Neanderthal populations from different Caucasus regions evidently had strong social connections

Researchers from Russia and the United States analyzed samples of obsidian volcanic glass from various Caucasus’ regions. It turned out that more than 70 thousand years ago, Neanderthals transferred this mineral to distances up to 250 kilometers and used it to manufacture tools. These findings help to understand how populations from different regions communicated in antiquity. Followingly, we present extracts from 3 relative publications.


Much attention is currently paid to the study of Paleolithic raw materials, including those related to the Paleolithic of the Caucasus (Adler et al. 2006, 2014; Andrefsky 2009; Brantingham 2003; Braun 2005; Dibble et al. 2005; Féblot-Augustins 2009; Frahm et al. 2014; Géneste et al. 2008; Grégoire 2000; Kuhn 2004; Le Bourdonnec et al. 2012).

These studies provide significant data for understanding behavioral, social, and cultural adaptations, as well as subsistence, exchange, mobility, and contacts among huntergatherer groups in the Paleolithic. Like flint, obsidian is one of the most widely dispersed raw materials used for tool production since the early stages of human evolution (Féblot-Augustins 1997; Negash and Shackley 2006; Negash et al. 2006).


Moreover, obsidian geochemical compositions are generally unique for each source, whereas the flint geochemistry can vary significantly within each outcrop. There are very few studies of obsidian artifacts from the North Caucasian Paleolithic sites. In the first half of the 20th century, most obsidian finds in the Northern Caucasus were associated with Armenian sources. Nasedkin and Formozov (1965) published the initial study of obsidians from several Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic sites in the Northern Caucasus. They analyzed several obsidian artifacts excavated from the Upper Paleolithic levels at Gubs I and VII rockshelters, Double Grotto, and Lubochniy Rockshelter, using the refraction index, and proposed Zayukovo and Chegem sources located in the Baksan River basin (the Elbrus-Kazbek volcanic province [areas surrounding the Elbrus and Kazbek major volcanoes], in the North-central Caucasus). Numerous obsidian sources are known in the Elbrus-Kazbek province (Laverov et al. 2005); and, numerous surface finds of Paleolithic obsidian artifacts are reported from this area (e.g., Panichkina 1950).


Recently it has been reported that obsidian has been used since the Middle Paleolithic (MP), but mainly during the Upper Paleolithic (UP) and Epipaleolithic (EPP) at Mezmaiskaya Cave, in the Northwestern Caucasus (Golovanova et al. 2010a). Our paper is the first comprehensive study of obsidian exploitation through the Middle, Upper, and Epipaleolithic in the Northern Caucasus, based on the data from Mezmaiskaya.

Today the cave is located in the upper level of mountain forest, at an elevation of 1310m above sea level. It was discovered by L. Golovanova in 1987, and since then about 80m² has been excavated to a maximum depth of 5m. Strata 3 thru 2 contain late Middle Paleolithic (LMP), Strata 1C, 1B, and 1A have Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP), and Strata 1-4 and 1-3 yielded Epipaleolithic (EPP) artifacts (Golovanova et al. 1998; 1999; 2006; 2010a, b; 2012).


We analyzed lithic collections from the 1987–2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010 excavations at Mezmaiskaya, containing 51,722 lithic artifacts from nine cultural levels in total. These include 528 obsidian artifacts (~1% of the total lithics), of which 38 pieces were analyzed using a Thermo/ARL Quant’X energy dispersive x-ray fluorescence (EDXRF) spectrometer. The trace element analyses were performed in the Geoarchaeological XRF Laboratory, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, applying analytical methodology available online at and described in Shackley (2005: 193–195; 2011).

From this analysis, we identified two obsidian source areas, one (Zayukovo or Baksan) located in the North-central Greater Caucasus and another (Chikiani-Paravani) located in the Lesser Caucasus (in the Southern Caucasus), that were exclusively used by the Mezmaiskaya Cave inhabitants in the LMP, EUP, and EPP, from ca. 70 to 10 kya.


Conclusions The recently published data on obsidian exploitation at Bondi and Ortvale-klde, in Georgia (Le Bourdonnec et al. 2012), suggests that obsidian was brought to the caves mostly from the Chikiani source in the Lesser Caucasus (170km away from the sites), as well as from other sources located as far away as 350km, in eastern Anatolia (Ikisdere and Sarikamis) and Armenia (Hatis and Gutansar). Le Bourdonnec and colleagues (2012: 12) report that Neanderthals and early modern humans transported obsidians as unfinished products and hypothesize that “Neanderthals and later Modern Humans apparently employed the same behavior with regard to how they worked their obsidian, which raises the question of an eventual transmission of this tradition”.


Our data on obsidian transportation at Mezmaiskaya does not support this hypothesis of transmission of behaviors from LMP Neanderthals to EUP modern humans and are strongly supported by other archaeological data, indicating no cultural transition from LMP to EUP in the Caucasus. Contra to Le Bourdonnec and colleagues (2012), our studies of flint (Doronicheva and Kulkova 2011) and obsidian artifacts from Mezmaiskaya indicate significant differences between Neanderthals and early modern humans in behavior related to the transportation and exploitation of distant rocks in the Caucasus. Our conclusions may be summarized as the following:

1. In the EUP and EPP, the area of resource exploitation and mobility usually did not exceed a distance of ~100km from a site, and both EUP and EPP humans preferred to exploit more intensively high-quality raw material sources located within 20–100km from their occupation sites. This raw material behavior is different from those typical of the MP Neanderthals, who exploited mostly local (0–5km from a site) raw materials even if these rocks were poor quality.

2. At Mezmaiskaya, the EUP humans brought obsidians mostly as ready-to-use blanks (bladelets or microbladelets) or retouched tools made on bladelets or microbladelets in EUP Layers 1C and 1B, although transportation of some obsidians as prepared cores is not excluded. The transportation of obsidians as prepared cores is clearly documented in EUP Layer 1A and EPP Layer 1-3. A similar mode of raw material transportation by UP humans as mostly cores and rarely pre-cores also was defined for high-quality nonlocal flints; and, it differs from the mode typical for the Neanderthals who transported non-local rocks mostly as retouched flake tools or flakes, but almost never as cores (see Doronicheva and Kulkova 2011).

3. At Mezmaiskaya, the EUP humans exploited more intensively the Chikiani-Paravani obsidian source area in the Lesser Caucasus rather than the closer Zayukovo source in the North-central Caucasus, and the exploitation of the Chikiani-Paravani source increased toward the end of EUP, in contrast to the LMP Neanderthal occupations, for which our study identifies exploitation only of the Zayukovo (Baksan) source.

4. Our studies of obsidian and flint (Doronicheva and Kulkova 2011) artifacts from
Mezmaiskaya suggest a deliberate selection by UP humans of high quality raw materials derived from distant sources mostly for the production of bladelets and micro-bladelets, and tools on bladelets and micro-bladelets; such strong selection of high quality rocks for making special classes of artifacts is not documented in the LMP Neanderthal occupations in the Caucasus.

Le Bourdonnec and colleagues (2012) argue for an “intermediary exchange” for obsidian artifacts derived from sources located more than 350km from a site. Our study of obsidian artifacts from Mezmaiskaya suggests that the UP inhabitants of the cave had contacts with distant areas located on both sides of the Greater Caucasus. However, the results do not allow us to infer whether these contacts were the result of intermediary exchange among a number of intermediate human groups or the result of direct obsidian procurement from distant sources. We think this important topic should be the subject of future research when more comparative and statistically significant materials become available.

(Source: “Obsidian Exploitation Strategies in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic of the
Northern Caucasus: New Data from Mesmaiskaya Cave”, by Ekaterina Doronicheva, Michael Steven Shackley)


Modern research in the Caucasus involving both obsidian artefact characterisation and sourcing enhances our knowledge of the early exploitation and exchange of this raw material (Le Bourdonnec et al. 2012; Montoya et al. 2013; Chatainger & Gratuze 2014; Doronicheva & Shackley 2014; Frahm et al. 2014; Pleurdeau et al. 2016).

The north-central Caucasus region—located between the highest European volcanic mountain peaks of Elbrus (5642m asl) and Kazbek (5034m asl)—is notable as the area producing the only obsidian source (called Baksan or Zayukovo) known in the Northern Caucasus. Here, obsidian is found as boulders, known as ‘volcanic bombs’, in pyroclastic and secondary contexts (e.g. river alluvium) close to the village of Zayukovo in the BaksanValley.


Recent studies indicate that the Baksan obsidian source was a centre of attraction for both Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans (Doronicheva & Shackley 2014). Only three stratified sites, however, provide evidence of humans settling in the area during the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene. These are the Sosruko and Alebastroviy Zavod rockshelters, which were excavated in the 1950s, and Badynoko rock shelter, which was investigated in 2004 (Zamiatnin & Akritas 1957 a & b; Zenin & Orlova 2006).

Our field surveys in 2016 discovered the first stratified Middle Palaeolithic site in the Baksan obsidian region. The site, Saradj-chuko Grotto, is located 934m asl and ∼30m above the Saradj-chuko River (a tributary of the Baksan River), and approximately 6km from known obsidian sources. The cave opens to the south-east. We excavated a test pit within the cave, which revealed a stratum (layer 6) composed of sandy loam 0.6m beneath the modern surface and containing rare ignimbrite debris.

Layer 6 produced 24 perfectly preserved lithic artefacts and some bone fragments, including caprid teeth. All the lithic artefacts are made of black, smoky, brown, red-brown or speckled obsidian, apart from two tools made of light-grey flint. Three obsidian artefacts were analysed using the Thermo Scientific Quant’X EDXRF spectrometer in the Geoarchaeological XRF Laboratory, Albuquerque (USA). Results showed that all the sampled artefacts were made of obsidian originating from the Baksan source.


The lithic assemblage includes a small bipolar core with prepared platforms, a core trimming flake, 16 flakes, of which eight were modified into retouched tools, four shatters and two chips. There are also three blades, three laminar flakes and one Levallois triangular flake. Of nine flakes with preserved striking platforms, five have faceted platforms. Of the eight retouched tools, comprising three simple side scrapers, two Mousterian points, and three tool fragments, one is made from a Levallois triangular flake, and four from blades and laminar flakes. These technical-typological peculiarities allow us to define the industry initially as Levallois laminar Mousterian.

The industry from Saradj-chuko shows close similarity with Middle Palaeolithic industries known in neighbouring areas, such as those found during the 1950–1960s in small surface localities in the north-eastern Caucasus (Liubin & Beliaeva 2001) and in Weasel Cave in the Terek River upper basin (Liubin & Beliaeva 2001; Hidjrati et al. 2003). Furthermore, some of the tool types are characteristic of the Zagros Mousterian in the Lesser Caucasus (Golovanova 2015).

The Levallois and laminar characteristics, and the absence of bifacial tools, are in contrast with the Mousterian industry of Saradj-chuko and the entire north-central and north-eastern Caucasus, from the Eastern Micoquian industry of the north-western Caucasus. They also suggest an affinity with Mousterian industries in the Southern Caucasus. Further excavation and research at the Saradj-chuko site are required to clarify the chronology and the cultural peculiarities of the Middle Palaeolithic industry of the north-central Caucasus. Such further work may also illuminate the characteristics of obsidian exchange and possible cultural contacts among Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal populations in the western and eastern areas of the Northern Caucasus, and in the Southern Caucasus.

Important issues of human evolutionary research include the settlement of large regions by Middle Palaeolithic hominins and contact among different Neanderthal groups. The dynamics of environmental change contributed greatly to the settlement of different regions during the Middle Palaeolithic, especially in the northern latitudes, and particularly in the Northern Caucasus (Liubin 1977; Golovanova & Doronichev 2003; Golovanova 2015). The discovery of the Saradj-Chuko site addresses a large gap in our knowledge of Neanderthal occupation of the Caucasus. The site has great potential to provide new information for a better understanding of Middle Palaeolithic cultural and technological variability, differences of subsistence and life-ways, and lithic raw material networking (obsidian exchange) across the Caucasus and the broader region of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

(Source: “The first Middle Palaeolithic site exhibiting obsidian industry on the northern slopes of the Central Caucasus”, by Ekaterina Doronicheva et al.)


The Zayukovo (Baksan) obsidian source, located approximately 70-80 km to the north-east of Mount Elbruz, presented here is the most commonly recovered archaeological obsidian in the region (Blackman 1998; Doronicheva and Shackley 2014; Doronicheva et al. 2013, 2017; Keller et al. 1996; Lebedev et al. 2008; Le Bourdonnec et al. 2012). It is a high quality, high silica obsidian raw material favored during the late Middle through late Upper Paleolithic in the region. It could be distributed over a much larger region through secondary deposition in the Baksan River sediments than discussed, and is certainly present in Quaternary sediments throughout the Baksan valley. The source has been mentioned in a number of essays, but given its importance in the region of interest, a more thorough examination is offered here (see Doronicheva et al. 2019). A geological and megascopic characterization of the obsidian is followed by a discussion of the geochemistry and XRF results.

The Zayukovo obsidian source area lies 70-80 km northeast of the Elbrus stratovolcano (Elbrus neovolcanic region; Laverov et al. 2005) and close to the town of Zayukovo in the Baksan river valley (Terek river basin), in the territory of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (Russia), about 20 km north-west of the city of Nalchik. This area is located on the border of the two main structural elements of the Greater Caucasus—the Laba-Malka monoclinal uplifting zone represented here by the Chegem tectonic step near its articulation with the Kabardian lowland, which represents the most western element of a huge Terek-Caspian tectonic depression (Milanowskiy and Koronovskiy 1969; Nesmeyanov 1999). The characteristic feature of the area is the presence of Late Pliocene and Lower Pleistocene volcanogenic formations.

In the Zayukovo (Baksan) obsidian source area, obsidian is found as cobbles (‘volcanic bombs’) in pyroclastic and secondary contexts on high river terraces along the north and south bank of the Baksan river (Chirvinskiy 1934). The known obsidian outcrops are located within a radius of 10 km between the modern towns of Zayukovo and Atazhukino in the Baksan valley, but the largest quantity of obsidian cobbles and especially larger-sized cobbles is confined to the outcrops near Zayukovo.


Although Zayukovo obsidian is highly variable in colour, trace element analyses discussed below suggest a single, homogeneous composition of all obsidian samples from the area and their distinction from other obsidian sources known in the Southern and Lesser Caucasus on the basis of trace element composition (see also Keller et al. 1996; Le Bourdonnec et al. 2012).

A collection of 34 source samples from three collection localities along the Baksan River were analyzed by XRF to provide an initial baseline for the understanding of raw material procurement in regional sites (Doronicheva and Shackley 2013; Doronicheva et al. 2013, 2017). The samples were analyzed initially at the Archaeological XRF Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley. The bulk of the samples were analyzed at the Geoarchaeological XRF Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, by MSS, both analyses using the ThermoScientific Quant’X  EDXRF instruments.

Depending on the elements of interest and the bivariate plots here, various localities exhibit more or less variability. However, in each case the vast majority of the Zayukovo source data are contained in the smallest confidence ellipsis and all three collection localities overlap compositionally. Again, however, as noted by Le Bourdonnec et al., even with the intra-source variability, the Zayukovo obsidian is elementally distinct from all the other known regional sources (2012: 1320; see also Blackman 1998; Poidevin 1998).

The XRF analysis presented here can serve as a baseline for geoarchaeological studies of obsidian procurement in the region, particularly for analyses using XRF, LA-ICP-MS, and PIXE. The elemental variability evident is greater than indicated in earlier analyses with smaller sample sizes, but this is expected. The Zayukovo (Baksan) obsidian source is an important raw material source in the Cacausus region throughout prehistory, and these data should aid in the understanding of that prehistory.

(Source: “The Zayukovo (Baksan) archaeological obsidian source, Greater Caucasus, Russia”, by M. Steven Shackley, Ekaterina V. Doronicheva et al.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides



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