THE PALEOLITHIC ARCHAEOLOGY OF
2004 FIELD REPORT*
A Preliminary Description of Activities of the
Joint Mongolian-Russian-American Archaeological Expedition (JMRAAE)
John W. Olsen, Ph.D.
Professor & Head
Department of Anthropology
*Not to be cited or quoted without the author’s permission
2004, our interdisciplinary approach to the investigation of high and arid
Central Asia’s earliest prehistory yielded a range of archaeological,
paleoecological, paleogeographic, and geological data that collectively
describe a complex, changing pattern of prehistoric human occupation of northwest
From 27 May through 30 July
2004 the Joint Mongolian-Russian-American Archaeological Expedition (JMRAAE) and
the Tibet Paleolithic Project (TPP) continued a program of field research
The first half of June was spent in
the Tacheng (塔城; Uyg. Çöçek) and Altay
(阿勒泰; Altay) districts (地区; rayon) of the northern
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (新疆维吾尔自治区; Şincañ Uyghur Aptonom Rayon), expanding not only JMRAAE’s geographical range
of operation, but also the international scope of its personnel. The Xinjiang project coordinates the
activities of Chinese, American, and Russian scholars and represents the first
such trilateral archaeological project to be carried out on Chinese
soil with the full cooperation of the
Xinjiang’s Pleistocene prehistory is currently very poorly understood, a fact particularly regrettable in light of the region’s geographical position on the eastern margin of Central Asia, its vast size (ca. 1.6 million square kilometers; nearly one-sixth the territory of the modern People’s Republic of China) and great ecological diversity. Sporadic, low density late Paleolithic remains are known from the Tash Kurgan (塔什库尔干; Taşqorgan) region in Xinjiang’s far west (Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology 1995: 1-3) and from the southern margins of the Tarim Basin (塔里木盆地; e.g., Olsen et al. 1988, 1989; see also Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology 1995: 4-8; Wang and Du 1997: 29-70).
Although aceramic lithic assemblages
have also been reported from the
In June 2004, JMRAAE’s 14 Xinjiang
expedition participants completed a circumnavigation of the Junggar Basin (准噶乐盆地; Cuñghariyä), driving west and north
from Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümçi, to Altay via the Qaramay (克拉玛依) petroleum fields, and then along the northern
and eastern margins of the Basin, first following the course of the Ertix River
southeast from Altay to Fuyun (富蕴; Köktoqay), then southeast again to Qinghe (青河; Çiñgil), and south-southwest to Qitai (奇台; Guçuñ, the latter a loan word derived
from the Chinese 古城
gŭchéng, or “ancient city”) before returning to Ürümçi from the east. This circumnavigation of the
large tracts of the southern Altai
piedmont are geologically unsuitable for Pleistocene prehistoric occupation. The predominant geology is metamorphic
(mostly highly weathered granites) in nature and lithic raw material is scarce
and highly localized at best. Although
the expedition broke into three separate reconnaissance teams and conducted
detailed spot surveys as far west as Habahe (哈巴河; Qaba; N 48° 03¢ 24.9², E 86° 24¢ 53.1²), only
occasional, typologically terminal Pleistocene or early Holocene surface
scatters of artifacts were identified.
On the other hand, the margins of the
An exceptionally large
quarry-workshop was found near the Nongshishi Coal Mine in Tacheng (Çöçek) district
(塔城地区农十师煤矿) at an
altitude of roughly 1000 meters a.s.l. on both sides of the main Qaramay-Altay
highway. Taking N 46° 38¢ 56.0², E 86° 02¢ 07.8² as an
approximate center point, this surface distribution extends over an area of
roughly 3X5 kilometers, with varying artifact densities suggesting intensive
long-term use of the locally outcropping raw material, a dark cryptocrystalline
rock provisionally identified as quartzite.
Heavily abraded Levallois-like nuclei – some as large as 20-25 cm in
maximum dimension – and the byproducts of these cores dominate the assemblage,
although occasional tools were also encountered, including bifacially worked
pieces and trimmed flakes. Large blades
and blade-like flakes are also characteristic of this assemblage. In general, the Nongshishi workshop materials
resemble those from Shuidonggou, to the east in Ningxia (宁夏水洞沟; Ningxia Institute of
Cultural Relics and Archaeology 2003). Parallels
may also be drawn with surface materials collected in the Bulgan (Mong. Булган)
and Uench (Үенч) regions of southwestern Khovd province
Higher terraces of the
A single day of reconnaissance in the region surrounding the settlement of Qinghe (青河县城; Çiñgil; N 46° 40¢ 25.3², E 90° 22¢ 49.4², 1221m a.s.l.) failed to identify any aceramic archaeological assemblages. Qinghe’s geographical proximity to the Mongolian localities in Khovd aimag where Soviet-Mongolian expeditions recovered abundant Paleolithic surface materials in the 1980s suggests this region may warrant further investigation during subsequent field seasons, although the local geology seems unpromising from the perspective of lithic raw material for the production of artifacts or the presence of caves and rockshelters.
the combined expedition moved its focus of activities to the middle reaches of
Tolbor 01: N 49° 18¢ 35.8², E 102° 57¢ 46.9² (1017 meters asl)
Tolbor 02: N 49° 18¢ 02.4², E 102° 57¢ 53.3² (1059 meters asl)
Tolbor 03: N 49° 17¢ 52.3², E 102° 57¢ 56.1² (1050 meters asl)
Tolbor 04: N 49° 17¢ 28.5², E 102° 58¢ 08.4² (1073 meters asl)
Tolbor 4a: N 49° 17¢ 23.7², E 102° 58¢ 14.2² (1075 meters asl)
Tolbor 05: N 49° 17¢ 13.7², E 102° 58¢ 09.2² (1020 meters asl)
Tolbor 06: N 49° 14¢ 57.3², E 102° 57¢ 05.2² (1147 meters asl)
Tolbor 07: N 49° 13¢ 12.1², E 102° 55¢ 49.8² (1175 meters asl)
Tolbor 08: N 49° 13¢ 03.7², E 102° 55¢ 32.2² (1186 meters asl)
Tolbor 09: N 49° 12¢ 12.5², E 102° 54¢ 35.0² (1205 meters asl)
Tolbor 10: N 49° 12¢ 11.2², E 102° 54¢ 12.4² (1178 meters asl)
Tolbor 11: N 49° 10¢ 25.4², E 102° 51¢ 36.2² (1211 meters asl)
Tolbor 12: N 49° 10¢ 06.5², E 102° 51¢ 16.6² (1229 meters asl)
Tolbor 13: N 49° 09¢ 40.2², E 102° 49¢ 58.7² (1247 meters asl)
Tolbor 14: N 49° 09¢ 35.7², E 102° 49¢ 56.8² (1251 meters asl)
These localities represent primarily
surface and shallowly buried occupations on fluvial terraces. All are aceramic with only sparse microlithic
remains in evidence. Only one site
(Tolbor 05, alongside the main Bulgan-Mörön road) was subsurface tested in
2002. In June-July 2004, JMRAAE opened
two 2X5-meter and several smaller sondages
upslope from Tolbor 05, yielding many hundreds of lithic artifacts in an
apparently undisturbed stratigraphic sequence exceeding two meters deep in some
spots. Bone and horse tooth fragments as
well as charred, presumably vegetal, organic material in direct association
with the lithic industry were AMS radiocarbon dated by Beta Analytic in
Absolute chronology aside, the typology of the aggregate Tolbor lithic assemblages suggests early Upper Paleolithic affinity; large side scrapers (skreblo, скребло), prepared polyhedral and Levallois-like cores, notched flakes, and large blades and blade fragments exhibiting secondary retouch dominate the collections. Typologically, these materials resemble a large blade assemblage excavated in 1999 by the Egiin Gol Survey Project at Site EGS 082, east of the Tolbor localities investigated by JMRAAE and, more distantly, the Shuidonggou (水洞沟) assemblage in North China (Ningxia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology 2003). A standard radiometric date of 27,000 ± 390 BP (Beta-136515) was derived from a Bison calcaneum recovered in good stratigraphic context at EGS 082 (William Honeychurch, personal communication 2002). The unexpectedly young AMS dates from the Tolbor localities are just that much more perplexing in light of the lithic assemblage’s typological congruence with the materials from EGS 082 in the Egiin Gol valley.
Archaeological Investigations in Amdo (青海,
in late June, the Tibet Paleolithic Project, directed by Dr. P. Jeffrey
Brantingham of UCLA (http://paleo.sscnet.ucla.edu/TibetGroupPage.html)
initiated archaeological investigations in several areas of southern
Moving southwest from
From Yeniugou, the expedition moved south into the Xidatan (西大滩)Valley and established a base camp at N 35° 42¢ 56.0², E 94° 15¢ 27.8², south-southwest of the eponymous modern settlement, at an elevation of 4348 meters a.s.l. on the northern piedmont of the Burhan Budai Shan (布尔汗布达山), several kilometers south of National Highway 109 (the “Golmud-Lhasa Highway”) and the Naiqiguoqin River (奈齐郭勤河); for a general geological and tectonic description of the Xidatan region, see Woerd et al. 2004.
While some expedition members mapped, surface collected,
and initiated excavation of an archaeological site discovered in 2002 on a glacial
moraine near the Xidatan base camp, other team members traveled south and west
into the Kekexili (Tib. Hoh Xil)
National Nature Reserve (可可西里国家级自然保护区)
where they conducted reconnaissance for archaeological sites and collected
cores from salt lakes for paleoclimatic reconstruction. The excavations at Xidatan yielded an
assemblage of lithic artifacts including microblade cores and their products,
some of which are fashioned on obsidian.
This discovery is especially important since obsidian can be chemically traced
to its geological source with great accuracy.
Because the expedition has previously recovered obsidian artifacts from
sites far south of the
Bellezza’s (2001, 2002) extensive archaeological reconnaissance of northern Tibet, especially the Chang Thang (Byang-Thang) region, suggests large scale movement of thinly-distributed, largely nomadic populations, as might be expected of the Holocene pre-Buddhist antecedents of northern Tibet’s historic pastoralists (the ‘brog pa or drokpa). Recent surveys of the evidence for early human occupation of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (Aldenderfer 2003; Aldenderfer and Zhang 2004) point out that although many archaeological sites are known between 3,600 and more than 4,800 meters above sea level, most are strictly surface occurrences and none are securely dated, leading to the general conclusion that the higher elevations of the Plateau may have been first inhabited at or just before the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum around 22,000 years ago.
The expedition’s return to
The bulk of the 2004 archaeological and other collections have been transported to Novosibirsk, Beijing, Los Angeles, and Tucson where better facilities than those currently available in Ulaanbaatar, Xining, and Ürümçi will allow artifacts and other samples to be thoroughly analyzed before our next field season.
expedition’s goals will continue to include elucidation of the initial peopling
of the highest and driest parts of
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 “Altai” (Алтаи)
refers to an extensive east-west trending mountain range that spans portions of