Excavation in Azokh cave, Armenia
Being a field-biologists by heart, it can sometimes be rather claustrophobic when 'trapped' inside a sterile molecular biology clean-lab for too long, or when being tied to the computer for days at a time. So an urge to get my hands dirty and explore the real world tends to strike me a few times a year.
It was therefore a very welcoming opportunity when Professor Levon Yepiskoposyan (Institute of Molecular Biology in Yeravan, Armenia) visited us here at Centre for GeoGenetics earlier this year, and invited me to join his excavation team digging in Azokh Cave, in the remote and disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region bordering Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran (see map).
A corridor between Asia, Africa and Europe
From the perspective of understanding human evolution, the Caucasian Isthmus is highly interesting because it represents a relatively narrow "corridor" between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, implying that early humans (Homo erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens) would have passed through on their way into Europe from Africa and Asia. This is why the many caves in the region (a vast number still unexplored...) have high scientific relevance to understand the migration routes of the earliest European hominins.
Hungry cave bears
Indeed, a few early human remains have been found in Azokh Cave - including a H. heidelbergensis jawbone, but in general such finds are rare. When digging slowly through the sediments in the cave, it quickly became obvious why the signs of human presence are scarce: the sediments are littered with the bones of a large and formidable predator. Since the excavations at Azokh started in 2002, the team led by Dr. Tania King (Blanford Museum, UK) has uncovered hundreds, if not thousands, of bones of the giant and now extinct cave bear (Ursus speleaus). No wonder that the ancient people of the region were hesitant to poke their heads into Azokh Cave, when knowing that big hungry cave bears were always lurking in the dark.
A friendly people with a tragic past
Tempted by a general lust for adventure and the potential of uncovering well-preserved remains of cave bear and early humans, I joined the excavation team for a couple of weeks in September (2012). The little village of Azokh was my base throughout the visit. Although everything was peaceful and quiet in this poor and remote mountainous village, situated in the heart of the Lesser Caucasus - where donkeys, geese and pigs own the muddy roads - it was not difficult to recognize the signs of a recent violent past.
These signs range from the many obvious ruins of former Karabakhian homes, to the more 'subtle' things, like the 20 bullet holes ventilating the chauffeurs door of the old blue truck that transported us to the cave site each morning. Silent leftovers from a full-blown war that raged in the region in the early 90s. This is a still unresolved conflict but currently arrested by a fragile cease-fire agreement between Armenia, Nagorna-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
Despite their tough and tragic history, I believe it is difficult to find a more friendly and hospitable people than the Karabakhians, and apart from the pack of wild jackals howling in the backyard every night, everyhting was very peaceful in Azokh during my stay.
Alternative excavation techniques
Azokh Cave itself was discovered and in 1960 and was intensively excavated (using dynamite, among other things) over the next couple of decades by Russian and Azerbaijani scientists. These excavations were interrupted by the conflict in 1989, and then resumed in 2002 by the current international research group, applying more delicate and systematic methods in the work. The team I joined was a lovely mix of international scientist (Armenia, UK, Spain, Australia), local Armenian students, and a bunch of jolly energetic Azokh guys that helped out with all the logistics in and around the cave.
The daily work was typical for this type of excavation: many hours of slowly digging down through the ancient dirt layers, while using a laser to record the exact position of all relevant finds (bones, teeth, stone tools), before finally carefully recovering them from the sediments. The findings were then brought back to 'the lab' - an old house in the village - where they were washed, examined, identified and labeled. Every single day, hundreds of finds were emerging from the floor of the cave.
Well-preserved teeth gives hope for finding ancient DNA
In the case that a specimen was identified as potentially relevant for DNA work, it was immediately recovered and secured in a plastic bag (no washing!), to minimize exposure and the risk of contamination from DNA in the surroundings. No spectacular hominin specimen appeared while I was there, but among many interesting finds, we did manage to uncover a couple of really well-preserved cave bear teeth (very large canines), which will now undergo in-depth genetic scrutiny here at GeoGenetics. Although being more than 100,000 years old, their beautiful preservation state gives us hope that there might just be enough ancient cave bear DNA left for us to isolate and profile it, with the aid of our powerful high-throughput DNA sequencing machines...more on than later...
In short I had a fantastic trip to Azokh, and just a really great experience in a fascinating part of the World. I am truly grateful for the weeks I spent here and the hospitability I encountered from both the locals and the excavation team - and I certainly hope that it will not be my last trip to Nagorna-Karabakh.
Now it's time to sacrifice something valuable to the great gods of PCR, and then hit the clean-lab with some cave bear teeth!
Read a lot more about the Azokh Cave project.
Postdoc, Centre for GeoGenetics