Throughout history, the Danube has been considered a ‘highway’ for human colonizations in prehistory. Her rich fertile lands were home to the earliest Neolithic farmers coming from the Near East via the Balkans toward Central Europe, the invasions by the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, and even the Orient Express and contemporary long-distance truck routes follow its general course. Its role, however, is less well known for the earliest demographic movements: the earliest colonization of Europe by hominins, between 1.7 and 0.3 million years ago, and the replacement of Neandertals by modern humans, between 45-35 thousand years ago.
The Lower Danube Basin is also one of Europe’s areas of greatest accumulation of aeolian loess deposits, which provide a paleoenvironmental framework for understanding the changing landscapes associated with these human colonization events. The area we now call the Lower Danube Basin was itself very different at the time of the arrival of the first European hominins, with much of the Romanian Plain possibly covered to various degrees by a very large lake (for a comprehensive paleogeographic look, see Jipa and Olariu, 2009). Reconstructing the geography of the time is crucial for any attempt to localize remains of the first settlements. It is probably one of the reasons why data for the earliest colonization in Eastern Europe are still scarce (for some of the important sites, see Sirakov et al, 2010; Shchelinsky et al, 2010), rarely allowing for the determination of possible colonization routes or of cultural traditions.
Meanwhile, the situation in the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition is somewhat better served by the data. The particularly early dates for the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian found at several sites in Central Europe, such as Willendorf in Austria or Hohle Fels and Vogelherd in Southern Germany point to a potential route from the Balkans along the Danube towards Western Europe (Conard and Bolus, 2003; Mellars, 2004). This route is often referred to as the “Danube Corridor,” and presupposes the existence of proto-Aurignacian sites in the southern Balkans, such as Bacho Kiro and Kozarnika in Bulgaria. It is also further supported by the findings of the oldest modern humans in the Banat region of Romania, at Peștera cu Oase (Trinkaus et al. 2003).
However, a second route has also been hypothesized by Mellars (2004: Fig.1), namely the one shown in the figure above as also starting in the southern Balkans but turning to the east along the Black Sea coast and leading to the Russian Plain. The Upper Paleolithic site of Markina Gora (or Kostienki 14) in Russia also contains very early dates (Sinitsyn and Hoffecker 2006), indicating that modern humans had arrived in the Russian plain at least by 35-38 thousand years ago, a date confirmed by the presence of the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) ash, one of the best chronological markers for this time period.
If this secondary route into Eastern Europe did indeed exist, it is possible that the Black Sea and the Danube might have provided another very useful ‘corridor’ for the movement of peoples during that time. This small geographical area, roughly corresponding to the modern-day province of Dobrogea/Dobrudja, constitutes the focus of our survey project. The Paleolithic of Dobrogea is best known through the work of Alexandru Păunescu, from the Institute of Archaeology of the Romanian Academy, who undertook a series of tests, surveys, and excavations in the period of the 1960s-1990s throughout the region. Most of the sites known were found due to the construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal, and the inventory contains both Upper and Middle Paleolithic sites.
The most important stratified site for the region is Mamaia-Sat, rescue-excavated by Al. Păunescu before a resort was built on top of it (Păunescu 1999). It contained several Mousterian layers which included Levallois as well as non-Levallois technology and bifacial/leaf points (see above). Bifacial tool assemblages are known from other sites in the Balkans, such as Musselievo in Bulgaria, as well as in Crimea (the Ak-Kaya, Starosel’e, and Kiik-Koba facies of the Crimean Micoquian), as well as from Central Europe. The classification of these assemblages is, however, fraught with a large number of methodological issues, and any genetic relationships that have hitherto been proposed on the basis of mere morphological similarity or difference between them must be demonstrated in the future.
The faunal remains recovered from Mamaia-Sat as well as from other sites in Dobrogea confirm similarities between the environment here and that in Crimea (Petculescu and Știucă 2007). The species relevant to human subsistence are the European Ass (Equus hydruntinus) and the Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), which are frequently encountered in the archaeological sites of the Crimean Middle Paleolithic.