placed there, and it is also likely that this was the signal point for boats moving up and down the river.

An interesting note about the burial remains.
"The human remains were mostly European types, but some Mongolian types also were found. Animal bones (for example, those of dogs and horses) were also found" (Brook).
It seems that the mixing pot of Serkel extended to the burial sites as well.  I do wonder how the burials were conducted.  Were they done in accordance to the deceased's religious views, or were they conducted in a universial fashion.  Furthermore, were the animal remains signs of the paganists' rituals, or of warrior customs, like the burying of a horse by its master?

Eventually, the city was destroyed by invading Rus forces, who rebuilt it to serve yet again as a vibrant trading outpost.  Soviet archaeologists explored the ruins up until 1952, when the city was completely submerged due to the construction of the Tsimlyansky Reservoir.  Sadly, the city was never completely studied, and further efforts are no longer possible.  As such, Serkel is an unfortunate case for archaeologists, one filled with untold histories and unanswerable questions.

Brook, Kevin.  "The Khazar Fortress of Sarkel." 2006. 4 April. 2012.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Petroglyphs in Russia, an Incredible Discovery.

Just about anyone has seen some form of glyph before.  Whether it be the hieroglyphs seen in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharohs, or the pictographs left behind by commonly labeled "cavemen" of the past.  In 2005 however, a collected group of Archaeologists both Russian and foreign alike, led by Norwegian Jan Magne Gjerde of the Tromsø University Museum, took part in recovering what may be the oldest known form of petroglyphs (drawings etched into stone via tools) within the vast forest regions of Russia.  During the little time the work team had to uncover and record the petroglyphs, the grand total number of them had risen from 200 to over 1000.

The region in which the four sites of the petroglyphs were uncovered is lake Kanozero, as described by Gjerde in an article written in ScienceNordic by Hanne Jakobsen:

“Petroglyphs are found at four sites in the area − on three islands and on a stone block on the lakeshore. The oldest ones date to between  5,000 and 6,000 years old” (qtd. Hanne).

These petroglyphs are not simple images though, like what one might be used to seeing.  A majority of them were full detailed and sequenced, like that of a cartoon.

The picture to the left is one of the finer examples of such petroglyphs.  Gjerde describes the piece to Hanne, who recounts it in the article:

"He describes in detail a hunter who is heading uphill on skis and tracking a bear. The ski tracks are just as one would expect for someone going up a slope with a good distance between the strides. The hunter then gets his feet together, skis down a slope, stops, removes his skis, takes four steps – and plunges his spear into the bear" (Hanne).

I myself find the depiction equally remarkable in its quality.  Certainly I have not seen similar images as accurate in detail before.  It makes me ponder if the creator of such images was attempting to be precise, or if it was just a result of the intricate process of etching the image into stone.

Uncovering and documenting the vast array of petroglyphs was not an easy task, as the article surely indicates both in words and photos. 

As the image above clearly shows, much of the petroglyphs were still hidden beneath layers of sod.   Much of the ten days spent by the work team at the site consisted of removing the sod and washing the surface of the stone slabs carefully.  I can only imagine the difficulty in doing such work, but it showcases the collaborative efforts a team of archaeologists can put forth for a common goal.

This image was taken during the documentation process of the sites.  You can see Jan Gjerde working on one of the countless petroglyphs.  As you can probably tell, he is not sitting directly on the stone itself.  In order to document these petroglphs, the work team spread out large plastic sheets over the stone surface, tracing the petroglyphs with felt pens after highlighting them previously with chalk before placing the plastic sheets.

Gjerde admits that it was frustrating work, especially when it rained, as Hanne describes:

“Actually I didn’t have enough plastic sheeting with me because I had only expected 200 petroglyphs, not a thousand. It was pretty frustrating at times and I used all my clothes and everything I had of paper to dry off the plastic"  (qtd. in Hanne).

The petroglyphs do not just depict land-based hunting and living tales either.  As this image below shows, the people who etched these images were also hunters of the sea, most likely hunting Beluga whales in the White Sea.

Mind you, there is three sheets together depicting this whale hunt, each sheet is a meter wide, making the whole image three meters long.  Quite a spectacular sight it must be to see in person.

Gjerde remarks about the lifestyle that the creators of these petroglyphs must have lived.

“Look for instance at this whale,” he says. “It’s over a metre long and the entire figure is hewn out in full depth. This says something about the lifestyle of the people who made the carvings. It must have been a fairly rich society because to make such grand petroglyphs you need your share of leisure time"  (qtd. in Hanne).

This remark strikes me as somewhat controversial.  How could such people who spent so much leisure time etching these images be skilled at hunting such mammoth beasts?  Was the population large, or was the hunting done in shifts?  Perhaps those questions will never be answered.

In the end, this discovery is truly remarkable in both its scale and the effort put forth by the work team to document it.  For Jan Gjerde, it was a lifetime achievement, which he comments in the article in two separate ways:

“I still get chills up my spine when I talk about it because it was such an emotional experience finding these carvings,” says Gjerde. “No matter how much I explore over the next 50 years, chances are close to zero that I’ll ever find anything comparable" ( qtd. in Hanne).

“These people, at this spot, documented part of their lives and I was fortunate to be one of the first people in 5,000 years to see it,” (qtd. in Hanne).

True words of the joy of archaeology indeed.

 Hanne Jakobsen. "Remarkable Russian Petroglyphs."  Past Horizons Magazine.  18 March. 2012 Web. 27 March. 2012.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Diring Yuriakh

For this week's post, I would like to highlight another site in Siberia, that of the Diring Yuriakh site.  A controversial hominid site still to this day, Diring Yuriakh continues to provide much for debate amongst archeologists.

Discovered by and excavated for 15 years by Yuri Mochanov, the site resides at the confluence of Diring Yuriakh creek and river Lena, about 140 km south of Yakutsk in Siberia (Hirst).  Compared to other sites in Siberia, which have often been classified as Middle Paleolithic, The Diring Yuriakh site has been classified as a lower Paleotithic, estimated to have been occupied first at about 300,000 years ago.

Regarding the artifacts found within the site, I turn to Kris Hirst for description:

"Four thousand stone artifacts have been found at Diring Yuriakh, most of which are cores and unmodified quartzite debitage. However, a few tools from the assemblage include unifacial pebble choppers, flake-and-core tools, hammerstones, and anvils, similar to collections found in east Africa" (Hirst).

Quite a large amount of stone tools and technology, especially for a Siberian site.  Hirst's note about similar collections being found in east Africa strikes me as an odd similarity,  If this is indeed the case, was their any similarity between the occupants, or was it just do to the spread of stone technology?

The dating of these artifacts is another odd matter in itself:

"They were recovered from a single buried surface, which has been TL dated to >260,000 years ago, with likely dates between 270,000 to 370,000 years ago" (Hirst).

So far, this has been the only dating method that has been conducted.  As such, it has sparked controversy over the exact age of the site.  The controversy exists over both the context of the site and the assemblage of artifacts.  Yuri Mochanov himself argues that the site is between 1.8 and 3.2 million years old.  He basis is that of the similarity of the technology found to that of Oldowan assemblages.  The TL dating estimate, at the least 260,000 years old, is still questionable to most researchers in that it is 60,000 years older than any other dated site in Siberia.

To add to the controversy, Diring Yuriakh is an isolated site, with no nearby sites to justify its context and artifact assemblage.  This would be like if Egypt had only one pyramid, and it alone defined all of Egypt's archeological past.

Now, according to Hirst, there are two possible sites that could be linked to Diring Yuriakh:

"Two other sites in Siberia (Ulalinka and Mokhovo I) have flaked stone assemblages thought to date to this period, but they are both disputed, both on chronology and on the identification of the artifacts as human-made" (Hirst).

What I am pondering though, is how can all these sites all share characteristics but still be disputed as linked?  If there cannot be a consensus made, how can research advance?

My viewpoint on Diring Yuriakh is this: while the site is still considered controversial, I for one believe in it's authenticity.  There have been many other sites in Siberia that have defied all that was believed to be truth in the archeological record, why would this not also be such a case?  I argue that there must be some connection to Diring Yuriakh, somewhere in the vastness that is Siberia.

 Samples of Lower Paleolithic artifacts found at the Diring Yuriakh site.

 Hirst, K. Kris. "Diring Yuriakh (Siberia)."  The New York Times Company.  n.d. Web. 13 March. 2012.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Siberian Ice Maiden: Discovery and Controversy Shrouded in Mystery on the Borderline of Siberia

For the past few weeks I have commented much on Russian Archaeological finds, much of which is focused within Siberia.  Rightly so, for today I have another finding that is truly astonishing.  Amidst a disputed borderline fence area between Russia's Siberian territory and China, lies many ancient burial mounds.  One in particular, excavated in 1993 by Natalia Polosmak along with her team, revealed for the first time to the world the "Siberian Ice Maiden", as the mummy found preserved was to be called throughout the world.

The steppes of Siberia have long been home to tribes of horse riders.  The ancestors of those who live there today ruled the steppes for centuries, developing unique societies and cultures.  Within the Ukok Plateau region that the Ice Maiden was found lives the descendants of the Pazyryk, one of these ancient horsemen tribes.

Not since the 1920's had the region been explored till Natalia Polosmak's expedition.  The Pazyryk culture was actually discovered by her predecessor, Sergei Rodenko, in the 1920's.  From a transcript of a PBS show on which Natalia and others were interviewed, the narrator provides a background on the discovery of the Pazyryk culture:

"Sergei Rodenko, launched a series of landmark excavations in Southern Siberia. High in the mountains, he found great mounds of stone—both signifying grand burials and preserving them. The stones allowed water to seep down, but deflected the heat of the sun. This, together with the long winters, kept the ground below permanently frozen. Like Natalia Polosmak decades later, Rodenko unearthed sacrificed horses, and with them immaculately preserved cloth saddles, still soft after more than 2000 years. Woolen rugs and other splendid objects had escaped the ravages of time. They gave testament to the richness of this culture, and to its artistry.  Yet, these artifacts pale beside Rodenko's most astounding finds: Mummies unlike any seen before. Their bodies were meticulously embalmed. Their internal organs and even their muscles were removed. Their skin was stitched back together with thread made of horse hair. The care lavished on these corpses and the bounty in their bombs suggested these men were once great chiefs. Rodenko assumed that the women buried with them were their concubines, likely sacrificed to join their lovers in death"  ("Ice Mummies").

What Natalia Polosmak found however, was truly as remarkable.  A 2,400 year old women, possibly regarded as an important figure head, was found in an ornate coffin surrounded by sacrificial horses.  All of this was encased in a tomb that, due to water seeping in and the cold temperature like other Pazyryk tombs found before, was protected by ice.  It was indeed a rare find, given that many tombs in the region had been pillaged long ago.

How Natalia Polosmak came to find the tomb is a story in itself, as she explains in the program:

"We had a visit one day from the border guard who helped us to choose the burial mound. Their commander knew all the burial sites in the area. When I explained that I needed a large and beautiful mound, he told me he knew of one within their view. This also meant that they could protect us. So we went to find this burial mound, which turned out exactly as he described it. We liked it as much as he did" ("Ice Mummies").

The tomb location was a close call however for Natalia Polosmak and her team, as the kurgen, the local term for burial mound, was only 10 meters from a border fence between Russia and China, within a strip of no-man's land ("Ice Mummies").  I can only imagine how disappointing it would have been if the mound was within Chinese territory.

After removing the stones that covered the kurgen and beginning to dig, they came upon the tomb itself, a wooden chamber encased in a large block of ice.  Upon reaching the coffin within it, Natalie commented on the construction of it and the period at which they began to open it:

"All the important, rich Pazyryks were buried in coffins. The larch tree was considered a sacred tree similar to the tree of life. Many believed that when they placed a body in a coffin it was a return to the source of life, like returning to Mother Earth to be reborn.  The coffin was secured with large nails—heavy copper nails. There were four of them, two on each side. The nails held the lid tightly down and helped trap the water that ran into the coffin.  As we opened the lid, we were gripped with excitement because of this aura of mystery surrounding the coffin. But after it was open and we discovered the ice was so opaque we couldn't see through it, we calmed down and got on with our work" ("Ice Mummies").

So, unlike the coffins of ancient Egypt you often see Hollywood actors or Scooby Doo open, there was still work to be done just to see what rested inside.  Smoot, an American student helping Natalia Polosmak with the excavation, describes the process:

"The thawing process was undertaken by taking huge drums of water from the nearby lake and heating them up with a blow torch, and then taking cups of heated water and pouring it very carefully and slowly. That process took quite awhile" ("Ice Mummies").

Quite an irony, using water in one form to melt it in another, isn't it?  It makes ponder how much fuel they needed to keep the water heated, especially in the cold conditions of the cave.

Smoot has another portion from the show that I feel like sharing, primarily because I believe it captures what it is really like to work in a site like this, in stark comparison to what many would expect:

"You're bailing in buckets constantly. It was damp. You know, when you were inside the tomb your feet were wet. There was a kind of a musty smell to it all, because in fact it had been preserved. So you had the organic materials—wool, wet wool—everyone knows what that smells like. And the horses were strong smelling as well, especially as their stomachs had been preserved. And when we opened that to get a sample, that was quite, quite strong" ("Ice Mummies").

 I do not think I could handle such smells.

What the women was adorned with however, certainly made the work seem worthwhile:

"We pulled back carefully the clothing, and on her left arm, the right thumb, and then again on her left shoulder are these amazing tattoos. Creatures just in immediate action poses, and they are in fact twisted oddly at 180 degree angles. They have amazing horns that end in flowers, fantastic creatures. At that point, the whole dig stopped and people came down and everyone was looking, not only was this a woman, but one with tattoos and they are quite elegant"  ("Ice Mummies").

While tattoos have long been recognized as being prominent in ancient cultures, this was surely something that defied all data currently known at the time.  Furthermore, the body was embalmed, the brain and organs removed. 
When it came to transporting and maintaining the body though, the team hit several snags.  First off, the helicopter they used at first to transport the Ice Maiden back to Natalia's research facility was forced to make an emergency landing.  Following this mishap, the freezer used to preserve the body was faulty, causing the body to decay further, some of the tattoos fading as a result.  The body was rushed to Moscow to be preserved by former Soviet specialists.

The Ice Maiden is currently on display in the Altay Regional Museum, where political and ethnic fueled debate still reigns over her.  From calls for reburial by the tribes to arguments over the 3d modeled ethnic features of her and their proficiency, the Ice Maiden continues to drive a wedge between the past and present.  Natalia and her team are currently banned, as are other archaeologists, from continuing to explore the Ukok Plateau, and now Natalia keeps up the struggle to understand the women she unearthed.

To read more, I would encourage everyone to read the full transcript listed as my source.  It is truly an educational read.  It's link is

 Ukok Plateau

Siberian Ice Maiden

Controversial face reconstruction, showing Caucasian rather than Mongolian features.

 "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden."  Nova.  Narr. Stacy Keach.  PBS/BBC.  WGBH, Boston, 1997/1998.  Television.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Denisova Cave

For this week's post, I would like to go into detail about the Denisova Cave discussed in my last post.  Compared to other more famous sites, like that of Stone Henge or the pyramids of Egypt, the Denisova Cave did not strike interest till 1977.  Since then, the cave has been extensively studied by both Russian and foreign science institutes.

Denisova Cave is located in the Altai Montains of Siberia, within the Bashelaksky range.  The nearest current inhabited area is the village of Chorny Anui.  The local ethnic group, the Altay people, refer to the cave as Bear Cave.  K. Kris Hirst, former archaeologist who now writes articles for various science magazines, describes the site as follows:

"The cave, formed from Silurian sandstone, is ~28 meters above the right bank of the Anui River near its headwaters. It consists of several short galleries extending out from a central chamber, with a total cave area of some 270 sq m. The central chamber measures 9x11 meters, with a high arched ceiling." (Hirst)

Since the site was first studied by Soviet scientists, the Denisova Cave has produced evidence of 13 occupations ranging from 30,000 to 125,000 years before present.  Most of these dates were provided by RTL, or radiothermoluminescence dating of the sediments within each strata (Hirst).  Other sources include radiocarbon dating of charcoal found within two strata (Hirst).  The ages identified so far in the Denisova Cava are middle and upper Paleolithic.  Tool making cultures include Mousterian and Levallous.

One of the challenges undertaken by researchers was reconstructing the environment to reflect what the oldest inhabitants of the cave possibly interacted with.  With the use of palynology, researchers have concluded that forests, particularly birch and pine, were most likely the environment conditions up until about 30,000 years ago, when the current steppe environment was formed (Hirst).

Artifacts recovered from the site are for the most part classified under the Altai Moustarian culture layers.  Hirst provides a proper description of the tool manufacture processes used during in this culture.

"Stone tools in this technology exhibit use of the parallel reduction strategy for cores, large numbers of laminar blanks and tools fashioned on large blades. Radial and parallel cores, limited numbers of true blades and a diverse series of racloirs are also identified in the stone tool assemblages" (Hirst).

Artwork has also been found within these same layers.  According to Hirst, decorative objects of bone, mammoth tusk, animal teeth, fossilized ostrich egg shell and mollusk shell, and two fragments of a stone bracelet made of drilled, worked and polished dark green chloritolite have been found(Hirst).  Of particular note though is a unique artifact found within the Denisova Cave, a set of bone tools including small needles with drilled eyes, awls and pendants, and a collection of cylindrical bone beads (Hirst). This evidence points to Denisova as the earliest site in Siberia to show such process.

In my last post, I highlighted the recent discovery and analysis of a phalanx bone from a unkown female hominid that has now been classified as a new species of humanoid that walked alongside neanderthal and modern human hominids.  There has only been a few other human remains found, a few teeth and small bone fragments.  Animal remains have been quite diverse, including species long extinct, like the mammoth.  Due to the consistent temperature of the cave (about 32 degrees fahrenheit), much of the remains of both human and animal has been preserved to a level in which archaic DNA is examinable.

The Denisova Cave certainly seems to still hold secrets of the past within it.  The question remains though, will we find out what we can before it is too late?  There could be more remains of the Denisovan hominid somewhere within the cave, but what further clues will they give us about their lifestyle?  I for one hope that the world's top archaeologists will find some evidence of how this hominid interacted, if in fact it did, with the ancestors of modern humans and with neanderthals.  Signs of trade or possibly conflict could be found within the cave.  I also hope for a complete, or at least substantial skeleton to be found, although it seems unlikely, given how incredibly rare the remains so far collected seem to be.

Some pictures of the Denisova Cave, excavations, and objects found:

 Region of Altai Mountains where Denisova Cave is located

View of the front entrance

Excavation zone

Excavation site where Denisovan phalanx was found

 Hirst, K. Kris. "Altai Mountain Paleolithic Site of Denisova Cave."  The New York Times Company.  n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Introduction to Blog and First Week's Topic: New Hominid Species in Russia?

For my first blog post, I would like to discuss the nature of this blog and the various topics I will be discussing, followed by discussing this week's topic.  The nature of this blog, as per the title suggest, is about the status of archaeology in Russia past and present.  I will attempt to cover a wide array of topics, ranging from the various hominids found in Russia's archaeological sites, to the sites themselves and the discoveries found within them.

This week I'll be discussing one of the more noticeable events to have occurred in Russian Archaeology, that of the possible new hominid species discovered in one of Russia's most prominent archaeological sites, Denisova Cave (of which I will be discussing about in my next post).  In March of 2010, startling news came from German researchers working on the Denisova Cave archaeological site.  The news: DNA from a pinkie bone found within the site in 2008, dated to about 40,000 years before recorded time, has revealed a new perspective on the way we look at our ancestry.

What makes the DNA found from this pinkie bone startling?  Well, it is because it and other recent findings are now suggesting that, quoting evolutionary biologist Terence A. Brown of the University of Manchester, "40,000 years ago, the planet was more crowded than we thought" (qtd. in Maugh).  What this means is that despite the common notion that there was two branches of human evolution, Neanderthal and Modern Human, there is now believed to be 4 distinct species of human-like creatures that once walked the Earth together.

This new species shared a common ancestor to both the Neanderthal and Modern Human about 1,000,000 years ago, 500,000 years older than the last ancestor both shared.  This was discovered using a process of DNA sequencing done by a team led by anthropologists Johannes Krause and Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

In their publication in Nature magazine, Krause and his team mention several interesting notes about this discovery.
"We note that the stratigraphy and indirect dates indicate that this individual lived between 30,000 and     50,000 years ago. At a similar time individuals carrying Neanderthal mtDNA4 were present less than 100 km away from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains, whereas the presence of an Upper Palaeolithic industry at some sites, such as Kara-Bom and Denisova, has been taken as evidence for the appearance of anatomically modern humans in the Altai before 40,000 years ago" (Derevianko).  
What the team means is that the region that this new hominid was found in was already itself divided into sites that although far apart were similar enough in dating of the artifacts and remains found that Siberia at one period of time was shared in part by three distinct branches of human evolution.  This proves a notable departure from the common perception that modern humans eventually replaced other hominids early on.  The team notes this as well.  
"Although these dates are associated with large and unknown errors, this temporal concurrence suggests that complete and successive replacements of distinct hominin forms, similar to what occurred in Western Europe, may not have taken place in southern Siberia. Rather, representatives of three genetically distinct hominin lineages may all have been present in this region at about the same time. Thus, the presence of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia about 17,000 years ago 29,30 and of the Denisova mtDNA lineage in southern Siberia about 40,000 years ago suggest that multiple Late Pleistocene hominin lineages coexisted for long periods of time in Eurasia" (Derevianko).  
Certainly now the fields and archeology and anthropology alike have been changed dramatically from this discovery.

To end this post, I would like to give my final comments about this discovery and provide links to other material related to the subject.  Personally, I am thrilled to hear that there are more hominid species than what we have perceived there to be.  I have always pondered about what secrets regions like Siberia hold, and now humanity has a chance to discover its past in a region that we still cannot say we know everything about.  Will we find full remains of this new hominid species?  Will we find some matter of artifact or ecofact that makes their lifestyle different from their neighbors?  Only time and the dedicated archaeologists and anthropologists of the Denisova Cave site will tell.

 For more information on this discovery, feel free to look through my sources or watch this video from the BBC, which highlights the discovery.

Derevianko, Anatoli P., et al. "The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia." Nature 464.7290 (2010): 894+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Jan. 2012.

Maugh II, Thomas H.. "A possible new link in human lineage -- all from a little finger."  LATimes, 24 Mar. 2010.  Web. 28 Jan. 2012