Excavations at Tsagaan Agui Cave in 2021

In September and early October 2021, the Joint Mongolian-Russian-American Archaeological Expedition carried out test excavations and sample collecting in Tsagaan Agui Cave.

Tsagaan Agui (Mong. White Cave) is located in the arid Gobi Altai desert in the Altai Mountains of southern Mongolia. Geographical isolation, arid conditions and relatively high elevation (about 2000 meters asl), make conditions there quite challenging. The nearest settlement, Bayanlig, is 45 km away (about a one-hour drive over dirt tracks) and lies 500 meters below the cave.  The climate at Bayanlig is significantly better; much less windy and averaging several degrees Celsius warmer than Tsagaan Agui. No doubt, the area surrounding the cave was also a challenging and harsh environment during the Pleistocene.

Circumstances of lithic raw material availability didn’t make habitation of the cave any easier for prehistoric humans. There are primary sources of chert in the Devonian limestone formation surrounding the cave, but nodules exhibit fractures and inclusions that make knapping difficult and yield rather unsophisticated end products, even though the cave’s inhabitants were demonstrably familiar with such reduction methods as blade production and the Levallois technique.

The cave was first studied by a joint Mongolian-Russian expedition in 1987-1989 (led by D. Dorj and A. P. Derevianko) and by the Joint Mongolian-Russian-American Archaeological Expedition in 1995-2000 (co-directed by D. Tseveendorj, A. P. Derevianko, and J. W. Olsen). During those five years, JMRAAE investigations yielded masses of data using the multidisciplinary approach that existed at that time, focusing on pollen and paleosol analyses, radiocarbon and various other then-experimental chronometric techniques, petrographic analysis of raw materials, and GIS-based surveys. Nonetheless, the chronology of the cave’s layers older than circa 45,000 cal BP, the deposits’ faunal composition and nuanced climatic changes remained unclear. JMRAAE initiated a new cycle of excavations at Tsagaan Agui in 2021 to address these and other questions.

Members of the 1996 (top) and 2021 (bottom) expeditions at Tsagaan Agui Cave

During the first year of our new project, we targeted uncovering the longitudinal cross-section of the cave, from the Entrance and Entrance Grotto to the Main Chamber, to facilitate sample collection and testing of various parts of the cave to identify locations for more extensive excavations.

Two test pits were excavated in 2021. Pit 1 is located at the innermost extent of the Main Chamber where it merges into a small gallery joining the Main Chamber and Inner Grotto. Here, a sequence of three Holocene layers was uncovered. Cultural material associated with the Medieval period and the Bronze Age was recovered, including paste beads, fragments of birch bark inscribed in Old Mongolian, a bronze spoon, and multiple fragments of wood. Pleistocene lithic artifacts and faunal remains were also recovered in Pit 1; they cover the modern surface of the cave floor as well.

Pit 2 is located immediately adjacent to a sondage excavated in 2000, and most of its stratigraphic sequence is comprised of Pleistocene layers. Layers 2.1 and 2.2 were probably accumulated during the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 26,500-19,000 BP), according to previous chronometric analyses. Here, we found evidence of hyaena denning activity, including traces of digging and a deposit of hyaena dung. An apparently non-utilitarian object made of soft stone was found in Layer 2.1 as well.

Layer 3 is thought to be an Initial Upper Paleolithic stratum; a Levallois industry was revealed here in previous years. Here, and in Middle Paleolithic Layer 4, we identified a bone industry.

Preliminary zooarchaeological analysis indicates a desert faunal complex persisted during MIS-3 and MIS-2 (ca. 57,000-11,700 years ago). This year, Pit 2 was excavated down to Layer 6 and we plan to continue our excavations there in 2022.

We sampled sediments from the new longitudinal cross-section for various geochemical, pollen, aDNA analyses, and OSL dating, and we initiated fine-mesh sieving and sediment washing to recover microfauna.

This new program of research is supported by Russian Science Foundation, The Leakey Foundation and the Je Tsongkhapa Endowment for Central and Inner Asian Archaeology at the University of Arizona.

Our 2021 Tsagaan Agui team:

John W. Olsen & Anatoly P. Derevianko – big guys whose unsolicited advice we can’t ignore

Arina M. Khatsenovich, Byambaa Gunchinsuren, Dashzeveg Bazargur, Yadmaa Tserendagva, Evgeny P. Rybin – Principal Investigators, who actually did the hardest work

Daria Marchenko – Computer and total station fairy

Alexei Klementiev – paleontologist, bone-seeker

Ivan Dolgushin, Margad-Erdene Ganbold, Polina Kravtsova – Ph.D. and Master’s degree students. You can always get help and problems from these guys!

Nerguibaatar – our Michelin Five-Star camp cook

Urtnasan and Oyduvdavga – the best drivers, ever

Lhagvasuren, Ganbayar, Sugar-Erdene, Baggi and Gan-Erdene – students; five strong men who are irrepressible sources of fun

If you wish to contribute scientifically to this research, please, don’t hesitate to contact us at archeomongolia@gmail.com and we’ll consider the opportunities.

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