Excavations at the Chagyrskaya Cave, Russia: a Neanderthal Middle Palaeolithic industry in Northern Asia
Recent archaeological, anthropological and palaeogenetic studies in the Altay Mountains, southern Russia, show that the development of different regional middle Palaeolithic industries was more complicated than previously assumed. Through Palaeolithic times, this region has been inhabited by Neanderthals, modern humans and Denisovans (Krause et al. 2010). It is assumed that there had not been a simple successive occupation of the region by different kinds of humans but rather some chronological overlap or co-existence of all these populations. Although palaeogenetic data indicate interbreeding (at least between Neanderthals and Denisovans), the possibility of cultural reciprocity between these populations remains unclear. The cultural affinity of Denisovans and early modern humans attested at the Denisova and Strashnaya Caves is described as a Levallois-based blade industry, while the Neanderthal industries of the Okladnikov and Chagyrskaya Caves demonstrate completely different features (Derevianko et al. 2014).
The project reported here concerns new material from the Chagyrskaya Cave excavated during the 2014 field season as part of the project ‘The earliest peopling of Siberia: genesis and evolutionary dynamics of cultures in Northern Asia’, organised by the Altay State University (Barnaul, Russia).
The Chagyrskaya Cave (51°26’32.99’’, 83°09’16.28’’) is located in the mountains of the north-west part of the Altai region, Russia. The cave faces north and is situated at an elevation of 25m above the river level (Figure 1); it consists of two chambers with a total area of c. 130m2.
During the 2014 season, excavation was conducted at the entrance to the central chamber. The trench was 8m2 in extent with a maximum depth of 1.3m (Figure 2). The stratigraphic column is divided into Holocene, and Middle and Upper Pleistocene sediments (Figure 3). The Pleistocene deposits can be further subdivided: the upper part is mostly composed of the sub-aerial sediments including two layers of loess-like sediments (strata 5, 6a, 6б, 6в/1 and 6в/2), and the bottom of the profile (strata 7a – c) is comprised of dense loam sediments with quartz grains representing different sedimentation processes. The AMS and radiocarbon analyses estimate the age of the loam to correspond to the final OIS-4 and the interface between OIS-4 and OIS-3 (Figure 3).
Archaeological materials were unevenly dispersed over the Middle and Upper Pleistocene sediments in the cave. Currently, the total collection comprises more than 70 000 artefacts. The richest lithic assemblages were found in layers 6a, 6б and 6в. The raw stone materials include jasperoids, hornblende, aleurolite and sandstone.
The composition of the lithic industries from different strata (7, 6a & в/2, 5) of the Chagyrskaya Cave is mostly similar. The main categories in all the complexes are flakes, chips and tools. Blades, bifacial thinning chips, cores, and core and bifacial preforms are rare. Off-axis blanks prevail among regular debitage. Cores are not numerous and mostly show a radial reduction strategy. The tool kits are composed of the following tool classes: various side-scrapers, including a significant proportion of convergent side-scrapers, points, denticulates, and bifacial scrapers and points (Figure 4). Secondary working includes various retouching strategies with a significant role for ventral thinning.
Analyses of the knapped lithics show very few primary reduction products and it can therefore be assumed that testing and initial knapping were carried out somewhere away from the site. Thus, the cave was used as a base camp for the butchering and processing of hunted game. The faunal remains include Equus (E.) ferus, E. ex. gr. hydruntinus, E. hydruntinus/ferus, Coelodonta antiquitatis, Cervus elaphus, Rangifer tarandus, Bison priscus and others. Bison bones are dominant, possibly indicating specific hunting activity by the cave’s inhabitants.
Human remains discovered in the Chagyrskaya Cave show clear Neanderthal affinity (Figure 5) similar to the well-known Neanderthal remains from the Okladnikov Cave (Viola et al. 2012); the remains from these two caves consist solely of Neanderthal bones (Derevianko et al. 2014). In contrast, it is important to bear in mind that both Neanderthal and Denisovan remains are found together in the same layers at the Denisova Cave, preventing any unequivocal conclusions about the physical appearance of that cave’s Middle Palaeolithic occupants.
Moreover, the archaeological materials from the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikova Caves differ from the Middle Palaeolithic industries of the Denisova Cave. At present, the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikova lithic assemblages are categorised as distinct varieties of the Middle Palaeolithic–Sibiryachiha techno-mode. This techno-mode has a unique cultural appearance in the Altay region, differing significantly from the basic characteristics of the North Asian Middle Palaeolithic. At the same time, lithic industries from the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikova Caves show many similarities with the Eastern European Charentian and/or Micoquian industries. This suggests the possibility that the origin of the Sibiryachiha techno-mode was an intrusive event in the Siberian Palaeolithic succession. Keeping in mind the great distance between south Siberia and Eastern Europe, more detailed comparative research is required to gain an understanding of the nature of the industry’s conformity and character, and the scope of cultural interaction between incoming Sibiryachiha people and local Middle Palaeolithic communities.
* Author for correspondence.