The site of Sungir (Russia) is well-known for its rich burials of 8 individuals, associated with spears made of mammoth ivory, ivory beads and perforated fox teeth. In the past, the radiocarbon dating of material from this site has proven extremely challenging. So far, three labs obtained direct AMS dates from the skeletal material but the results vary greatly, from 19,000 to 27,000 BP. A new study, published in PlosOne, now obtained a new set of dates using a new method to avoid the known human contamination on the bones themselves.
The authors use High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to separate single amino acids, such as hydroxyproline, on samples from both Sungir 1 and 4. This pretreatment method separates the compound of interest from the rest of the bone matrix rather than attempt to remove contamination from the bone collagen itself using macromolecular methods. The new date for the Sungir 1 burial is older than the previously determined results, indicating that there is a modern contamination in the bones from Sungir. This modern contamination, in the form of consolidants that may have been applied during curation and storage, was indeed identified through further infrared scanning of the bones.
The obtained dates were all statistically indistinguishable and indicate that Sungir was occupied from 38900–33590 cal BP (95% prob.) and prior to 34500–32630 cal BP. These old dates make Sungir one of the earliest Mid-Upper Palaeolithic burials, together with the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland (UK). These new dates therefore confirm the early appearance of Mid-Upper Palaeolithic complex ritual burial behaviour in Eurasia, and also stress the important of elaborate chemical pretreatment to obtain reliable radiocarbon dates.
Reference: Nalawade-Chavan S, McCullagh J, Hedges R (2014) New Hydroxyproline Radiocarbon Dates from Sungir, Russia, Confirm Early Mid Upper Palaeolithic Burials in Eurasia. PLoS ONE 9(1): e76896. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076896