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Is It Possible to Know Any Fact About History of Mankind? Archeologist Answers

Archeology - Sputnik Africa, 1920, 17.06.2024
Most of humanity's past is not recorded in letters, hieroglyphs, or even cuneiform. The writing of history is footprints and bones, jewelry and weapons, the foundations of lost cities, and the embers of once-burning fires. How to look into such a distant past? Sputnik asked the discoverer of Denisovan, archeologist Anatoly Derevyanko.
Archeology and archeologists, the romance of expeditions and hard work, the history of distant times, and the problems of the modern world, Sputnik sat down with the scientific director of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, academician Anatoly Derevyanko.
Sputnik: Do scientists in general and archeologists in particular need fantasy and imagination?
Derevyanko: From my point of view, these are ambiguous concepts. Fantasy can be scientific, focused on the distant, distant future. Let's say Leonardo da Vinci had an amazing imagination and cognitive system. This allowed him to look into the future not only through paintings, but also in technology and mechanics. This is both fantasy and imagination, and it is difficult to explain on what they are based. Some inventions that have become commonplace today were foreseen by him many hundreds of years ago. Very special people have this gift - a gift of nature, a gift of the Almighty, it is difficult to explain.
Scientific imagination and imagination are necessary. In any science, even mathematics, there cannot be absolute truth. For this reason, I do not really like the division into “exact” and “inexact” sciences. It seems to me that any real science with well-founded ideas is accurate, but there is no absolute truth. Any new discovery poses new challenges and new tasks for researchers.
As an example, I can cite my own work. We have been working in Denisova Cave for 40 years, and every year we discover new amazing finds that provide answers to previously posed questions but at the same time create new mysteries.
So scientific imagination with a little fantasy is really necessary. But fantasy does not require strict scientific justification; it is the creative thinking of a scientist, and it does not always result in scientific publications, although it can manifest itself in the formulations “it cannot be excluded” and “based on these facts, it can be assumed.”
Sputnik: Is it possible to be guaranteed to know any fact about the history of mankind for sure?
― Archeology is pre-literate history, and this is its great significance. The genus Homo has existed for almost 3 million years, but writing is only a few thousand years old, and these are only records of pharaohs and leaders. We learn about a huge period in human history from archeology. In order to confidently publish some important facts, a stage in the life of the human race, multidisciplinary research is necessary.
Nowadays, articles by archeologists are rarely authored by just two or three people. Often, archeologists, geologists, anthropologists, geomorphologists, geneticists, and other specialists work on the same problem. And if we talk about some significant events or facts, then I am absolutely sure that they have sufficient historical validity only for a certain period of time. Further accumulation of facts expands research. There cannot be anything absolute in historical science.
Sputnik: Is there anything among the required skills of an archaeologist that is not taught at university?
― This is an important question since the [Russian] Ministry of Science and Education has excluded archeology as a training specialty at universities. This problem comes and goes. Archeology, unlike other humanities, has very important specifics. When preparing for university, a number of additional disciplines are required.
The first is, of course, archaeological practice, which largely determines the graduate’s abilities: whether they can become an archaeologist or not. Expeditions, apart from romance, are hard work, heat, cold, rain, and midges. Practice teaches the basics of fieldwork.
The work of an archaeologist is specific. A historian can work on the same documents many times, but an archaeologist, when excavating any object, destroys it. What remains of the distant past turns into diaries, photographs, newsreels, documentation, and drawings. The information that is extracted during excavations becomes the basis for future research. If the archeologist is not sufficiently qualified, then the reliability and amount of information are small. Excavation is a slow, methodical work in which not even the slightest fact or find can be missed. Let me give you an example.
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Professor of Tomsk State University Nikolai Kashchenko in 1896 was excavating the remains of a mammoth on the Tom River. There was a small camp of hominids, ancient people, and the professor collected coal from their fire. Many, many years later, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Mikhail Shunkov found a test tube with these coals, gave them for analysis, and obtained the exact chronology of that event that happened 18,000 years ago. The value of the professor's work is that he collected coal without even knowing why.
The second important quality of an archaeologist is that he must have knowledge about the animal and plant worlds, understand natural and climatic conditions, and geology. This needs to be taught in a university course. Therefore, the fact that archeology was deleted from the training specialties seems wrong to me. And we are now doing everything to fix this.
Archeology is a very popular science, not only from the point of view of academic knowledge about the distant past of man. Currently, large-scale construction work is being carried out, associated with serious violations of areas that may contain amazing monuments of the past. Therefore, the training of archaeological specialists is extremely important.
Sputnik: At what moment does an archeologist feel the joy of discovery?
― When excavations are carried out, before they are carried out it is necessary to carefully study the geomorphology of natural and climatic conditions. You are sailing on a boat, you see the shore and the confluence of the river, and you understand that this is a convenient place for ancient people to settle. Many villages and cities are located on the sites of sites of different periods: Old Stone, Middle Stone, Bronze, Iron, etc. At all times, people have looked for convenient places to settle. Sources of drinking resources and stone raw materials were needed.
Let's say the area where the archaeologist stopped has not been explored. And then the first, second, third pit will yield new material - this is already a discovery. That is, there is confidence that in this area it is possible to open not just one parking lot but a whole series.
The second type of discovery is unexpected. I remember how, in 1966, I was walking along the bank of the Amur River and suddenly saw a fragment of painted ceramics. Painted ceramics were practically unknown before, and we collected several fragments into a beautiful mask, which currently serves as a symbol of our institute. This is a one-act opening.
But big discoveries, of course, are based on the study of a large amount of materials, not only archaeological but also related disciplines.
They are carried out gradually, over a long period of time, and on the basis of a large number of facts. Any discovery can only be considered a discovery when it is very well substantiated.
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Sputnik: Tell us about the latest discoveries in Denisova Cave.
― Every year brings us new discoveries and finds of stone tools.
Recently, leaf-shaped bifaces, which had not been found there before, as well as bone tools and decorations, have been discovered. These are new anthropological findings, which then allow geneticists to obtain data about the genetic heritage of the Denisovans.
There are a number of issues on which geneticists and I have debated. Modern science requires interdisciplinary research. But the problem with such studies is that different specialists do not always well understand the specifics of each other’s work.
Anthropologists may have poor knowledge of the archaeological literature, as can geneticists. This creates many points of view that might not exist. How to deal with this? It's simple - you need respect for the results of your work and for each other.
Sputnik: Do you continue to participate in expeditions?
― Of course, but age does not allow me to do it as intensively as before.
Previously, I spent seven to eight months on expeditions. In Siberia, you can work productively for three to four months; we worked for five months in caves. Although it was already quite cool in the tents. But we worked in Central Asia and Cuba, in countries with warm climates, extending the field season.
Now my most important task is to summarize and publish the material accumulated during expeditions in Russia and other countries. No one will do this for me anymore. I have already published six volumes of Global Human Migration in Eurasia. The last volume at the moment is Denisovan man and the origin of material culture, the second part of which I am already finishing. No one has ever done this kind of work before.
In addition, based on the results of 20 years of work in Mongolia during field expeditions, I am writing a large book, “The Problem of the Paleolithic in Mongolia.” The same is true in Kazakhstan and Siberia.
So the main thing for me now is no longer field work but working at the table on the rich material obtained by a team of talented scientists. We have a large team of scientists. I am proud of them for their ability to summarize new material and work with a huge amount of old material. They have a good university background, and our institute has a great climate where everyone shares their results with each other.
The result of each employee’s work depends on the atmosphere within the team. In science, it is necessary to exchange ideas not only in publications but also in live communication.
Sputnik: Which place in your beloved Mongolia is especially dear to you?
― For many, Mongolia is a monotonous country. Steppes, deserts, and mountains. But for me, no matter how many times I drive along the same road, there is always something new and sometimes unexpected. This is a country where a kind of freedom of spirit and emancipation reigns. In my soul, I am apparently a distant descendant of nomads.
These endless deserts are not boring to me; I look at them with completely different eyes - and I see the Earth, where in ancient times the most interesting civilizations and cultures developed.

A Man Who Discovered Devisovans

Derevyanko is widely known across the world as the discovery of a new link in the chain of anthropogenesis, the so-called Denisovan man (Homo altaiensis - Altai man). Under his leadership, the remains of an extinct human species were discovered in the Denisova Cave in the Altai region of Russia's Siberia, on the basis of which scientists from the Leipzig Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology of the Max Planck Society were able to accurately sequence the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA of the Denisovans.
According to available data, the Denisovans, also known as Denisova hominins, are an extinct archaic human species that roamed throughout Asia in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic and lived between 285 and 25 thousand years ago. Since there aren't many physical remains of Denisovans, most information about them comes from DNA evidence. A formal species name has not been determined in the absence of more comprehensive fossil evidence.
It appears that Denisovans and modern humans interbred; Melanesians, Aboriginal Australians, and Filipino Negritos have a high frequency of Denisovan interbreeding (approximately 5%). It seems from this distribution that Denisovan populations existed throughout Asia. Additionally, there is evidence of hybridization with the Altai Neanderthal population, from which roughly 17% of the Denisovan genome found in Denisova Cave originated.
Discovered with a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother, the first-generation hybrid is known as "Denny." Furthermore, an unidentified archaic human species that split off from modern humans more than a million years ago accounts for 4% of the Denisovan genome.