“If you ask people on the street, 30% will say that the Earth is flat”

Archaeologist Dmitry Korobov — about the origin of man, the myths of Arkaim and much more

“If you ask people on the street, 30% will say that the Earth is flat”
Photo: archaeolog.ru

History school textbooks have long not kept pace with the development of archaeology. For example, the fact that the ancestors of humans appeared in Africa 2,5 million years ago is already outdated — according to recent research, this happened a million years earlier. In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, Dmitry Korobov, an archaeologist and Professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke about what other discoveries archaeologists have made recently, why many people still believe the myths about Atlantis, and some believe that the Earth is flat.

“Traces of an African man 2 million years ago were found in Dagestan”

Mr Korobov, how does archaeology answer the question of the origin of man today?

Archaeology cannot answer these questions without the help of other sciences. All these discoveries are made at the junction with physical anthropology, archaeology helps to correlate certain artifacts, objects made by man, with anthropological remains.

One of the latest discoveries in this area is a serious increase in the age of the ancestors of people in Africa by almost a million years. In school textbooks, it is written that the ancestors of modern man, homo erectus, appeared in Africa around 2,5 million years ago. Now this date has dropped to 3,5 million years. This is an achievement of the last 5-6 years, primarily by French archaeologists in Kenya, where the remains of archaic hominids and their primitive stone tools were discovered.

If we talk about our territory, over the past 10 years we have made absolutely stunning discoveries related to the most ancient era on the territory of Dagestan. This is the merit of the expedition of our institute under the leadership of Khizri Amirkhanovich Amirkhanov, an academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His expedition has excavated on the territory of Nagorny Dagestan at an altitude of 1,600 m above sea level for the past 15 years. They found the traces of African human habitation there about 2 million years ago. This opened the way for human movement from Africa to Europe and Asia through the Caspian isthmus. This Caspian route was used by the ancient ancestors of people. There were found many remains of African animals: rhinos, giraffes that were on this territory 2 million years ago.

Photo: Dmitry Korobov (itogi.ru)
If we talk about our territory, over the past 10 years we have made absolutely stunning discoveries related to the most ancient era on the territory of Dagestan

What does archaeology say about the time of human civilization?

First of all, there are a lot of philosophical disputes around what we consider civilization is. We call civilization a certain stage of development of society from different points of view. But there is some agreement among archaeologists about what we consider civilization is. This definition was given by brilliant British archaeologist Gordon Childe in the 1930s of the 20th century.

He proposed a kind of triad: if we find an urban settlement with traces of writing and temple architecture, we can call it a civilization. Based on this definition, we argue that Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations arose in the 3d-4th Millennium BC, while in China civilization arose somewhat later, in the 2th millennium BC.

For 50 years, an expedition from our institute led by Rauf Magomedovich Munchayev has worked in the Middle East: first in Northern Iraq, and then in Northern Syria. And there were found the remains of urban settlements. And one of them — Tell Magzalia — was included in all historical and archaeological textbooks because it was a settlement abandoned by people who had not yet produced ceramics, but they already had agriculture and cattle breeding. What is known as the Pre-pottery Neolithic, the end of the 8th millennium BC. These are the ancestors of the Sumerian and Mesopotamian civilizations, who had already mastered agricultural production, agriculture, and cattle breeding. They made stone vessels, as well as vessels made of leather and wood. Sickles were made of bones with flint inserts. They did not yet know metal and ceramics, but they were already living in urban-type settlements and were highly developed. This discovery allows us to understand how the first Mesopotamian civilizations were formed.

So the textbooks on history and biology that children learn in schools today need to be updated?

Certainly. Knowledge is received quite actively today. For example, in Egypt and Sudan, two or three Russian expeditions are working, which deal with the oldest monuments of civilization. But there're too many unknowns so far. The more we discover, the more questions we have.

Photo: scientificrussia.ru
For 50 years, an expedition from our institute led by Rauf Magomedovich Munchayev has worked in the Middle East: first in Northern Iraq, and then in Northern Syria. And there were found the remains of urban settlements. And one of them — Tell Magzalia — was included in all historical and archaeological textbooks because it was a settlement abandoned by people who had not yet produced ceramics, but they already had agriculture and cattle breeding

“There is no sign of sacredness in Arkaim, nothing like a temple. These are not even fortresses”

How do you assess the current attitude of society to Darwin's theory, evolution, and the origin of man in Russia and the West?

The situation in our country, in my opinion, if not catastrophic, is close to disaster. The mythologization of ideas about the past, imposed on society through the media, has a very wide circulation. If you interview people on the street, I think 30% will say that the Earth is flat. They've watched enough programs on REN-TV channel.

I've recently flipped through a popular book by Michael Baigent 'Forbidden Archaeology'. This is the set of myths that exists in the mass consciousness: the pyramids were built by aliens; mankind lived with dinosaurs; batteries were found at a great depth, which belongs to the ancient layers.

I think the situation in the West is about the same, but not so pronounced because there is a lot of popular science literature and TV shows. We now have more and more wonderful popular scientific literature on the Internet. There is a forum called Scientists Against Myths, which meets once a year. Its leaders are the creators of the website Антропогенез.ру Alexander Sokolov and Stanislav Drobyshevsky. They organize an annual forum, invite various scientists who debunk myths related to a variety of disciplines, including the origin of man.

Can you tell us about the myths that relate to archaeology?

Suffice it to recall the mythical Atlantis. A huge number of the adherents of the myth of its existence are looking for this sunken city. It is unlikely that they will be able to find it, these are legendary visions. They are related to the ancient movements of the earth's crust in connection with the movement of volcanoes when individual small cities could actually sink. But this is not the city of Atlanteans, hyperboreans, which today is sought not only in the Atlantic Ocean but also in our North Pole.

There is also a wonderful monument to Arkaim. There are so many myths around it! There are just crowds of, frankly speaking, not quite normal people who believe in paranormal phenomena, worship this place as an ancient temple of the Indo-Aryans. In fact, in a sense, the archaeologists themselves created this myth. Arkaim is a Sintashta culture, pastoral, approximately 23d—14th centuries BC. This is the time of Mesopotamian and other civilizations. Pastoralists left in this place settlements of an interesting type, they are circular, buildings form a closed space.

When this monument was discovered in the early '80s, they wanted to flood this territory. And to prevent this from happening, a large campaign was started, during which the monument was tried to make it more significant than it actually was. The goal was lofty, the monument was saved. But as a result, there appeared a mass fascination with the idea that this is an extraordinary monument, and we now see a distortion in the scientific idea of what it is. But again, these are only cattle-breeders' settlements. Perhaps, even seasonal. There is no sign of sacredness, nothing like a temple has been excavated. These are not even fortresses. But this is called the country of cities. Now scientists are trying to make sense of the myths around Arkaim.

There are also pseudo-written monuments such as the Book of Veles, late finds that are also mythologized, and sacred knowledge is attributed to our ancestors.

Photo: wikipedia.org
There is also a wonderful monument to Arkaim. There are so many myths around it! There gather just crowds of, frankly speaking, not quite normal people who believe in paranormal phenomena, worship this place as an ancient temple of the Indo-Aryans

What did archaeologists said and say about the formation of the old Russian state of the Varangians?

“The debate over who founded Kievan Rus, whether the Varangians, Normans, Vikings participated in the formation of our ancient Russian state, has lasted since the time of Lomonosov, from the middle of the 18th century. And it is still ongoing among some adepts, mythologizers.

However, sane scientists stopped arguing on this topic already from the '80s: it is widely recognized that the Scandinavians certainly had a significant impact on the formation of our state. The first princes, urban settlements, and Rurik dynasties are associated with a very strong Scandinavian influence. But this does not mean that they have had an impact on all aspects of our lives. The Varangians left very little trace in our history. In tsarist times, the Norman concept was official, and it was defended by archaeologists from St. Petersburg, from the Imperial Archaeological Commission. In Moscow, a public organization, the Moscow archaeological society, was formed, and the Moscow Slavophiles vehemently denied the influence of the Normans, Moscow became the centre of anti-normannism. In Soviet times, the official scientific centre moved to Moscow, and anti-normannism became the official doctrine. The denial of the Normans was simply the most important trend in medieval archaeology. And in Leningrad, there were still adherents of normannism, and in Soviet times they were oppositionists.

Archaeology has been highly politicized since its inception. And now this is very politicized science. It would seem that we, the archaeologists, are very far from modernity, but there is a constant dispute between people where their ancestors are, who are buried in these graves, about the carriers of this or that ethnic group, and this ethnic group is associated with modern people and peoples. This concerns everyone, especially in our multi-ethnic country, especially in the North Caucasus, where I work. And this has always bothered people.

I can give an example from history. In 600 BC, the Athenians fought the Greek city of Megara for possession of the Salamis Island. The Athenians took over the island, and after that the famous reformer and politician Solon excavated graves on the island and showed that people buried on Salamis are buried by the rite of the Athenians, not by the rite of the Megarians. This was an argument in favour of the fact that this is our land, our territory, our ancestors are buried here. And this argument is very significant and strong so far and strongly affects the relationship of archaeology with society. Here, politics intervenes regularly.

Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky
Archaeology has been highly politicized since its inception. And now this is a very politicized science. It would seem that we, the archaeologists, are very far from modernity, but there is a constant dispute between people where their ancestors are, who are buried in these graves, about the carriers of this or that ethnic group, and this ethnic group is associated with modern people and peoples

“The first question 90% of people ask at the excavations: 'Looking for gold?"

Tell us about “black archeology”. What is its harm?

I find the term 'black archaeology' very annoying. This is not archaeology but looting. Calling it archaeology is the same as calling bandits black police officers because they also set laws according to their own concepts. Although marauders like to call themselves archaeologists, they emphasize the social significance of their activities: they say you scientists can't dig everything up, but we can.

It's a scourge. This is a serious problem that exists not only in our country but also around the world. In European countries that are highly developed and legislatively seriously constructed, this is true and is thriving. There will be no solution to the problem without the state's will.

Photo: penza-press.ru
I find the term “black archaeology” very annoying. This is not archaeology but looting. Calling it archaeology is the same as calling bandits black police officers because they also set laws according to their own concepts

What are you working on now?

I am engaged in the archaeology of an interesting people in the North Caucasus — the Alan tribes. An amazing people that appears in written sources from the first centuries of our era, participates in the Great migration of peoples together with the Goths, Huns, vandals, gets to Europe, the Pyrenees, even North Africa, the other part remains in the North Caucasus and stays there until the Mongol invasion of 1,5 thousand years. Several modern North Caucasian peoples are formed on the basis of this people: first of all, Ossetians, who are considered native speakers of the Alan language, as well as partly Karachays and Balkars, Ingushs.

I am interested in several aspects here. One of them is related to the direction of landscape archaeology — the interaction of man and the surrounding landscapes when we study not a separate settlement and burial ground but look at the surrounding area, trying to reconstruct where people took water, where they arranged their land, where they grazed cattle, how they used the resources around the settlement. And here we are helped by representatives of natural sciences, soil scientists, archaeobotanists, and archaeozoologists. I have been engaged in this for more than 20 years in an amazing place, very pleasant to work in — Kislovodsk and its surroundings.

By Natalia Antropova