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Pre-Aurignacian Levels Discovered at Kostenki

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Excavations at Kostenki 14 in 2003

Excavations at Kostenki 14 in 2003 (looking at the north wall of the excavations and stratigraphic profile).

Science (c) 2007
Updated July 29, 2011

Archaeological and chronological data from the Kostenki site in Russia have convinced researchers that beneath a previously identified 40,000 year-old Aurignacian component representing Early Modern Humans is an early, previously unknown Initial Upper Paleolithic component, with secure dates at least as early as any other known modern human occupation in Europe. This conclusion supports the notion that Early Modern Humans migrated to central Eurasia and out from Africa before 45,000 years ago, carrying a fully developed Upper Paleolithic tool kit with them. The conclusions are presented in an article in the January 12, 2007 issue of Science magazine, written by a research team led by M. V. Anikovich and A. A. Sinitsyn of the Institute of the History of Material Culture at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and J. F. Hoffecker of the University 0f Colorado-Boulder.

The Archaeological Site of Kostenki

The archaeological site of Kostenki is a actually a stratified series of sites deeply buried within the alluvial deposits of a steep ravine that empties into the Don River in central Russia. The Kostenki site has been known for quite a while (it is best known for the recovery of Venus figurines from its Gravettian levels), and its uniqueness has not gone unnoticed. The occupations at Kostenki include several Late Early Upper Paleolithic levels, dated ca 40,000 to 30,000 calibrated years ago. Below these levels is a layer of volcanic ash, associated with the volcanic eruptions of the Phlegrean Fields of Italy (aka Campanian Ignimbrite), which are thought to have erupted between about 38,000 and 40,000 years ago. Within and below the ash level (called the CI Tephra) is what archaeologists are calling "Aurignacian Dufour," containing numerous small bladelets and related to similar sites in western Europe. Typically, the Aurignacian is the oldest component associated with modern humans at archaeological sites in Europe, underlain by Mousterian-like deposits representing Neanderthals. At Kostenki, a previously unidentified assemblage, exhibiting a sophisticated tool kit of prismatic blades, burins, bone antler, and ivory artifacts, and small perforated shell ornaments underlies the CI Tephra and Aurignacian Dufour assemblage.

New Dates at Kostenki

The CI Tephra was recently dated in the eastern Mediterranean using the potassium-argon dating method to 39,300 years ago; and optically stimulated luminescence dating of the layers below it at Kostenki indicates that they are several thousand years older than the tephra. The new non-Aurignacian assemblage is unarguably sophisticated, particularly in comparison with the local Mousterian, including large prismatic blades, numerous burins, end scrapers and pieces esquillees. Shell, fossil, and bone ornaments were made with a hand-held rotary drill. Perforated shells originating in the Black Sea region were discovered; and a piece of carved ivory may represent an unfinished human figurine. Finally, bones of small animals (hare, arctic fox, wolf, and bird) suggests the inhabitants used fairly sophisticated hunting methods.

Humans or Neanderthals?

No skeletal remains have been found to date in these levels at Kostenki, except for isolated teeth, which appear to be modern human. Modern humans are identified as the occupants of these levels primarily on the basis of the artifacts, which include forms completely unknown in neandertal sites.

At the moment, the assemblages in the lowest levels at Kostenki do not have a parallel--they are generically Upper Paleolithic but without close analogue--and researchers are convinced that Kostenki does in fact represent one of the earliest outposts by early modern humans outside of Africa.

More on Kostenki

Comments by blogger John Hawks about Kostenki moved John Hoffnecker to reply, in this article The Middle/Upper Paleolithic Transition in Europe at Kostenki.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the Middle Paleolithic, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

M.V. Anikovich et al. 2007. Early Upper Paleolithic in eastern Europe and implications for the dispersal of modern humans. Science 315:223-225.

M.V. Anikovich. 1992. Early Upper Paleolithic industries of Eastern Europe. Journal of World Prehistory 6(2): 205-245.

J.F. Hoffecker. 2002. Desolate Landscapes: Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

A.A. Sinitsyn. 2003. A Palaeolithic 'Pompeii' at Kostenki, Russia. Antiquity 77 (295): 9-14.

L.B. Vishnyatsky and P.E. Nehoroshev. 2004. The beginning of the Upper Paleolithic on the Russian Plain. Chapter 6 in The Early Upper Paleolithic Beyond Western Europe , edited by Jeffrey Brantingham, Steven L. Kuhn, and Christopher W. Kerry. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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