Archaeologists Resume Digging in Sel-Ungur Cave

Archaeological excavation in the cave Sel-Ungur conducted by an international team of archaeologists including specialists from NSU and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography helps unveil the history of hominin occupation of Central Asia and Southern Siberia. Is there any relation between the cave dwellers and the famous Denisovan hominin discovered in Altai?

The team working in Sel-Ungur, a Middle Pleistocene cave site in Kyrgyzstan located in the Ferghana region, includes experts from Kyrgyz National University named after Jusup Balasagyn, Kyrgyzstan-Turkey Manas University, the American University of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan), Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany), the Department of Anthropology at University of Toronto (Canada) as well as the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS and NSU. The excavation is financially supported by an RNF research grant obtained by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography and by an expedition project supported by L.S.B. Leakey Foundation.

Dr. Andrey Krivoshapkin, the leader of the expedition, shares his impressions on the expedition and the collaboration between NSU and universities of Kyrgyzstan.

Central Asian universities being interested in highly-qualified researchers, the Chair of Archaeology and Ethnography at NSU has been developing active cooperation with them. Now we supervise some postgraduate students from Kyrgyzstan and a number of graduate students from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, who major in archaeology. Some of the students participated in the expedition to Sel-Ungur cave, which has become a working site again after the 1980s, when Soviet archeologists found some teeth and a bone of upper arm of an ancient man living as early as the Paleolithic Age. The anthropological materials found then were interpreted as supposedly belonging to a hominin of one of ancient erectoid forms. The dating of the complex, evaluated as about 1 mln years ago, was quite disputable even at those times and did not appear to be verified by recent data. The interest in the findings was triggered by discovering a new type of ancient human called Denisovans in the Altai Mountains. Archaeologists supposed that Sel-Ungur cave could have been occupied by some early populations of Denisovans, who used to live not only in Altai. In order to check this hypothesis, we didn’t have enough data, says Andrey Krivoshapkin, so it was decided to resume the excavations in Sel-Ungur cave.

Back in the 1980s, archaeologists were only searching for materials belonging to the most ancient humans of the Early Paleolithic Age. Now they decided to study the site in depth.

Andrey Krivoshapkin points out that even the first results of excavations showed that cave Sel-Ungur was in active use among humans beginning from its first inhabitants. It was not just a temporary shelter but rather a permanent dwelling, which gives rise to hope for some anthropological materials. Researchers also paid attention to the fact that different corners of the cave referred to different activities of ancient humans. This year was devoted to investigating the zone of butchering the animals that the humans had hunted. There were calcius of the Pleistocene Period animals found (such as a rocky-mountain goat, deer, etc.), who inhabited the area about 125 thousand years ago. The special stone tools for butchering (various scrapers) identified the zone undoubtedly.

According to the scientist, the tools found in Sel-Ungur differ greatly from those typical for the Central Asian region. It might testify that we deal with a different population of ancient humans living in the cave. Fortunately, the bones are found well-preserved, which allows us to hope find some well-preserved human bones as well. They could be used to extract DNA and identify whether or not the humans living in the cave were Denisovans and how important the cave Sel-Ungur was for the first humans occupying the territory of Central Asia.

Prepared by Mikhail Lykosov

Photos presented by Dr. Andrey Krivoshapkin