Kostenki - Evidence for Early Human Migrations into Europe

Early Upper Paleolithic Site in Russia

Excavations at Kostenki 14 in 2003
Excavations at Kostenki 14 in 2003 (looking at the north wall of the excavations and stratigraphic profile). Science (c) 2007

Kostenki refers to a complex of open-air archaeological sites located in the Pokrovsky Valley of Russia, on the west bank of the Don River, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Moscow and 40 km (25 mi) south of the city of Voronezh, Russia. Together, they contain important evidence concerning the timing and complexity of the various waves of anatomically modern humans as they left Africa some 100,000 or more years ago

The main site (Kostenki 14, see page 2) is located near the mouth of a small steep ravine; the upper reaches of this ravine contain evidence of a handful of other Upper Paleolithic occupations. The Kostenki sites lie deeply buried (between 10-20 meters [30-60 feet]) beneath the modern surface. The sites were buried by alluvium which was deposited by the Don River and its tributaries beginning at least 50,000 years ago.

Terrace Stratigraphy

The occupations at Kostenki include several Late Early Upper Paleolithic levels, dated between 42,000 to 30,000 calibrated years ago (cal BP). Smack dab in the middle of those levels is a layer of volcanic ash, associated with the volcanic eruptions of the Phlegrean Fields of Italy (aka Campanian Ignimbrite or CI Tephra), which erupted about 39,300 cal BP. The stratigraphic sequence at the Kostenki sites are broadly described as containing six main units:

  • Modern levels at the top: black, highly humic soil with abundant bioturbation, churning by living animals, in this case mainly burrowing by rodents.
  • Cover Loam: loess-like deposit with several stacked occupations dated to the Eastern Gravettian (such as Kostenki 1 at 29,000 cal BP; and Epi-Gravettian (Kostenki 11, 14,000-19,000 cal BP)
  • Upper Humic Complex/Bed (UHB): yellowish chalky loam with several stacked occupations, early and mid-Upper Paleolithic, including Initial Upper Paleolithic, Aurignacian, Gravettian and local Gorodsovian
  • Whitish Loam: homogenous loam with some sub-horizontal lamination and in the lower part in situ or reworked volcanic ash (CI Tephra, independently dated 39,300 years ago
  • Lower Humic Complex/Bed (LHB): stratified loamy deposits with several stacked horizons, early and mid-Upper Paleolithic, including Initial Upper Paleolithic, Aurignacian, Gravettian and local Gorodsovian (similar to UHB)
  • Chalky Loam: upper alluvium stratified with coarse deposits

Controversy: Late Early Upper Paleolithic at Kostenki

In 2007, the excavators at Kostenki (Anikovich et al.) reported that they had identified occupation levels within and below the ash level. They found the remnants of the Early Upper Paleolithic culture called the "Aurignacian Dufour," numerous small bladelets quite similar to lithic tools found in similarly dated sites in western Europe. Prior to Kostenki, the Aurignacian sequence was considered the oldest component associated with modern humans at archaeological sites in Europe, underlain by Mousterian-like deposits representing Neanderthals. At Kostenki, a sophisticated tool kit of prismatic blades, burins, bone antler, and ivory artifacts, and small perforated shell ornaments lies below the CI Tephra and Aurignacian Dufour assemblage: these were identified as an earlier presence of modern humans in Eurasia than previously recognized.

The discovery of modern human cultural material below the tephra was quite controversial at the time it was reported, and a debate about the context and date of the tephra arose. That debate was a complex one, best addressed elsewhere.

  • Read more about the Pre-Aurignacian deposits at Kostenki
  • Comments from John Hoffecker concerning initial criticism of the age of the site

Since 2007, additional sites such as Byzovaya and Mamontovaya Kurya have lent additional support to the presence of early modern human occupations of the eastern Plains of Russia.

Kostenki 14, also known as Markina Gora, is the main site at Kostenki, and it has been found to contain genetic evidence concerning the migration of early modern humans from Africa into Eurasia. Markina Gora is located on the flank of a ravine cut into one of the river terraces. The site covers hundred of meters of sediment within seven cultural levels.

  • Cultural Layer (CL) I, in the Cover Loam, 26,500-27,600 cal BP, Kostenki-Avdeevo culture
  • CL II, within the Upper Humic Bed (UHB), 31,500-33,600 cal BP, 'Gorodsovian', mid Upper Paleolithic mammoth bone industry
  • CL III, UHB, 33,200-35,300 cal BP, blade-based and bone industry, Gorodsovian, Mid Upper Paleolithic
  • LVA (layer in volcanic ash, 39,300 cal BP), small assemblage, unipolar blades and Dufour bladelets, Aurignacian
  • CL IV in the Lower Humic Bed (LHB), older than the tephra, undiagnostic blade-dominated industry
  • CL IVa, LHB, 36,000-39,100, a few lithics, large numbers of horse bones (at least 50 individual animals)
  • Fossil Soil, LHB, 37,500-40,800 cal BP
  • CL IVb, LHB, 39,900-42,200 cal BP, distinctive Upper Paleolithic, endscrapers, possible horse head out of carved mammoth ivory, human tooth (EMH)

A complete early modern human skeleton was recovered from Kostenki 14 in 1954, buried in a tightly flexed position in a oval burial pit (99x39 centimeters or 39x15 inches) which had been dug through the ash layer and then was sealed by Cultural Layer III. The skeleton was direct-dated to 36,262-38,684 cal BP. The skeleton represents an adult man, 20-25 years old with a robust skull and short stature (1.6 meters [5 foot 3 inches]). A few stone flakes, animal bones and a sprinkle of dark red pigment were found in the burial pit. Based on its location within the strata, the skeleton can be generally dated to the Early Upper Paleolithic period.

Genomic Sequence from Markina Gora Skeleton

In 2014, Eske Willerslev and associates (Seguin-Orlando et al) reported the genomic structure of the skeleton at Markina Gora. They perfomed 12 DNA extractions from the skeleton's left arm bone, and compared the sequence to the growing numbers of ancient and modern DNA. They identified genetic relationships between Kostenki 14 and Neanderthals--more evidence that early modern humans and Neanderthals interbred--as well as genetic connections to the Mal'ta individual from Siberia and European Neolithic farmers. Further, they found a fairly distant relationship to Australo-Melanesian or eastern Asian populations.

The Markina Gora skeleton's DNA indicates a deep-aged human migration out of Africa separate from that of Asian populations, supporting the Southern Dispersal Route as a possible corridor for population of those areas. All humans are derived from the same populations in Africa; but we colonized the world in different waves and perhaps along different exit routes. The genomic data recovered from Markina Gora is further evidence that the population of our world by humans was very complex, and we have a long way to go before we understand it.

Excavations at Kostenki

Kostenki was discovered in 1879; and a long series of excavations have followed. Kostenki 14 was discovered by P.P. Efimenko in 1928 and has been excavated since the 1950s via a series of trenches. The oldest occupations at the site were reported in 2007, where the combination of great age and sophistication created quite a stir.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Upper Paleolithic , and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Anikovich MV, Sinitsyn AA, Hoffecker JF, Holliday VT, Popov VV, Lisitsyn SN, Forman SL, Levkovskaya GM, Pospelova GA, Kuz'mina IE et al. 2007. Early Upper Paleolithic in Eastern Europe and Implications for the Dispersal of Modern Humans. Science 315(5809):223-226.

Hoffecker JF. 2011. The early upper Paleolithic of eastern Europe reconsidered. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 20(1):24-39.

Revedin A, Aranguren B, Becattini R, Longo L, Marconi E, Mariotti Lippi M, Skakun N, Sinitsyn A, Spiridonova E, and Svoboda J. 2010. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(44):18815-18819.

Seguin-Orlando A, Korneliussen TS, Sikora M, Malaspinas A-S, Manica A, Moltke I, Albrechtsen A, Ko A, Margaryan A, Moiseyev V et al. 2014. Genomic structure in Europeans dating back at least 36,200 years. ScienceExpress 6 November 2014(6 November 2014) doi: 10.1126/science.aaa0114.

Soffer O, Adovasio JM, Illingworth JS, Amirkhanov H, Praslov ND, and Street M. 2000. Palaeolithic perishables made permanent. Antiquity 74:812-821.

Svendsen JI, Heggen HP, Hufthammer AK, Mangerud J, Pavlov P, and Roebroeks W. 2010. Geo-archaeological investigations of Palaeolithic sites along the Ural Mountains - On the northern presence of humans during the last Ice Age. Quaternary Science Reviews 29(23-24):3138-3156.

Svoboda JA. 2007. The Gravettian on the Middle Danube. Paleobiology 19:203-220.

Velichko AA, Pisareva VV, Sedov SN, Sinitsyn AA, and Timireva SN. 2009. Paleogeography of Kostenki-14 (Markina Gora). Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 37(4):35-50. doi: 10.1016/j.aeae.2010.02.002

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Kostenki - Evidence for Early Human Migrations into Europe." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/kostenki-human-migrations-into-europe-171471. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Kostenki - Evidence for Early Human Migrations into Europe. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/kostenki-human-migrations-into-europe-171471 Hirst, K. Kris. "Kostenki - Evidence for Early Human Migrations into Europe." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/kostenki-human-migrations-into-europe-171471 (accessed June 5, 2023).