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Section: Archaeology
Man Walks the Earth

Man Walks the Earth

In evolutionary studies there is no question which causes more emotional debate than the issue of human origin and evolution. In fact it is quite natural, because these issues carry “personal” interest. Humans have always set themselves off from all other living beings. Many people who generally accepted the concepts of the evolutionary model of development contested the idea of an evolutionary lineage of humans because this lineage implied a relationship to apes.

However, beyond religious and philosophical arguments, the issues of human origin, which have challenged scientists and all of mankind for hundreds of years, are probably not so sophisticated as the origin of life in general. These two basic problems are equally important. On the one hand, a human being is at the top of the evolution of organic living creatures on the Earth. On the other hand, the expansion of humans over the planet has signified a new, anthropogenic period in the development of the living and nonliving biosphere on the “conquered” territory, humans having been the driving force of the evolutionary process

Scientific data on the complex and multifactor problem of anthropogenesis, which have been accumulated over the past 200 years, are truly abundant. Let us consider the opinions expressed below as a short anthropological synopsis.

In Search of a Motherland

At the present state of our knowledge, a human being as a product of evolution descended from ape-like ancestors a few million years ago. There were several viewpoints concerning the place of anthropogenesis.

Rich outcrops of rocks on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea served as sources of raw materials for ancient tool production and attracted early humans at all times. Kazakhstan, the Mangyshlak Peninsular (left). Kazakhstan, the Kyzyltau Mountains (right)

The huge Asian continent including Southeastern and Eastern Asia attracted the attention of naturalists. Extraordinary findings of fossils of protohumans — hominids — testified to the Asian origin of humans. As early as in 1893, E. Du Bois-Reymond announced for the scientific community that an “ape-man” or Pithecanthropus representing a “missing link” between modern humans and anthropoid apes was found on Java Island. This link had been predicted by E. Haeckel, a follower of Darwin’s theory, and was given a scientific name of Homo erectus (a man who stands upright). Later numerous discoveries of fossils attributed to Pithecanthropus dating from 1.7 million years ago have been reported from China and other regions of Southeastern Asia.

Karama, an ancient Stone Age site in the Altai Mountains

Karama, an ancient Stone Age site in the Altai Mountains, has yielded primitive pebble tools associated with the Pleistocene stratigraphic sequence Photo by A. Postnov (upper photo) and S. Zelinsky

In the late 19th — early 20th centuries, Central Asia was promoted as the cradleland of humankind. The major hypothesis holds that during the Tertiary, the central part of the Eurasian continent rose up, which led to the disappearing of the rain forests. The dramatic changes in the environment caused “apes” to move onto the ground, and so on and so forth according to Darwin’s theory...

In the second half of the 19th century an extravagant hypothesis was put forward by Wagner, Quartefages, and Cartailhac. They hypothesized that Northern Asia and Europe were the motherland of humankind; this idea was extremely popular among French scholars. A. Quartefages, a physical anthropologist, proclaimed Siberia and the North in general as a cradle of mankind.

Excavations at Kara Bom, one of the most important Altai Paleolithic sites, have yielded more than 2.5 thousand stone artifacts including tools, cores, and waste

However, in the 20th century scientists “got warmer”: as early as in the 1920s—1930s numerous discoveries of hominid fossils, more primitive and closer to the anthropoid apes than the Pithecanthropus, were reported from Southern and Eastern Africa. Apparently, due to this evidence of the first stages of “humanization,” Africa had become the principal place of origin of man by the end of the 20th century. The full stop in this debate has been put by experts in paleogenetics, who have analyzed abundant biological materials and shown that all the people on the Earth belong to a single species which originated in Africa.

Homo Africanus

Presently, the majority of researchers engaged in anthropogenesis studies believe that humans appeared in Africa. The East African Rift stretching longitudinally from the hollow of the Dead Sea via the Red Sea and further through Ethiopia and Kenya to Tanzania has been regarded as the probable place of human origin, where the most significant stages of human evolution consecutively took place. It is exactly the place where the most ancient bone remains were recovered, providing evidence on the separation of the hominid family from what we know under the term of anthropoid apes. This separation occurred around 5–6 million years ago. The majority of the most ancient hominid bone remains as well as most of the sites of early humans have been reported from this particular part of Africa.

The first wave of early human migration out of Africa

The sites yielding the earliest stone tools present particular interest. These are the sites demonstrating the most ancient traces of human habitation in the Kada Gona river basin in Ethiopia. The total of 15 sites have yielded skeletal remains of humans in association with split bones of wild animals and, what is most exciting, around three thousand most primal stone tools! The entire collection of recovered materials underlying the basalt tuff testifies to the fact that this place was inhabited by the earliest Homo population who was engaged in hunting and was able to produce stone tools about 2.6 million years ago. Such a hypothesis is supported by the evidence provided by “younger” sites (not earlier than 2.3 million years ago) located in the Omo River valley and in the environs of Lake Turkana (Kenya), which yielded quartz tools including flakes, choppers, and scrapers.

Onward to Europe!

About two million years ago, humans, probably Homo erectus or Homo ergaster (i. e., work man, whose anatomical features, though archaic, were closer to those of the modern man) set out of Africa to populate the vast territory of Eurasia. This process cannot be called a migration in its primary meaning. It was a gradual and long process of dissemination. Two major paths, the southern and the northern one, virtually separated by the mountain massifs of the Himalayas and Tibet, can be established.

In Kazakhstan, in the Mugodjari Mountains, one square meter of the surface may contain dozens of ancient hand axes — bifaces

The evidence for the southern route of early human migration includes early human fossils recovered from cave sites in the Arabian Peninsula and in Pakistan (their age estimation as 2 million years ago is debatable) as well as the widely known finding of Homo erectus in Southeastern and Eastern Asia dating back to 1 million years ago. In addition, stone tools recovered from loess sediments indisputably prove human habitation of the area as early as 800 thousand years ago.

Naturally, we are mostly interested in the other, northern, “wave” of human dissemination over Eurasia. Unique cave sites, whose studies are yet to be completed, have been discovered on the Karabakh Plateau in Azerbaijan. In Georgia over the last ten years, at a site located only 60 km from Tbilisi, remarkable paleoanthropological findings of the upper part of a human skull and a mandible, have been discovered (associated with pebble tools, dated to 1.6—1.7 million years ago!). These cranial remains might belong to one of the first Homo erectus who settled in Europe.

As a matter of fact, three probable routes of invasion of early humans into Europe have been hypothesized: through the Gibraltar Strait, via Turkey, and along the western coast of the Caspian Sea. The western Caspian route leading further to the north along the Northern Caucasus has been regarded a principal route of occupation of Europe. Such a presupposition has begun to be confirmed by the first findings reported from the North Caucasus, the Stavropol Province, Kabardino-Balkaria, and the environs of Makhachkala.

Transit to the East

Let us move on to the east following the ancient migrants through Iran to the inmost center of the huge Eurasian continent.

Over the last ten years Russian archaeological expeditions have located many sites showing traces of early human habitation in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Thus, quite a number of sites have been discovered in the Kyzyltau (the Maly Karatau mountain range) and on the Mangyshlak Peninsular, where archaeologists had to carry water for 300 km. In an area with such severe climatic conditions for human habitation, tens of thousands of stone tools have been found! In fact, the arid eastern Caspian coast has one unique feature unlike the more hospitable western coast: the basal sandstone is saturated with specific rock — flint breccia, which served as a raw material for stone tool production.

The stratigraphic profile showing the sequence of layers in the Denisova Cave, one of the most ancient dwelling places of humans in the Altai Mountains. Photo by P. Labetsky

Professor V. A. Ranov has discovered the most ancient Central Asian site in Tajikistan. The site located within 100 meter thick sediments of loess and ancient soil has yielded pebble tools, whose age has been estimated as 800 thousand years.

Still further to the east there is Southern Siberia. The easternmost and most exciting site is Кагата, which has recently been discovered in the Anui River valley in the Altai Mountains, near the Denisova Cave, the permanent archaeological camp of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, SB RAS. On the basis of the preliminary results of the studies of stone industries and the spore-pollen analyses of the sediment samples, Karama has been dated back to 550—700 thousand years, which makes it the most ancient site in Russia and one of the earliest sites in Eurasia.

Mongolia is one of the countries where over the last 20 years more than one thousand prehistoric sites including more than 30 sites attributed to the Early Paleolithic have been discovered in the course of joint work with Mongolian archeologists. The most ancient sites of early human habitation have yielded primitive pebble tools, with the surfaces abraded through time and weathering, located on the surface of the terraces of the Late Pliocene. Thus, in the space of one million years, early humans occupied the vast territory stretching from Africa to the Pacific Ocean. The early human mode of living can be characterized by a considerable isolation of settlements and various types of labor tools including the primitive implements made of plit pebbles and scraping tools made of flint flakes. But that was only the first wave of migration...

The Second Wave

The so-called Acheulian Culture was formed in Africa around 1.2 million years ago. The Acheulian culture represents a more elaborate technical tradition of labor tool production. Despite the considerable number of utilized techniques of stone working and the absence of a standard “tool kit,” certain common typological features can be established for the Acheulian Culture. The Acheulian technical tradition implies that instead of hewing away a stone’s edge, people flaked the stone on both surfaces through a number of consecutive and intentionally directed blows. As a result of such an operation, the tool gained its premeditated shape, often nearly perfect; then the edges were sharpened. Such effective tools were made not only of simple cobbles, but also of flint flakes intentionally removed from stone cores.

The second wave of early human migration out of Africa

Thus, 450—350 thousand years ago, a new wave of human migration, the one linked with the Late Acheulian culture, set out of the Middle East Region and reached India leaving the characteristic items of human material culture.

The most typical tools of the Acheulian culture were hand axes, or bifaces, which served as all-purpose tools with sharp edges, widespread in Africa. In Kazakhstan (Mugodjari), at the outcrops of ancient rocks which served as workshops for early humans for thousands of years dozens of bifaces were found on each square meter!

A similar stone tool industry has been identified at the Denisova Cave in the Anui River valley. The Altai sites are extremely important because ancient tools have been recovered from soft cave sediments which are several meters thick. Studies of the structure of the soft sediments allow researchers to gain insight into the development of the industrial complex over a long period of time.

The same is true of Mongolian findings. In 1987, the Tsagan Agui Cave site was discovered. In the course of ten years of studies, soft sediments of the cave have yielded an exceptionally rich collection of stone tools which were utilized by humans over 200 thousand years.

In 1995, Mongolia presented us with another discovery — the unique site of the Flint valley, where artifacts were distributed over the ground. This valley is situated in the Southern Gobi desert, where flint breccias are found close to the surface and have numerous outcrops. The site is a real “storage field” of stone tools: on an area of 20 square kilometers, there are up to 600 stone tools per square meter, a total collection of tens and even hundreds of millions of tools! It is hard to imagine this, but the fact is that during the Pleistocene period the region was a blossoming land with sufficient water resources. Over not less than 300 thousand years, ancient people were attracted here by the rich resources of raw material. Being a unique cultural-anthropogenic complex, this area should become a tremendous museum in the open air some day.

Who We Are and Where Did We Come From?

Everything resumes its normal course. Having substantiated the African origin of humans, let us return to the question specified in the beginning of this paper: Where did Man originate? That is, man of a modern physical type, like you or me.

In the case of the cradleland of humankind, scientists have come to a common conclusion: it is Africa. Yet in the case of Homo sapiens sapiens, various viewpoints still exist. On the one hand, it is Africa again, because it is the southeastern part of this continent that has yielded human fossils illustrating practically all the stages of evolution of hominids and related anthropoid forms and also the first ancient fossils that have been attributed to anatomically modern humans.

Stone tools from the Tsagan-Agui Cave (a, b). The unique Flint Valley in the Southern Gobi desert was used as a workshop by ancient artisans

On the other hand, there is a hypothesis that during the later stages of human evolution the development of this species was not unilinear. It was not just that the intelligent man appeared in Africa and then dispersed over the globe. There is reliable evidence allowing us to suppose that anatomically modern humans evolved over a considerably larger area, probably in the locations of ancient human populations who already lived in various parts of the world. Hence, we should not so definitely cross out Neanderthals from our possible ancestry. Apparently, in this case we should consider mixture rather than replacement of cultures.

Today, many physical anthropologists and archaeologists advocate the idea of the multiregional evolution of humankind. It is not pure coincidence. Their certainty is based on the artifacts recovered from multilayered Stone Age sites. The non-disturbed sequence of consecutive Paleolithic horizons provided data illustrating the transition from the early human culture of the later evolutionary stages to the culture of the anatomically modern man.

My conclusions are mostly based on data from Southern Siberia, the Altai Mountains in particular. The Altai well-stratified sites located both in caves and in the open air allow us to note the gradual changes in the recovered artifact assemblages, the changes occurring from 60 to 30 thousand years ago, exactly during the period of formation of the culture of Homo sapiens sapiens.

The latest discovery in this series was made in the Obi-Rakhmat Grotto, Uzbekistan. The expedition team of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography has been doing excavations at Obi-Rakhmat for five or six years. Available data from the layers of the “cave chronicle” illustrate the changes in the culture of tool manufacturing which occurred between 90 and 30 thousand years ago. And the most exciting finding: in 2003 a fragment of human skull was recovered from the buried soil horizon dating from 54—56 thousand years ago.

We Be of One Blood, Ye and I...

Presently, through the analysis of mitochondrial DNA we can determine whether this ancient occupant of Obi-Rakhmat was an anatomically modern human or a Neanderthal. This question cannot be resolved on the basis of cranial features, because the features of the ear conch testify to the Neanderthal affinity, while the brain measurements and the features of the teeth rather attest to an anatomically modern type. Who knows, probably this individual represents that very “missing link”, providing the evidence on the interbreeding of different representatives of the Homo genus. Such an interbreeding process took place on the vast territory of Eurasia that used to be a “furnace” of evolution for Homo sapiens sapiens.

Biface is a typical implement of the Acheulian culture from the Flint Valley in MongoliaArtifacts attributed to the Upper Paleolithic period including needles and various personal decoration pieces (pendants made of stone, bone, and animal teeth), portable art and other things have undoubtedly proven that at that period the area was populated by humans of the anatomically modern type, possessing all their mental features: complex and developed material culture and rich spiritual life. It is noteworthy that the Denisova Cave in “wild” Siberia has yielded six bone needles dating from 40 thousand years ago, while only two such needles 10 thousand years younger have been reported from “enlightened” Europe.

Most recent discoveries attest to the multiregional development of modern man, who is deeply “rooted” in Africa and, in fact, has African-Eurasian “toppings.” Concerning the New World, researchers have come to a common conclusion that it was peopled through a land bridge that connected Eurasia and America about 20—25 thousand years ago.

Thus, as a result of two major waves of migration from the African motherland, early humans occupied vast territories in various geographical and climatic zones. During tens and hundreds of thousand years, humans gained a diverse appearance, yet morphologically and genetically people of different anthropological types are alike and form a single genus. We be of one blood, ye and I...

The Editorial Board acknowledges the generous help of Drs. A. N. Zenin and M. V. Shunkov (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, SB RAS) offered in the course of preparing the present paper

Drawings by Nikolai Kovalev

A Missing Link? In the summer of 2003, in the course of excavations of the site of Obi-Rakhmat (near Tashkent), remains of an early human aged not less than 50 thousand years were recovered. Such discoveries are rare and fortunate happenings for archaeologists. For the second time in the history of Western Central Asian archaeological studies, a whole complex of artifacts in association with human bones has been recovered. The first one was the discovery of the world-wide known burial of a Neanderthal child in the Teshik-Tash grotto, by Academician A. P. Okladnikov in 1938.
Reconstruction of a skull fragment (left). Fragment of the temporal bone (right top). Tomographic reconstruction of the bony labyrinth of the inner ear (right bottom)
The second discovery is truly unique, because the tools from Obi-Rakhmat are attributed to the transitional period in the development of the material culture from the Middle to the Upper Paleolithic. Only a few such assemblages have been reported throughout the world. Furthermore, Obi-Rakhmat goes back to the earliest stages of development of a new culture; consequently the findings from this site provide us with the unique possibility for attempting to reconstruct the appearance of the man who executed a technological and cultural revolution.

Analyses of the recovered cranial fragment and teeth have led to sensational conclusions: the Obi-Rakhmat man demonstrates a combination of characteristic features typical of the Neanderthal and anatomically modern humans, while other morphological features are specific and have no paleo-anthropological analogues.
Fossils of a unique representative of the Homo genus have been discovered in the Obi-Rakhmat Grotto
Researchers cannot give a definite answer to the question concerning the causes of such unique features of the Homo from Western Central Asia. There are two hypotheses: one is that the fossils of an early inhabitant of Obi-Rakhmat support the idea of independent and multiregional evolution of anatomically modern humans, the other one is that
Tomographic analyses have been carried out in the Siberian Center for Synchrotron Radiation of the Budker institute of Nuclear Physics (Novosibirsk) and in the Austrian Center of Computer Tomography (Innsbruck)
they attest to interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals, which until recently has been considered as highly unlikely.

The discovery was made by the archaeological team headed by Dr. A. I. Krivoshapkin under the scientific supervision of Prof. A. P. Derevianko, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and U. I. Islamov, Member of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan. The works have been carried out under the joint project of the Guliamov Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk. Other members of this joint project are: researchers from the USA — P. Wrinn and S. Mentzer (University of Arizona); M. Glantz (Colorado State University), C. Mallol (Harvard University) and from Austria — T. B. Viola (University of Vienna)

The project is supported by the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, the Russian Foundation for Humanities, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Andrey I. Krivoshapkin

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