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2023, November 7 NU nowScience

Scientists unearth earliest human burial in Kazakhstan

Scientists unearth earliest human burial in Kazakhstan

2023, November 7

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The archaeological research team TEECA, funded by Nazarbayev University, has determined that the burial at the Koken settlement in the Abai region to be the earliest known in Kazakhstan.

The excavations, conducted by the research team consisting of scientists from Nazarbayev University, A.Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology in Almaty, Washington University in St. Louis (USA) and Pavlodar State University, shed light on Stone Age deposits that lay beneath the Bronze Age settlement.

In these earlier layers, a human burial dating back to the middle of the 6th millennium BCE (around 5471-5222 BCE) - the period of the early Neolithic - was discovered. Following radiocarbon analysis, scientists determined that the burial at the Koken settlement in the Abai region of Kazakhstan contains the earliest human remains preserved in the context of burial across the entire territory of Kazakhstan. This gives scientists a rare glimpse into the identity and belief systems of Stone Age hunter-gatherers who lived in the area 7,500 years ago. The discovery is the earliest instance of human remains preserved in a burial in the country and thereby represents unique and priceless components of Kazakhstani heritage. 

“From the initial excavation and analysis to publication, the entire process took more than three years of work by our team consisting of Kazakhstani and international specialists. This discovery is incredibly important for Kazakh archaeology. There is so much material archeology from the Stone Age in Kazakhstan but we have never known about the people, we just don’t find them. With this discovery we finally have a window into their lives,” notes archaeologist Paula N. Doumani Dupuy, Associate Professor at Nazarbayev University.

The scientific paper “Earliest human burial in Kazakhstan: Neolithic findings from the Koken settlement” outlining the details of the discovery was published last month in Kazakhstan Archaeology. The grave contained the remains of two individuals. According to osteological analysis results, the bones belonged to an adult and an adolescent. Analysis of the human bones by the TEECA team also suggests the existence of a peculiar ritual where partial skeletons of different people were buried together. Two individuals were placed without accompanying grave goods into a single pit. An adult male lay in a fetal position, was seemingly bound in cloth, and lacked a head. Accompanying him into the afterlife, was the skull of a teenager. The teenager lacked a skeleton which the researchers interpret as either a deliberate ritual act or the outcome of later occupants destroying part of the grave. 

As of yet, the research team have not found any Stone Age living structures or other graves at Koken to connect with their discovery, leaving the explanation for the existence of partial skeletons in the double burial unresolved. 

"The most difficult part was to excavate it in the conditions of constant rain. It was raining every day, and we had to protect it. The skeleton was found in gravelly soil, which degrades the bone, so we had to be very patient during the excavation process so that no information was destroyed. It’s very hard to locate such burials but we managed to do it! We have no clue when the next one will be found, if ever," shared Zhuldyz Tashmanbetova, a graduate of Nazarbayev University, PhD Candidate, Washington University in St. Louis.

The discovery raises the question of what ancient people believed was significant about this particular location that led them to bury two people together. Answers might be sought in regions to the northeast. Similar ways of treating the dead where the head of one person was buried with the body of another have also been recorded in Siberia and Mongolia. Such a similarity presents the idea that far reaching cultural connections may have existed with eastern Kazakhstan during the Stone Age. Scientists now have a new lead for understanding the population structure and interaction dynamics that would go on to influence the unfolding trajectory of nomadic cultures at a Trans-Eurasian scale. 

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