Last month, Johannes Krause and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology published mitochondrial DNA sequences from two Asian specimens. One, Teshik-Tash, is usually considered to be a Neandertal, based on its morphology. The other, a subadult individual from Okladnikov Cave in the Altai Mountains, is more fragmentary. The mtDNA sequences of both specimens cluster with European Neandertals.
I wrote to Michelle M. (Mica) Glantz to get a perspective on these finds, and to ask some broader questions about human evolution in central Asia. Mica is an associate professor in Anthropology at Colorado State University, where she researches human origins, specializing in Neandertals and culture-biology interactions. Her recent fieldwork has been in Central Asia, and she is right now on research leave in Kazakhstan.
Hawks: You're writing to us from Kazakhstan. What are you doing, and how's it going?
Glantz: I am writing you from an area that locals refer to as the "Texas" of Kazakhstan. The area is South Kazakhstan oblast, and we are in that province's capital city - Shymkent. It is the third largest city in terms of population in the country. Referred to as the Texas of Kazakhstan because of its similar geographic placement as that of our dear lone star state, but also because of the attitude of the people here. They are considered sort of 'cowboys'. It is also one of the most traditional areas of Kazakhstan, most folks speak Kazakh instead of Russian on the street -- this is very different from the rest of country, which is much more russified. What am I doing here? I applied for a Fulbright lecture/research grant last summer and received it. So, I am here teaching Human Origins and Variation at South Kazakhstan State University in the history/archaeology department. Next semester I will teach osteology and contemporary archaeological field methods. Kazakh universities really do not have anthropology as a discipline in the same way that it exists in the U.S. Archaeology is really culture history here and they consider anthropology to be what we think of as physical anthropology - but pre-Washburn anthropology. So, at first blush, most of my colleagues here believe I am interested in typology and straightforward categorization of human morphological features.
In terms of research, I am attempting to launch a new field project in the foothills of the Karatau mountains. These mountains run NW to SE and are a much older range than the Tien Shan, which you find directly to the south of the Karatau (they run east to west). From 1958-62, Alpisbaev, a Kazakh archaeologist, surveyed South Kazakhstan oblast for Paleolithic sites. He published a book on his findings in 1979. Only 2 of the 60-70 potential sites he identified were subsequently excavated and yielded Middle Paleolithic industries. It is my goal to relocate a handful of these sites and put some test trenches in and then from this initial work begin a new long-term project. My colleagues and I have identified two caves from Alpisbaev's map that look promising. I intend to survey and do preliminary excavations in April and May, and then do a more extensive exploration of one location from May to June with Kazakh students and handful from Colorado State. Those are the plans. I am working with my Uzbek colleague Rustam Suleimanov, who also teaches at South Kazakh State. We have many many challenges and obstacles to over come here before the research can really get off the ground.
The overarching theme of this work is to learn more about local hominin adaptations during the Middle Paleolithic. Of course, I am most interested in Neandertal paleobiology and whether this group existed in Central Asia in the same way that we know them from Europe (in terms of morphology and behavior). It has always been my position that it is rather simplistic to view Central Asia as the eastern outpost of the Neandertal range -- which has the unfortunate consequence of making the region peripheral to Europe and the Middle East and also diminishes the potential impact of hominin groups on the area who originated from the East.
Hawks: So, a couple of years ago you were presenting some work on Teshik-Tash. What is it? And ... What do you make of these new genetic results, connecting Teshik-Tash and another site (Okladnikov) to European Neandertals?
Glantz: For about four years now, I have been working on a reanalysis of Teshik-Tash. This project started as a Master's thesis (Terrence Ritzman, 2005). The idea to question the original taxonomic designation of Teshik-Tash was actually given to me by Milford Wolpoff, although other folks, like Weidenreich, also questioned whether Teshik-Tash was a Neandertal. Presently, Sheela Athreya, Terry and myself are working on what we hope is our final revision before publication in AJPA.
It has been a long road. The study is complicated by a number of factors that affect all of us that work with the record (incomplete specimens, too few specimens, on the specimens that exist -- the analogous morphological area is missing, etc.) but these problems are compounded by the fact that Teshik-Tash is a juvenile and we are not really conducting a growth study per se, but a comparison. One of our goals was to thoroughly examine the original Russian monograph (Gremyatskii, 1949) on the specimen to understand first-hand how the initial designation was made, and also to understand the ways in which Teshik-Tash has been reconstructed and if the reconstructions were sound. Another obstacle we have encountered is the entrenchment of the community of Paleolithic scholars that are interested in Neandertals, who are relatively wed to the idea of Teshik-Tash being a strong example of a European Neandertal -- this allows for easy support of the notion that Neandertals may have extended eastward to escape migrating modern humans as they moved into their core areas (Vishnyatsky, 1999) (I would be remiss to neglect mentioning that a number of other scenarios exist that explain the presence of Neandertals in Central Asia, but the one I mentioned above is the most irksome). Of course, this idea has been recently backed up by the Krause et al. (2007) study in Nature that compared mtDNA from Teshik-Tash and two specimens from Okladnikov Cave in southern Siberia to recent modern humans and the crew of Neandertals that have been sequenced. The major conclusion in this paper was that we can now move the Neandertal range 2000 miles farther east, because the Okladnikov juvenile sequenced as a Neandertal (although the adult did not -- but this is because it is geologically younger and could in fact be a modern human, according to the authors). Aside from the myriad of problems associated with mtDNA studies that you have outlined in your blog, I would like to make another observation related to Central Asia specifically. If we keep moving the Neandertal boundary eastward, then wouldn't Neandertals cease being a recognizable entity that is really separate from other archaic groups in the Old World during the Middle Paleolithic? In other words, who isn't a Neandertal in this case? Certainly we do not have enough similarly aged specimens from China and other points east to make thorough comparisons, but really the specimens we do have are usually not included in any of our analyses that are concerned with European Neandertals. Exceptions to this, like Rosenberg et al. (2006) study of Jinniushan, show that Asian specimens often look like they are part of the same cline as European Neandertals.
Our study of Teshik-Tash suggested that in a handful of linear measurements, Teshik-Tash more closely resembles Upper Paleolithic modern humans from Central Europe than European Neandertals. We do not use these results to exclaim therefore Teshik-Tash is a modern human, it certainly has enough discrete features that point to general archaic-ness to make that proposal seem unlikely. Instead, we wanted to emphasis that Central Asia and hominins that resided their during the Paleolithic, probably were part of a larger network of hominin groups that did not simply move in a west-east direction... I could go on and on here, but I have to stop myself.
Hawks: Of course, in historic times East and West were connected by the Silk Road. How far back can we trace connections across Central Asia?
Glantz: This is such an interesting question to me and one that I have thought about a lot. I think the answer can be gleaned from a good read of paleoclimatic studies of the region and how the Caspian and Aral Seas in the west and the Taklamakan desert and the high mountain zones of the east and south, respectively, have affected the exploitability of the region over time. In terms of topography, the mountain passes and valleys (Ferghana, etc.) that the ancient caravans traversed were viable options for Paleolithic migrations as well. Most of our evidence of Paleolithic occupation of the region comes from the foothills of the Tien Shan and Pamirs, close to all of the major Silk Road cities. Also, there is evidence of Middle Paleolithic folks in the areas that directly abut the Taklamakan in NW China. A potentially more significant area to examine for stratified sites, however, are the steppe/desert zones of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We know very little about this vast area and sites there might be able to answer a number of questions about the region and its potential connections to the Russian Plains as well as southern Siberia. Also, from sites in this zone we might be able to get at why the foothills are relatively devoid of early UP sites.
Hawks: Was China its own story, or was it integrated in this network?
Glantz:I would argue that NW China, or Xianjiang province was definitely part of the Central Asian Middle Paleolithic, also probably Mongolia. But, I am not sure how to integrate the rest of China yet, because we have very different toolkits coming from those regions. I have no expertise studying the lithic record, but I have been told that there are some similarities between aspects of Early Pleistocene lithic assemblages from the Nihewan basin in China and those from the early Middle Pleistocene in Central Asia, namely Kul'dara from the Tajik depression. If these similarities are supportable, they may indicate that China was colonized by hominin moving out of Africa earlier than Central Asia and then these groups then moved into Central Asia after their initial expansion to north Asia. Interesting.
Hawks: I've been impressed by the recent archaeology coming out of Russia north of the Black Sea/Caspian Sea region. I'm thinking of Kostenki, Mamontovaya Kurya -- places that are geographically in between Central Asia and Europe. How does this region figure into the appearance of modern humans in Europe?
Glantz: I am also very interested in this area and the complexities of the lithic assemblages there. Certainly gives us a good window on Middle and Upper Paleolithic variability in this region. The lithic assemblages from Central Asia during the Middle Paleolithic appear to be less variable -- more homogenous across time.. and also Middle Paleolithic elements persist well into the Upper Paleolithic in the region. In fact no Upper Paleolithic traditions have been identified from the area that revival those from Kostenki. Don't know what to make of it, but OVERALL I am very hesitant to assume specific hominin group authorship for any assemblage, I just don't think biology and culture match up very clearly during this time.
Hawks: Any interesting stories you can relate?
Glantz: I have so many stories that are 'interesting', frustrating might be a better word. I am here with my family. My husband is actually Kazakh and was born here and we have two daughters (3 and 1). Even though I have enormous support from my husband's family and we have no problems with language, it still feels like we can spend three hours looking for a light bulb in the central market. Things just move at a different pace here.
Because the history/archaeology department here has no experience with biological anthropology, they made my course an elective (I have just recently come to understand this). What this means is that when I show up for my scheduled class (1 section on Tuesday and 1 section on Wednesday) I almost never have the same group of students. This is very disconcerting because I am never sure how to or what to teach. Recently I have been giving off the cuff lectures on things that I think are interesting, rather than try to teach in a linear framework. One time I gave a lecture in English without my Kazakh translator about primate discrete traits and wound up miming most of it, but it went over well and I found out the next week that they actually understood most of what I was trying to convey. Fieldwork presents another host of challenges, but I have been very lucky in the past and worked with very very good local scholars who are interested and committed to the project. So I am hoping for the best.
Rosenberg KR, Zuné L, Ruff CB. 2006. Body size, proportions, and encephalization in a Middle Pleistocene archaic human from northern China. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 103:3552-3556. doi:10.1073/pnas.0508681103
Krause J, Orlando L, Serre D, Viola B, Prüfer K, Ricards MP, Hublin J-J, Hänni C, Derevianko AP, Pääbo S. 2007. Neanderthals in central Asia and Siberia. Nature 449:902-904. doi:10.1038/nature06193
Vishnyatsky LB. 1999. The Paleolithic of Central Asia. J World Prehist 13:69-122. doi:10.1023/A:1022538427684