Tuesday 4 September 2018

Stone tools from a high altitude site in the Alay Valley in Kyrgyzstan.

As Humans moved out of Africa they encountered and settled in a range of new habitats. High altitude environments present a particular challenge, as they are cold for much of the year, as well as having limited available food and lower oxygen levels than other environments settled by Humans. Nevertheless, these environments have been settled since at least the end of the Pleistocene, with archaeological sites on the Tibetan Plateau from about 14 000 years ago onwards, and in the High Andes of South America from about 10 000 years ago onwards. The mountain ranges of Central Asia also contain a number of early archaeological sites, though these have been subjected to less study and are subsequently less well understood. 

In a paper published in the journal Antiquity on 27 June 2018, Svetlana Shnaider of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, William Taylor, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Aida Abdykanova of the American University of Central Asia, and Ksenia Kolobova and Andrei Krivoshapkin, also of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, describe the results of a new excavation at the Alay Valley Site on the banks of the Kyzyl-Suu River in southern Kyrgyzstan, at an elevation of 2800m.

View of the Alay site from the east (indicated by green arrow). William Taylor in Shnaider et al. (2018).

The Alay Valley Site was discovered in 1975 by a team led by Alaxandre Nikonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It was excavated for a single season at the time, yielding 1740 lithic artifacts, including prismatic and narrow-faced blades and bladelets, end-scrapers, notched pieces, awls and backed points on blades, which were considered to be Early Holocene in age (i.e. less than 12 000 years old), and contemporaneous with the Oshhona and Istikskaya Cave sites in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

Shnaider et al. returned to the site in 2017, digging three test pits at different locations,  and establishing that all material from the site is currently exposed at the surface, where charcoal, bones and lithic objects are observable. They collected a further 244 stone tools, including debitage (flakes produced by striking them from a larger core, often useful blades in themselves), and two types of core, a semi-cylindrical core with one striking platform, and semi-pyramidal core with two striking platforms for bladelets.

Test pit at the Alay site. Aida Abdykanova in Shnaider et al. (2018).

This stone tool assemblage is quite unlike that found at the Oshhona and Istikskaya Cave sites, where microblades with ventral retouch and ‘thumbnail’ end-scrapers dominated the assemblages, a technology dated to between 13 000 and 7000 years ago. Instead the new Alay material more closely resembles Final Palaeolithic artifacts such as the Late Kulbulakian material from Dodekatym-2 in northern Uzbekistan, or Early-Middle Tutkaulian lithics such as that found at Tutkaul and Obi-Kiik in western Tajikistan. These cultures have been found across a wide area of Central Asia, and are dated to the period after the Late Glacial Maximum, roughly 13 000 to 10 000 years ago, suggesting a much earlier occupation of the area than had previously been presumed.

Lithic artifacts from the Alay site. Shnaider et al. (2018).

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