Kazakhstan Paleolithic fieldwork: Valikhanova

Last week, I left my home in Astana for southern Kazakhstan, to rendezvous with researchers based in Kazakhstan, the United States and Germany. This is the beginning of a collaborative effort to understand the underappreciated importance of Kazakhstan in hominin evolution.

Post-fieldwork meal. From foreground clockwise: Zhaken Taimagambetov (1), Tyler (2), Saya (1), Jason (2), Adam (3), Radu (4), Mica (2), Kat (5), Katie (2), and Rinato (1). Not pictured: Me (6) and Jean-Marc (1). Numbers indicate school affiliations, at the end of the post.

We just returned from a brief stint of soil sampling at, and site surveying around, the Paleolithic site of Valikhanova, near the town of Zhanatas. This site was excavated decades ago, and has yielded a number of stone tools interpreted as transitional between Middle and Upper Paleolithic industries. This is a fascinating period for ‘modern’ human origins, but unfortunately the site has not yielded any human fossils to the best of my knowledge.

Valikhanova. The excavation site is the layered earth exposure on the right, our camp site on the left.

But there are other important questions that can be asked about the nature of the site and its inhabitants. First, the geological layers (“strata”) of the site have not been reliably dated, so soil samples were collected to be analyzed by a dating technique called optically stimulated luminescence (this is the work of Dr. Kat Fitzsimmons). Second, aspects of climate and ecology can be inferred from soil chemistry, which is the focus of team members from Colorado State University. Combining this information, we can begin to understand when and why humans (Neandertal and/or more ‘modern’ looking) inhabited the area – e.g., was it only between major glacial periods, how much time does the site span, etc?

And it’s a pretty amazing area. The site is nestled in a depression, creating an ecosystem somewhat protected from harsh winds and temperatures blowing around surrounding the mountains. That said, the night we arrived we were welcomed by extremely high-speed winds and heavy rains. My tent was the only casualty of the storm, forcing me to flee to the comforting confines of our sturdy truck and cups of vodka. The storm was short lived, and soon the sky opened up to a panoramic harlequin sunset.

Palette after the storm. Left to right covers from West to East. The excavation and North are at the center.

Also there was a rainbow.

My main activity here was survey, the search for other places that could potentially yield fossil and additional cultural materials. Survey basically involves a fairly targeted scouring of a landscape, searching for specific features. Our survey took us over and across gorgeous landscapes. We found a number of possible fossil/artifact accumulations and possible caves/rock shelters for future investigation, but no human fossils turned up (this was not terribly surprising, as human fossils are quite rare).

Atop one big hill, Drs. Jason LaBelle and Adam Van Arsdale discuss one of many stone tools we found littering the area around Valikhanova.

One neat surprise did come when scanning the ground above a rocky outcrop over a filled-in cave. At first glance, I seem to be holding some kind of a jaw bone fragmentwith two teeth. Close inspection shows this just to be a rock with a coincidentally-molar-like calcification. Bummer. However, we were able to trick one expert into thinking for a minute that we found some kind of pig or other mammal fossil.

Fossil bovid, equid or suid? Meganthropus?! Just a rock? Osteology students & paleontologists, beware faux-ssils…

We’re briefly back in Almaty to recharge, and on Tuesday we’ll head out to explore Charyn Canyon for a few days. Stay tuned for more about our adventures!

*Affiliations from Fig. 1 above:
1. Kazakh National University, 2. Colorado State University, 3. Wellesley College, 4. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, 5. Max Planck Institute. 6. Nazarbayev University.

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