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Human occupation of South Eastern Altai highlands (Russia) in the context of environmental changes

Abstract

Multidisciplinary investigations including geomorphological and geoarchaeological approaches, litho-stratigraphic and pedogenetic analysis accompanied by radiocarbon dating show the contrasting human environmental changes within the highlands of the Russian Altai since the late Paleolithic. Radiocarbon ages of fossil soils formed at 1,475–1,730 m a.s.l. indicate draining of the ice-dammed lake in the Kurai basin before the beginning of the Holocene and disintegration of the Chuya lake into several shallow but quite spacious reservoirs by 8,223 ± 181 cal. BP. Using archaeological sites as spatio-temporal markers allows reconstructions to be specified based on geological data. Archaeological site distribution in the Chuya valley between the Chuya and Kurai basins indicates that all cataclysmic flood events related to the Holocene hydrological changes occurred before the Scythian epoch. Due to the redeposition of most Paleolithic finds in the region, they should be carefully examined before they are utilized for any reconstructions. Using fossil and contemporary soils as an independent informative climatic proxy archive supports the conception of generally more humid and warmer climate conditions in the first half of the Holocene within the SE Altai and a more arid and cold climate in the second one. The repeated climate deteriorations that caused glacier expansion and the progressive aridity intensification in the region along with the sociopolitical reasons are the major factors that controlled the habitat of nomadic communities and cultures shifting within the SE Altai in the second half of the Holocene. Anthropogenic impact together with the progressive aridization led to the deforestation of the eastern part of the Chuya depression.

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Notes

  1. Sheinkman (2002, p. 31) presents two TL dates (14.5 ± 1.5 and 13 ± 1.5 ka) from the top of lacustrine sands covering moraines upstream of the Kuektanar mouth. We suppose that these data give the age of older sedimentation while radiocarbon dates of buried organic material suggest a deposition time for these lacustrine sediments. The material used for TL dating could not be zeroed in water suspension and during rapid sedimentation as was shown for some sections in the northwestern part of the Chuya depression (Lehmkuhl et al., 2007). Most likely due to the same reasons, the TL dates of the Paleolithic cultural layers in Denisov Cave (SW Altai) do not coincide with the paleontological age determinations (Vasiljev, 2001), and TL dates of glacial deposits for the Chagan section (SE Altai) have a large scatter (Agatova et al., 2014a). Thus, TL dates for the Kuektanar glacier moraines −30 and 18–20 ka (Carling et al., 2002) require additional confirmation.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank E.P. Zazovskaya (IG RAN, Moscow) for the radiocarbon dating. Dendrochronological age estimations were done by V.S. Myglan and V.V. Barinov (Siberian Federal University, Krasnojarsk). Palinological analysis was carried out by I.V. Khazina (IPGG SB RAS, Novosibirsk). We appreciate their assistance. We are very grateful to A.V. Panin (Moscow State University) for his valuable comments and discussion. Three anonymous reviewers are kindly thanked for their detailed and constructive reviews that improved style and content of the manuscript. The study was partly funded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Researches (grants 13-05-00555 and 13-04-01829).

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Agatova, A.R., Nepop, R.K., Bronnikova, M.A. et al. Human occupation of South Eastern Altai highlands (Russia) in the context of environmental changes. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 8, 419–440 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-014-0202-7

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Keywords

  • Geoarchaeology
  • Ice-dam lakes
  • Paleosols
  • Environmental changes
  • Russian Altai
  • Late Pleistocene
  • Holocene