Archaeological survey in the Russian Altai Mountains

Dr. Arina Khatsenovich and colleagues off-road near the Kara-Tenesh site.

Our team visited several Paleolithic sites in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia in July 2020. We had geographical coordinates of sites investigated in the 1980s-1990s, including Maloyalomanskaya Cave and Kara-Tenesh, but, of course, those coordinates proved to be incorrect! Local people were very kind and helped us to find Maloyalomanskaya Cave, which is in good condition. One gallery in particular seems to have good prospective for further excavation. We plan to take samples for OSL and 14C dating next year.

Maloyalomanskaya Cave

The situation at Kara-Tenesh is less clear. The site’s geographical coordinates were basically correct and we located the site after only one or two hours’ search. But the area of this site is huge and we tried with difficulty to understand where the Paleolithic excavation pit was situated. This site is an Afontovo Culture settlement, with deeply stratified Paleolithic material in some parts of the site. Next year, we will excavate several test pits to detect the Paleolithic layer.

Dr. Anton Anoikin at the Kara-Tenesh site

The other goal of our survey was the search for lithic raw material sources utilized by the ancient inhabitants of the Kara Bom site. Just one preliminary word – success!!! More to follow…soon.

Dr. Evgeny Rybin testing stone raw material

We also found two new Paleolithic localities. All of this looks promising and will undoubtedly keep us busy if the pandemic continues.

The Kara Bom site as seen by DJI Mavic Pro drone

2021 Mongolian field season began with awards!

Drs. Evgeny Rybin and Arina Khatsenovich have been awarded special diplomas by their friends and colleagues in the Stone Age Department of the Institute of Archaeology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences; a very nice surprise, indeed! We are deeply indebted to our Mongolian friends for their decades of collaboration and invaluable assistance in organizing our joint expeditions over the past quarter-century-plus! We look forward to spending many more field seasons together in the future…and generating many more discoveries!

We want to thank everyone who has contributed to our collaborative work, especially: Tseveendorj Damdinsuren, Gunchinsuren Byamba, Bolorbat Tsedendorj, Bazargur Dashzeveg, Odsuren Davakhuu, Lkhundev Guunii, Angaragdulguun Gantumur, Nasan-Ochir Erdene-Ochir, Urtnasan and many other very nice people! It is our great honor to know and work with all of you!

Mongolian-Russian Expedition and JMRAAE resume fieldwork in Mongolia

After a hiatus of nearly two years due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and consequent international border closures and quarantines, two collaborative multinational archaeological expeditions have resumed working in Mongolia. A research team from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, SB RAS, arrived in Ulaanbaatar on 14 July 2021 after a challenging two-day journey from Novosibirsk via Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Our Novosibirsk-Bishkek flight aboard S7 Airlines was just great and we spent a pleasant evening in Bishkek’s inviting city-center. However, we began to encounter problems the next day at the Air Astana registration desk at Manas International Airport when we tried to check in for our flight to Almaty. Unbeknown to us, Kazakhstan and Mongolia now require reciprocal visas, and Air Astana didn’t want to allow our Mongolian doctoral student to register for their flight to Almaty. They needed to see her Almaty-Ulaanbaatar onward ticket in order for her to board the plane. But, interestingly, none of us had those tickets! We were traveling to Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, without any confidence in our next step. The Mongolian carrier, Hunnu Air, was not certain that Kazakhstan would let them fly. But, thanks to our Mongolian friend and colleague, B. Gunchinsuren, we got our tickets and arrived at Almaty International Airport without delay. Unfortunately, Hunnu Air couldn’t check us in for the final leg of our journey to Ulaanbaatar, because nobody knew when that flight would leave, if at all… They were very helpful and prepared boarding passes for us by hand and left us languish in the ALA transit lounge. Finally, at 19:00, we were able to board the 3.5-hour Ulaanbaatar flight. Looking on the bright side, a complicated two-day trip is nothing compared to an unplanned two-year break in the expedition! And all airline personnel were incredibly helpful at every stage of the journey.

The research agenda for summer and fall 2021 is challenging:

July 21 – August 25: Mongolian-Russian expedition to the Tolbor and Kharganyn Gol Valleys, led by Evgeny Rybin, B. Gunchinsuren, T. Bolorbat and D. Bazargur (funded by Russian Science Foundation project #19-18-00198, “The formation of Initial Upper Paleolithic culture in eastern Central Asia and South Siberia: polycentrism or transfer of cultural traditions along the northern route of Homo sapiens dispersal in Asia” and Russian Foundation for Basic Research, Russian-Mongolian project #19-59-44010).

August 26 – October 10: Joint Mongolian-Russian-American Archaeological Expedition in the Gobi Altai region, Tsagaan Agui Cave excavations, led by Arina Khatsenovich, John W. Olsen, B. Gunchinsuren, D. Bazargur and Ya. Tserendagva (funded by Russian Science Foundation project #19-78-10112, “Human adaptations in arid and high-altitude regions of eastern Central Asia in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene”; Leakey Foundation project, “A Levallois refugium in Central Asia: chronology and causes of conservatism”; and the Je Tsongkhapa Endowment for Central and Inner Asian Archaeology at the University of Arizona).

Plus, of course, plenty of reconnaissance and survey work!

New article on Middle Paleolithic environmental conditions in Mongolia

Our article, “Late Pleistocene paleoenvironments and episodic human occupations in the Orkhon Valley of central Mongolia,” describing early Upper Pleistocene climatic and environmental conditions associated with the Middle Paleolithic in Mongolia is now available in Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia, Volume 49, Number 2: 3-22 (2021). [A Russian-language version of this article is available as “Природная среда и эпизоды заселения Центральной Монголии в позднем плейстоцене: по материалам памятников в долине реки Орхон,” Археология, этнография и антропология Евразии, Том 49, № 2: 3-22 (2021)].

Here, we report our analysis of geological profiles at three sites in the Orkhon Valley containing cultural sequences spanning the Final Middle Paleolithic through Late Upper Paleolithic. Here, we present the first results of our work on paleoclimatic conditions that may have impacted human occupation and abandonment of this major valley.

This research is based mostly on geochemical analysis (Rare Earth Elements, Strontium, and various geochemical indices) and the interpretation of faunal remains.

Collectively, our data indicate gradual aridification of a semi-arid to semi-humid climate in the Orkhon Valley during Marine Isotope Stages-3 and -2. This conclusion is supported by the faunal complex reconstructed for the Khangai Mountains, representing the mammoth fauna of the steppe and forest-steppe ecozones. Taking into account radiometric dates of culture-bearing layers and features of the identified lithic industries and their deposition, we conclude that human occupation of the Orkhon Valley was episodic, sporadic and of variable duration. Two discrete occurrences of human occupation have been established thus far at Moiltyn-am; one for the geological unit including Layers 4–6, in which Layer 4 is redeposited, and one for Layer 3.

Remains of the large bovid – horse – sheep triad are most often found in these sites, while the occurrence of bovids, most likely represented by the Baikal yak, decreases with the period of aridification lasting from the Middle Paleolithic to the Early Upper Paleolithic. The diversity of human material culture documented in the study area is obviously associated with paleoecological and paleoclimatic parameters, the fluctuating availability of water resources supporting predictable availability of prey animals, and lithic raw materials suitable for stone tool production, as well as with a favorable geographical location on the pathways of migratory game. The available chronostratigraphic characteristics of sites in the Orkhon Valley are still insufficient for conclusions to be confidently drawn about the coexistence of different hominin groups exhibiting varying cultural characteristics. It is possible that ancestral human populations migrating through the valley did not often encounter one another due to what we perceive as short-term habitation of the currently-known archaeological sites.  

More data, including new Optically Stimulated Luminescence and radiocarbon dates, are in process, to be published later this year.

Two Master’s degree students defended theses on the Paleolithic of Mongolia

2021 June 17

Two expedition-affiliated Master’s degree students successfully defended their theses at Novosibirsk State University:

Matvey Zhukov, Microblade production in Early Holocene lithic industries of Mongolia (Gobi Altai). Supervisor – Arina Khatsenovich

Galina Posmetnaya, Paleoclimatic conditions of Late Pleistocene human occupation in the Orkhon Valley, Mongolia (pollen spectra of the Orkhon 1 and 7 sites). Supervisors – Snezhana Zhilich & Arina Khatsenovich

Dr. Irina Vishnevskaya performs pretreatment and measurements of Strontium isotope composition

Irina spent April 2021 in the “Geoanalytic” geochemical lab in Ekaterinburg performing sample pretreatment and measuring 87Sr/86SR ratios on samples from the Altai Mountains and Mongolia. She will present the first results of her work online at Goldshmidt2021, July 4-9 in Lyon, and at DIG2021, May 17-21 in Faro.

ЦКП “Геоаналитик” (@geoanalitik) • Фото и видео в Instagram

Alexei Klementiev’s analyses of Pleistocene faunal remains from Mongolian Paleolithic sites

Work conducted in March 2021 in the collections storage facility of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS was very difficult for our team. Faunal collections are ready to be moved to new storage facilities, so we needed to locate the Mongolian collections that have been stored there, untouched and unanalyzed, since the 1980s. We thank our Master’s degree student, Ivan Dolgushin, and Dr. Sergei Vasiliev for their assistance!

Dr. Alexei Klementiev is a unique specialist in the Pleistocene faunas of Siberia and Central Asia. He is a co-investigator of the RSF 19-78-10112 project, “Human adaptations in arid and high-altitude regions of eastern Central Asia in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene.” Last March he studied roughly 670 faunal remains from Paleolithic and Neolithic sites in Mongolia. Some of his results will significantly enhance our knowledge of Late Pleistocene faunal complexes in Asia. We now have roughly 50 samples prepared to undergo CT-scanning, 3D-scanning, isotopic and, in some cases, aDNA analyses. The first results of our study of faunal remains collected during our excavations in 2018-2019 at the Orkhon-1, Orkhon-7 and Moiltyn-am sites will be published in June 2021.

Arina Khatsenovich, Irina Vishnevskaya and Evgeny Mikheev preset results of their paleoisotopic research at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS

They presented the first results on their study of Strontium isotopic composition: the first stage of 87Sr/86Sr ratio mapping in the Altai region and Mongolia and results of a study of faunal samples from Orkhon-1 and Moiltyn-am. 87Sr/86Sr ratios for bone samples, compared to results obtained on sediments from site profiles, indicate that some species did not permanently inhabit the Orkhon Valley , but migrated, presumably on a seasonal basis.

Tomorrow Dr. Evgeny Rybin will defend a thesis of his Dr. Habil. dissertation

December 21, 06:00 a.m. (Moscow time)

Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science. Event will be available online on YouTube (even after defense) in Russian Сессия диссертационного совета Института археологии и этнографии СО РАН – YouTube

Evgeny Rybin will present his dissertation ” Regional variability of Initial Upper Paleolithic lithic industries in Southern Siberia and eastern Central Asia”

Official reviewers:

Dr. Sergei A. Vasiliev, Institute of the History of material culture RAS, Saint-Petersburg.

Dr. Pavel Yu. Pavlov, Institute of language, literature and history, Ural Branch of RAS, Komi

Dr. Pavel V. Volkov, Novosibirsk State University

Reviewing organization:

Institute of Archaeology RAS, Moscow.


Academician Anatoly P. Derevianko

John Olsen becomes an Honorary Doctor of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS, Novosibirsk

University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Emeritus John W. Olsen has worked with the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS since 1995. The Joint Mongolian-Russian-American Archaeological Expedition that he co-directs celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. The Expedition investigated Tsagaan Agui Cave and Chikhen Agui Rockshelter, the Chikhen-2 site, and discovered the Tolbor Valley’s high concentration of Initial & Early Upper Paleolithic sites and numerous localities with surface material. Currently this Expedition works in the Orkhon Valley and the Gobi Desert.

John is not only the co-director of our trilateral expedition, he also has long-established relationships with the Novosibirsk scientific community in general. He taught two courses at Novosibirsk State University during the spring semester of 2018: “Principles of Archaeology” (a lecture course) for post-baccalaureate students and “Reading Archaeology” (a seminar) for undergraduates.


John’s career has emphasized the establishment of enduring scientific collaborations between Mongolia, China, Russia and the USA. He consciously involves early-career researchers in his international projects and expeditions.

Inner Mongolia, 2017

Ge Junyi in Mongolia, 2019 Rongbuk, Tibet, 2018

Our team congratulates John on this richly deserved Honorary Degree and collectively thank him for all his help with fieldwork, international collaboration, ideas and articles!

John (left) with Robin Dennell. China, December 2019

Read more about the event here Ученый совет Института принял решение о присуждении звания «Почетный доктор Института археологии и этнографии Сибирского отделения Российской академии наук» (nsc.ru)

Isotopic Research in the Altai Mountains

Mongolia and the Altai Mountains were closely connected in the Upper and, probably, Middle Paleolithic: people migrated across these regions and throughout Central Asia and southern Siberia. These migrations represent human dispersals stimulated by several causes, including climate change and the movement of game animals. People transported animal bones, minerals and organic raw materials, and items of personal ornament on their journeys. Some such ornaments were apparently transported over long distances as objects of exchange or markers of social networks. In order to better interpret the significance of such transport, it is crucial to compile Strontium (Sr) isotopic maps of the areas under study.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic had shut down international and our plans to take more Sr samples for isotopic mapping in Mongolia were derailed, but managed to proceed with implementing the project on Russian territory in the Altai Mountains. We collected samples at 41 localities. Choosing each sampling locality was complex and based on several criteria: 1) We chose localities in different kinds of geological formations, because geology directly influences isotopic composition of water, soil and vegetation. Having detailed geological maps, we faced the problem of discrepancies, because some areas were mapped only remotely using satellite imagery. Fortunately, we were able to collaborate with two superb specialists in rock formation. 2) We sampled water, vegetation, and soil at each locality, but the Altai region is an intensively agricultural zone today. To avoid contamination by fertilizer and other agro-chemicals, we needed to penetrate deeper and higher in each valley, to access areas without agricultural fields. Sometimes water sources were absent in such areas, and we sampled vegetation and soil only. 3) A Sr isotopic map is meant to be detailed so, ideally, samples need to be taken every 5 km in each river valley. We knew from the outset that such high-resolution analysis was beyond our means since 87Sr/86Sr ratio analysis is prohibitively expensive. Thus, during this initial stage of our project we chose different areas in the Altai Mountains to enhance our basic understanding of 87Sr/86Sr ratios in the region.

Strontium sampling localities in the Altai Mountains (map by Andrey Vishnevsky)

We collected samples in areas near the Russian border with Kazakhstan (districts near the Mongolian border were closed and off-limits) and locations surrounding archaeological sites, including Okladnikov, Denisova, Maloyalomanskaya and Ust’-Kanskaya caves, Kara-Bom, Ust’-Karakol sites and other areas.

Okladnikov Cave. Geochemist Dr. Irina Vishnevskaya and geologist Dr. Evgeny Mikheev
Ust’-Kanskaya Cave
Research team visiting Denisova Cave. Thanks to Dr. Maksim Kozlikin (in red helmet) for a wonderful excursion!
The Kara-Bom site

Overall, we collected 111 samples from 41 localities. All are currently under analysis in the “Geoanalyst” Common Use Center of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Ekaterinburg. We also collected a number of rock samples from primary formations, when differences between geological maps and the real geological situation were detectable.

Azurite and malachite
Attempting to dry samples
Expedition camp on the Katun’ River
The best selfie ever :))
The Malaya Gromatukha River
Dr. Irina Vishnevskaya collecting a water sample


Arina Khatsenovich, initiator of the survey, but mostly a tourist

Irina Vishnevskaya, Queen of Isotopes

Evgeny Mikheev, guy with a big geological hammer

Andrey Vishnevsky, Head of the Geological Museum and Senior Researcher in the Institute of Geology and Minerology, SB RAS and Novosibirsk State University. Our petrographer, GIS specialist, cook and driver.

and Evgeny Rybin, who provided his invaluable advice from home!