Reader Questions 1: In Search of Archaic Hominin Survivals in Eurasia. Tutkaul Culture

This is a new category of posts on this weblog. Every now and then a reader sends me a question and sometimes I get interested and try to answer. There seems to be a steady interest on the part of Western readers to know more about research conducted in Russia and the former Soviet Union (which is 1/6 of the globe) by Russian and Soviet scholars and published exclusive in Russian. My introduction into the work of Yuri Berezkin on the areal distribution of mythological motifs in the New World and beyond (here and here) is one case in point. A reference to my book “The Genius of Kinship” (2007) recently made by the British social anthropologist Nick Allen in the context of the unusual Siberian kinship systems completely unknown in West is a related occurrence.

Since the rise of the “archaic admixture” theme in modern human origins research (beginning with the announcement of the minimal 1-4% admixture with Neandertals in modern non-Africans in 2010), both professionals and amateurs have rushed to search for archaic retentions in relatively recent craniological materials and lithic technological complexes. The Iwo Eleru skull in West Africa dated at 11.7-16.3 KYA showed affinities with archaic African hominins (Harvati K.  et al. 2011. “The Later Stone Age Calvaria from Iwo Eleru, Nigeria: Morphology and Chronology,” PLoS ONE 6(9)). Then, Holocene Longlin and Maludong remains in South China were presented (Curnoe D., et al. 2012. “Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians,” PLoS ONE 7(3); see my commentary based on known “archaic retentions” in historical Amerindian populations) as having archaic features.

Recently, blogger faintsmile1992  started a discussion at Anthroscape apropos the three papers by Anne Dambricourt Malassé and colleagues regarding Mesolithic and Neolithic skulls and lithics available from the poorly known and poorly accessible Himalayan and Hindu-Kush areas in South-Central Asia. Dambricourt Malassé & Gaillard (“Relations between Climatic Changes and Prehistoric Human Migrations during Holocene between Gissar Range, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Kashmir: The Archaeological and Ecological Data,” Quaternary International 229 (1-2), 2011) write:

“Only four Mesolithic skeletons are known from the excavated site of Tutkaul: two women and two children. The skulls alone have been described. The adults had developed robust features and they cannot be related to any geographical type (Kiyatkna and Ranov, 1971; Dambricourt Malassé, 2008).”

Faintsmile1992 contacted me with a query as to the content of Kiyatkina T.P. & V.A. Ranov. 1971. Perviy antropologickie naxodki kamennogo veka Tadjikistana (neoliticeckie cherepa yz Tutkaula),” Voprosy antroplologii 37, 149–156), a Russian-language publication from a journal now relegated to a remote storage in college libraries. Although not fully incorrect, the description of Tutkaul skulls by Dambricourt Malassé & Gaillard is oversimplified and imprecise. Indeed, 4 skulls were unearthed from the Neolithic levels at Tutkaul (Tajikistan), all buried in a fetal position and all posthumously deformed by a side squeeze. The sex attribution of the 2 adult skulls proved to be difficult. Only one of them showed higher robusticity, which suggests that it may have been the skull of a male. But other traits contradict this conclusion. The Soviet physical anthropologist Tatiana Kiyatkina classified the dolichocranic skulls (see below, only children’s skulls were depicted in Kiyatkina & Ranov 1971) as belonging to the Mediterranean subtype (slight alveolar prognatism) of the general Caucasoid type and noted some of their undifferentiated Caucasoid traits. She measured the skulls using a standard table but many metrics (see below) did not make the final table or have question marks against them because the skulls are artificially deformed.

Tutkaul-CraniometricTableThe skulls also reminded her of Giuseppe Sergi‘s “Euroafrican” race from which the Mediterranean type presumably evolved. Browridges – not visible in the children’s skulls below – do give the skull of the robust adult an archaic feel but they are nowhere near the supraorbital toruses seen in Neandertal skulls and, again, may be sex-based. Dambricourt Malassé & Gaillard’s sentence above created an unwarranted mystique about the Tutkaul skulls for which the original source gives little reason.










This said, archaeologically Mesolithic and Neolithic Tutkaul is peculiar due to 220px-Zhangxian02the central role played in the toolkits by cobblestone based choppers and choppings (see left , from Tutkaul-CobbleToolsRanov V.A., G.F. Korobkova. 1971. “Tutkaul – mnogoslojnoe poselenie gissarskoj kul’tury v Yuzhnom Tadjikistane,” Sovetskaia arckheologiia 2, 133-147). Tutkaul people did hunt (the remains of a deer were found there) but they completely lacked projectile points. Ranov & Korobkova (1971, 142) hypothesized that subsistence was basically pastoralism, with hunting and gathering playing a subsidiary role, hence only pebble-slinging bows were used. Incidentally, pebble-slinging bows, or gulaks, survived in contemporary ethnographic cultures of Central Asia (see a Zhang Xian picture on the right), but they were only used to shoot small birds and animals.

Ranov classifed Tutkaul as a Gissar culture. He found similar “primitive” lithic toolkits at Osh-Khona, near the Kara Kul Lake, and at Karatumshuk and coined the term “Gissar enigma.” The origin of these primitive hunters is unclear but judging by the Tutkaul skulls they had neither “Oriental,” nor “Neandertal” affinities. Modern humans are characterized by diverse adaptations and the notion of a “behaviorally modern package” borne out of earlier Cro-Magnon blade-based toolkits is too limiting to capture this adaptational complexity. An argument against the concept of a “behaviorally modern package” was made by a number of archaeologists who reference Australia and Southeast Asia as regions in which this package is not fully visible well into the Holocene. Mesolithic and Neolithic Tutkaul culture in Central Asia shows that even populations with clear West Eurasian affinities lacked “behaviorally modern package” in the Holocene times. They likely practiced pastoralism but the lithic tools were no more advanced than Lower Paleolithic Soanian culture from the same general region. On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of those “behaviorally modern” traits (use of ochre, ornamentation, blade production, etc.) were found in Neandertals further illustrating the objective difficulties of defining behavioral modernity by means of archaeological arifacts.