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

Last of the giant camels and archaic humans lived together in Mongolia until 27,000 years ago

Source: Blog.frontiersin.org

By Mischa Dijkstra, Frontiers science writer

Paleolithic image from Khoid Tsenkheriin Agui Cave, Mongolian Altai (credit: original photo by Ya. Tserendagva, iDStretch treatment by A. Khatsenovich)

This is the first report of fossils of a species of giant camel, Camelus knoblochi, from today’s Mongolia. The author show that the species’ last refuge in the world was in Mongolia until 27,000 years ago. There, they coexisted with archaic humans and the much smaller wild Bactrian camel C. ferus. Climate changing leading to desertification and possibly hunting by humans and competition with C. ferus drove C. knoblochi into extinction.

A species of giant two-humped camel, Camelus knoblochi, is known to have lived for approximately a quarter of a million years in Central Asia. A new study in Frontiers in Earth Science shows that C. knoblochi’s last refuge was in Mongolia, until approximately 27,000 years ago. In Mongolia, the last of the species coexisted with anatomically modern humans and maybe the extinct Neanderthals or Denisovans. While the main cause of C. knoblochi’s extinction seems to have been climate change, hunting by archaic humans may also have played a role.

“Here we show that the extinct camel Camelus knoblochi persisted in Mongolia until climatic and environmental changes nudged it into extinction about 27,000 years ago,” said Dr John W Olsen, Regents’ professor emeritus at the School of Anthropology of the University of Arizona, Tucson, US.

Paradoxically, today, southwestern Mongolia hosts one of the last two wild populations of the critically endangered wild Bactrian camel, C. ferus. The new results suggest that C. knoblochi coexisted with C. ferus during the late Pleistocene in Mongolia, so that between-species competition may have been a third cause of C. knoblochi’s extinction. Standing nearly three meters tall and weighing more than a ton, C. knoblochi would have dwarfed C. ferus. The precise taxonomic relationships between these two speciesother extinct Camelus, and the ancient Paracamelus aren’t yet resolved.

Olsen said: “C. knoblochi fossil remains from Tsagaan Agui Cave [in the Gobi Altai Mountains of southwestern Mongolia], which also contains a rich, stratified sequence of human Paleolithic cultural material, suggest that archaic people coexisted and interacted there with C. knoblochi and elsewhere, contemporaneously, with the wild Bactrian camel.”

Steppe specialists driven into extinction by desertification

The new study describes five C. knoblochi leg and foot bones found in Tsagaan Agui Cave in 2021, and one from Tugrug Shireet in today’s Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia. They were found in association with bones of wolves, cave hyenas, rhinoceroses, horses, wild donkeys, ibexes, wild sheep, and Mongolian gazelles. This assemblage indicates that C. knoblochi lived in montane and lowland steppe environments, less dry habitats than those of its modern relatives.

The authors conclude that C. knoblochi finally went extinct primarily because it was less tolerant of desertification than today’s camels, C. ferus, the domestic Bactrian camel C. bactrianus, and the domestic Arabian camel C. dromedarius.

In the late Pleistocene, much of Mongolia’s environment became drier and changed from steppe to dry steppe and finally desert.

“Apparently, C. knoblochi was poorly adapted to desert biomes, primarily because such landscapes could not support such large animals, but perhaps there were other reasons as well, related to the availability of fresh water and the ability of camels to store water within the body, poorly adapted mechanisms of thermoregulation, and competition from other members of the faunal community occupying the same trophic niche,” wrote the authors.

Towards the end, the last of the species may have lingered, at least seasonally, in the milder forest steppe – grassland interspersed with woodland – further north in neighboring Siberia. But this habitat probably wasn’t ideal either, which could have sounded the death knell for C. knoblochi. The world would not see giant camels again.

Preyed upon or scavenged by humans

What were the relations between archaic humans and C. knoblochi?

Corresponding author Dr Arina M Khatsenovich, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, Russia, said: “A C. knoblochi metacarpal bone from Tsagaan Agui Cave, dated to between 59,000 and 44,000 years ago, exhibits traces of both butchery by humans and hyenas gnawing on it. This suggests that C. knoblochi was a species that Late Pleistocene humans in Mongolia could hunt or scavenge.”

“We don’t yet have sufficient material evidence regarding the interaction between humans and C. ferus in the Late Pleistocene, but it likely did not differ from human relationships with C. knoblochi – as prey, but not a target for domestication.”

First author Dr Alexey Klementiev, a paleobiologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Siberian Branch, said: “We conclude that C. knoblochi became extinct in Mongolia and in Asia, generally, by the end of Marine Isotope Stage 3 (roughly 27,000 years ago) as a result of climate changes that provoked degradation of the steppe ecosystem and intensified the process of aridification.”

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JMRAAE’s Tsagaan Agui Cave project has won First Prize among archaeological research endeavors conducted in Mongolia in 2021

On December 15-16, 2021 the annual “Mongolian Archaeologists” conference was held at Mongolian State University in Ulaanbaatar. Archaeologists from the University, the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and various Mongolian museums reported the results of their 2021 investigations. Our JMRAAE team participated in two such presentations.

Tsedendorj Bolorbat presented a synopsis of excavations undertaken at Tolbor 21, an open-air Paleolithic site in northern Mongolia’s Middle Selenga Basin. This year was very fruitful for the team led by Evgeny Rybin and Bolorbat: an apparently utilitarian pit was uncovered, thought to be a storage locus for lithic flakes and bones. An additional example of Initial Upper Paleolithic art was also found: a perforated pendant made of soft stone.

Bazargur Dashzeveg presented the preliminary results of our 2021 excavations at Tsagaan Agui Cave including:

  1. The identification of several occupational episodes in the cave, including one during the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 26-19,000 years ago).
  2. The discovery of an Initial Upper Paleolithic component exhibiting bidirectional laminar technology and the Levallois convergent method for point production, employing “exotic” raw material.
  3. The presence of non-utilitarian objects associated with both occupation episodes.

The strata below Initial Upper Paleolithic Layer 3 in Tsagaan Agui are even more interesting and clearly warrant further research. Several Middle Paleolithic occupations were uncovered there, represented by lithic industries based on centripetal and orthogonal systems of flaking aimed at the production of flakes with predetermined shapes.

You can find a detailed report on our 2021 fieldwork at Tsagaan Agui here.

Each year, the Mongolian archaeological community chooses what it considers that year’s best research project by collectively voting after the conclusion of the conference presentations. This year our research, presented by Dashzeveg Bazargur, Tserendagva Yadmaa and Gunchinsuren Byambaa, took first place!

B. Gunchinsuren, Ya. Tserendagva, D. Bazargur

We appreciate the abilities and collegiality of our Mongolian friends and are incredibly proud of them! Congratulations to all! Take a look at our award certificate!!! 😋

Investigations of Tsagaan Agui Cave were supported by the Russian Science Foundation (project 19-78-1012), the Leakey Foundation and the Je Tsongkhapa Endowment of the University of Arizona.

Research at Tolbor 21 was supported by the Russian Science Foundation (project 19-18-00198) and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (Russian-Mongolian project 19-59-44010).

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.

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.