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Sungir (Russia)

Upper Paleolithic Burial in the Russian Plain

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Sunghir 1 Burial

Adult male, covered in red ochre and ivory grave goods, and buried between 19,000 and 28,000 years ago at Sunghir, Russia.

José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

The Sungir site (sometimes spelled Sunghir and very rarely Sounghir or Sungaea) is an enormous Upper Paleolithic occupation, located in the central part of the Russian Plain, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Moscow, near the city of Vladimir, Russia. The site, which included houses, hearths, storage pits and tool production areas in addition to several formal burials, is located on the left bank of the Kliazma river in the Great Russian Plain.

Based on the stone and ivory artifact assemblage, Sungir is associated with the Kostenki-Streletsk culture, sometimes referred to as Streletskian, and generally assigned to the early to middle Upper Paleolithic. Stone tools at Sungir include triangular bifacial projectile points with concave bases, and poplar leaf-shaped points.

Dates at Sungir

Several AMS radiocarbon dates have been taken on associated bone artifacts, charcoal from the site and collagen from the human bones, all of which has been analyzed at some of the best laboratories in the world: Oxford, Arizona and Kiel. But the dates range from 19,000 to 27,000 RCYBP, a discrepancy which has been attributed to the inability of the current chemistry to isolate a pure collagen fraction. In addition, the bones were extensively conserved and curated in the 1960s, using a combination of polymer tree sap, polyvinylbutyral, phenol/formaldehyde and ethanol (reported in Nalawade-Chaven 2014).

Below is a list of published dates, all AMS except for Nalawade-Chaven et al., who developed a system to adjust the chemistry to isolate the collagen (called hydroxyproline and abbreviated Hyp). Names refer to the first authors of literature in which the dates were published, listed below.

  • Sungir 1 (Kuzmin: 19,200 RCYBP; Pettitt: 22,930; Dobrovolskaya 27,050 RCYBP; Nalawade-Chavan: Hyp 28,650 RCYBP)
  • Sungir 2 (Formicola: 23,830 RCYBP; Kuzmin: 27,210 and 26,200 RCYBP (different bones, same skeleton); Pettitt: 23,830
  • Sungir 3 (Formicola: 24,100 RCYBP; Kuzmin: 26,190 RCYBP; Pettitt: 24,100 RCYBP; Dobrovolskaya 27,050 RCYBP)
  • Sungir 4 (Nalawade-Chavan: Hyp 29,670 RCYBP)
  • Animal bones in the site: Kuzmin: 20,400-28,800 RCYBP, most 26,300-28,800)
  • Charcoal under Sungir 1: Sulerzhitsky et al. cited in Kuzmin: 22,500 and 21,800 RCYBP

The Hyp process is a new one, and the results are older than most other occupations of the Streletskian culture, which suggests it needs more investigation. However, Garchi (reported in Svendsen) appears to be similar in cultural assemblage to Sungir, and dates to 28,800 RCYBP.

Burials at Sungir

Human bones at Sungir include eight minimum individuals, including three formal burials, one skull and two femur fragments within the site, and two skeletons buried outside the main occupation. The two outside the site lack grave goods. Of these eight, only three individuals are well-preserved, Sungir 1, an adult male and Sungir 2 and 3, a double burial of two children.

The adult male called Sungir 1 was 50-65 years of age at the time of his death, and was buried in an extended, supine position with this hands folded over his groin. He was covered in red ochre and buried with several thousand mammoth ivory beads, apparently sewn onto clothing. The skeleton also wore mammoth ivory bracelets. Pedal phalanges (toe bones) of Sungir 1 are gracile, suggesting to Trinkaus et al. that the man habitually wore shoes.

The double burial is of a boy (Sungir 2, 12-14 years old) and a girl (Sungir 3, 9-10 years old), placed head to head in a long, narrow, shallow grave, covered with red ochre and ornamented with grave goods. Artifacts with the burials include ~3,500 perforated ivory beads, hundreds of perforated arctic fox teeth, ivory pins, disc-shaped pendants, and ivory animal carvings. A long spear of straightened mammoth ivory (2.4 meters [7.8 feet] long) was placed alongside the double burial, spanning both skeletons.

Sungir 4 is only represented by a femoral diaphysis, placed into the double burial.

Archaeology

Sungir was discovered in 1955, and excavated by O.N. Bader between 1957-1977 and N.O. Bader between 1987 and 1995.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Upper Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Dobrovolskaya M, Richards MP, and Trinkaus E. 2012. Direct radiocarbon dates for the Mid Upper Paleolithic (eastern Gravettian) burials from Sungir, Russia. Bulletins et mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris 24(1-2):96-102.

Formicola V. 2007. From the Sungir children to the Romito dwarf: Aspects of the Upper Paleolithic funerary landscape. Current Anthropology 48(3):446-452.

Kuzmin YV, Burr GS, Jull AJT, and Sulerzhitsky LD. 2004. AMS 14C age of the Upper Palaeolithic skeletons from Sungir site, Central Russian Plain. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B 223-224:731–734. doi:10.1016/j.nimb.2004.04.135

Nalawade-Chavan S, McCullagh J, and Hedges R. 2014. New Hydroxyproline Radiocarbon Dates from Sungir, Russia, Confirm Early Mid Upper Palaeolithic Burials in Eurasia. PLoS ONE 9(1):e76896.

Pettitt PB, and Bader NO. 2000. Direct AMS Radiocarbon dates for the Sungir mid Upper Palaeolithic burials. Antiquity 74(284):269-270.

Svendsen JI, Heggen HP, Hufthammer AK, Mangerud J, Pavlov P, and Roebroeks W. 2010. Geo-archaeological investigations of Palaeolithic sites along the Ural Mountains - On the northern presence of humans during the last Ice Age. Quaternary Science Reviews 29(23-24):3138-3156. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.06.043

Trinkaus E, and Shang H. 2008. Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear: Tianyuan and Sungir. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(7):1928-1933. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.12.002

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