Afanasievo brought domesticated bovids to the Altai; new Tianshanbeilu chronology

Article in press (behind paywall) Mitochondrial DNA of domesticated sheep confirms pastoralist component of Afanasievo subsistence economy in the Altai Mountains (3300–2900 cal BC), by Hermes et al. Archaeological Research in Asia (2020).

Interesting excerpts:

Previous zooarchaeological research at Afanasievo settlement and mortuary sites argues for the exploitation of both domesticated and wild cattle, sheep, and goats (Derevianko and Molodin, 1994; Gryaznov, 1999; Kosintsev, 2005; Kosintsev and Stepanova, 2010; Pogozheva, 2006). However, the biogeographic distribution of Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) and argali sheep (Ovis ammon) includes the Altai (Baskin and Danell, 2003), while aurochsen (Bos primigenius) were also likely present in the region. Consequently, the relative importance of hunting and herding in Afanasievo communities remains ambiguous (Frachetti, 2012).

Number of identified specimens (NISP), percent NISP, and minimum number of individuals (MNI) of faunal taxa recovered from Nizhnyaya Sooru after Kosintsev (2005). Taxonomic groups are reconfigured here to reflect genus-level identifications.

Here, we test for the presence of domesticated sheep (Ovis aries) and goat (Capra hircus) at the Afanasievo settlement Nizhnyaya Sooru located in the upper Karakol river in the Altai Republic, Russia. Previous archaeological research at Nizhnyaya Sooru identified occupational layers containing Afanasievo ceramics and stone tools, in addition to abundant faunal skeletal remains (Larin et al., 1998).

MT-CYB sequences (110-bp) were successfully recovered from five out of five tooth specimens with duplicates from two independent extractions. Three haplotypes were represented in the sample set, which are identical to known haplotypes of Ovis aries. Notably, the recovery of a rare MT-CYB haplotype from sample KO182010 was surprising given a limited sample size. As mitochondrial DNA does not recombine, this haplotype has been shown to accompany D lineage haplotypes in hypervariable region 1 based on reference data. So far, only six individuals out of 1231 modern sheep previously analyzed from Eurasia belong to haplogroup D (Demirci et al., 2013; Meadows et al., 2011; Tapio et al., 2006). A recent paleogenetic study of sheep dating from the early Bronze Age to historical periods in the Altai region recovered one D haplotype out of 40 samples tested (Kechin et al., 2019). The MT-CYB sequence of sample KO182010 was identical to that of a domesticated sheep recovered from the early Bronze Age site of Dali (ca. 2700 cal BC) located in the Dzhungar Mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan (Fig. 3; Hermes et al., 2019).

Median joining network of MT-CYB sequences recovered from Nizhnyaya Sooru in comparison to MT-CYB sequences recovered by Hermes et al. (2019) from multi-period sites of Dali, Begash, and Tasbas located in the central Inner Asian Mountain Corridor of southeastern Kazakhstan. Reference MT-CYB sequences of Ovis aries and Capra hircus and wild Ovis and Capra spp. and Capreolus pygargus help visualize the genetic diversity observed between species. The network was produced using PopART v. 1.7.2 (Bandelt et al., 1999; Leigh and Bryant, 2015).

Domesticated sheep at Nizhnyaya Sooru directly dated to the late fourth and early third millennia BCE represent the earliest known food producing technology in Inner Asia that had its origins in the Near East. Prior to this study, only three radiocarbon dates were obtained from faunal remains recovered from the Afanasievo settlement Malyi Dugan and cemetery Perviy Mezhelik-1; two of these specimens were ambiguously identified to Ovis/Capra or Ovis/Capra/Capreolus, while the third was identified as Capreolus (Svyatko et al., 2017a, 2017b). These Eneolithic dates are broadly contemporaneous with the new dates from Nizhnyaya Sooru, which coincide with a revised “core” chronology for the Afanasievo cultural horizon in the Altai ranging between ca. 3100 to 2900 cal BC (cf. Poliakov et al., 2019).

It is probable that herders moving from the western steppes to the Altai region were managing sheep, goats, and cattle together. Domesticated sheep may have reached the Altai as western steppe herders passed through steppe regions in northern Kazakhstan. There, Przewalski’s horses were indigenously domesticated by communities of the Botai-Borly cultural sphere by 3600–3100 cal BC (Gaunitz et al., 2018; Outram et al., 2009), which likely extended into southwestern Siberia where the contemporaneous Novoilinka-III settlement further echoes a narrowly focused, horse-based subsistence economy (Kiryushin, 2015; Kuslij et al., 2019; Vasil’ev et al., 2011).

Sadly, the recent study on ancient cattle genomics by Pereira Verdugo et al. Science (2020) does not have any samples from the region, although it is very likely that both, domesticated cattle and horses, will eventually show the same pattern of a western steppe origin coupled with a later admixture to the south along the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor.

New Tianshanbeilu chronology

First view (behind paywall) Chronology of the Tianshanbeilu cemetery in Xinjiang, Northwestern China, by Tong et al. Radiocarbon (2020). Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

Located in the center of the Hami Oasis near the eastern edge of the Tianshan Mountains in China, the Tianshanbeilu cemetery is the largest Bronze Age cemetery site in eastern Xinjiang. The study of Tianshanbeilu is of great significance for understanding Bronze Age cultures in northwestern China. Considering that the cultural characteristics of the grave goods in the Tianshanbeilu cemetery are similar to those of the cultures from the Hexi Corridor (next to Hami Oasis) and northwestern Eurasian steppes (Shui 1993; Li 2009; Shao 2018; Liu 2019), archaeologists realized that the Hami Oasis had become an important area for frequent technical and cultural interactions among the people of the Hexi Corridor, western Tianshan Mountains and Altai Mountains since the Bronze Age (Li 1999, 2005; Alexey et al. 2015; Shao 2018).

In the first phase [2011-1672 calBC], a mud brick chamber was used, and the bodies were placed in a flexed sidelying position, except in M599, in which one body was buried in an extended supine position. Six types of double-eared pottery pots were popular. The painted pottery was exquisite, and multiple patterns, including diamond grid, polyline and ripple patterns, were painted all over the surfaces. Two types of bronze knives, bronze axes, golden earrings and bronze mirrors with handles, could also be found in a few graves.

In the second phase [1660-1408 calBC], a mud brick chamber was more widely used, and the dead in the chambers were placed in the flexed side-lying position. Three new types of double-eared pottery pots instead of type B pots appeared. The typical and delicate painted pottery was gradually replaced by plain and rough pottery. Stripe patterns were more commonly painted on the pottery. Five new types of bronze knives and more metal goods, such as bronze mirrors with radial string patterns, were discovered from this phase.

Bronze artifacts in the Tianshanbeilu cemetery.

In the third phase [1385-1256 calBC], there was no change in the burial style. Type I double-eared pottery pots were no longer discovered. The pottery was not as exquisite as before, and the painted patterns were simple. The formerly delicate painted patterns also became simplified and included hand shape diagonal triangle and geometric lines. The type A bronze knives disappeared, and the number of bronze items increased.

In the fourth phase [1214-1029 calBC], the number of funeral goods and graves decreased sharply. Five types of double-eared pottery pots and three types of bronze knives were still used. The painted patterns were free style, and a ripple pattern was always used. Distinctive bronze bell and shells that had
not been found before were present.

The novel proposal of the four phases differs from previous scholars’ views (Lv et al. 2001; Li 2005, 2009). (…) Some pots were mistakenly classified into each phase without detailed typological analysis in previous study. Previous scholars suggested that the bronze mirrors with radial string patterns were from the 13th century BC, and they used this age as the lower boundary of Tianshanbeilu (Lv et al. 2001). In our proposal, this type of mirror was discovered as early as the second phase, which was from 1660–1408 cal BC. Moreover, more than three cultural factors could be identified on characteristics of goods, which indicated that Tianshanbeilu people maintained long-term and frequent communication with the surrounding people besides the Hexi Corridor.

Thanks to the findings of Ning et al. (2019), confirmed in Wang et al. (2020), we know that Afanasievo ancestry survived around the Hami Oasis until the Iron Age, just before the emergence of Tocharian languages in Xinjiang. For more on their likely evolution, read the posts suggested below.


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