Okladnikov Cave

December 7, 2017

Names: Okladnikov Cave, Sibiryachikha (former name), Пещера Окладникова (Russian)

GPS Coordinates: 51.732883, 84.033390

Though Okladnikov Cave is 92 miles as the crow flies from the Russian border with Kazakhstan, all roads in and out of the Altai mountains go through Biysk (ПЕЩЕРА ИМ. А. П. ОКЛАДНИКОВА), which is 167 km away from the site. It would then take another 442 km of driving to reach the Kazakh border, for a driving total of 609 km. In the northern reaches of the Altai Mountains in Altai Krai Oblast, Russia, Okladnikov Cave is 387 meters above sea level, and is only 1.15 km southwest of the nearest small town of Sibiryachikha. The cave itself is a karst cavity on the banks of the Sibiryachikha River (Derevianko et al 2013).

Discovered and initially excavated in the 1970s by Alexei Pavlovich Okladnikov, the cave was first called Sibiryachikha, in reference to the nearby town. It has since been renamed in honor of its first surveyor, with Sibiryachikha now referencing a lithic culture of the Altai Middle Paleolithic (ПЕЩЕРА ИМ. А. П. ОКЛАДНИКОВА; Derevianko, 2013). The cave was mainly excavated by S. Markin and A.P. Derevianko in the 1980s (Viola and Pääbo, 2013). The vast majority of the sources available in English referencing this site focus on the skeletal and faunal remains, wherein Okladnikov Cave is mainly treated as a footnote to the more impressive Denisova Cave and others in the area such as Ust-Karakol-1, Ust-Kanskaya, and Kara-Bom.  Some lithic analysis is also available in English (Derevianko et al, 2005; Viola and Pääbo, 2013). The nearest paleolithic site, Chagyrskaya Cave, is even more overshadowed, having fewer skeletal remains, but lithically is most similar to Okladnikov Cave (Derevianko et al, 2013). The discovery of neanderthal remains at Okladnikov, however, was pivotal to understanding the movement of neanderthal populations. This discovery in the 1980s, even as the neanderthal provenience of the Tekish-Tash child remained questioned, pushed the boundary of neanderthal habitation over 2,000 km further east (Krause et al, 2007, Dobrovolskaya and Tiunov, 2013). The subsequent discoveries at Denisova Cave, as well as others, have confirmed a neanderthal presence now generally referred to as the Altai Neanderthal (Viola and Pääbo, 2013).

Image 1: The range of neanderthals, including Okladnikov Cave (Krause et al, 2007).

Okladnikov Cave was the first neanderthal site to be discovered in the Altai. The site itself consists of seven stratigraphic layers (named 1-7), with 1-3, 6, and 7 containing cultural remains. While there have been some disturbances, mainly in the upper two layers, the artifacts and faunal and skeletal remains inside the cave (rather than on the terrace area under the roof) were found in situ. The layers were dated to between 44,800±4000 BP (stratum 7, uranium series dating of soil) to 33,500±700 BP (stratum 1, faunal bone, C14 dating) (Krause et al, 2007 supplement). Bones from stratum 3 were radiocarbon dated to between 43,700±1500 to >16,210 BP (Kuzmin, 2004), though the latter date is likely because the roofed terrace was used by animals to avoid inclement weather, rather than from cultural remains. Derevianko is of the opinion that the cultural layers date to 45-40 ka BP (Derevianko et al, 2013).

Okladnikov Cave and Chagyrskaya Cave are the two examples of the Sibiryachikha tool industry. This industry is characterized by primary radial reduction strategies, mass production of flakes coming off cores from multiple angles, scrapers, and déjeté type tools (Derevianko et al, 2013). Lithics are mainly sourced from pebbles from the nearby rivers, which are predominately igneous, though 25.8% of the assemblage at Okladnikov cave is made of Zasuriye jasperoid, which was used selectively (Derevianko et al, 2013, 2015). There is a fairly high ratio of tools to flakes, and preliminary knapping was likely preformed offsite. Core blanks were then brought into the cave to be modified into tools onsite. In addition to radial cores, Levallois reduction strategies are present in relation to many morphological products (Derevianko et al, 2013). Derevianko et al agree that there is one cultural tradition present in the Altai in the Paleolithic, but that within it different tool industries exist. One, the Altai Mousterian, is associated with Denisova Cave and Tyumechin-1, while the other, a Levallois variant, is associated with Kara-Bom, Ust-Karakol-1, Anui-3, Ust-Kanskaya Cave, and possibly others. The Sibiryachikha tool industry from Okladnikov and Chagyrskaya Caves, thus, represents a third (likely very small) Mousterian neanderthal population, who may have moved into the Altai from southwestern Central Asia. Whether these people then assimilated, moved elsewhere, or died out is unclear, since there are no examples of the Sibiryachikha tool industry by the Upper Paleolithic (Derevianko et al, 2013).

Image 2: Examples of tools from Sibiryachikha tools from Okladnikov Cave (Derevianko et al, 2013).

The human remains found from Okladnikov cave were the first neanderthals found in the Altai. The remains are as follows: adult humerus and human M3 tooth from stratum 2, subadult humerus and femur, adult middle hand phalanx, and three teeth (P3, M1, M3) from stratum 3, and lower dm2 tooth from stratum 7 (Krause et al, 2007 supplement). Krause et al posit that the humerus and femur in stratum 3 are from the same subadult individual. The mtDNA sequence of these individuals clearly shows a gene pool distinct from modern humans, and confirms their neanderthal provenience. Their study compares the mtDMA from European neanderthals with Tekish-Tash and the Okladnikov individuals, which showed that, though Tekish-Tash was more closely related to Western European neanderthals than it was to the Okladnikov individuals, the minimal mtDNA divergence suggested that none of these population had been separated for very long (Krause et al, 2007). Moreover, Dobrovolskaya and Tiunov confirmed that neanderthals at Okladnikov cave had a diet similar to European neanderthals—namely, hunting large herbivores (Dobrobolskaya and Tiunov 2013).

Okladnikov Cave has played a pivotal role in further understanding neanderthal population migrations, pushing their habitation extent 2,000km further east. Subsequent excavation and research have confirmed the existence of a neanderthal population in the Altai, with their associated lithic assemblage. Okladnikov and Chagyrskaya Caves show evidence of an offshoot neanderthal population associated with the Sibiryachikha tool industry, who may have been later arrivals to the region. This site furthers our understanding of the Middle Paleolithic in the Altai and, more broadly, in Central Asia as a whole.


Derevianko, A.P., Postnov, A.V., Rybin, E.P., Kuzmin, Y.V., Keates, S.G., 2005. The Pleistocene Peopling of Siberia: A Review of Environmental and Behavioral Aspects. Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Bulletin. 25 (3) pp. 57-68.

Derevianko, A.P., Markin, S.V., and Shunkov, M.V., 2013. The Sibiryachikha Facies of the Middle Paleolithic of the Altai. Archaeology Ethnography & Anthropology of Eurasia. 41 (1) pp. 89-103.

Derevianko, A.P., Markin, S.V., Kulik, N.A., Kolobova, K.A., 2015. Lithic Raw Material Exploitation in the Sibiryachinkha Facies, The Middle Paleolithic of Altai. Archaeology Ethnography & Anthropology of Eurasia. 43 (3) pp. 3-16.

Dobrobolskaya, M.V., and Tiunov, A.V., 2013. The Neanderthals of Okladnikov Cave, Altai: Environment and Diet Based on Isotopic Analysis. Archaeology Ethnography & Anthropology of Eurasia. 41 (1) pp. 78-88.

Krause, J., Orlando, L., Serre, D., Viola, B., Richards, M.P., Hublin, J.J., Hänni, C., Derevianko, A.P., Pääbo, S., 2007. Neanderthals in Central Asia and Siberia. Nature 448 (18) pp. 902-904.

Kuzmin, Y.V., 2004. Origin of the Upper Paleolithic in Siberia: A Geoarchaeological Perspective. The Early Upper Paleolithic beyond Western Europe. University of California Press, pp. 196-206.

Skoglund, P., Northoff, B.H., Shunkov, M.V., Derevianko, A.P., Pääbo, S., Krause, J., Jakobsson, M., 2014. Separating endogenous ancient DNA from modern day contamination in a Siberian Neandertal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111 (6) pp. 2229-2234.

Viola, B., and Pääbo, S., 2013. What’s New in Central Asia? Basic Issues in Archaeology, Anthropology, and Ethnography of Eurasia. pp. 555-565.

ПЕЩЕРА ИМ. А. П. ОКЛАДНИКОВА. Welcome to Altai. n.d. Web. 7 Dec 2017. <http://welcometoaltai.ru/attractions/peshhera_okladnikova/>

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