Friday, June 15, 2012

The Incredible Khvalynsk Culture of the Lower Volga

Late Khvalynsk?

Ok, it's been one week since my last blog post and one week since the release of Episode 6 of the History of Europe Podcast the Rise of the Indo-Europeans. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to get around to producing another podcast tonight to release in time. Fortunately though, the stuff not going into the podcast is totally blogworthy and we shan't waste the opportunity to post them forthwith.

The Khvalynsk Culture didn't quite make the cut into the podcast though their successor culture the Yamna did. This is because they are a pre-Proto-Indo-European culture that sits on the outskirts of the eastern most front of the Europe that we're covering here on the blog and with the podcast. But my failure to include them in the podcast is not an indication of their unworthiness. It is quite the contrary, it is my own shortcomings as a speaker to get an audience as excited about the Khvalynsk as their history demands.

The Khvalynsk Culture was located in the Saratov Oblast, famous for among many others, the Billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich. So, it is conceivable that this 5th millennium BC culture would in a roundabout way produce the owner of the Champions League winners. Or, this is sensationalism aimed solely at search engine optimization. You can make the call...

Here you can see the difference
between the earlier Khvalynsk and
later Sredny Stog cultures that
occupied Western Russia in the
Chalcolithic period of European
Shameless tactics aside the Khvalynsk Culture was fascinating. The Khvalynsk were early forerunners in the use of domesticated horses and burying their important dead in kurgans. If you remember from previous posts or are a listener to the podcast, you'll know that a kurgan is a burial mound made popular  with the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. The burial of their dead also marks a transition from an egalitarian society to a more stratified one. Some of the graves contain far better arrays of grave goods than others, but their was yet to be a special marker for a chief or ruler of a community. They were also early adopters of the metal technologies. Many of their graves have metal ornamental jewelry. Conspicuously absent though are metal tools or weapons, suggesting that either the Khvalynsk had not discovered the incredible usage of metal, were only advanced enough smiths to make jewelry or imported the metal objects from other cultures surrounding it.

Marija Gimbutas, the archeologist we relied on heavily for episode 6 of the podcast, visited the Khvalynsk site herself and denoted a grave she believed to be a chief. This grave contained a number of highly crafted flint weapons and a number of beads. In addition to the beads there were the teeth of a number of wild animals, some of which are difficult to extract. The difficulty in which these teeth were cut out of an animal after death suggests that some of the teeth might have been valuable enough as trade items. Whether or not they served as a proto-currency though is impossible to tell. The Khvalynsk would eventually devolve and reemerge as the Yamna culture and to a lesser extent, the Sredny Stog Culture, both of which episode 7 of the podcast will delve into.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Aurignacians of Tiranë

Sophisticated Religious life of prehistoric man
Tiranë is currently the largest city and capital of Albania. But in spite of it being inhabited by Aurignacians, a tool producing culture of the Paleolithic that thrived 45,000 - 35,000 years ago, the town wasn't all that important until the Ottoman Era. But, we'll focus only on the Paleolithic stuff found there and leave the Ottomans for a later day.

At the base of Mount Dajt, near the capital city in central Albania, there has been recent discoveries of Aurignacian artifacts. This shouldn't be all that surprising because a number of other Balkan sites have produced a trove of Aurignacian treasure. The Aurignacians were master craftsmen that like to work with flint and bone to make tools and weapons. However, we've covered much of this in other posts so I want talk about their anthropomorphic figurines. Which is a bit of a departure from Tiranë, because none of these have been found at this site. However, I haven't posted a single thing on Albania and I want to make sure that they get some coverage as well.

Devolved man.
The Löwenmensch (German for Lion Man/person) is the oldest known anthropomorphic/zoomorphic figurine in the world and dates to about 30,000 years ago. It shows a lion's head on top of a man's body. It's kind of like a Thundercat. Anyway, this sophistication of sculpting shows that the Aurignacians, who happen to be the first fully modern human culture in Europe, had a strong religious life. They believed in some kind of deity and many of these figurines are male and not female ones. Granted, the zoomorphic figurines were used in concert with Venus figurines so it wasn't necessarily a male oriented religion. However, the prevalence of male figurines shoots a bit of a hole in Marija Gimbutas' matriarchal, matrilineal theories you'll hear plenty of tonight on the podcast. Personally, aside from the cool factor that these figurines are 30,000 years old I think they foreshadowed those stupid hipster hats. They aren't nearly as sophisticated as the statues. Man is devolving.

The Neanderthals of Grotta Guattari

It has been more than a week since I posted. For that you have my sincerest apologies. I'm just not able to turn things over as quickly as I would like. However the script is written and hopefully Episode 6 of the History of Europe Podcast will go up tonight. But just to whet your whistle I thought I might get a couple of posts up today. The first is on the Neanderthal Cave found in San Felice Cicero in the Lazio region of Italy.

The cave was discovered in 1939 when the area was being quarried. The land was owned by a guy named Guattari and thus, gave it the name. The cave had been blocked to the outside world for thousands of years because of a landslide that occurred long, long ago. The cave was explored and the remains of animals, a small stone circle and the skull of a Neanderthal was found therein. Later, a couple of Neanderthal jawbones were found. Each of these artifacts received the name Cicero, so the cave yielded the Neanderthal remains of Cicero I, Cicero II and Cicero III.

The initial archeological work was done by an Italian paleontologist by the name of Alberto Carlo Blanc. From the finds in the cave he postulated that the skull found showed evidence of human consumption. This cannibalism theory would have fit well with the leading theories at the time. However, the presence of hyena remains gave rise to a different theory. This one suggested that the cave was a hyena den and that the skull had been damaged when it was eaten by hyenas and not some other cave man. However, both of these theories have been displaced by another one, that has had the benefit of modern techniques like radiocarbon dating. This theory suggests that the cave had some early inhabitation by prehistoric hominins as far back as 100,000 BC. Then sometime around 55,000 BC it became used by Neanderthals. This is when the skull and jaw bones date from. This date would make the Grotta Guattari Neanderthals the oldest in Italy. Then, at some point after 50,000 BC a landslide occurred that limited the entrance size making it difficult for prehistoric man to enter, but perfect for hyenas. That is when the cave switched to being a hyena den. Some time shortly after transitioning from a human home to a hyena one though, another landslide occurred, blocking the entry way until it was discovered by mistake in 1939.

While Carlo Blanc's theory was debunked much later in 1989, his paleontological work was used throughout much of the 20th century. He was on the team that introduced the world to Saccopastore man, found in the rural areas surrounding Rome. Like Cicero I (pictured), Blanc thought the remains of Saccopastore man showed signs of cannibalism because of the large hole in the skull. Along with the remains of two people, one man and one woman that appear to have been Neanderthals, the site yielded numerous Mouseterian tools, remains of ancient hippopotami, straight-tusked elephants  and ancient rhinoceros bones.