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Early Asia

Asia as a whole consists of five broad regions which include Central Asia, South Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia, and Siberia (Northern Asia - covered elsewhere). The rarely used label of 'West Asia' refers to the Near East. Of those regions it would appear to be South Asia which witnessed the earliest presence of anatomically modern humans in the form of Homo sapiens - between about 70,000-60,000 BC - with small groups either remaining in what is now India from their earliest point of arrival after leaving the Near East, or migrating along the coastline to reach South-East Asia, Oceania, and Australia. Other groups headed north to enter East Asia roughly around 60,000 BC.

Central Asia as a region is hard to define with any real accuracy. The term has different meanings for the different writers and nations that have used it, varying from the tight modern Russian focus on those states that are located between the Caspian Sea and the Himalayas, to the much broader usage of western scholars which can see it reach as far as the Urals in the west (the usual border between Asia and Europe) and the limits of what is now China in the east. In terms of the archaeological evidence that underpins the various cultural designations used here, the latter term is generally applied, although perhaps referring to it as central Eurasia would be preferable if it wasn't so cumbersome.

East Asia incorporates all of the territory to the east of Central Asia. This includes territory which became ancient China (with a separate page covering its Early Cultures), plus modern Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea (early cultures for the Koreas are covered under East Asia), Japan (which also has its own Early Cultures page), Taiwan, and Tibet. The north-eastern corner of Russia can sometimes also be included in this group, providing a cornerstone between that and Siberia. China and Tibet provide the regional border with the countries of South Asia and South-East Asia.

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

FeatureThe origins of 'Asia' as a name appear to lay in a confederacy in western Anatolia known as Assuwa or Assua (Arzawa). Certainly by about 1400-1300 BC this confederacy had already been formed by a number of regional minor states which, collectively, were allied to the Hittite empire which dominated Anatolia at that time. The city of Troy (or Wilusa) was also a member of this confederacy. However, a far older word could be the basis of the 'Asia' name. This option relates to the Indo-Europeans and their spread from the Pontic-Caspian steppe to dominate Central Asia (see the feature link, right, for a fuller exploration of this theory).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Link: Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

Siberian cultural bone markings

Palaeolithic Asia
Incorporating the Zhoukoudian Tradition, East Asian Palaeolithic, Eastern Central Asia Palaeolithic, South Asian Upper Palaeolithic, and South-East Asian Upper Palaeolithic

FeatureAsia's Palaeolithic period is one of gradually encroaching human activity from the coastal regions towards the vast inland areas. India was reached around 70,000 BC, although that specific date is contested. Anatomically modern humans filtered from there into South-East Asia and Oceania by about 60,000 BC, reaching Australia at some point around or shortly after 50,000 BC (see feature link). The early history of modern human infiltration into and habitation of East Asia is still very vague. The story has only been illustrated in relatively isolated pockets of research, concentrated especially in China (and then only primarily along its Early Yellow River until more recent decades), Japan, and the two Koreas. From East Asia humans reached Berengia around 48,000 BC (now the north-eastern corner of Russia).

Those early arrivals in East Asia set about exploiting the resources of today's China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Tibet. Russia's north-eastern corner can also sometimes be included in this group. Since the start of the twenty-first century more collaborative efforts are being undertaken into exploring East Asia's Palaeolithic record, with Russia now being included in providing a better overview. Details regarding the settlement of Early China and Early Japan are covered in detail on those pages, while early Central Asia enjoyed its own Palaeolithic period which seems to be largely unconnected. The earliest Siberians split off from Western Eurasians around 36,000 BC, very shortly after Western Eurasians (generally of Europe) and East Asians themselves became genetically distinct.

Two of Central Asia's natural vegetation zones have played a prominent part in the continent's history. These are the forest belt, which is between eight hundred to 1,600 kilometres wide and, to the south of it, the steppe, a vast grassland that extends eastwards from Hungary to Mongolia. The latter area facilitated ancient communications and provided an ample supply of grass, the only raw material that was absolutely essential to the creation of the early cattle-herding cultures (starting around the time of the Dnieper-Donets II culture). The vast forests played host to various forager cultures that were eventually influenced to some extent by the cattle-herder cultures. The frozen marshes of the north and the deserts in the far south played only a minor role in Central Asian prehistory.

It was East Asians who were largely responsible for the migration into North America. They also integrated with descendants of Ancient North Siberians to give rise to another group, dubbed the Ancient Palaeo-Siberians, who went on to generally supplant the existing Ancient North Siberians. They too were supplanted in time, by another band of East Asians which headed north about 9000-8000 BC and which gave rise to a group dubbed the Neo-Siberians. The vast majority of the genetic makeup of present-day Siberians comes from this last push. It is also the reason that there is no very close connection between contemporary Siberians and Native Americans.

FeatureThere were no Neanderthals alongside modern humans in Siberia but there was another human species. The Altai Mountains at the junction between Siberia, Central Asia, and China were home to a species of human called Homo denisovan. It is still unclear what part - if any - this descendant of Homo Heidelbergensis and cousin of Homo sapiens played in the modern human occupation of the region. Knowledge about them is only recent (since 2010), and is still undergoing a process of understanding and expansion. Early research does seem to show that, by around 18,000 BC, populations of H denisovan and H sapiens were interbreeding on mainland East Asia (see more on Homo denisovan via feature link).

FeatureThe early East Asians also found Homo erectus populations still extant, but quickly out-competed them so that this long-established early human species was extinct before about 30,000 BC (see feature link). It was Homo erectus which provided the archaeological predecessor to the East Asian Palaeolithic, in the form of the Zhoukoudian Tradition. The type site for this is Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien in older works), in China's Beijing Municipality, where so-called Peking Man was discovered.

Various other cultural phases in Asia include the Eastern Central Asia Palaeolithic, South Asian Upper Palaeolithic, South-East Asian Upper Palaeolithic, and the Ordosian tradition, all of which exhibit similar Mousterian/Levallois techniques. For the most part, localised cultures and traditions were yet to emerge.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Palaeo-Anthropology and Palaeolithic archaeology in the people's republic of China, Wu Rukang & John W Olsen (Left Coast Press, 2009), and from External Links: Ancient DNA Links Native Americans With Europe, Michael Balter (Science, 25 Oct 2013: Vol 342, Issue 6157, pp409-410), and From Siberia to the Arctic and the Americas, Douglas Wallace (DNA Learning Center), and Tracking the First Americans, Glenn Hodges (National Geographic), and The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene (Nature), and Ancient Denisovans (Archaeology Daily), and DNA from Mysterious 'Denisovans' Helped Modern Humans Survive (Live Science), and East Asia Palaeolithic (Claire Smith, Ed, Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 2014), and Zhoukoudian archaeological site (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Stone Age Asia (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

c.60,000 BC

The Ordosian culture is an Upper Palaeolithic modern human culture which has its type name on the Ordos plateau, southern Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in China, close to Mongolia's border. The tools of this Early China culture display points and sides which bear similarities to the Mousterian culture.

Ordos Plateau
The Ordos Plateau lies along the Yellow River in what today is northern China, close to the border with Mongolia

c.50,000 BC

Hunter-gatherers seem to arrive on Early Japan during this period. Two routes are available, one being via a land bridge in the north while sea crossings may be possible in the south. DNA suggests that the Palaeolithic ancestors of the later-dominant Jomon people come from the north-eastern part of the East Asian mainland. Good quality finds, however, are rare thanks to Japan's highly acidic soil which soon destroys fossil matter.

c.36,000 BC

The earliest habitation of Siberia seems to take place around 40,000 BC - and perhaps even a little earlier. By this period those early inhabitants begin the process of becoming genetically distinct from both Western Eurasians (largely of Europe's Aurignacian culture) and East Asians, shortly after the latter two have also begun to develop their own genetic distinctions.

c.30,000 BC

FeatureEarly East Asians have existed alongside extant populations of Homo erectus for the past thirty thousand years. It is Homo erectus which has provided the archaeological predecessor to the East Asian Palaeolithic, that of the Zhoukoudian Tradition. The type site for this is Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien in older works), in China's Beijing Municipality, where so-called Peking Man is later discovered by archaeologists.

Homo ergaster, Turkhana Boy
In general, the use of Homo ergaster describes a species of hominid in Africa, but when examples of the same species leave Africa they are generally referred to as Homo erectus, although this is not a hard or fast rule - this example belongs to Turkana Boy, otherwise known as Nariokotome Boy, the most complete skeleton found to date and a perfect example of Homo ergaster of about 1.5 million years ago

c.25,000 BC

For the moment, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, this is the earliest generally-accepted arrival date for the first migrants to enter North America from Siberia via the Bering land bridge.

Mal'ta-Buret' Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.22,000 - 13,000 BC

FeatureIt is safe to assume that prior to this period Siberia and the sub-Arctic areas of Europe belonged to the same civilisation, this being the Aurignacian culture. The Aurignacian succeeded the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture. There may be some crossover finds that are assigned to the latter but, essentially, that was the final expression of Neanderthal mastery of Europe. The humans of the Aurignacian displaced Neanderthals, consigning them to a slow extinction in southern Spain. Theirs was the first modern human culture outside of the Near East because it saw the first expressions of culture - the creation of artistic figurines and cave paintings, and possibly burials too. The differentiation between Central Asia and neighbouring cultures did not begin until Neolithic times, and was marked by tremendous technical progress and a wide diversification of cultures.

This Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) culture was located in Siberia, largely as an eastwards expression of the European Gravettian culture but with its own development and expression. It is known from a vast area of Asiatic Russia which spans the River Yenisey (to the north of Tomsk and the border between modern Kazakhstan and Mongolia) and the western shores of Lake Baikal (to the north of central Mongolia). The site of Mal'ta - the second syllable is stressed - lies about a hundred kilometres north of Lake Baikal. It is composed of a series of subterranean houses that were made from large animal bones and reindeer antler and which had likely been covered with animal skins and sod to protect the inhabitants from the severe, prevailing northerly winds. The site of Buret' is a little way to the north of Mal'ta, along the course of the River Angara. The culture (known in full in Russian as Maltinsko-Buretskaya) also seems to have been involved to an extent in the Palaeo-Indian peopling of the Americas.

Another (Late) Upper Palaeolithic culture soon emerged alongside the Mal'ta-Buret' in north-eastern Asia. The Afontova Gora culture bears clear cultural and genetic links to Mal'ta-Buret', probably being an eastwards expression of it. However, little of note in archaeological terms seems so far to have been found after this period and for the subsequent six thousand years or so. The next prominent archaeological culture to be noted is much father to the south in the form of the Kel'teminar.

FeatureThere were no Neanderthals alongside modern humans in Siberia but there was another human species - the Denisovans. Knowledge about them is only recent (since 2010), and is still undergoing a process of understanding and expansion (see feature link, right). They would have occupied areas of Siberia and parts of Asia when Homo sapiens arrived and, it seems, by around 18,000 BC years ago populations of H denisovan and H sapiens were interbreeding on mainland East Asia.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Ancient DNA Links Native Americans With Europe, Michael Balter (Science, 25 Oct 2013: Vol 342, Issue 6157, pp409-410), and Ancient Denisovans (Archaeology Daily), and DNA from Mysterious 'Denisovans' Helped Modern Humans Survive (Live Science), and The Mal'ta - Buret' venuses and culture in Siberia (Don's Maps), and A giant Siberian lake during the last glacial, and Wet and wonderful: the world's largest wetlands are conservation priorities, Lauchlan Hugh Fraser (Thompson Rivers University, 2009).)

c.22,000 BC

The third oldest-discovered Homo sapiens genome (by 2016) comes from a boy who dies around this time, near the Siberian hunter-gatherer village of Mal'ta. Generally part of the Gravettian culture, itself a development of the broader Aurignacian, this boy also belongs to the more regionally-specific Mal'ta-Buret' culture of Siberia.

The boy's DNA shows close ties to that of today's Native Americans. Yet he apparently descends not from East Asians, but from people who had lived in Europe or western Asia. The findings suggest that about a third of the ancestry of native Americans can be traced to 'western Eurasia', with the other two-thirds coming from eastern Asia. It also implies that traces of European ancestry that have previously been detected in modern native Americans do not come solely from mixing with European colonists, but have much deeper roots.

Mal-ta-Buret' boy
DNA from the skeleton of a boy of the Mal'ta-Buret' culture in Siberia offers clues to the first Americans, with this culture being the first to the east of the Ural Mountains to show differences from its European counterparts, albeit before any admixture from East Asians had taken place

FeatureAround the same time, a sharp freeze could be responsible for dealing the dwindling Neanderthal populations in Europe a killer blow that finishes them off. A climate downturn may cause a drought, placing pressure on the last surviving Neanderthals by reducing their supplies of fresh water and killing off the animals they hunt. The cause of this chill may be cyclical changes in the Earth's position relative to the sun - so-called Milankovitch cycles. The resultant cold event seems to be pretty severe and also quite short.

c.20,000 BC

Crucially Ancient North Siberians do not appear to be the direct ancestor of Native Americans, although a distantly related group of around this period does seem to provide part of the genetic mix which is transferred across into North America, primarily through East Asians.

FeatureHomo denisovan still exists at this time, although little understood at present. Populations still occupy the Altai Mountains in Siberia, as well as the Tibetan Plateau. Research in 2011 shows that anatomically modern humans and Homo denisovans are interbreeding (see feature link). Largely it is with East Asians, and primarily populations which end up in South-East Asia. As East Asians largely supplant Ancient Palaeo-Siberians too, they bring this genetic diversity with them, to which is added that of ancient Siberians.

c.13,000 BC

The Siberia region during the Upper Palaeolithic is still poorly understood. The people who lived in ancient Mal'ta have lived a semi-nomadic way of life and have built dwellings that are temporary but rather well-founded. As hunter-gatherers they have hunted mammoth and reindeer for meat, bones, and fur and, to an extent, fish too. Around this time their habitat may be affected by the most recent glaciation to occur in Siberia.

The Sartan glaciation, although contentious and not fully agreed, theorises the formation of a vast freshwater lake covering much of the West Siberian Plain. Stretching some 1,500km from north to south, and a similar distance east to west at its widest points, at its maximum extent it may have had a surface area at least twice that of the Caspian Sea.

West Siberian Plain
The 2.745 million square kilometres of today's West Siberian Plain is dominated by peatlands, such as this floodplain which is surrounded by tundra

Formed by the damming of the Yenisei and Ob rivers by an eastward lobe of the Ural and Putorana ice sheets, this mega-lake appears from the available dates to reach its maximum extent by around 22,000 BC, and to exist in some form until around 10,000 BC (three thousand years longer than the Black Sea has existed in its current form). At the end of this period the lake may drain into the Arctic Sea, perhaps with regionally-catastrophic effects. The neighbouring Afontova Gora culture continues to survive for another millennium or so but both cultures eventually fade out - the Kel'teminar in the south is the next notable culture to emerge.

Afontova Gora Culture (Late Upper Palaeolithic)
c.21,000 - 12,000 BC
Incorporating the Shigir Idol People

The Afontova Gora culture (Афонтова Гора in Cyrillic) emerged quite early after the establishment of the Mal'ta-Buret' in Northern Asia, several hundred kilometres to the south-east. It bears clear cultural and genetic links Mal'ta-Buret', probably being a northwards expression of it. Its core location was along a northwards-flowing river, the Yenisei (Енисея - very close to the south-western edge of the modern city of Krasnoyarsk), with a settlement that can be dated to 18,000-16,000 BC. This was a very cold period in the most recent Ice Age, and the northern ice sheet cannot have been far away to the north.

The available archaeology from this site - which gives the culture its name - comes from five or more camp sites of the period in question. The site was first excavated by I T Savenkov in 1884, with the first human remains appearing at Level II in the 1924 excavations. Low quality DNA data confirmed clear links with the people of Mal'ta-Buret' while also showing a significant level of similarity with the Karitiana people of Brazil, and much more affinity with them than with the modern population of China. The Afontova Gora people were involved to an extent in the peopling of the Americas.

Little of note in archaeological terms seems so far to have originated on the eastern side of the Urals across the next six thousand years or so, although the tentatively-named Shigir Idol people clearly inhabited the eastern Ural region (see circa 10.500 BC, below). These hunter-gatherers of a sparsely-populated Eurasian zone which was still emerging from the ice age were remarkable for the level of detail they seemingly managed to get in their totem poles, only one of which has survived to be examined by scientists. However, it was the European side of the Ural mountain range that seemed to progress in more detail, during the Hamburg, Ahrensburg, and Swiderian cultures. The next prominent Eurasian archaeological culture to be noted towards the east is actually located much farther to the south of the Afontova Gora, in the form of the Kel'teminar.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Laurie Stevens, and from External Links: Don's Maps, and Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans (US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health), and How the World's Oldest Wooden Sculpture Is Reshaping Prehistory (New York Times).)

c.13,000 BC

The Siberia region during the Upper Palaeolithic is still poorly understood. The people of the Mal'ta find that their habitat may be affected by the most recent glaciation to occur in Siberia. The Sartan glaciation, although contentious and not fully agreed, theorises the formation of a vast freshwater lake covering much of the West Siberian Plain. Stretching some 1,500km from north to south, and a similar distance east to west at its widest points, at its maximum extent it may have had a surface area at least twice that of the Caspian Sea.

Afontova Gora scraper
A flint scraper found at the Afontova Gora archaeological site(s), used to scrape and clean off animal hides following a kill

Formed by the damming of the Yenisei and Ob rivers by an eastward lobe of the Ural and Putorana ice sheets, this mega-lake appears from the available dates to reach its maximum extent by around 22,000 BC, and to exist in some form until around 10,000 BC (three thousand years longer than the Black Sea has existed in its current form).

At the end of this period the lake may drain into the Arctic Sea, perhaps with regionally-catastrophic effects. The neighbouring Afontova Gora culture continues to survive for another millennium or so before fading out - the Kel'teminar in the south is the next notable culture to emerge.

c.10,500 BC

The world's oldest known wooden sculpture, dug out of a peat bog near Kirovgrad by gold miners in 1890, is carbon-dated twice in the early 2000s to pinpoint a date of construction. Carved from a great slab of freshly cut larch, scattered among its geometric patterns (zigzags, chevrons, and herringbones) are eight human faces, each with slashes for eyes which peer not so benignly from the front and back planes.

This portable piece of 'mobiliary art' is known as the Shigir Idol, the only example of its type to survive, thanks to its being submerged in a now-gone palaeo-lake roughly twenty to thirty years after it had been erected. For the moment the task of assigning it to any particular culture is one that will have to wait. No clear cultural connection has been established in this poorly-populated region (at the time), which at this time is still in the process of emerging from ice age tundra to habitable biome.

Shigir Idol
Two views of the head of the Shigir Idol, a 2.7 metre-tall totem pole made of larch and discovered in a Russian peat bog in 1890

Early forests are still in the process of spreading across this warmer late glacial-to-post-glacial Eurasia. Hunter-gather population groups here are still likely to be small and scattered, although the situation is changing rapidly. For the purposes of comparison, the sculpture is a little over a millennium older than the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A temple of Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia. Today its remains reside in Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore in the Ural Mountains, not far from the Siberian border.

c.9000 - 8000 BC

As the Jeulman pottery period is beginning to emerge in the Korean peninsula, it is other East Asians who are largely responsible for the migration into North America which forms the Palaeo-Indians. East Asians have also mixed with other descendants of ancient Siberian groups to give rise to the Ancient Palaeo-Siberians.

Now another band of East Asians heads north to supplant that group and give rise to the Neo-Siberians. The vast majority of the genetic makeup of present-day Siberians comes from this last push. Later bands of such incomers include the East Asian Tungusic people.

Kel'teminar Culture (Neolithic / Eneolithic)
c.6000 - 3000 BC

In archaeological terms the period following the end of the Mal'ta-Buret' and Afontova Gora cultures in Siberia seems to have been largely unremarkable. It was the European side of the Urals mountain range which seems to have progressed in more detail, during the Hamburg, Ahrensburg, and Swiderian cultures. While East Asia was already experiencing its own Mesolithic and Neolithic in the form of China's Peiligang culture and Korea's Jeulmun pottery period, the next prominent archaeological culture to be noted on the Asian side of the Urals is located much father to the south than previously. This takes the form of the Kel'teminar (or, less accurately, Kelteminar), which emerged at the same time as the South-East Asian Toalean culture.

Unfortunately this culture is rather vaguely dated in many cases. Lamberg-Karlovsky provides dates of 5500-3500 BC, but others take it up to 6000 BC and down to 3000 BC. Largely a Neolithic culture, it also saw in the start of the Eneolithic (or Aeneolithic) between the fourth to third millennia BC. It was categorised in 1939 by an expedition into what had been to the ancients the eastern Caspian Sea region of Chorasmia (but by then was Uzbekistan). Led by S P Tolstov, the culture was named after the abandoned Kel'teminar Canal, near to which the first finds were made. Russian scientific opinion links it to the Pit-Comb Ware culture, maintaining that its population was of Finno-Ugric origin (see Yablonsky). The latter at least is virtually impossible to prove as the region was later dominated by Indo-Iranian peoples, while the Kel'teminar are held to have melted into the north during a local environmental change around 2000 BC. This would appear to be the same environmental change which resulted in the termination of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) and the large-scale ingress of Indo-Iranians.

The culture was widespread, primarily in the ancient Akcha Darya Delta of the River Amu Darya (the ancient River Oxus) and its adjacent territories, and reaching the central eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Today these territories are incorporated into the nation states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The remains of extremely large, oval, community-sized frame houses were discovered at camp sites. Microlithic-type flint articles were found, as well as pottery with round and pointed bottoms and with incised and stamped decoration and ornaments (notably beads) that had been crafted from shells. The population was engaged in fishing and foraging, while at a later stage it became heavily involved in raising stock. This was almost certainly due to its ties with the highly-developed agricultural cultures of the south which themselves were being fed by the developments of the Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia.

The culture in its turn provided influence to the Neolithic cultures of the Urals and the region of the lower Ob which empties into the Siberian Kara Sea. While it seems to have had no direct regional successor, the subsequent Zamin-Babis tribes seemingly evolved it as they moved eastwards to form what is sometimes referred to as the Suyargan culture (a division of the BMAC). Following a gap of around a millennium and-a-half, the Kel'teminar was succeeded by the Tazabagyab culture which was itself a southern expression of the now-dominant Andronovo horizon. In Kazakhstan, to the immediate north of the Kel'teminar, the small cultural pockets which were formed by the Botai-Tersek had already appeared.

Kel'teminar tools

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Po drevnim del'tam Oksa i Iaksarta, S P Tolstov (Moscow, 1962), Neoliticheskie pamiatniki Khorezma, A V Vinogradov (Moscow, 1968), from The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, Third Edition (1970-1979), and from External Links: The Bronze Age khanates of Central Asia, C C Lamberg-Karlovsky (Antiquity, Vol 68, Issue 259, Cambridge University Press, 2015), and Kelteminar Craniology: Intra-Group Analysis, L T Yablonsky (Soviet Ethnography No 2, USSR Academy of Sciences, 1985).)

Toalean Culture (Mesolithic)
c.6000 BC - AD 500

In archaeological terms the period following the end of the Asian Mal'ta-Buret' and Afontova Gora cultures in Siberia seems to have been largely unremarkable. It was the European side of the Urals mountain range which seems to have progressed in more detail, during the Hamburg, Ahrensburg, and Swiderian cultures. While East Asia was already experiencing its own Mesolithic and Neolithic in the form of China's Peiligang culture and Korea's Jeulmun pottery period, the next prominent archaeological culture to be noted in South-East Asia was the Toalean, which emerged at the same time as the Central Asian Kel'teminar culture.

The hunter-gatherers of the regionally-unique Toalean culture (or Toalien in initial reports) inhabited southern areas of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The duration of this cultural period was incredibly long for such recent dates, covering more than six thousand years during the middle and late Holocene. It could be stretched even farther in time, as knowledge of the culture is still somewhat patchy. No preceding cultures are known other than the initial Palaeolithic habitation - the island's archaeological record requires a great deal of detailing. The culture is characterised by backed blades, geometric microliths, and 'Maros points', small pressure-flaked projectiles with hollow bases and serrated margins. They preyed heavily on wild endemic warty pigs and harvested edible shellfish from creeks and estuaries.

FeatureBessé is the only known skeleton from the Toalean (the name is pronounced bur-sek, with 'bur' as in 'bursary' while the 'k' is a strangulated stop in the throat, akin to the 't' in the Cockney 'bottle' which, in essence, is missing). DNA results revealed an ancient link to East Asia, which challenged previous knowledge about migration to the islands of the Wallacea group of which Sulawesi is a part (the greater number of islands belong to the Asian two-thirds of this group, with the rest in Oceania). Asian ancestry in the region had previously been thought to date to about 1000 BC or later, but this find pushed that back by four millennia. The rest of Bessé's DNA is shared with today's indigenous Australians and the people of New Guinea and the Western Pacific, while a Denisovan presence is also noted (likely introduced via her East Asian ancestors - see feature link).

The Toalean people were related to the very earliest modern human populations in the Wallacea region from around 63,000 BC or earlier. These were the ancestors of Australians and Papuans. At some point they were joined by an East Asian influx. This seems to have taken place after the Australian/Papuan outwards migration and the initial peopling of the Pleistocene supercontinent of Sahul, but before general Austronesian expansion. The Toalean was eventually edged out a thousand years or so after the start of the spread of Austronesian Neolithic farmers from mainland Asia.

Palaeolithic cave paintings on Sulawesi, Indonesia

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Ancient woman's DNA (Big Think), Culture History of the Toalean of South Sulawesi, David Bulbeck, Monique Pasqua, & Adrian di Lello (Asian Perspectives Vol 39, No 1/2, University of Hawai'i Press, Spring-Autumn 2000, available as a PDF from JSTOR).)

c.5200 BC

Dated to this approximate date, Bessé is about seventeen or eighteen years of age when she is laid to rest in a limestone cave known as Leang Panninge ('Bat Cave') on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. While she is a genuine descendant of the earliest human inhabitants in the region, her DNA also reveals a link to East Asia, challenging previous ideas about East Asian migration into the region. A migration of some extent must take place before this date. Today's Burgis people of Sulawesi use the name Bessé as a nickname for a new-born princess.

Altai Mountains
The skull of Bessé was able to yield DNA from the inner ear, the best place for its survival, which revealed a surprising East Asian addition to her Sahul-region ancestry, and a less surprising inclusion of Denisovan ancestry

c.AD 500

After roughly a millennium of intrusion onto Sulawesi by Austronesian Neolithic farmers who have been migrating outwards from mainland Asia, the Toalean culture finally fades out and its people are submerged by the culturally-dominant later arrivals.

Botai-Tersek Culture (Eneolithic)
c.3700 - 3100 BC

The Botai culture appeared in a relatively limited area in what is now Kazakhstan, at the headwaters of the rivers Tobol and Ishim, both of which merged with the Irtysh in the great forests to the immediate east of the Ural Mountains. The culture's type site is at Botai, on the River Iman-Burluk, a tributary of the Ishim in northern Kazakhstan. To its immediate south, the Kel'teminar culture was already heading towards its conclusion while this steppe culture was possibly one of the earliest-known horse cultures. The slightly more eastern Teresk is related - and is equally limited in territorial extent - and the two can comfortably be placed side-by-side. Both cultures were formed relatively quickly out of what had previously been the pedestrian forager cultures of the Atbasar and Makhandzhar on the northern Kazakh steppe.

The Afanasevo culture which appeared very soon after the rise of the Botai-Tersek, was intrusive in the Altai Mountains. It was produced by a sudden migration of Volga-Ural steppe groups of the Late Khvalynsk and Repin cultures from an area around the Caspian Sea. It introduced across the eastern steppe a suite of domesticated animals, metal types, pottery types, and funeral customs which were derived from the Volga-Ural steppe region. These migrants may also have been responsible for introducing horse-riding along their route to the indigenous foragers, who were quickly transformed into the horse-riding, wild-horse-hunting, and village-living Botai culture just at the time at which the Afanasevo migration began. The change must have been about as monumental as that of the early days of Europeans meeting Native Americans.

The Botai rode horses to hunt horses (for meat), a peculiar arrangement which existed only within this culture and only on the northern steppe of Kazakhstan. They overwhelmingly preferred this meat over other hunting targets, such as aurochs (or possibly a form of bison), elk, deer, bear, beaver, antelope, and gazelles. They used their mounts to funnel entire herds of wild horses into a kill zone, a more proficient process than anything that preceding millennia of hunter-gatherer techniques had produced. The Botai have been claimed as the original domesticators of the horse, but the Late Khvalynsk and Repin people are much closer to being able to claim this title.

The people of the Botai spoke an undetermined language which does not appear to be related to the proto-Indo-European tongue spoken by the Afanasevos. However, while they were clearly not Indo-Europeans themselves, the language barrier seems not to have been a problem when it came to them absorbing Afanasevo cultural aspects, along with the aforementioned animal domestication and horse-riding, plus new pottery types, and improved metalworking. The Indo-European speakers probably employed translators in their dealings with the Botai-Tersek, something they most probably learned from their own dealings with Maikop traders which had brought them wagons.

The assumption should be made that most steppe tribes were now equestrian. However, the Botai-Tersek people failed to provide a successor culture to their brief spell of focussed organisation as horse-riding enclave-dwellers. Instead they seem to have been submerged by later Uralic-Siberian-Central Asian groups (the latter primarily being Indo-European Indo-Iranians). Instead, it is cultures of the Yamnaya horizon which dominate here, principally the western edges of Afanasevo and later the Andronovo.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Links: Indo-Europeans and Uralic Peoples, and Another series of Indo-European themed maps (Dark Heritage), and First Domesticated Horses (Facts and Details), and Horse domestication in the Botai Culture, Eneolithic Kazakhstan, Alan Outram (University of Exeter), Genetic history of admixture across inner Eurasia; Botai shows R1b-M73 (Indo-European.eu).)

c.3700 - 3500 BC

FeatureAround this time a section of the Volga-Ural pastoral steppe population of the Late Khvalynsk and Repin, near the Caspian Sea, decides to migrate eastwards across Kazakhstan, covering a distance of more than two thousand kilometres as it does so. It reaches a region just to the north of Lake Balkhash, and intruding into the Altai Mountains (see feature link).

Altai Mountains
The Altai Mountains link together the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Xinjiang, providing the source for the rivers Irtysh and Ob

This incredible trek leads to the appearance of the Afanasevo culture in the western Gorny Altai. These people use four-wheeled wagons to transport their population, all of them speaking a form of proto- Indo-European which is common throughout the Yamnaya horizon which explodes across the steppe around this time. What it also seems to do is introduce horse-riding to the indigenous foragers of the north Kazakh steppe, who are quickly transformed into the horse-riding, wild-horse-hunting Botai and Tersek cultures.

c.3100 - 3000 BC

The Botai and Tersek cultures fade out of use at about the same time as China's Yangshao culture, while Korea's Jeulmun pottery period is enjoying its prosperous 'Middle' period.