Sungir: Russian Upper Paleolithic Site

Puzzling Date Discrepancies at the Important Streletskian Site

Sunghir 1 Burial
Adult male, covered in red ochre and ivory grave goods, and buried between 19,000 and 28,000 years ago at Sunghir, Russia. José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

The Sungir site (sometimes spelled Sunghir or Sungir' and very rarely Sounghir or Sungaea) is an enormous Upper Paleolithic occupation, located in the central part of the Russian Plain, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Moscow, near the city of Vladimir, Russia. The site, which included houses, hearths, storage pits and tool production areas in addition to several formal burials within an area totaling 4,500 square meters (1.1 acres), is located on the left bank of the Kliazma river in the Great Russian Plain.

Based on the stone and ivory artifact assemblage, Sungir is associated with the Kostenki-Streletsk culture, sometimes referred to as Streletskian, and generally assigned to the early to middle Upper Paleolithic, dated roughly 39,000 and 34,000 years ago. Stone tools at Sungir include triangular bifacial projectile points with concave bases and poplar leaf-shaped points.

Chronological Issues

Several AMS radiocarbon dates have been taken on associated bone artifacts, charcoal from the site and collagen from the human bones, all of which has been analyzed at some of the best laboratories in the world: Oxford, Arizona, and Kiel. But the dates range from 19,000 to 27,000 RCYBP, far too young to be Streletskian and a discrepancy which has been attributed to the inability of the current chemistry to isolate a pure collagen fraction. In addition, the bones were extensively conserved and curated in the 1960s, by researchers using a combination of polymer tree sap, polyvinyl butyral, phenol/formaldehyde and ethanol, which may have affected the ability to obtain reasonable dates.

Below is a list of published dates, all AMS except for Nalawade-Chaven et al., who developed a system to adjust the chemistry to isolate the collagen (called hydroxyproline and abbreviated Hyp). Names refer to the first authors of literature in which the dates were published, listed below.

  • Sungir 1 (Kuzmin: 19,200 RCYBP; Pettitt: 22,930; Dobrovolskaya 27,050 RCYBP; Nalawade-Chavan: Hyp 28,650 RCYBP; Kuzmin et al. 2016: 30,540-31,590 cal BP)
  • Sungir 2 (Formicola: 23,830 RCYBP; Kuzmin: 27,210 and 26,200 RCYBP (different bones, same skeleton); Pettitt: 23,830; Kuzmin et al. 2016: 30,610-31,150 cal BP
  • Sungir 3 (Formicola: 24,100 RCYBP; Kuzmin: 26,190 RCYBP; Pettitt: 24,100 RCYBP; Dobrovolskaya 27,050 RCYBP; Kuzmin et al. 2016: 29,550-31,560 cal BP)
  • Sungir 4 (Nalawade-Chavan: Hyp 29,670 RCYBP)
  • Animal bones in the site (Kuzmin: 20,400-28,800 RCYBP, most 26,300-28,800)
  • Charcoal under Sungir 1 (Sulerzhitsky et al. cited in Kuzmin: 22,500 and 21,800 RCYBP)

The Hyp process is a new one, and the results are older than most other occupations of the Streletskian culture, which suggests it needs more investigation. However, Garchi (as reported in Svendsen) appears to be similar in cultural assemblage to Sungir and dates to 28,800 RCYBP.

Kuzmin and colleagues (2016) conducted further tests but were unable to resolve the puzzle, suggesting that the most probable age range for the three main burials is between 29,780–31,590 cal BP, still younger than all other known Streletskian sites, They argue that without collagen quality control at the modern level of research and identification of possible contaminants, the issue will not be resolved.

Burials

Human bones at Sungir include at least eight individuals, including three formal burials, one skull and two femur fragments within the site, and two skeletons buried outside the main occupation. The two outside the site lack grave goods. Of these eight, only three individuals are well-preserved, Sungir 1, an adult male, and Sungir 2 and 3, a double burial of two children.

The adult male called Sungir 1 was between 50–65 years of age at the time of his death and was buried in an extended, supine position with this hands folded over his groin. He was covered in red ochre and buried with several thousand mammoth ivory beads, apparently sewn onto clothing. The skeleton also wore mammoth ivory bracelets. Pedal phalanges (toe bones) of Sungir 1 are gracile, suggesting to Trinkaus et al. that the man habitually wore shoes.

The double burial is of a boy (Sungir 2, 12–14 years old) and a girl (Sungir 3, 9–10 years old), placed head to head in a long, narrow, shallow grave, covered with red ochre and ornamented with grave goods. Artifacts from the burials include ~3,500 perforated ivory beads, hundreds of perforated arctic fox teeth, ivory pins, disc-shaped pendants, and ivory animal carvings. A long spear of straightened mammoth ivory (2.4 meters or 7.8 feet long) was placed alongside the double burial, spanning both skeletons.

Sungir 4 is only represented by a femoral diaphysis, placed into the double burial.

A poorly preserved fifth burial of an adult person, reported by Gerhard Bosinski but not elsewhere, was found above the children's burials. It was an adult placed on a bed of a red-colored sediment and a pit measuring 2.6x1.2 m. The burial is supine, but the skull is missing. Grave goods included slate pebbles, perforated fox-teet, ivory beads, and two clubs made from shed reindeer antlers.

Lithics

More than 50,000 pieces of chipped stone tools and tool fragments were recovered from the site--not counting debitage. The resourced assemblages include many edge-retouched blades and flakes, endscrapers, simpler burins, and at least nine complete or fragmentary Streletskian points. Analysis of some of the tools, specifically the blades, was conducted by Dinnis et al, reported in 2017. They identified platform preparation comparable to the en eperon or spurring technique on some of the blades, unusual on other Upper Paleolithic sites in the Russian plain. They suggest that there is evidence for the exhaustive working of the limited material available. Many of the cores were worked to the point of near shapelessness, and even small flake fragments exhibit edge retouch.

Archaeology

Sungir was discovered in 1955, and excavated by O.N. Bader between 1957-1977 and N.O. Bader between 1987 and 1995.

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