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




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

1 comment:

  1. Such a discovery is simply amazing. I thought you covered this topic very well. Very interesting to me, when thinking of places with rich archaeological histories, Russia does not usually pop in my head, but now it will I am sure. I wish there was not so much political tension surrounding the Ice Maiden so more discoveries could be made.
    I really enjoyed the details and firsthand accounts of the excavation. Things like the time consuming process to melt the ice and the unpleasant smells are not typically thought of. Rather takes some of the glamor out of it.
    There was mention of discovering chiefs or leaders and their women being found. I cannot imagine killing a man’s mistresses just so they can be buried with him. In that case, we can probably assume that one of their mistresses did not murder them; it would only mean her death too in the end! It also surprised me that they sacrificed horses. Being an equestrian tribe it seems the horse would be too valuable. On the other hand, maybe their high value is why they were sacrificed, so the dead could have them in the afterlife perhaps. We may never know thanks to politics.
    I was surprised by the tattoos found on the woman, especially considering they are so intricate and detailed. The only tattoos I have seen on mummies are the short black lines they thought were for medical reasons, though I cannot remember where or what they were found on. I wish there was a picture of the tattoos. Maybe someday people will be copying her tattoos as the style of traditional Chinese tattoos has been.

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