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Excavated from 2009 to 2019 by the Tübingen-Armenian Paleolithic Project, Aghitu-3 Cave is the only stratified Upper Paleolithic site in Armenia. Sedimentary deposits range from 39,000 to 24,000 calibrated years before present (ka cal BP). The main Paleolithic occupations occurred during the accumulation of Archaeological Horizon (AH) VI between 36 and 32 ka cal BP and AH III between 29 and 24 ka cal BP. AH VI was deposited under warm and humid conditions, while AH III shows evidence for cooler and drier conditions. Here we report the results of a comprehensive zooarchaeological study aimed at characterizing early modern human hunting behavior in the Armenian Highlands. Our results indicate a focus on adult goats and equids. Bird remains are present, but we found no evidence of human exploitation. Carcass transport strategies appear more selective than those inferred for other assemblages in the region, suggesting that foragers at Aghitu-3 were exploiting larger hunting territories. Finally, we present the results of a pilot microwear and mesowear study on caprine teeth. The latter found evidence for a highly abrasive grazing diet, which in turn suggests that occupation during the formation of AH III took place in spring or summer.
Grey wolves (Canis lupus) are one of the few large terrestrial carnivores that have maintained a wide geographic distribution across the Northern Hemisphere throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene. Recent genetic studies have suggested that, despite this continuous presence, major demographic changes occurred in wolf populations between the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, and that extant wolves trace their ancestry to a single late Pleistocene population. Both the geographic origin of this ancestral population and how it became widespread remain unknown. Here, we used a spatially and temporally explicit modelling framework to analyse a dataset of 90 modern and 45 ancient mitochondrial wolf genomes from across the Northern Hemisphere, spanning the last 50,000 years. Our results suggest that contemporary wolf populations trace their ancestry to an expansion from Beringia at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, and that this process was most likely driven by Late Pleistocene ecological fluctuations that occurred across the Northern Hemisphere. This study provides direct ancient genetic evidence that long‐range migration has played an important role in the population history of a large carnivore, and provides an insight into how wolves survived the wave of megafaunal extinctions at the end of the last glaciation. Moreover, because late Pleistocene grey wolves were the likely source from which all modern dogs trace their origins, the demographic history described in this study has fundamental implications for understanding the geographical origin of the dog.
Excavations at Aghitu-3 Cave in Armenia revealed stratified Upper Palaeolithic archaeological horizons (AHs), spanning from 39 to 36,000 cal BP (AH VII) to 29–24,000 cal BP (AH III) and from which we identified the sources of 1120 obsidian artifacts. Not only does AH III—deposited at the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum—have the most artifacts from non-regional sources but also the artifacts originate from the greatest variety of sources, including two ≥ 270 km on foot in different directions. The amount of retouch and density of lithics—as expressed by whole assemblage behavioral indicators (WABI)—suggest a trend from more expediency to more curation between the deposition of AHs VII and IV. This was followed by a substantial shift back to expediency during the deposition of AH III, corresponding to greater logistical mobility. Here, we use agent-based modeling (ABM) to interpret these data. Greater interactions between foraging groups are not an unavoidable outcome of a shift from residential to logistical mobility. Some variables (i.e., lithic stock, use intensity, provisioning strategy) can be ruled out, while other variables (i.e., decreased source abundance, a shift to direct procurement) appear inconsistent with the archaeological data. Territory spacing, in contrast, has a clear and predictable effect. A small decrease in territory spacing can yield notable increases in inter-group contact opportunities and can be explained by an increase in population densities as the climate cooled. Following this scenario, we assume that, as AH III accumulated, the cave’s occupants not only moved farther distances but also more frequently encountered neighboring groups.
Aghitu-3 Cave is the first stratified Upper Paleolithic (UP) cave site discovered in Armenia. The site is situated at an elevation of 1601 m in the southern Armenian Highlands and has yielded three intact archaeological horizons. The site has an excellent preservation of paleoecological archives, which allow for a comprehensive interpretation of the climate and environment at the time when the first modern humans populated the region.
With its well-preserved archaeological and environmental records, Aghitu-3 Cave permits us to examine the settlement patterns of the Upper Paleolithic (UP) people who inhabited the Armenian Highlands. We also test whether settlement of the region between ∼39–24,000 cal BP relates to environmental variability. The earliest evidence occurs in archaeological horizon (AH) VII from ∼39–36,000 cal BP during a mild, moist climatic phase. AH VI shows periodic occupation as warm, humid conditions prevailed from ∼36–32,000 cal BP. As the climate becomes cooler and drier at ∼32–29,000 cal BP (AH V-IV), evidence for occupation is minimal. However, as cooling continues, the deposits of AH III demonstrate that people used the site more intensively from ∼29–24,000 cal BP, leaving behind numerous stone artifacts, faunal remains, and complex combustion features. Despite the climatic fluctuations seen across this 15,000-year sequence, lithic technology remains attuned to one pattern: unidirectional reduction of small cores geared towards the production of bladelets for tool manufacture. Subsistence patterns also remain stable, focused on medium-sized prey such as ovids and caprids, as well as equids. AH III demonstrates an expansion of social networks to the northwest and southwest, as the transport distance of obsidian used to make stone artifacts increases. We also observe the addition of bone tools, including an eyed needle, and shell beads brought from the east, suggesting that these people manufactured complex clothing and wore ornaments. Remains of micromammals, birds, charcoal, pollen, and tephra relate the story of environmental variability. We hypothesize that UP behavior was linked to shifts in demographic pressures and climatic changes. Thus, by combining archaeological and environmental data, we gain a clearer picture about the first UP inhabitants of the Armenian Highlands.
Excavations in 2009 and 2010 at Aghitu–3 Cave in the Syunik Province of southern Armenia yield new insights into the Upper Paleolithic settlement of the Armenian Highlands. The site is situated at an elevation of 1601 m in a side valley of the Vorotan River. The river cuts down through Pleistocene basalt flows and provides a corridor for the movement of people and game through the region. Sediments that accumulated in this basaltic cave are composed mainly of silt, clay minerals and volcanic ash. The archaeological layers preserve evidence of periodic human occupations dating to ca. 35–27 000 cal BP. Caves from the Upper Paleolithic were not previously known in Armenia, although contemporaneous sites exist in neighboring Georgia and Iran. The lithic industry at Aghitu–3 is laminar with a strong focus on the production of bladelets made of obsidian and chert. While completely backed pieces are rare, the majority of tools are represented by finely retouched bladelets. The choice of raw material did not affect the desired end products. Our preliminary interpretation is that this distinctly Upper Paleolithic toolkit was oriented towards the production of hunting equipment and was technologically stable over an extended timeframe. The lower assemblage dates to ca. 35–31 000 cal BP and suggests sparse occupation of the cave. Lithic artifacts are few and cluster near small combustion features. The poorly preserved faunal remains of the lower layers do not appear to be associated with the lithic remains. The bones often appear to be gastrically etched, suggesting accumulation by large carnivores such as wolves. On the other hand, the upper assemblage dates to ca. 29–27 000 cal BP and indicates more frequent occupation by humans. In these finely stratified layers, lithic artifacts are numerous, and combustion features are common. The well preserved, but highly fragmented faunal remains from the upper layers exhibit more indications of carcass processing, such as green breaks and impact fractures. Wild sheep and wild goat dominate the faunal assemblage, with horse and hare also present. Combining the faunal identifications with ecological data gained from microfauna, pollen and charcoal, a mosaic landscape comes into focus: grassland on the level basaltic plateau, interrupted by a steep rocky valley sloping down to the Vorotan, where a riparian environment prevails. The data also suggest an environment that was cooler and moister than today, a picture echoed by preliminary micromorphological results showing cycles of freezing and thawing. Thus we interpret these data as evidence for increasing occupation of Aghitu–3 Cave, which served as a temporary hunting camp. While it is clear that the older occupations of the cave were ephemeral, during the time leading up to the last glacial maximum, occupation became more frequent.
The Armenian Highlands have functioned as a gateway with regards to the peopling of the Southern Caucasus. Most importantly, changes in climate have long controlled access to this remote and often inhospitable mountainous region. Here we present the results of the multidisciplinary study of Aghitu-3 Cave which brings together researchers from the fields of archaeology, geology and geomorphology, zooarchaeology, paleobotany and paleoclimate. By integrating these areas of study, we have reconstructed the lifeways of the earliest behaviorally (and presumably anatomically) modern humans who settled Southern Armenia about 35,000 (cal BP) years ago and placed this occupational sequence within a framework of environmental change. These first Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Armenia made temporary use of this basalt cave located along the Vorotan River corridor at an altitude of 1601 m during seasonal forays into the highlands. The infrequent use of this site as a hunting camp comes to an end at about 31,000 cal BP. The next package of sediment shows little evidence of human occupation, although fauna seem to flourish during the time between 31-29,000 cal BP. Following this phase of depopulation, the intensity of occupation increases substantially after 29,000 cal BP. Human presence is amply documented in the numerous stone artifacts, faunal remains and fireplaces that cover the site. These changes in population movement are echoed in the sequence of sediments preserved in the cave and can be correlated with the fluctuating climatic conditions associated with the late Pleistocene.