Northern Mongolia

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?


Russian Science Foundation project #19-18-00198

University of Arizona Je Tsongkhapa Endowment for Central and Inner Asian Archaeology


Evgeny Rybin – Principal Investigator

Arina Khatsenovich (lithic analysis, raw material sourcing, 3D-modeling)

Vasiliy Tashak (archaeology, Transbaikal)

Anton Anoikin (archaeology, Kazakhstan) – Co-Investigators

Daria Marchenko (spatial analysis)

Vladimir Kharevich (experimental archaeology)

Yulia Antonova (archaeology, Transbaikalia)

Natalia Belousova (archaeology, Altai region)

Sergei Kogai (archaeology, Cis-Baikalia)


Our archaeological investigations in northern Mongolia are an important part of a larger project aimed at reconstructing the timing and migration routes of human populations during the earliest phases of the Upper Paleolithic in southern Siberia and Central Asia.

This project investigates the emergence and development of the earliest stage of the Upper Paleolithic in eastern Central Asia (Mongolia and eastern Kazakhstan) and southern Siberia (Russian Altai region and Baikal Asia). The rapid spread and relative uniformity of laminar industries in the Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP), as well as its marked similarity with contemporaneous archaeological complexes in western Eurasia, renders the IUP phenomenon an example of the spread of Paleolithic technocomplexes across continental Eurasia.

This project is relevant to reconstructing and substantiating a migration model as opposed to a model of autochthonous development, based on research covering all major regions of IUP distribution and taking into account the study of lithic industries both preceding and following the IUP. Implementation of the project objectives described below will complement the list of culturally significant technological and typological features of the IUP tradition, identify inherited cultural components, and clarify the chronological framework of its development. The results of this study will provide a basis for verifying regional cultural and chronological development patterns for lithic industries defining the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, and will foster the establishment of chronological and periodization schemes for IUP industries in eastern Central Asia and southern Siberia in interregional context.

Project goals

The main goal of the project is to reconstruct the origins, chronology, and mechanisms of the proliferation of Initial Upper Paleolithic cultural traditions in southern Siberia and eastern Central Asia.

The following comprehensive objectives are central to the project:

–To identify the possible genetic basis for the emergence of the IUP phenomenon, as well as possible cultural and genetic links with local Late Middle Paleolithic industries;

–To establish technological and typological characteristics of IUP industries (through technological analysis, refitting, and attributive analysis) in the principal geographical regions of its distribution;

– To identify technological and typological variability within Initial Upper Paleolithic industries in the mountain belt of southern Siberia and eastern Central Asia;

– To examine the possibility of cultural and technological continuity between the IUP and the Early Upper Paleolithic which succeeded it in northern Mongolia, and,

– To determine the position of the south Siberian/Central Asian IUP in the spectrum of Eurasian transitional/IUP assemblages, including North China, the Levant, and Central Europe.

Research précis

Southern Siberia and Central Asia represent a mosaic of Initial Upper Paleolithic and Early Upper Paleolithic techno-complexes, as well as variants of transferred traditions and settlement by the bearers of these cultures. The most probable cultural variant reflecting the spread of the IUP should be on a migration path from a core region; perhaps the Altai Mountains. Beginning at least 45,000 BP, Initial Upper Paleolithic populations appeared in northern and central Mongolia, bringing with them typical IUP lithic technology. Their point of origin was most likely outside of Mongolia. The IUP of Mongolia typically exhibits the use of bidirectional technology for the reduction of sub-prismatic cores. The main blank is a large elongated blade, often pointed. Evidence for the use of Levallois technology, which, however, does not constitute an integrated system of stone reduction, has been observed in the earliest complexes. The IUP assemblages contain the elements of small blade production.

The densest concentration of IUP sites in northern Mongolia is in the basin of the Middle Selenga River, which flows into Lake Baikal, and its tributaries – the Ikh Tulburiin Gol (Tolbor), Kharganyn Gol, and Egiin Gol Rivers. The sites currently under study include Tolbor-4, Tolbor-21, and Kharganyn-Gol-5. All these sites are multilayered, with sediments including Initial Upper Paleolithic, Early Upper Paleolithic, and Late Upper Paleolithic assemblages. Topographically, this area falls within the Khangai Mountain Range which is similar in its natural conditions to the mountain belt of southern Siberia. The high density of early human habitation of southern Siberia and Central Asia cannot be explained only by the region’s strategically advantageous geographical position, which makes it possible to freely move along the main river valleys and their tributaries, linking the Transbaikal region, northern and central Mongolia. The presence in the study region of abundant stone raw material suitable for primary reduction and subsequent processing was an equally important and sometimes determining factor for the existence of human populations and the degree of their settlement mobility in the Paleolithic. All known Upper Paleolithic sites in the Ikh Tulburiin Gol (Tolbor River) and Kharganyn Gol River valleys are located near rock outcrops. The majority of sites are located in identical situations on gentle slopes of alluvial fans at the foot of mountains dissected by gullies of seasonal streams. At the same time, these sites may reflect only one of the habitation systems present in the Tolbor valley during the IUP, and may reveal a rather limited spectrum of paleo-population behaviors associated with the location, acquisition and primary reduction of stone raw materials found at nearby outcrops. Most likely, there were also seasonal resource exploitation sites located closer to the main river channels as well as probable short-term hunting camps.

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