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Recent studies of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic in the northwestern Caucasus are focused on the research of relations between natural (climate and environment) and social (behavior and adaptations) factors that governed settlement dynamics of Neanderthal and anatomically modern human populations in the region. The majority of Middle Paleolithic sites in the region show temporal changes within a local variant of the Eastern Micoquian industry between approximately 90 and 40 thousand years (ka) ago. The final stage of the Eastern Micoquian occupation in the northwestern Caucasus is notable in that the number of Neanderthal sites increases, and these sites show a higher variety and spread towards the eastern boundary of the region. The research provides new data indicating that ecology and subsistence of late Neanderthals were affected by a large, catastrophic volcanogenic event, which likely caused the Neanderthal extinction, and that was followed by a subsequent reoccupation of the region by Upper Paleolithic modern humans. In addition, recent genetic analyses indicate that a population turnover is likely to have occurred, either in the Caucasus or throughout Europe, towards the end of Neanderthal history.
In the northwestern Caucasus, Upper Paleolithic sites are found mostly in caves or rockshelters, and show two major periods of modern human occupation: (1) Upper Paleolithic, from ~39/38 ka to the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum; and, (2) Epipaleolithic, from the Last Glacial Maximum to ~11/10 ka. The Upper Paleolithic sites are rare, while the Epipaleolithic sites are quite numerous in the region. After the Last Glacial Maximum, milder conditions of the Late Glacial promoted an increase in the number of sites and mobility of the Epipaleolithic human groups. A high mobility is confirmed by the facts that similar Epipaleolithic industries are found in the Southern and Northern Caucasus and that the same obsidian sources were exploited in both regions. Results of recent studies indicate that the most crucial factors for hominin settlement during the entire Upper Pleistocene in the northwestern Caucasus were favorable climatic and environmental conditions.
In comparison to other regions, including the Levant, the Caucasus’ archaeological record shows distinct regional peculiarities and a specific pathway of Upper Paleolithic development, which we identify as the “Caucasus Upper Paleolithic”. In support of this view, the results of two recent palaeogenomic analyses of two human individuals from the Southern Caucasus indicate that the first modern humans in the Caucasus shared ancestry with Upper Paleolithic humans of Western Asia, and that the first Upper Paleolithic modern humans in the Caucasus belonged to a distinct ancient clade, which split from the European Upper Paleolithic populations about 45 ka ago, shortly after the expansion of modern humans into Europe.
This special issue is guest-edited by William Davies (Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins, University of Southampton) and Philip R. Nigst (Department of Prehistoric and Historical Archaeology, University of Vienna).