The Aurignacian in Altai

Article excerpt


New discoveries at the Anuy and Ust-Karakol sites in Central Asia (Altai area, Russia) permit the distribution of the Aurignacian to be extended far beyond Europe, putting into question the hypothesis of a direct African origin for modern humans in Europe.

Anuy 2 lies on the flanks of the Altai mountains, and the valley of the Anuy river passes in front of Denisova Cave. At the base of extremely thick slope deposits, traces of palaeosols were found associated with diverse industries of Aurignacian character (FIGURE 1). These include retouched blades and tools on thick flakes, retouched by bladelet removals. In comparison with local sequences, the industries of Anuy are attributed to the beginning of the Upper Palaeotithic.


At the confluence of two rivers, the multi-layered open-air site of Ust-Karakol-1, partially covered with alluvial deposits, provides a complete account of the major cultural events that happened during the Late Pleistocene in the Altai. The stratigraphic sequence reveals 20 stratigraphic horizons; archaeological material is reported from 15 of them, divided in three groups: Mousterian, Early Upper Palaeolithic and the second half of the Upper Palaeolithic. The second chronological and cultural group of artefacts was uncovered from the loess silts that are dated to the final phase of Wurm 2 and to Wurm 3. Radiocarbon dating from stratum 9B (FIGURE 2) ranges from 33,400 [+ or -] 1285 BP (SOAN-3257), 29,860 [+ or -] 355 (SOAN-3358) to 29,720 [+ or -] 360 (SOAN-3359). The date from stratum 10 (FIGURE 2) is 35,100 [+ or -] 2850 (SOAN-3259) (Derevianko et al. 2000).


The tool kit

The artefact assemblage from strata 8-11 at Ust-Karakol-1 contains some 2000 lithic items. The archaeological material from these strata displays the techno-typological features of the early Upper Palaeolithic. The method of parallel reduction was used in the primary stone working. The main type of tool is the side-scraper; other types include carinated end-scraper, large retouched and notched blades, knives, burins, point-borers, denticulated and notched tools, choppers, chopping-tools and bifaces (Derevianko et al. 2000).

Distributed among several successive levels, the tools demonstrate an evolutionary tendency based on the development of blades and the appearance of Aurignacian tools (FIGURES 3-4). A pendant made of bony material (possibly ivory) also evokes traditions from the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic (FIGURE 4). The Aurignacian itself seems to develop since 35,000 BP and is superimposed on an evolved local Mousterian (Derevianko et al. 1998). On the contrary, independent evolution of laminar levalloisian industries towards another form of local Upper Palaeolithic is known, e.g. at Kara-Bom (Goebel et al. 1993). The Aurignacian thus seems intrusive but parallel to the blade industries of local origin in its early phase and development.


Regional context

Upper Palaeolithic sites are numerous on the eastern steppes, but they do not always present the significant characteristics permitting precise typological or industry affiliation. Most of the time, they contain blade industries without unique identifying characteristics. By contrast, purely Aurignacian sites dot the mountainous contours bordering this immense plain (FIGURE 5). From the Altai to the Zagros (Warwasi; Olszewki & Dibble 1994), sites are found in Afghanistan (at Kara-Kamar, where the Aurignacian assemblage is dated to 25,000 BP; Coon & Ralph 1955) and Uzbekistan (Samarkand) (Kozlowski & Otte 2000). Other possible sites may be found on the broad steppe and below eolian deposits. This dispersal connects the Levant to the region by the southern Caucasus and Taurus Mountains. Another way in which Europe could be reached is by the northern coast of the Black Sea and the Crimea. …