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Comment on “Late Mousterian Persistence near the Arctic Circle”

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Science  13 Jan 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6065, pp. 167
DOI: 10.1126/science.1209908

Abstract

Slimak et al. (Reports, 13 May 2011, p. 841) reanalyzed the lithic assemblage from the northern site of Byzovaya (Russia) and concluded that it was Mousterian and produced by Neandertals. The previous interpretation of this assemblage as falling within Early Upper Paleolithic variability remains the most parsimonious explanation; pending additional fossil discoveries, there is no evidence supporting the occurrence of Neandertals at these high latitudes.

The recent paper by Slimak et al. (1) makes two large claims. First, based on their reanalysis of the small (n = 313 on 550 m2), previously excavated (2) lithic assemblage from Byzovaya (Russia) (Fig. 1), they claim that the assemblage is now best attributed to the Mousterian. Second, they use this Mousterian attribution to claim that the Byzovaya assemblage was produced by Neandertals. This inferred Neandertal presence near the Arctic Circle is the northernmost one claimed thus far and is at least 7000 14C years younger than any other unambiguous and directly dated Neandertal skeletal remains (3). If substantiated, their claim would considerably expand the geographical range of Neandertals and possibly demonstrate the existence of northern refugia before their disappearance.

Fig. 1

The geographical distribution of the sites mentioned in the text. (1) Sungir. (2) Kostenki. (3) Garchi I. (4) Zaozer’e. (5) Byzovaya. (6) Mamontovaya Kurya.

The problem with their claims is that there is a more parsimonious explanation for the Byzovaya assemblage. When considered in its regional context, this assemblage fits within the variability displayed by Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) assemblages. This conclusion, reached by previous studies of the very same assemblage [(2, 4, 5), which included one of us (W.R.), who handled the material] is not refuted by the Slimak et al. paper. So, for example, Byzovaya shares many features with the EUP Streletskaya technocomplex [36, 000 to 27,000 14C years before the present (yr B.P.)] (4), which is present at the contemporaneous site of Garchi (6) (Fig. 1). Most of the features described by Slimak et al. as Mousterian, such as discoid technology and side-scrapers with scalar retouch, are well documented in Streletskayan EUP assemblages at Kostenki (Fig. 2) that date to roughly the same time period (7). EUP laminar elements are known to be rare in Streletskayan assemblage, and previous publications of Byzovaya (2, 4) report the presence of a few of them. The Byzovaya leaf points, interpreted by Slimak et al. as showing a connection to the eastern European Mousterian, are also identical to some from the EUP of Kostenki.

Fig. 2

Comparison between Streletskayan assemblages from Kostenki 1 level V (A), Kostenki 12 level III (B to E), and Byzovaya. All Mousterian tools described by Slimak et al. occur in Streletskayan assemblages. Given this context, they are insufficient to support an attribution to Mousterian. (A) Leaf point. (B) Bifacial knife (with scalar retouch). (C) Mousterian scrapers. (D) Quina-type side-scrapers. (E) End-scrapers. Redrawn from previous publications [e.g., (5, 15)].

Zaozer’e, dated 5000 14C years older than Byzovaya and with an assemblage recovered in primary archaeological context (2), is an important regional point of comparison. This assemblage contains a pronounced EUP component that includes points on large prismatic blades, blades with steep retouch, and retouched and simple burins on truncations or breaks. Additionally, Zaozer’e includes UP elements such as bone and antler points, perforated pendants, and beads (6). In Zaozer’e, however, there is also a strong Middle Paleolithic (MP) component dominated by small plano-convex bifacial tools, similar to those found in the eastern European Mousterian but, importantly, also similar to the reported Keilmesser of Byzovaya. The fact that the archaeological level in Byzovaya is in secondary context raises questions regarding the assemblage composition. As indicated by the low frequency of small stone artifacts, sorting processes likely occurred and could explain the absence of UP elements such as small blades, pendants, or antler points that sometimes occur within similar assemblages in primary context.

One of the key arguments for the Mousterian attribution is Levallois blank production. The Levallois component noted by Slimak et al. consists of four reported cores and an unknown quantity of unillustrated Levallois flakes. However, given that the Byzovaya bifacial technology can produce flakes highly similar to Levallois flakes, demonstration requires some illustration of these artifacts. The one illustrated Levallois core [figure 3 in (1)] lacks a clear preparation of the flaking surface and, as such, stretches the limits of the definition of the Levallois method (8). A more complete description of the reported Levallois technology is required because Levallois is a highly variable technique that also appears in so-called MP to UP transitional assemblages and in initial UP assemblages across Eurasia (9, 10).

With regard to the Neandertal refugium argument, it is important to note that so far no archaeological material older than the Mamontovaya (11)/Zaozer’e sites (i.e., before about 35,000 14C yr B.P.) has been found in this region, despite the fact that finding MP sites has been a goal of fieldwork over the past decade (6). Further south in the lower Don River basin, the absence of Mousterian assemblages from the Kostenki site complex (21 sites, several including multiple layers) suggests that between 38,000 and 20,000 14C yr B.P., only UP assemblages were produced there and shows, based on skeletal remains and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), that anatomically modern humans were present in the region by at least 31,000 14C yr B.P. (12). At the still closer site of Sungir, the oldest dates on two modern human skeletons and on a Streletskayan assemblage are comparable with the dates for Byzovaya (13). Accepting the Slimak et al. interpretation of Byzovaya implies that the makers of the Mousterian entered—and then remained constrained to—the northern latitudes before 38,000 years ago, shared the region for at least 5000 years with the EUP makers of the Zaozer’e assemblage, and remained otherwise invisible in the archaeological record for about 10,000 years.

Slimak et al.’s paper again raises the question of whether specific types of lithic assemblages can be linked to hominin species in the absence of skeletal remains. Western and Central Europe are for now the only regions where the Mousterian and/or the Levallois technologies are indeed exclusively associated with Neandertal fossils, whereas in Africa and the Levant they are also associated with early modern humans. Given that the local EUP retains numerous MP features, the small Byzovaya assemblage cannot be used to determine the hominin taxon that made it. Fossils are needed to settle the important issues regarding the former distribution of extinct hominins and to document a hypothetical expansion of Neandertals in the far north. Such fossil remains can consist of morphologically diagnostic skeletal remains and/or of DNA signals retrieved from skeletal remains. Analysis of mtDNA from otherwise undiagnostic skeletal remains from Okladnikov (eastern Russia) extended the Neandertal range a spectacular 1500 km to the east (14). In contrast, Slimak et al.’s claim for a similarly spectacular expansion of the Neandertal chronological and geographical range is not supported by any type of evidence, neither skeletal nor archaeological. The previous interpretation of the Byzovaya assemblage remains the best interpretation. It is Upper Paleolithic.

References and Notes

  1. Acknowledgments: We are grateful to A. A. Sinitsyn for providing us documentation and to T. Kivell for her helpful comments.
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