There are many stories from my travels last summer that I haven’t yet told here. I’ve been thinking that I need to get them written down, so that I’ll have more time to write about my upcoming travel this summer. I have copious notes about the time in Denisova itself, and I’ll be returning to those. In the meantime I’d like to share some other experiences. Here I want to turn to the subject of kurgans.
I went to the Altai for the Paleolithic, because Neandertals and Denisovans lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. But the area is even better known for much later remains, from the Neolithic and Bronze Age up to the Iron Age. A succession of ancient cultures lived in this region, at the crossroads of China, the Tibetan Plateau, Mongolia, and the Russian and Kazakh steppes. Most of the prehistoric peoples of the Altai were pastoralists, nomads who depended on herding cattle, sheep, and horses. Keeping their wealth and food sources on the hoof instead of in the ground, they moved between summer and winter foraging grounds for their herds. They also relied heavily on hunting the rich game in the region, notably red deer.
Denisova Cave itself was used by these early herders. People kept sheep fenced in the cave, every so often burning the accumulated manure and bedding and imperfectly sweeping the ashes. The topmost levels of the archaeological deposits are densely stratified layers of burned ash and debris, left across thousands of years.
Many Altayan people today live in towns, made of Russian-style wood houses. The economy is still heavily based on cattle, and additionally there are large red deer operations. Horses are even today a large part of the culture, and every town seems to have its stadium for the local equivalent of polo. People of traditional Altayan ancestry are a minority even in the Altai Republic, with other nationalities and ethnic Russians making up more than half the population. Altayan houses in the towns are quite distinctive because many of them have a round “summer house” next to them. These mirror the portable yurts that were the traditional summer domiciles of the Altai peoples, giving them a chance to get out of their winter houses and sleep beneath a round roof during the warmer part of the year.
Among the earliest cattle herders in the area were people of the Afanasievo culture. These people moved into the Altai area around 4800 years ago and persisted for nearly 1000 years. They lived before metallurgy really became very common in this area, although metal objects are sometimes found in their graves. Like other nomads, their residence sites were relatively ephemeral and their burial sites give us essential information not only about their social lives but also about their economy and subsistence practices.
Mound-like burial sites in this part of the world are called kurgans, and often involve both stones and earthwork. Some Afanasievo kurgans are quite distinctive, with a round circle of upright, flat stones. Sometimes these are tall, like the petals of a rocky sunflower. Sometimes, they are barely higher than the mound within, almost forming a curb around its edge.
I’ve driven through a lot of Kansas cattle pasture, and the texture of the land here was familiar. Here in Wisconsin, we have some extensive Mississipian and earlier moundworks, but many have been plowed and often destroyed, after less than a thousand years. In the Altai, running across 4000-year-old stone formations, basically undisturbed on the pasture surface – that was pretty cool.
Of course, “undisturbed” is a relative concept. Most of the kurgans have undergone some amount of grave-robbing. For the elaborate later mounds, the plundering often really changed their profile. The Afanasievo kurgans, with their relatively flat shape and haphazard stone paving, don’t make disruptions quite as evident.
Many archaeologists believe the Afanasievo people to have been speakers of an early Indo-European language. The kurgans and stylistic elements of Afanasievo culture are similar to those found later much further to the west, across the Russian steppe. Possibly the Afanasievo people were connected to the Tocharians, whose Indo-European language is attested by inscriptions from the far west of China before 1000 BC.
By far the more famous kurgan-building people were carriers of the Pazyryk culture. These people lived much later than Afanasievo in the area, within the first millennium BC. They used bronze and iron, and lived at the eastern end of a cultural complex that extended across the Russian plain to the area north of the Black Sea. The Greeks contacted the westernmost of these people, the Scythians, and the high mobility and extensive trade through Central Asia certainly indicates a cultural continuity if not identity from east to west across this range.
The Pazyryk kurgans were huge mounds, made up of volleyball-sized stones. We clambered across a couple of these near a main road in the middle Altai.
Kurgans were mounded atop a timber-roofed grave chamber, which included one or more bodies and elaborate grave goods. One kurgan produced a wheeled chariot with horses, giving some impression as to their scale. The kurgans we examined had been excavated by archaeologists during the 1920’s, and both now have a large hole in the middle where the grave had been. One had a large larch tree growing up out of the center:
Rainwater seeped into the Pazyryk kurgans, deep into the tombs themselves, and there the water froze into ice. Many of the mounds were large enough to keep ice frozen year-round. Although most were plundered by ancient graverobbers, archaeologists found a few spectacular instances where textiles and other perishable materials were preserved.