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Back to Neanderthal? Discoveries in a Crimean Cave

Nataliya MYKHAILOVA, an archeologist, tells a story of momentous discoveries which were made in one of the many caves in the Crimean Mountains. A special touch, in her opinion, was provided by the participation in the archeological excavations in 2008 of a group of Japanese archeologists.

Before I narrate my story of the fossil discoveries in a Crimean cave, some introductory words into the history of the study of the human evolution are needed.

From the end of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the evolution of man was thought to be linear, that is, from more primitive forms to the more advanced, with Homo sapiens sapiens of today crowning the evolutionary process (the name Homo sapiens was applied in 1758 by the father of modern biological classification Carolus Linnaeus). The immediate predecessor of the Cro-Magnon, that is Homo sapiens, was called the Neanderthal, Homo neanderthalensis, a burly, hairy creature.

But in the course of the twentieth century, and particularly at the end of it, many discoveries considerably changed our views on the human evolution. The progress in the DNK research revealed that the Neanderthals were unlikely candidates for the immediate ancestors of Homo sapiens.

According to a view which is shared by many archaeologists and anthropologists, modern humans, Homo sapiens, formed in East Africa. They (also referred to as the Cro-Magnon people), appeared in Europe and then began replacing Neanderthals, pushing Neanderthal populations into regional groups, where they held on for thousands of years. Proponents of this model believe that modern humans and the Neanderthals were separate species.

Now, where does the Crimea come in into this picture? It seems that the Neanderthals, fighting a rearguard action, survived the longest Homo sapiens onslaught in the Crimean mountains.

Tools found

In 1990, some Stone Age tools were found in a canyon in the Crimean Mountains. The cave of Buran-Kaya which had apparently been inhabited by Stone Age people, attracted a particular attention of Ukrainian archeologists. When the first information about the finds in Buran-Kaya was published, archeologists from Moldova, Russia, the USA, Belgium, France, and Germany were interested and they came over to investigate. For several years, an international team of archeologists and anthropologists was headed by Oleksandr Yanevych, Ph.D., an archeologist from Ukraine, and by Stephane Pean a palezoologist and archeologist from France.

In 2008, it came the turn of Japanese archeologists to show interest and a group of archeologists (sponsored by Fukutaka Foundation) came to Ukraine to join a group of Ukrainian archeologists to do excavations in Buran-Kaya. The Japanese group was headed by Mr Masayoshi Yamada. Born in Japan, he spent a considerable part of his life in Italy and France where he studied and later delivered lectures. In 1994, he visited Ukraine for the first time and stayed there for several months. He was enamored with Ukraine sufficiently enough to later write a novel about Ukraine and Ukrainians. Fourteen years later, he came back, as head of the first Ukrainian-Japanese archeological expedition.

Living in caves

From what archeology has been able to establish, people who lived in the Crimea from over thirty to ten thousand years ago seem to have preferred living in caves in groups of about twenty people each.

Those who lived in the cave of Buran-Kaya lived mostly off hunting, their prey being the sheeplike antelope, saiga (Saiga tatarica; these antelopes are curiously-looking long-nosed animals; their nose helps to cool the air they breathe in summer, and warm it in winter). Foxes provided excellent fur.

Archeological finds in the cave include very sharp stone arrowheads, made of flint, and other stone implements — scrapers, needles and ornaments made of bone, flint knives and other things. The hunters must have used spears too in their hunting.

There is a reason to believe that the cave dwellers painted their bodies with ochre which was used as a pigment.

In their work, archeologists use not only pickaxes or spades but also such unlikely instruments as thin knives and brushes to remove the soil around a discovered fossil very carefully, without damaging it. It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to do it.

The soil that is dug up during the excavations is sieved, washed and thoroughly examined — nothing of interest to science must be lost. Magnifying glasses and fine tweezers come in very handy at the last stages of the examination of the sifted and washed sand and soil from the dig. Even the tiniest pieces of artifacts or whatever else may be suspiciously interesting must not escape the attention of the examining archeologist. Little pieces of bone, for example, recovered in this way, may help determine which animals were hunted by the cavemen, eaten or used for other purposes.

At every stage of digging, photographs are taken for the record. And at the last stage comes time for determining the age of the finds. Various methods are used, radiocarbon dating being a particularly reliable one.

Neanderthal after Cro-Magnon?

At the early excavations there were no surprises — the examined stratified layers of the soil showed no surprises — Neolithic fossils and remains were followed by the Paleolithic in due sequence (Stone Age is subdivided into Old Stone Age, Middle Stone Age and New Stone Age, or to use scientific terms, Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic times), with Cro-Magnons preceded by Neanderthals.

The dating that was carried out on the finds suggested that the Neanderthals had lived in the cave at about 28 thousand years ago. But then comes a great surprise — as the archeologists went deeper and deeper they discovered stone tools which were typical for Cro-Magnons rather than Neanderthals!

Further excavations and careful analysis of the finds definitely pointed to the cave having been inhabited for some time by Homo sapiens before Neanderthal! It seemed that for thousands of years Cro-Magnon people and Neanderthals coexisted and inhabited the cave by turns.

It was a discovery of a potentially monumental importance for the study of human evolution.

Artifacts, their pieces and fragments, which were found during the archeological excavations in Buran-Kaya, suggested that the cave people who once lived there decorated themselves with all sorts of bracelets, necklaces and with what now would be called “piercings.” It would not be too far-fetched to propose that they also decorated their bodies with some sort of tattoos. Anyway, the tradition of this kind of self-decoration has persisted well into the twentieth century among “primitive” natives in various parts of the globe, and recently it has become fashionable among the young people in “civilized” countries.

The cave people in Buran-Kaya seem to have been alone in making decorations from sea shells. Strangely enough, no such decorations have been found so far at any of the other prehistoric sites of human settlements in the Crimea in spite of the proximity of the sea and easy availability of sea shells. Still more surprisingly, decorations made from sea shells were discovered at some prehistoric settlement sites in northern Ukraine, over 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) away from the Crimea. Various theories have been proposed to explain the presence of sea-shell decorations so far away from the sea coast. It is known that in some ancient or surviving aborigine cultures sea shells were used as an equivalent of money in trade. Sea shells were also used as a sort of a pledge in negotiations, and thus sea shells could have been carried long distances from the places where they were originally picked up.

Some artifacts discovered in Buran-Kaya were made of mammoth ivory but mammoths are believed either to have died out in the Crimea or left the peninsula for cooler northern regions by the time Buran-Kaya began to be lived in. Available evidence suggests that mammoths still lived in Ukraine at that time about 400 kilometers further to the north.

The human remains were unearthed in Buran-Kaya too — though not full skeletons but as fragments of bones, mostly of the skulls. Human teeth and finger phalanges were also brought to light. It was established that the fragments of skulls belonged to different individuals of different age, and some skull bones definitely bore the signs of notches made by knives.

It remains unclear whether the skulls were the heads of enemies brought into the cave, or whether the cave people of Buran-Kaya were cannibals, or maybe the fragments of the skulls suggest some rituals connected with the death of the members of the cave clan. Any of these theories can prove to be true — cannibalism, hunting for enemies’ heads, scalping and death rituals were a wide spread phenomena known to have existed in many parts of the world.

At present, the archeological finds made in Buran-Kaya are being studied in the laboratories — and not only in Ukraine. Among the scientists studying the findings are the French archeologists Dr. Stephane Pean and Dr. Laurent Crepin, and Dr. Sandrine Prat, an anthropologist. If the coexistence in time of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons and their occupation in turn of the cave of Buran-Kaya are proven to be a fact, it may considerably change our ideas of the evolutionary process of the hominids, and will make anthologists rethink the currently held theories of the evolution of Homo sapiens.

After-work life at the dig

Japanese archeologists joined their Ukrainian colleagues to carry on excavations in the Crimean cave of Buran-Kaya in 2008. Their group was made up of five men — Yoshi Yamada, doctor of science; Takanori Sakashita, a post-graduate student; Yuta Takeda and Riutaru Miyamoto, students, and Masayuki Yagi, who earlier in life used to design highways, and then became an amateur archeologist.

The Ukrainian group was made also of five people — Dr. Oleksandr Yanevich and me, Nataliya Mykhailova, archeologists; my two daughters Khrystyna and Nadya, amateur archeologists, and Misha Melnyk, an archeology student from the Crimea. The age of the participants varied from 14, the youngest, to 78, the oldest!

The Japanese proved to be able to work very long hours. They were very disciplined and thorough in their work. They refused to partake of occasional wine-drinking except on week-ends. The two students, Yuta and Yataro, kept diaries at night after work, writing into them all that was happening during the day in great detail. They even made drawings of the things that made a particular impression upon them. For example, when they had a chance to ride horses — for the first time in their lives! — they duly recorded this experience in their journals and even made drawings to illustrate the story.

They did not care very much for sitting by the fire, playing the guitar and singing romantic songs, occupations very popular among Ukrainian students. They entertained themselves by listening to Japanese pop music and by taking photographs.

The summer of 2008 turned out to be very hot and to our great disappointment it did not rain a single time during our stay at Buran-Kaya. We had to begin work almost at dawn and worked until noon, when the heat would become unbearable. A nearby mountain river provided an opportunity for taking swims, or rather dips — the water was icy cold.

Weekends were slacker as far as work was concerned, and parties were held on all sorts of occasions — to celebrate, for example, the Day of Archeologists. The Japanese and the Ukrainian archeologists cooked the traditional dishes, and both parties enjoyed each other’s food.

Football was played in the cool of the evenings; the Japanese showed their skills in Japanese martial arts. Songs, both Ukrainian and Japanese, were sung. Mr Yagi-san, who is already 78, proved to be the best not only in singing of traditional Japanese songs, but he also performed an ancient Japanese dance. He even wrote poems in a traditional Japanese style on paper napkins in exquisite hieroglyphs, devoting a poem to every member of the archeological expedition.

 

Examining new finds.

Archeologists on a sightseeing tour of Sudak, Crimea.

Mr Yagi-san, inspired by the Crimean sights, composed a poem in the traditional Japanese style: “The dew is heavy/ It’ll be again hot in the mountains/ Fuji is so faraway”.

Among the archeological finds were pieces of ochre, implements for pounding them, flint knives and scrapers (the modern Japanese knife is placed as a yardstick for size).

 

The elderly Japanese amateur archeologist, a much admired member of the archeological expedition.

It is in the vicinity of this picturesque place that the cave people lived thousands
of years ago.

Pieces of human skulls bearing signs of cuts and notches, and human teeth.

 

The author expresses her thanks to her colleagues
at the Institute of Archeology of the National Academy
of Sciences of Ukraine and to Tokyo Metropolitan University.

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