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Kostenki: Landscape archaeology of the early Upper Paleolithic on the central East European Plain

Kostenki is the name of a village on the Don River in the Russian Federation where more than twenty open-air Paleolithic sites are known. Several more sites are found at the village of Borshchevo, located about 5 km downstream from Kostenki. The sites are assigned to the Upper Paleolithic and yield skeletal remains of modern humans (Homo sapiens). Artifacts found in association with the remains of extinct mammals at Kostenki in 1879 were among the first discoveries of Ice-Age people in Eastern Europe. By the 1930s, the sites at Kostenki and Borshchevo had produced a rich record of middle and late Upper Paleolithic occupation, including large feature complexes with traces of suspected dwelling structures. The excavation and study of the occupation floors had a significant impact on theory and method in archaeology during the Soviet period. In the years following the Second World War, substantial evidence of early Upper Paleolithic occupation was discovered at Kostenki, adding another important dimension to these sites. The recent discovery that several sites contain occupations that underlie a 40,000-year-old volcanic ash provided evidence of the earliest known Upper Paleolithic remains in Eastern Europe. Field research continues today at Kostenki and Borshchevo, and the results continue to have an impact on world archaeology.

Download a preprint of an encyclopedia article on Kostenki by John Hoffecker.

Findings at Kostenki

A new framework for the Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe

John Hoffecker presents evidence from several sites across Eastern Europe and suggests a new view of the Upper Paleolithic by time, industry, and location at the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution meeting, 21-22 September 2012 in Bordeaux.

Download the PDF slides.


The Campanian Ignimbrite eruption and the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in Eastern Europe

The Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption, dated by 40Ar/39Ar and various stratigraphic methods to ca. 39,000 cal BP, generated a massive ash plume from its source in southern Italy across Southeastern and Eastern Europe. At the Kostenki-Borshchevo open-air sites on the Middle Don River in Russia, Upper Paleolithic artifact assemblages are buried below, within, and above the CI tephra (which is redeposited by slope action at most sites) on the second terrace. Luminescence and radiocarbon dating, paleomagnetism, and soil and pollen stratigraphy provide further basis for correlation with the Greenland and North Atlantic climate stratigraphy. The oldest Upper Paleolithic occupation layers at Kostenki-Borshchevo may be broadly correlated with warm intervals that preceded the CI event and Heinrich Event 4 (HE4; Greenland Interstadial: GI 12–GI 9) dating to ca. 45,000–41,000 cal BP. These layers contain an industry not currently recognized in other parts of Europe. Early Upper Paleolithic layers above the CI tephra are correlated with HE4 and warm intervals that occurred during 38,000–30,000 cal BP (GI 8–GI 5), and include an assemblage that is assigned to the Aurigancian industry, associated with skeletal remains of modern humans.

Read the paper by Hoffecker et al., "From the Bay of Naples to the River Don: the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption and the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in Eastern Europe," Journal of Human Evolution, 2008, 55(5): 858-870. doi 10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.08.018


Geoarchaeology of the Kostenki-Borshchevo sites

The Kostenki–Borshchevo localities include 26 Upper Paleolithic sites on the first and second terraces along the west bank of the Don River, near Voronezh on the central East European Plain. Geoarchaeological research funded by NSF from 2001 through 2004 focused on sites Kostenki 1, 12, and 14, with additional work at Kostenki 11 and 16, and Borshchevo 5. The strata are grouped into three units (bottom up): Unit 1, > 50 ka, consists of coarse alluvium (representing upper terrace 2 deposits) and colluvium, overlain by fine-grained sediments. Unit 2 includes archaeological horizons sealed within two sets of thin lenses of silt, carbonate, chalk fragments, and organic-rich soils (termed the Lower Humic Bed and Upper Humic Bed) dating 50–30 ka. Separating the humic beds is a volcanic ash lens identified as the Campanian Ignimbrite Y5 tephra, dated elsewhere by Ar/Ar to ca. 40 ka. The humic beds appear to result from the complex interplay of soil formation, spring deposition, slope action, and other processes. Several horizons buried in the lower part of Unit 2 contain Upper Paleolithic assemblages. The springs and seeps, which are still present in the area today, emanated from the bedrock valley wall. Their presence may account for the unusually high concentration of Upper Paleolithic sites in this part of the central East European Plain. Unit 3, < 30 ka, contains redeposited loess with a buried soil (Gmelin Soil) overlain by a primary full-glacial loess with an associated Chernozem (Mollisol), forming the surface of the second terrace.

Read the paper by Holliday et al., "Geoarchaeology of the Kostenki-Borshchevo sites, Don River, Russia," Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 2007, 22(2): 183-230. doi 10.1002/gea.20163


Evidence for kill-butchery events of early Upper Paleolithic age at Kostenki-Borshchevo, Russia

At least 10 early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) open-air sites are found at Kostenki on the west bank of the Don River in Russia. During the 1950s, A.N. Rogachev excavated concentrations of horse bones and teeth from EUP layers at Kostenki 14 and 15 exhibiting the characteristics of kill-butchery assemblages. Excavations at Kostenki 12 in 2002-2003 (funded by NSF) uncovered a large quantity of reindeer and horse bones in EUP Layer III that also might be related to kill-butchery events, and the partial skeleton of a sub-adult mammoth excavated during 2004-2007 in EUP Layer V at Kostenki 1 yields traces of butchery. The character of these large-mammal assemblages—combined with the analysis of artifacts and features—suggest that both habitation areas and kill-butchery locations are represented in an "EUP landscape" at Kostenki.

Download the preprint or read the final paper.


Field reports

Download the 2008 field report from Kostenki, "Early Upper Paleolithic Settlement at Kostenki, Russia."

Download the 2007 field report from Kostenki, "Technological innovation in the early Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe."

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