December 7, 2017

Also known as: Самаркандская Стоянка (Russian for ‘Site of Samarkand’)

Coordinates: c.39.65° N, 66.94° E (Rabett, 2012)

Image 1. Showing approximate coordinate location of Samarkandskaya from Rabett (2012) at an elevation of 24.05 km. Coordinates put site in center of city, not near a ravine as described by Vishnayasky (2004). There is a river 6 km southwest (measured on Google Earth) which could possibly be the Chashmasiab ravine; however, the exact location of the site could not be found. 

Samarkandskaya is an open air Paleolithic site within the limits of Samarkand, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, close to the Tajikistan border (Image 2). The city is located in the Zeravshan basin, a fertile area created by mountain runoff and the Zeravshan river. The site itself is located in the center of the city, on the right bank of the Chashmasiab ravine (Image 1).

Image 2. Map of Central Asia showing location of Samarkand site and other relevant paleolithic sites (Davis & Ravnov 1999).

Cultural remains are confined to deposits in two terraces, originally thought to make up three cultural layers (Vishnayatsky, 2004). From its discovery in 1939 by N. G Kharlamov, Samarkandskaya was a site of intensive study by multiple successive researchers until the 1970s. It was M.V Voevodskyi who initially lead the research on the site. The next excavations were done by D.N Lev in 1958 and 1967, which revealed the multilayered nature and numerous peculiarities of the materials. The next excavations from 1967-72 were done by M.D Djurakulov and E.N Amartzeva who focused mainly on the lower sediments of the upper terrace (Korobkova & Djurakulov, 2000). A total area of 1000m2 has been excavated and no new excavations are taking place.

The cultural layers of the site are complicated by the extremely complex stratigraphy of the site, poor excavations, and inadequate documentation. In 1980, Nesmeyanov used geological investigations of the site to argue against Lev’s hypothesis of the site containing three unique cultural layers. The layers instead may represent periods of intensive occupation that are marked by deposits of tools, bones, charcoal and ocher (Vishnayatsky, 2004). Nesmeyanov identified four layers of habitation in the lower terrace and three in the upper terrace. This has also complicated the dating of the site.

The occupational episodes are thought to have occurred between the Middle to the late, final Pleistocene. Earlier excavators and researchers, such as Lev, dated the site to 20,000 b.p (methods of dating are not published/accessible); however, the work by Nesmeyanov and closer examination of the upper terrace by Korobkova, Djurakulov, and Amartzeva resulted in a date of 40,000 b.p. Presumably the date was obtained from examination of the materials found. The oldest lithic materials were from the lower level of the upper terraces which is now thought to represent the first habitation of the site. Davis & Ranov (1999), Korobkova & Djurakulov (2000), and Derevyanko & Zun (1993) all decisively place Samarkandskaya in the Upper Paleolithic. This makes Samarkandskaya one of the few Upper Paleolithic sites in the region. The other well known site is Shugnou in eastern Tajikistan (Fig. 1). Vishnayatsky (2004) mentions the finding of charcoal at the site; however, it is unclear if carbon-14 dating has been done to date the site. These dates are mainly based on the lithic composition and its similarity to other sites such as Kulbulak and layer 2 of Karasu.

Fig.1 Chart summarizing the relative dating of Samarkandskaya and other paleolithic sites in the region. The left-hand column represents hypothesized dates while the right hand column is the majority of absolute dates known for Central Asia (Davis & Ranov, 1999).

There is nothing published on the complete composition, numbers, or distribution of stone tools at Samarkandskaya, but from what is reported the tools show a mixture of Mousterian with Upper Paleolithic technologies. Pebble-chopper technology is present with tools such as choppers, side-scrapers, axes, discoid and Levellois type cores (Fig.2). This is mixed with artifacts attributed to the Upper Paleolithic such as retouched bladelets, chisel-like tools, micro-scrapers, and microcores (Fig 3).

Fig. 2. Chopper tools and flakes from Samarkandskaya (Korobkova & Djurakulov, 2000).


Fig. 3. Stone tools demonstrating some the Upper Paleolithic technologies used at the site (Vishnayatsky, 2004)

Samarkandskaya is not the only site in this area or from this time that shows mixed tool technologies, such as Maikop or Shugnou. Although each site has a unique lithic composition, some have used the similarities to make possible cultural and developmental connections between Paleolithic sites in Central Asia. Derevyanko & Zun (1993) describe what they call the Samarkand culture, which in theory, is a step in the line of evolution influenced by the Asia Minor ‘Mediterranean’ province. In this line of evolution, the cultural development started with the site of Karasu, then to the Samarkand culture, and ended with the post-Palaeolithic Hissar culture. This hypothesis is based on qualitative similarities between the tools, such as the knife shape and hollow tools. This hypothesis was strongly supported by Lev; however, little to no concrete evidence is available to support this (Derevyanko & Zun, 1993).

Excavations in 1962 and 1966 resulted in the findings of the only human remains at the site; two fragmented mandibles and teeth. These are attributed to modern Homo sapiens, but there provenance is unknown. Their affiliation with the rest of the paleolithic assemblage has also been questioned. The mandibles have been described as being of  ‘Mediterranean-type,’ supporting the Asian Minor line of evolution. More recent descriptions of the remains are not available and may contradict this description (Derevyanko & Zun, 1993). Aside from human bones, there are more than 3,000 identifiable bones and bone fragments. The majority of the remains are from horses followed by pleistocene ass and aurochs. Also present are remains of camel, red deer, wild boar, steppe sheep, gazelle, wolf and wild ass but in lesser quantities. There are also long bone fragments that most likely correspond to an elephant or rhinoceros (Vishnayatsky 2004).

The vast number of animal bones and the high percentage of tools suggests that Samarkandskaya was a base camp for steppe/desert hunters, who mainly hunted wild horse and Pleistocene ass. There is evidence of almost constant tool production and retouching, as well as evidence of preparing carcasses and skins from kills (Korobkova & Djurakulov, 2000). The culture and chronology of the site have not been determined, but traditionally the archaeological assemblage has been treated as belonging to the same culture. However, this may be incorrect considering there were likely multiple episodes of habitation that occurred widely spaced in time (over tens of thousands of years). More analysis of the tools found and of the geography of the site is still needed for any conclusions on the dates of the site and the culture or cultures that were present.

Works cited

Davis, R. S., & Ranov, V. A. (1999). Recent work on the Paleolithic of Central Asia.  Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 8(5), 186-193.

Derevyanko, A. P., & Zun-E, L. (1993). Upper Paleolithic Culutre. In History of Civilizations of  Central Asia(Vol. 1, pp. 89-98). UNESCO.

Korobkova & Djurakulov. (2000). самркандская стоянка как эталон ерхнего палеолита средней азии (The Site of Samarkand as a Model of the Upper Palaeolithic in Central Asia). Stratum plus,1, 385-462.

Rabett, R. J. (2012). Human adaptation in the Asian palaeolithic: hominin dispersal and behaviour during the Late Quaternary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp 92-95.

Vishnayatsky, L. B. (2004). Paleolithic Interface in Central Asia. In The Early Upper Paleolithic Beyond Western Europe (pp. 151-159). CA: University of California Press.

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. <>


May 8, 2017

Also Known as: Sel’Ungur, Сельунгур, Сель-Унгур, Селюнгур

Coordinates: 39.95°N, 71.32°E

Originally discovered in 1955 by A.P. Okladnikov, the Sel-Ungur cave-site was officially excavated in 1980 by Islamov’s team from the Soviet Institute of Archaeology (1988). Sel-Ungur is a Lower Paleolithic site located in the Alai mountain region of Kyrgyzstan and is one of the most significant finds of Paleolithic Central Asia. Most notably, it houses human remains whose origins have been recently disputed in anthropological literature. These remains may be critical in tracing the early hominids’ pattern of migration across inner Asia. Earlier finds, such as Teshik-Tash and Obi-Rakhmat, have clearly established a Neanderthal presence in the region and even suggested that these Central Asian Neanderthals were in contact with other species of humans during that time. Further research into the Sel-Ungur site may provide us with critical insight of what types of humans were living in Central Asia and when.

Map of Lower Paleolithic sites found in Central Asia. Taken from Davis & Ranov (1999).

Cave Site

The Sel-Ungur cave is located in the Ferghana basin of the Alai mountain system at an elevation of about 1,900 meters. The entrance to the cave itself is about 50 meters above the lower portion of the Katrantau Ridge. The site is 120 m long, and its width and height at the mouth are 34m and 25m respectively. Archaeologists have identified 5 main cultural layers (0.2-0.4m thick) separated by thin strata (0.3-1.0 m thick) and lying at a depth of 2.5 to 6.5 m (Markova, 1992). A uranium-thorium date of 126,000 B.P. ± 5,000 years was obtained on a travertine sample taken from the stratum overlying the upper cultural layer (Davis & Ranov, 1999).

In an extensive paleoecological analysis of the site, Velichko et al. (1991) were able to establish that the sediment strata enclosing the cultural layers were generally homogeneous, showing no significant changes of ecological conditions during the period of the archeological layers’ formation. Put more simply, pollen and sediment sample analysis suggest that in contrast to the drastic environmental changes characteristic of Central Asia during the Lower Paleolithic, Sel-Ungur’s climate has remained relatively stable over time. As previously suggested by Glantz (2010), it is probable that the cave’s location at the base of a mountain may have shielded the site from any severe climatic fluctuations. In this way, Sel-Ungur’s relatively stable climate may have attracted long-term human settlement.

Satellite image of Sel-Ungur cave opening taken through Google Earth

Tool Industry

The Sel-Ungur site contains the oldest and most expansive tool industry found in the Ferghana region of Kyrgyzstan. 1,500 stone tools were found on site, with most items made of jasper and slate pebbles, and a few others from volcanic rock (Islamov, Zubov, & Kharitonov, 1988). The most common type of tool found were short massive flakes with wide smooth platforms. Other prevalent artifact types included choppers, side scrapers, notches, retouched flakes, and fragments. Vishnyatsky (1999) was also able to identify at least one cleaver from the items found at the site. Importantly, however, almost no blades nor prepared cores were found at Sel-Ungur. Instead, the collection is mostly derived from pebbles that have been worked by discoidal and opposed platform-core techniques.

According to Glantz (2010), the Lower Paleolithic of Central Asia is comprised of four technological industries, each of which is identified by key tool types such as Acheulian-like bifaces, pebbles, cores and flakes, and “small” artifacts. The original excavators of Sel-Ungur considered the tool industry to be Acheulean because they believed that they had found a bi-facial hand axe within the artifacts. However, Vishnyatsky (1999) considers this particular hand axe to be morphologically vague and argued that the artifact be considered a stone core instead. Consequently, in the absence of true hand axes, as well as the tools’ morphological similarities to other pebble assemblies in the region, there is reasonable argument to attribute Sel-Ungur to the group of the Lower Paleolithic pebble industries of Central Asia. This culture is not often associated with Neanderthal tool industries, and suggests that another species of human may have been inhabiting the site.

Bifacially retouched artifact from Sel-Ungur Cave, Kyrgyzstan. Taken from Vishnyatsky (1999).

Animal Remains

In addition to the expansive stone artifacts found at Sel-Ungur, the site also contained 4,000 mammal bone fragments, most of which are badly preserved. The two upper layers of the site are dominated by wild sheep (Ovis cf. ammon), wild goat (Capra sibirica), deer (Cervus cf. elaphus bactrianus), and cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) remains. The third and fourth cultural layers yielded aurochs (Bos primigenius), rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus cd. Kirchbergensis), sheep, and goat. Other layers bore wolf (Canis cf. lupus), fox (Vulpes vulpes), cave hyena (Crocuta spelaea), cave lion (Panthera cf. spelaea), Pleistocene ass (Equus hydruntinus) and horse (equus sp.) The variety of species found in the Sel-Ungur animal remains were critical in categorizing the cave as a Lower Paleolithic site. Furthermore, the Sel-Ungur’s rodents were also useful for providing insight into the environmental conditions surrounding the prehistoric site. The rodents are represented by 10 species, most important of which are Neodon, Microtus juldaschi, Ellobius tancrei, Cricetulus migratorius, alticola argentatus, meriones libycus, and Ochotona rufescens. According to Markova (1992), such a composition of rodents (which does not undergo any significant change from layer to layer) is indicative of the existence of mountain steppes with patches of woods and shrubbery in the cave’s surroundings. These environmental conditions are usually attributed to the Middle Pleistocene age in Central Asia and provides strong evidence to that the site can be dated to this time period.

Wild sheep (Ovis cf. ammon) bones found in Layer 1 of Sel-Ungur Cave. Taken from Glantz et al. (2004)

Human Remains

Besides the animal bones, the Sel-Ungur cave deposits included some human and some putatively human remains. In the first excavation, six teeth (three upper incisors and three lower premolars) belonging to two or three individuals, and a humerus fragment were identified (Islamov et al., 1988). The original paleoanthropologists attributed these hominid remains to be from a local specialized variant of Homo Erectus. By comparing the size and shape of the bones to other human remains, Zubov and Islamov (1988) considered the Sel-Ungur individuals to be a species of humans that were somewhere between Homo Erectus and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis . However, a more recent analysis of the remains by Glantz et la. (2004) determined that the teeth are in reality a mixture of cave bear and possibly ungulate teeth, while the long bone is probably a juvenile hominin humerus, whose species is indeterminate. Although the origins of these human remains are still debated, Sel-Ungur remains a major Central Asian site because it provides us with the first Central Asian hominid fossil find since Teshik Tash. In response to the recent findings of diverse human species (Donisovans, Neanderthals, and Cro-magnons) in Central Asia, new research is currently underway to excavate the potential of Sel-Ungur’s human remains. Most notably, researchers are now determined to uncover the DNA origins of Sel-Ungur juvenile humerus to determine which species of human were occupying the site during the Lower Paleolithic period (Lykosov, 2016). Their identification will provide invaluable insight into the diverse populations of humans living and migrating in the previously understudied area of Central Asia.


Davis, R.S., & Ranov, V.A. (1999). Recent work on the Paleolithic of Central Asia. Evolutionary Anthropology, 8(5), p. 186-193.

Glantz, M. M. (2010). The History of Hominin Occupation of Central Asia in Review. Asian Paleoanthropology Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology, p. 101-112.

Glantz, M. M., Viola, B., & Chikisheva, T. (2004). New hominid remains from Obi-Rakhmat Grotto. In A.P. Derevianlko (Ed.), Grot Obi-Rakhmat (pp. 77-93). Novosibirsk: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Islamov, U. I., Zubov, A. A., & Kharitonov, V. M. (1988). Paleoliticheskaya stoyanka SelUngur v Ferganskoi doline (The Paleolithic site of Sel-Ungur in the Fergana valley). Voprosy antropologii, 80, p. 38-49.

Lykosov, M. (2016, December 01). Archaeologists Resume Digging in Sel-Ungur Cave. Retrieved May 7, 2017, from

Markova, A. (1992). Fossil rodents (Rodentia, Mammalia) from the Sel’- Ungur Acheulian cave site (Kirghizstan). Acta zool. cracov., 35(2), p. 217-239.

Velichko, A.A., Arslanov, K. A., Gerasimova, S.A., Gerasimova, A., Islamov, U.I., Kremenetski, K.V., Markova, A.K., Udartsev, V.P., & Chikolini, I. (1991). Paleoecology of the Acheulian cave site Sel-Ungur (Soviet Central Asia). Anthropologie, 24(1), p. 9-15.

Vishnyatsky, L.B. (1999). The Paleolithic of Central Asia. Journal of World Prehistory, 13(1), p.69-122.