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March 21st, 2002

Excavations in Eastern Europe reveal ancient human lifestyles

Ongoing excavations in Russia indicate anatomically modern humans were developing new technologies for survival in the cold, harsh region some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder researcher.

John Hoffecker of CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research said that excavations at Kostenki--a series of more than 20 sites about 250 miles south of present-day Moscow--have yielded bone and ivory needles with eyelets that are 30,000 years old.

In addition, the research team uncovered nearly articulated bones of both arctic foxes and hares at the site, which is along the Don River. These discoveries strongly hint that ancient residents of Kostenki had developed trapping techniques to obtain furs that would help keep them warmer in the winters.

The many discoveries at Kostenki since the 1940s imply that anatomically modern humans who had migrated out of Africa 40,000 to 50,000 years ago were adapting to the frigid temperatures of the central east European Plain, he said.

"The use of furs is particularly important, given these were a slender people with long limbs recently arrived from southern latitudes, making the cold even more of a challenge to survive in," Hoffecker said.

The Kostenki sites, which date beyond 40,000 years ago, may have hosted Neanderthals as well as modern humans, he said. "It looks like there were two separate industries at work here. One culture was advanced in terms of bone and ivory tool-making and decorative figurine art, while the other produced little more than crude stone tools."

Although modern human remains have been found at Kostenki associated with the advanced culture, no human skeletal materials have been found with the cruder tools, and their makers are unknown, said Hoffecker.

Hoffecker gave a talk on the latest research at Kostenki at the annual Paleoanthropology Society meeting held in Denver March 18 and March 19.

Other participants in the study include Michael Anikovich and Andre Sinitsyn of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vance Holiday of the University of Wisconsin and Steve Forman, a former CU-Boulder researcher now at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Hoffecker also will give a talk on Kostenki research at the larger annual meeting of the 2002 Society for American Archaeology, which meets March 20 to March 22 at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Denver.

"It was critical for these people to adapt to cold climates in order to survive," said Hoffecker, an INSTAAR Fellow whose research has been funded by the Leakey Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society. The modern humans at Kostenki also were creating symbols, art and language, as evidenced by decorated and engraved figurines, as well as some supporting anatomical evidence, he said.

"There may have been a relationship between their ability to formulate and communicate concepts through language and their ability to manipulate their environment through complex technology," he said.

"The exciting aspect is that we continue to find evidence of these people in deeper layers of sediment," he said. The evidence for modern humans at Kostenki is buried under 3 meters to 5 meters of silt.

Dating the early human sites beyond 40,000 years is a challenge because it is roughly the limit of radiocarbon dating, he said. The researchers turned to luminescence dating, which involves heating rock crystals from the sites and counting photons emitted from the crystals -- which have been trapped under sediments for millennia -- in order to determine accurate dates for specific sites.

Animal remains found at modern human sites at Kostenki included horses, mammoth, bison, moose and reindeer, said Hoffecker. In addition, other researchers recently found evidence for high consumption of fish based on analyses of bone chemistry from 30,000-year-old human remains, another indication that anatomically modern humans were advancing human technology.

"The fishing activity shows these people were probably manipulating the environment with fish weirs or traps,'' said Hoffecker. "They appear to have been using their sophisticated technology to expand the range of their diet, in comparison to Neanderthals."

In addition to trapping fur-bearing mammals, there also is evidence at Kostenki that modern humans were killing other small mammals and possibly birds using darts. "There is no evidence that Neanderthals were using this technique," he said.æ

Hoffecker recently authored a book titled Desolate Landscape: Ice Age Settlement in Eastern Europe, which was published by Rutgers University Press.