My primary research focus is the global dispersal of anatomically modern humans, which began more than 50,000 years ago in Africa.
My specific geographic focus is Eastern Europe, where I have done field and lab research since the late 1980s. Since 2001, I have been working at open-air sites on the East European Plain, in both Russia and Ukraine, that were occupied by modern humans more than 30,000 years ago. In 2012, I began a new field project at Mira, located on the Lower Dnepr River. I also have worked for many years in Alaska. Recently, my Alaskan research has addressed questions about the emergence of Inupiaq settlement and economy on the coast of NW Alaska, and in 2011 I completed the field phase of a multi-year project at Cape Espenberg (northern Seward Peninsula).
- PhD: University of Chicago, 1986
- M.A.: University of Alaska-Fairbanks, 1979
- B.A.: Yale University, 1975
- Outstanding Academic Title (Modern Humans: Their African Origin and Global Dispersal), Choice Book Awards, 2019
- Outstanding Academic Title (Human Ecology of Beringia), Choice Book Awards, 2008
- Honorary Professor, Institute of Material Culture History, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2005
Major research topics include:
The dispersal of modern humans in Eastern Europe
The spread of modern humans in Europe
The earliest credible evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe is an archaeological proxy in the form of several artifact assemblages (Bohunician) found in South-Central and possibly Eastern Europe, dating to <48,000 calibrated radiocarbon years before present (cal BP). They are similar to assemblages probably made by modern humans in the Levant (Emiran) at an earlier date and apparently represent a population movement into the Balkans during a warm climate interval [Greenland Interstadial 12 (GI 12)]. A second population movement may be represented by a diverse set of artifact assemblages (sometimes termed Proto-Aurignacian) found in the Balkans, parts of Southwest Europe, and probably in Eastern Europe, and dating to several brief interstadials (GI 11–GI 9) that preceded the beginning of cold Heinrich Event 4 (HE4) (≈40,000 cal BP). They are similar to contemporaneous assemblages made by modern humans in the Levant (Ahmarian). The earliest known human skeletal remains in Europe that may be unequivocally assigned to H. sapiens (Peçstera cu Oase, Romania) date to this time period (≈42,000 cal BP) but are not associated with artifacts. After the Campanian Ignimbrite volcanic eruption (40,000 cal BP) and the beginning of HE4, artifact assemblages assigned to the classic Aurignacian, an industry associated with modern human skeletal remains that seems to have developed in Europe, spread throughout the continent.
A new framework for the Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe
The results of field and laboratory research during the past decade require a new classificatory framework for the Upper Paleolithic in Eastern Europe. It is now apparent that people making artifacts assigned to the Ahmarian industry occupied both the southern and northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains (i.e., Ortvale Klde, Layer 4d; Mezmaiskaya Cave, Layer 1C). Their sites probably indicate a separate movement of anatomically modern humans (AMH) from the Near East directly into Eastern Europe, establishing an independent line of development during the earlier Upper Paleolithic that parallels the Proto-Aurignacian and Aurignacian sequence in Western and Central Europe. This East European industry is most fully represented at the Kostenki-Borshchevo sites on the Don River before 40,000 cal BP (e.g., Kostenki 14, Layer IVb). It is followed by a closely related industry, also characterized by bladelet production, that is dated to the interval between 40,000 and 30,000 cal BP in Crimea and the East European Plain. The proposed new framework reflects recognition of these distinctive East European entities and of two environmental events that had significant impacts on human settlement in Eastern Europe: (1) the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) volcanic eruption (40,000 cal BP); and (2) the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) (~25,000 cal BP).
An archaeological proxy for modern humans in southern Russia?
During 2013, new field research was conducted at Shlyakh, an open-air, stratified Paleolithic site located in the southern plain of Eastern Europe near the city of Volgograd. The research was designed to establish a firmer chronology for the main occupation layers, which contain a Levallois blade and point industry that—while properly classified as Middle Paleolithic—might represent an archaeological proxy for modern humans. New stratigraphic profiles were recorded, and several square meters of occupation area were excavated. Sediment samples were collected for various analyses, including radiocarbon, OSL, cryptotephra, and soil micromorphology. The results indicate that the Levallois blade and point industry at Shylakh probably dates to 35,000–45,000 cal BP and may indeed represent a modern human presence on the southern plain, given both its age and contents. The analyses also contributed to a better understanding of site formation processes at Shylakh. Although unplanned in the original proposal, the research team obtained new dates on two other major Middle Paleolithic sites located on the Desna River (central plain of Eastern Europe).
Computational complexity and the evolution of modern humans
In recent decades, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis has been quietly expanded to embrace the evolution of complex systems (living and non-living) and the information on which they are based (e.g., Adami 2011; Mayfield 2013). The expanded theoretical framework is especially appropriate—perhaps essential—for understanding the evolution of modern humans, who represent major changes in the way that information is stored, transmitted, translated, and manipulated (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995). Modern humans may be distinguished from earlier forms of Homo by an enhanced faculty for manipulation of information (i.e., computation) that permits generation of a potentially infinite variety of combinations of hierarchically-organized units of information. This faculty is most commonly manifest in the computations that underlie spoken and unspoken language (Hauser et al. 2002), which may be considered a form of information technology. Spoken or imagined words are “material symbols” (Clark 2008) manipulated in the brain to facilitate complex computation in a manner analogous to the beads of an abacus.
If technology is viewed as a form of computation (i.e., manipulation of objects and materials), this faculty also is evident in the artifacts produced by modern humans, which exhibit an increasingly complex, hierarchical organization with a potentially infinite variety of combinatorial possibilities. Because the acquisition of syntactic language requires a lengthy “critical period” of exposure during childhood, the computational complexity of language appears to be linked to the significantly delayed maturation of the modern human brain (which is only 25% of its adult volume at birth). Greenfield (1991) found that the manipulation of objects exhibits increasing complexity (i.e., more hierarchical levels of organization) during childhood and noted overlap in areas of the brain activated for language and object manipulation. The enhanced faculty for manipulation of information and objects (i.e., increased computational complexity) found in modern humans is thus plausibly tied to the delayed growth of the brain and extended childhood, which begins to evolve after about 0.5 million years ago, but apparently is not comparable to that of living people until after 0.2 million years ago (Smith et al. 2007; Smith et al. 2010). The evolution of enhanced computational complexity in modern humans transformed existing systems of communication and technology, yielding an open-ended syntactic form of language and potentially infinite variety of hierarchically structured artifacts. Modern humans created new forms of information, including visual art (analog) and notation (digital), and colonized most terrestrial habitats on Earth by designing their own adaptive “traits” (e.g., tailored clothing) based on complex technological computations.
Out of Beringia: Genetics, paleoecology, and archaeology
Many human geneticists argue that most Native Americans are derived from a population isolated from its source in Asia for thousands of years before dispersing in the Americas. Some of them suggest that the isolated population was located in Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum [LGM] (i.e., “Out of Beringia” or “Beringian Standstill” model) (e.g., Tamm et al. 2007). Although archaeological traces of LGM occupation in NE Asia and Alaska/Yukon (i.e., accessible remnants of Beringia) are lacking, pre-LGM settlement of northwestern Beringia is documented at sites near the mouth of the Yana River (Pitulko et al. 2012).
Several lines of evidence indicate a mesic tundra refugium on the Bering Land Bridge (BLB) that may have provided the only substantive source of wood above latitude 55° North during the LGM (e.g., Brubaker et al. 2005; Elias and Crocker 2008). The presence of mesic tundra habitat in central Beringia presumably reflects its geographic position relative to the North Pacific circulation and sources of moisture during the LGM, and may be contrasted with the aridity of unglaciated areas of northern Eurasia ~28–18 ka. Experimental studies indicate that some wood is necessary to render fresh bone practical for regular use as a fuel (Théry-Parisot 2001), and archaeological sites that contain evidence of heavy bone fuel use consistently yield some traces of wood (e.g., Mezhyrich [Marquer et al. 2012]).
The post-LGM archaeological record of Beringia contains an industry derived from NE Asia (Dyuktai) after 15,000 cal BP, but also contains an industry that has no clear antecedent outside Beringia (e.g., Ushki-Layer VII in Kamchatka). The latter is plausibly derived from the industry that would have been produced by the occupants of the LGM mesic tundra refugium on the BLB, which now is submerged.
Brubaker, L. B., Anderson, P. M., Edwards, M. E., and Lozhkin, A. V., 2005: Beringia as a glacial refugium for boreal trees and shrubs: New perspectives from mapped pollen data. Journal of Biogeography, 32: 833–848.
Elias, S. A. and Crocker, B., 2008: The Bering Land Bridge: A moisture barrier to the dispersal of steppe-tundra biota? Quaternary Science Reviews, 27: 2473–2483.
Marquer, L., Lebreton, V., Otto, T., Valladas, H., Haesaerts, P., Messager, E., Nuzhnyi, D., and Péan, S., 2012: Charcoal scarcity in Epigravettian settlements with mammoth bone dwellings: The taphonomic evidence from Mezhyrich (Ukraine). Journal of Archaeological Science, 39: 109–120.
Pitulko, V. V., Pavlova, E. Y., Nikolskiy, P. A., and Ivanova, V. V., 2012: The oldest art of the Eurasian Arctic: Personal ornaments and symbolic objects from Yana RHS, Arctic Siberia. Antiquity, 86: 642–659.
Tamm, E. et al., 2007: Beringian standstill and spread of Native American founders. PLOS One, 9: e829.
Théry-Parisot, I., 2001: Economie des combustibles au Paléolithique. Paris: CNRS Editions.
Site-specific research in Russia, the Ukraine, and Alaska
This archaeological research is designed to collect and analyze data on changing patterns of human occupation and environmental conditions on the promontory at the southern entrance to Kotzebue Sound during a period that was critical to the history of the native peoples of northwest Alaska.
Publications and presentations
Hoffecker, J. F., Mason, O., 2011: "Human response to climate change at Cape Espenberg: AD 800-1400: Field investigations at Cape Espenberg, 2010." Field report to the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. 15 pp. (1 MB PDF)
Slide presentation "Cape Espenberg 2011," delivered at the Alaska Anthropological Association meeting in Seattle, March 2012.
Darwent, J., Mason, O., Hoffecker, J. F., Darwent, C. M., 2013: 1,000 years of house change at Cape Espenberg, Alaska: A case study in horizontal stratigraphy. American Antiquity, 78(3): 433-455. doi 10.7183/0002-73188.8.131.523
Hoffecker, J. F., Mason, O., Elias, S. A., Hanson, D. K., 2012: Uivvaq: A stratified Iñupiaq occupation at Cape Lisburne, northwest Alaska," Alaska Journal of Anthropology, 10(1-2): 143-172. This paper concerns a different project than Cape Espenberg; the research, however, is closely related—same people, same time period, and the same general region.
Kostenki, Don River, Russia: Landscape archaeology of the early Upper Paleolithic on the central East European Plain
Kostenki is the name of a village on the Don River in the Russian Federation where more than twenty open-air Paleolithic sites are known. Several more sites are found at the village of Borshchevo, located about 5 km downstream from Kostenki. The sites are assigned to the Upper Paleolithic and yield skeletal remains of modern humans (Homo sapiens). Artifacts found in association with the remains of extinct mammals at Kostenki in 1879 were among the first discoveries of Ice-Age people in Eastern Europe. By the 1930s, the sites at Kostenki and Borshchevo had produced a rich record of middle and late Upper Paleolithic occupation, including large feature complexes with traces of suspected dwelling structures. The excavation and study of the occupation floors had a significant impact on theory and method in archaeology during the Soviet period. In the years following the Second World War, substantial evidence of early Upper Paleolithic occupation was discovered at Kostenki, adding another important dimension to these sites. The recent discovery that several sites contain occupations that underlie a 40,000-year-old volcanic ash provided evidence of the earliest known Upper Paleolithic remains in Eastern Europe. Field research continues today at Kostenki and Borshchevo, and the results continue to have an impact on world archaeology.
Download a preprint of an encyclopedia article on Kostenki by John Hoffecker.
Findings at Kostenki
A new framework for the Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe
John Hoffecker presents evidence from several sites across Eastern Europe and suggests a new view of the Upper Paleolithic by time, industry, and location at the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution meeting, 21-22 September 2012 in Bordeaux. Download the PDF slides.
The Campanian Ignimbrite eruption and the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in Eastern Europe
The Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption, dated by 40Ar/39Ar and various stratigraphic methods to ca. 39,000 cal BP, generated a massive ash plume from its source in southern Italy across Southeastern and Eastern Europe. At the Kostenki-Borshchevo open-air sites on the Middle Don River in Russia, Upper Paleolithic artifact assemblages are buried below, within, and above the CI tephra (which is redeposited by slope action at most sites) on the second terrace. Luminescence and radiocarbon dating, paleomagnetism, and soil and pollen stratigraphy provide further basis for correlation with the Greenland and North Atlantic climate stratigraphy. The oldest Upper Paleolithic occupation layers at Kostenki-Borshchevo may be broadly correlated with warm intervals that preceded the CI event and Heinrich Event 4 (HE4; Greenland Interstadial: GI 12–GI 9) dating to ca. 45,000–41,000 cal BP. These layers contain an industry not currently recognized in other parts of Europe. Early Upper Paleolithic layers above the CI tephra are correlated with HE4 and warm intervals that occurred during 38,000–30,000 cal BP (GI 8–GI 5), and include an assemblage that is assigned to the Aurigancian industry, associated with skeletal remains of modern humans.
Read the paper by Hoffecker et al., "From the Bay of Naples to the River Don: the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption and the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in Eastern Europe," Journal of Human Evolution, 2008, 55(5): 858-870. doi 10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.08.018
Geoarchaeology of the Kostenki-Borshchevo sites
The Kostenki–Borshchevo localities include 26 Upper Paleolithic sites on the first and second terraces along the west bank of the Don River, near Voronezh on the central East European Plain. Geoarchaeological research funded by NSF from 2001 through 2004 focused on sites Kostenki 1, 12, and 14, with additional work at Kostenki 11 and 16, and Borshchevo 5. The strata are grouped into three units (bottom up): Unit 1, > 50 ka, consists of coarse alluvium (representing upper terrace 2 deposits) and colluvium, overlain by fine-grained sediments. Unit 2 includes archaeological horizons sealed within two sets of thin lenses of silt, carbonate, chalk fragments, and organic-rich soils (termed the Lower Humic Bed and Upper Humic Bed) dating 50–30 ka. Separating the humic beds is a volcanic ash lens identified as the Campanian Ignimbrite Y5 tephra, dated elsewhere by Ar/Ar to ca. 40 ka. The humic beds appear to result from the complex interplay of soil formation, spring deposition, slope action, and other processes. Several horizons buried in the lower part of Unit 2 contain Upper Paleolithic assemblages. The springs and seeps, which are still present in the area today, emanated from the bedrock valley wall. Their presence may account for the unusually high concentration of Upper Paleolithic sites in this part of the central East European Plain. Unit 3, < 30 ka, contains redeposited loess with a buried soil (Gmelin Soil) overlain by a primary full-glacial loess with an associated Chernozem (Mollisol), forming the surface of the second terrace.
Read the paper by Holliday et al., 2007: Geoarchaeology of the Kostenki-Borshchevo sites, Don River, Russia. Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 22(2): 183-230. doi 10.1002/gea.20163
Evidence for kill-butchery events of early Upper Paleolithic age at Kostenki-Borshchevo, Russia
At least 10 early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) open-air sites are found at Kostenki on the west bank of the Don River in Russia. During the 1950s, A.N. Rogachev excavated concentrations of horse bones and teeth from EUP layers at Kostenki 14 and 15 exhibiting the characteristics of kill-butchery assemblages. Excavations at Kostenki 12 in 2002-2003 (funded by NSF) uncovered a large quantity of reindeer and horse bones in EUP Layer III that also might be related to kill-butchery events, and the partial skeleton of a sub-adult mammoth excavated during 2004-2007 in EUP Layer V at Kostenki 1 yields traces of butchery. The character of these large-mammal assemblages—combined with the analysis of artifacts and features—suggest that both habitation areas and kill-butchery locations are represented in an "EUP landscape" at Kostenki.
2007 field report from Kostenki, Technological innovation in the early Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe.
2008 field report from Kostenki, Early Upper Paleolithic Settlement at Kostenki, Russia.
Hoffecker, J. F., 2011: The early Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe reconsidered. Evolutionary Anthropology, 20: 24-39. DOI: 10.1002/evan.20284
Hoffecker, J. F., Kuzmina, I. E., Syromyatnikova, E. V., Anikovich, M. V., Sinitsyn, A. A., Popov, V. V., Holliday, V. T., 2010: Evidence for kill-butchery events of early Upper Paleolithic age at Kostenki, Russia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37(5): 1073-1089. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.12.008 Preprint (2 MB)
Hoffecker, J. F., 2009: The spread of modern humans in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(38): 16040-16045. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0903446106
Hoffecker, J. F., Holliday, V. T., Anikovich, M. V., Sinitsyn, A. A., Popov, V. V., Lisitsyn, S. N., Levkovskaya, G. M., Pospelova, G. A., Forman, S. L., Giaccio, B., 2008: From the Bay of Naples to the River Don: The Campanian Ignimbrite eruption and the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in Eastern Europe. Journal of Human Evolution, 55(5): 858-870. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.08.018
Anikovich, M. V., Sinitsyn, A. A., Hoffecker, J. F., Holliday, V. T., Popov, V. V., Lisitsyn, S. N., Forman, S. L., Levkovskaya, G. M., Pospelova, G. A., Kuzmina, I. E., Burova, N. D., Goldberg, P., Macphail, R. I., Giaccio, B., Praslov, N. D., 2007: Early upper Paleolithic in Eastern Europe and implications for the dispersal of modern humans. Science, 315: 223-226. DOI: 10.1126/science.1133376
Holliday, V. T., Hoffecker, J. F., Goldberg, P., Macphail, R. I., Forman, S. L., Anikovich, M., Sinitsyn, A., 2007: Geoarchaeology of the Kostenki-Borshchevo sites, Don River Valley, Russia. Geoarchaeology, 22(2): 181-228. DOI: 10.1002/gea.20163
Pospelova, G. A., Anikovich, M. V., Hoffecker, J. F., Kadzialko-Hofmokl, M., 2007: Development of a magnetic method for reconstructing the paleoclimate of the rock formation time: A case study of the Paleolithic Kostenki-12 site section (the Voronezh Region). Izvestiya, Physics of the Solid Earth, 43(12): 1031-1046.
Sinitsyn, A. A., Hoffecker, J. F., 2006: Radiocarbon dating and chronology of the early Upper Paleolithic at Kostenki. Quaternary International, 152-153: 175-185. DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2005.12.007
Hoffecker, J. F., 2002: The eastern Gravettian "Kostenki Culture" as an arctic adaptation. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, New Series 2(1).
Mira, Dnepr River, Ukraine: Geoarchaeological and zooarchaeological studies at a stratified early Upper Paleolithic site
During August 2012, new field research was conducted at Mira, an open-air, stratified early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) site located in the Lower Dnepr Valley, south-central Ukraine. Earlier research had revealed two occupation layers at the site. The goals of the new research were to collect more information on the geoarchaeology and zooarchaeology of Mira in order to better understand how the site contributes to the emerging pattern of Homo sapiens dispersal and adaptation on the East European Plain.
A new stratigraphic profile was cleaned off, exposing the two occupation layers and overlying alluvium of the Second Terrace. Several square meters of occupation area were excavated, although only isolated stone flakes and bone fragments were recovered from one layer (Layer I). Samples were collected for soil micromorphology, mineralogy, and paleo-entomology, as well as for OSL dates and new radiocarbon dates on the occupation layers. The large assemblage of horse remains excavated earlier from the upper occupation layer was studied in Kiev.
Mira represents a unique geomorphic and paleo-topographic setting for an EUP site on the East European Plain—the artifacts, features, and associated faunal remains were deposited near the center of the wide Dnepr River floodplain towards the end of an interstadial phase (MIS 3) that preceded the beginning of the Last Glacial Maximum (~30,000 cal BP). At the time of occupation, the floodplain was relatively stable, characterized by low-energy fluvial deposition (periodic overbank flooding) and weak soil formation, apparently under relatively cold conditions. It remains unclear why people were drawn to the site location on at least two occasions, but the upper occupation level is associated with the butchering of a group of horses—probably a mare-band—that were killed near the site (perhaps with the aid of an artificial barrier/enclosure). The emphasis on large mammal butchering best accounts for the high percentage of "archaic" tools (e.g., side-scrapers) in this level. The lower occupation level contains bladelets typical of the early Gravettian industry, now dated to roughly 40,000 cal BP in the region (Prat et al. 2011), and probably related to the similar Ahmarian industry that appears to represent a movement of modern humans directly from the Levant via the Caucasus into Eastern Europe (at ~42,000 cal BP).
Read the paper "Geoarchaeological and bioarchaeological studies at Mira, an early Upper Paleolithic site in the Lower Dnepr Valley, Ukraine," by John Hoffecker, V. T. Holliday, V. N. Stepanchuk, et al., January 2014.
Read the book Desolate Landscapes: Ice Age Settlement in Eastern Europe, by John Hoffecker, 2001. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 298 p.
Soil micromorphology anlaysis of thin sections from the occupations layers at Mira by Paul Goldberg (Boston University): download PDF data.
Horse (Equus latipes) bones from Mira, Layer I, excavated by V. N. Stepanchuk (Institute of Archaeology, Ukrainian Academy of Sciences); taphonomic database compiled by J. F. Hoffecker in Kiev (November 2012): download PDF data.
Shlyakh, Don River area, southern Russia: An archaeological proxy for the earliest modern human colonization of Eastern Europe?
Roughly 50,000 years ago, a stone tool industry appeared in south-central Europe that lacks any obvious local source. This industry is characterized by the production of Levallois points and blades and contains varying proportions of typical Upper Paleolithic retouched forms; it is usually labeled “Bohunician,” but also is referred to as Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP). TL dates from the type site in Moravia (Brno-Bohunice) suggest a maximum age of 48,000 years BP. Bohunician sites have yet to yield any diagnostic human skeletal remains, but because of their similarities to the contemporaneous IUP industry of the Levant (widely assumed to have been produced by anatomically modern humans [AMH]), they are regarded by some as a credible proxy for AMH in south-central Europe. If so, they would represent the earliest known movement of Homo sapiens into Europe, apparently during an interval of pronounced and sustained warmth (Greenland Interstadial 12). An alternative interpretation for the Bohunician is that it represents an independent development among local Neanderthals.
A Levallois point and blade industry also is present in Eastern Europe, but its dating and relationship to the IUP are unclear. Although a Bohunician assemblage is widely recognized in the western Ukraine at Kulychivka, Layer III, it appears to be relatively young (less than 40,000 cal BP). The East European site most likely to contain an industry of similar age and composition to the IUP of south-central Europe is Shlyakh, located on the southern plain near Volgograd (Russia). Shlyakh was excavated by P.E. Nehoroshev and L.B. Vishnyatsky in 1990–1991 and 1998–2001, and yielded a Levallois point and blade industry that has been compared with the IUP of the Levant, but efforts to date it produced conflicting results. In August 2013, new field research was undertaken at Shlyakh with the support of the Leakey Foundation in order to obtain new dates for the site, as well as new information on site stratigraphy and formation processes.