Overarching period: Upper Paleolithic, from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago
Carbon dating: 13,100 – 13,400 years old
Location: Satsurblia Cave - 42.38° North, 42.59° East
Site location country: Georgia
mtDNA haplogroups: K3
Y haplogroups: J2
The Upper Palaeolithic Period in the Caucasus
The Upper Palaeolithic is a broad period of history, roughly lasting from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. The period coincides with the spread of Homo sapiens into Eurasia around 45,000-40,000 years ago, as well as the disappearance of the Neanderthals, an archaic species of human that evolved independently to H. sapiens [1, 2]. Neanderthals had inhabited Europe for more than 300,000 years, but are believed to have died out sometime between 38,000-28,000 years ago . This is coincidentally not long after the first modern humans migrated to Europe, and it has been argued that the Neanderthal extinction was at least partly caused by competition with humans .
The Caucasus is an area located between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, comprised of the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia. The region is dominated by the Caucasus Mountains, which act as a natural boundary between Asia and Eastern Europe. Until around 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals were the sole inhabitants of the Caucasus. Our closest evolutionary relatives, Neanderthals were hunters who produced stone tools and were capable of creating glues, using pigments and even building structures [5, 6].
During the Upper Palaeolithic, it is hypothesised that a glacial system covered the Caucasus Mountains, forming a barrier between the southern and northern Caucasus regions [7, 8]. This led to southern and northern Neanderthals producing distinctly different stone tools – in the southern Caucasus, tools were similar to the symmetrical Mousterian flint handaxes found in the Levant. Meanwhile, in the north, tools can be compared to the Micoquian industry of Central Europe, characterised by asymmetric tools such as knives and scrapers .
Around 35,000-40,000 years ago, sites such as Dzudzuana Cave and Ortvale Klde Rockshelter in Georgia display evidence of the abrupt appearance of a fully-developed Upper Palaeolithic culture [10, 11]. These cultural artefacts were completely different to the tools found in the Caucasus prior to this date, suggesting that this technology was brought by a new population, most likely modern humans arriving from the Near East. Indeed, the Caucasus would have acted as a perfect “dispersal corridor”, allowing humans to spread into Asia and Europe.
As this cultural replacement coincides with the massive Campanian Ignimbrite volcanic eruption in Italy (around 40,000 years ago), it has been theorised that this natural catastrophe may have damaged the ecological niche of Neanderthals living in the Caucasus, perhaps leading them to compete with modern humans for resources [10, 12].
The material culture purportedly brought by humans included a lithic technology made up of stone blades and bladelets, a wide array of bone tools (some with geometric designs), and pendants made from animal teeth . This material culture is found at sites on both sides of the Caucasus Mountains, indicating humans spread across the entire region, and is similar to artefacts found in the Levant during the same period . These early Caucasian humans appear to have hunted bison, aurochs, Caucasian tur and red deer, and gathered plants such as wild flax. At Dzudzuana Cave, fibres have been found indicating that this wild flax was spun, knotted and dyed .
From 25,000 – 18,000 years ago, a climatic event known as the Last Glacial Maximum occurred. This was a time in which ice sheets were at their greatest extension, covering large areas in the Northern latitudes, and little material culture is found in the Caucasus during this period. By 18,000 years ago, temperatures began to rise and deglaciation occurred. Around this time, the Upper Palaeolithic in the Caucasus begins to converge with the subsequent period of time, known as the Epipaleolithic or Mesolithic era .
By 18,000 years ago, material culture in the Caucasus was characterised by a highly developed blade technology, which included geometric microliths - tiny flint blades, no more than a few centimetres long, which were attached to wooden handles. These tools were similar to the Epigravettian industry of central Europe. Evidence of ochre and pierced shells suggests these Caucasians created personal ornaments. Pollen evidence from Satsurblia Cave in Georgia indicates that wild cereals were an essential part of the Caucasian diet. This would have been subsidised by boar, deer and Caucasian tur .
The Upper Palaeolithic presence in Georgia
Satsurblia Cave, in western Georgia, is an Upper Palaeolithic site dating to 18,000 years ago. First discovered in 1975, the site has been sporadically excavated until 2013, revealing plenty of evidence from the Upper Palaeolithic . Finds include stone and bone tools, shell ornaments, yellow ochre, flax fibres dyed blue and pink, and a round fireplace. The lithic technology appears to be dominated by bladelet tools, as well as a unique rectangular tool, found only at this site . Faunal evidence suggests that the occupants of Satsurblia were hunter-gatherers, who inhabited the cave seasonally and targeted forest-dwelling ungulates, such as wild boar and red deer . Analysis of pollen remains suggests the community at Satsurblia used medicinal herbs such as yarrow and wormwood, possibly to treat conditions like malaria, rheumatism and gastrointestinal diseases .
The Cave has yielded human remains dating to 13,100 – 13,400 years ago . One individual was genetically sequenced – a man, who likely had light skin, dark hair and brown eyes. He was also probably lactose intolerant – the ability to digest milk in adulthood only became common after agriculture was introduced in Europe.
DNA analysis reveals that people from Satsurblia were genetically similar to Caucasian people dating to the subsequent Epipaleolithic period, specifically individuals from Kotias Klde, another site in Western Georgia. Analysis shows that Caucasian hunter-gatherers from both the Upper Palaeolithic and Epipaleolithic were genetically distinct compared to hunter-gatherers from the rest of Europe. This split between the two populations occurred around 45,000 years ago, as humans migrated from the Near East, and one group stayed in the Caucasus, whilst the other expanded further into Europe.
These Caucasian hunter-gatherers were likely the ancestors of the Yamnaya people – a Bronze Age population who occupied the Pontic steppe around 5,300 – 4,600 years ago. Nowadays, the Caucasian populations of the Upper Palaeolithic and Epipaleolithic are still genetically very similar to modern day Caucasians. The individual from Satsurblia carried mitochondrial haplogroup K3 and Y-chromosome haplogroup J2, both of which are found at high levels in Georgia today .
Interestingly, Caucasian hunter-gatherers also contributed DNA to the genetic makeup of modern Central and South Asian populations, particularly in India . This genetic movement was likely caused by the migration of people, and may be linked to the spread of Indo-European languages.
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