Anghilak cave, Uzbekistan: documenting Neandertal occupation at the periphery

Michelle Glantz, Rustam Suleymanov, Peter Hughes, Angela Schauber

Figure 1
Figure 1. A. Anghilak Cave, Kashkadariya region, Uzbekistan. B. View from the mouth of the cave (Photo M. Glantz.).

In 1938, Okladnikov excavated the cave site of Teshik-Tash in the Baisun region of Uzbekistan and found a complete cranium of a Neandertal child (Okladnikov 1939). This discovery anchored the eastern boundary of the Neandertal range in Uzbekistan and linked the manufacture of Mousterian assemblages from the region to this hominid group. Although other important Uzbek sites have been discovered that span Lower to Upper Paleolithic periods, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought Paleolithic archaeology to a halt in most of the Central Asian Republics. Therefore, it is presently unclear where the eastern limit of Neandertal occupation during the Middle Paleolithic resides or if more than one hominid group occupied Central Asia during this time.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Political map of Central Asia with an insert of a digital elevation map capturing the Uzbek regions of Samarkand, Kashkadariya and Surkhandariya. Previously known Middle and Upper Paleolithic sites are indicated in white and black and Anghilak cave, a new Middle Paleolithic site, is shown in red. (Map P. Hughes).

In the summer of 2002, the Uzbek-American Stone Age Project discovered a new Middle Paleolithic cave site in the Kashkadariya region of southeastern Uzbekistan. Anghilak cave (Figure 1) represents the first new Paleolithic discovery in this recently independent republic in over a decade and the only site of this time period known from the region of Kashkadariya (Figure 2). Located in the foothills of the southern face of the Zerafshan mountain range, Anghilak (39°17'07.4"N, 66° 41'13.1"E, 796 m.) is a relatively small east-facing cave formed from a vertical karst. Two test units (1 x 2 m., 1 x 1 m.) were excavated to a depth of 1.45 m. and yielded 485 pieces of chipped stone and over 2200 animal bones. At least five natural stratigraphic units were observed from the south wall of the larger test unit. Most of the archaeological material comes from two units that occur between 30 - 85 cm. Within these units, two hearths were exposed with associated burned animal bone in addition to a well-delineated orange patch that appears to be ochre.

A preliminary typological inventory reflects the Middle Paleolithic character of the lithic material (Figure 3). Exploited raw materials are variable and include items made from flint, quartz, siliceous limestone, and quartzite. Researchers have noted the general similarities between Central Asian Mousterian assemblages and those from the Zagros-Taurus, Trans-Caspian, and Altai regions, supporting the association between these assemblages and the Neandertals (Vishnyatsky and Liubin 1995).

Some pieces from Anghilak cave, however, may indicate the presence of an early Upper Paleolithic or terminal Mousterian industry (Figure 4). The Central Asian Upper Paleolithic is typologically diverse and not analogous to any of the Upper Paleolithic traditions known from neighboring regions. Because few early Upper Paleolithic sites have been discovered in the region, the origins of this tradition in Central Asia are poorly understood. Moreover, the ability to identify early Upper Paleolithic sites based on techno-typological criteria is confounded by the high frequency of Middle Paleolithic elements retained in these assemblages (Vishnyatsky 1999). Given this observation, chronometric dates from the deposits at Anghilak are needed before a time period is assigned to the deposits.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Middle Paleolithic tools from Anghilak Cave, Uzbekistan. (Drawing B. Sayfullaev).
Figure 4
Figure 4. Bladelets from Anghilak Cave, Uzbekistan. (Photo M. Glantz.).

A cursory examination of the faunal material indicates that up to 50% of the sample is tortoise and the remainder appears to be sheep and goat with a high frequency of green breakage patterns. Because changes in tortoise body size may signal paleoclimatic fluctuations (Speth and Tchernov 2002), the faunal material from Anghilak will help to clarify the complex nature of Central Asian Upper Pleistocene climatic oscillations (Vishnyatsky 1999).

Research concerned with the temporal and spatial juxtaposition of Chatelperronian and Aurignacian deposits in western Europe has provoked debates about the origins of modern behavior, the hypothesized demise of the Neandertals and, the ways by which Neandertal-modern human interactions are modeled (Bar-Yosef and Pilbeam 2002, d'Errico et al. 1998). If material from Anghilak cave supports an in situ origin of the Upper Paleolithic in Central Asia then it is unlikely that high population densities operated as a prime-mover in the innovations that characterize this tradition, contra the hypothesized situation in Europe.

Future excavations at Anghilak cave will address a number of unresolved questions concerning the Middle Paleolithic and the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in this important intersection of the Old World. New discoveries in the Kashkadariya region of Uzbekistan offer a unique stage on which to test existing assumptions about the geographic limits of Neandertal occupation, the nature of the interaction between modern humans and Neandertals and finally, the presumed association between specific lithic traditions and hominid groups.


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  • Michelle Glantz, Peter Hughes, Angela Schauber
    Department of Anthropology, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO 80523
  • Rustam Suleymanov
    Institute of History, Academy of Sciences and Department of Archaeology, National University of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Tashkent.