New hydroxyproline radiocarbon dates from Sungir, Russia, confirm early Mid Upper Palaeolithic burials in Eurasia.
Nalawade-Chavan S., McCullagh J., Hedges R.
Sungir (Russia) is a key Mid-Upper Palaeolithic site in Eurasia, containing several spectacular burials that disclose early evidence for complex burial rites in the form of a range of grave goods deposited along with the dead. Dating has been particularly challenging, with multiple radiocarbon dates ranging from 19,160±270 to 28,800±240 BP for burials that are believed to be closely similar in age. There are disparities in the radiocarbon dates of human bones, faunal remains and charcoal found on the floor of burials. Our approach has been to develop compound-specific methods using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to separate single amino acids, such as hydroxyproline, and thereby avoid the known human contamination on the bones themselves. Previously, we applied this technique to obtain radiocarbon dates of ∼30,000 BP for Sungir 2, Sungir 3 and a mammoth bone from the occupation levels of the site. The single amino acid radiocarbon dates were in good agreement with each other compared to all the dates previously reported, supporting their reliability. Here we report new hydroxyproline dates for two more human burials from the same site, Sungir 1 and Sungir 4. All five hydroxyproline dates reported are statistically indistinguishable and support an identical age for the group. The results suggest that compound-specific radiocarbon analysis should be considered seriously as the method of choice when precious archaeological remains are to be dated because they give a demonstrably contaminant-free radiocarbon age. The new ages are, together with the previously dated 'Red Lady of Paviland' human in the British Isles, the earliest for Mid Upper Palaeolithic burial behaviour in Eurasia, and point to the precocious appearance of this form of rite in Europe Russia.