Exploring geochemical evidence for the Neolithic Agricultural revolution in Western Siberia using lake sediments


The transition from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled way of living was facilitated by the domestication of plants and animals during the Neolithic Revolution, which began around 12,000 years ago. This is one of the most dramatic changes in human history, yet the timing and spread of the Neolithic Revolution and agriculture is not well-constrained. Furthermore, the key drivers for the switch from a nomadic to settled lifestyle remains debated with climate conditions, cultural changes and demographics all argued to have played a role (Sadowski, 2017). In order to address these questions this PhD will use lake sediments from Lake Mergen, western Siberia, where preliminary archaeological excavations have revealed a 7000-year history of human occupation and settlement, including five lake-side Neolithic villages and a spectacular wooden henge structure, hinting at cultural links with areas west of the Ural Mountains.

The Lake Mergen site is one of the first settled locations in western Siberia and is thought to have played a pivotal role in the northward migration and (re)settlement of agriculturists from steppe and semi-desert landscapes further south into western Siberia (Zakh and Enshin, 2015; Piezonka et al., 2020). It is a rare Neolithic archaeological site, as it dates to the early part of domestication and is one of very few long-term settlements in central Northern Eurasia to have been excavated. Whilst excavations of the lake-side villages have produced a wealth of immaculately preserved remains, there is a lack of archaeological evidence for agriculture and/or domestication,  something that would be expected at such an extensive site.

This PhD project aims to generate multiproxy data to characterise the timings, intensities and economies of occupation at Lake Mergen using lake sediments adjacent to the lake-side villages. The project will use a combination of geochemical and biomolecular analyses of sedimentary archives from Lake Mergen to provide multi-proxy evidence for the transition between hunter-gatherer and agricultural lifestyles. The specific objectives of the PhD are to:
– Characterise the timings and intensities of occupations at Lake Mergen in Western Siberia.
– Identify temporal changes in dominant resources associated with the settlements, including food sources, animal products and fuel supplies.
– Reconstruct Holocene hydroclimate change.
– Determine the contribution of climate in shaping settlement dynamics and economies at Lake Mergen.

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Image Captions

Mergen Location.png – “Location of Lake Mergen study site in western Siberia” (Google Landsat/Copernicus, 2020).
Mergen Archaeology.png – “Existing research at Lake Mergen has uncovered many settlement structures, including large houses (A: excavated structure, B: artist’s impression of structure), and remains such as bone tools (C) and pottery (D). This projects aims to advance understandings of prehistoric life at Lake Mergen using lake sedimentary archives (E).” Reproduced with permission from Natalia Ryabogina.


The project focuses on using organic geochemistry analyses (GC-MS, GC-IRMS) of lake sediments and archaeological settings. In the field, the student will undertake bathymetric surveys of Lake Mergen, water column physiochemistry and will recover Holocene sediment cores from the lake centre and proximal locations to lake-side settlements. These lake sediments will undergo lithostratigraphic analysis using loss-on-ignition, mineral magnetics and XRF scanning. To assess the timing and occupation of the lake-side villages the project will constrain lake sediments using radiocarbon and use lipid biomarkers (sterols, bile acids) (Prost et al., 2017) to track faecal input into the lake. To complement these analyses the project will use hydrogen pyrolysis (HyPy) (Meredith et al., 2012) to reconstruct fire history in order to link human settlement and wider catchment changes. HyPy has a greater sensitivity than standard charcoal methods, which is advantageous within this project for the detection of early anthropogenic fire signals. In addition, the student will use leaf wax n-alkanes to reconstruct vegetation changes and use hydrogen isotopes to reconstruct past hydroclimate (Holtvoeth et al., 2019). Depending on how the project develops there will be opportunities to develop sedimentary DNA analysis (Saƒae et al., 2018) of the lake sediments to complement the proposed organic geochemistry.

The project benefits from working closely with national and international project partners: Dr Kimberley Davies (Bournemouth University, UK) will create landscape and vegetation models using existing pollen data, Dr Mikkel Pedersen (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) will provide supervision for the shotgun DNA sequencing, Dr Natalia Ryabogina (Tyumen State University, Russia) will provide local logistical support, provide samples, and provide key palynological and archaeological data.

Project Timeline

Year 1

– Background reading and literature review
– Fieldwork in Siberia to extract lake sediment cores from the centre of Lake Mergen and proximal to the settlements.
– Lake sample processing and analysis for elemental chemistry (XRF) and organic matter content (LOI).
– Hydrogen pyrolysis (HyPy) training and analyses, which will take place at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC).
– Rangefinder dating of sediment cores by radiocarbon measurements.

Year 2

– Lipid biomarker analyses to produce high resolution lake records and test archaeological samples.
– Begin sedimentary ancient DNA extraction, targeting key horizons from lipid biomarker analyses.
– Write up of fire history based on HyPy (primary data) and charcoal data (secondary data available from project partners).

Year 3

– Complete lipid biomarker analysis and interpretation
– Complete sedimentary aDNA extraction, sequence DNA samples at the University of Copenhagen and complete bio-informatics analysis and interpretation.
– Write up of Lake Mergen animal husbandry based on lipid biomarkers and sedimentary ancient DNA (primary data) and faunal remains (secondary data available from project partners).

Year 3.5

– Completion of data analysis
– Integration of all results and thesis writing.

& Skills

This project will develop cross-disciplinary transferable skills in problem solving, project management, experimental design, data analysis and visualisation and report writing.

High-levels skills will be developed in:
– Field techniques and archaeological excavation with training in lake surveying and coring and the excavation of wetland settlements provided on site in Siberia with support from project partners.
– Laboratory analyses with training provided on sediment core logging, radiocarbon dating, XRF scanning and lipid biomarker extraction, processing and analysis at Durham University. Sedimentary DNA extraction training will take place at Newcastle University and training on shotgun DNA sequencing and bio-information will take place at the University of Copenhagen. HyPy training and analysis will take place at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre.
– Computational/statistical analyses with training on computer programming in R for data visualisation and statistical analyses provided at Durham and Newcastle Universities.

The candidate will also benefit from broad skills training provided in-house at Durham (e.g. thesis, paper and grant writing, presentation skills) and from the broad range of environmental science training provided within the IAPETUS Doctoral Training Partnership. Training requirements of the individual will be identified and met through the development of a personal training plan.

The presence of national and international collaborators ensures that the student has excellent opportunities to develop a strong multidisciplinary research network. Research skills and awareness of on-going research will be developed through regular participation in Durham Physical Geography weekly seminar series and other research group meetings, and participation in external national and international conferences to support development as an independent researcher.

References & further reading

Holtvoeth, J., Whiteside, J., Engels, S., Freitas, F., Grice, K., Greenwood, P., Johnson, S., Kendall, I., Lengger, S., Lacke, A., Mayr, C., Naafs, B., Rohrssen, M. and Seplveda, J. 2019. The paleolimnologist’s guide to compound-specific stable isotope analysis – An introduction to principles and applications of CSIA for Quaternary lake sediments. Quaternary Science Reviews.

Meredith, W., Ascough, P.L., Bird, M.I., Large, D., Snape, C., Sun, Y., Tilston, E.L. 2012. Assessment of hydropyrolysis as a method for the quantification of black carbon using standard reference materials. Geochem. Cosmochim. Acta, 97, pp. 131-147.

Piezonka, H., Kosinskaya, L., Dubovtseva, E., YuriChemyakin, Y., Enshin, D., SafnkeHartz, S., Kovaleva, V., Panina, S., Savchenko, S., Skochina, S., Terberger, T., Zakh, V., Zhilin, M., Zykov, A. 2020. The emergence of hunter-gatherer pottery in the Urals and West Siberia: New dating and stable isotope evidence. Journal of Archaeological Science. 116, 1-19.

Prost, K., Birk, J. J., Lehndorff, E., Gerlach, R., and Amelung, W. 2017. Steroid Biomarkers Revisited – Improved Source Identification of Faecal Remains in Archaeological Soil Material. PLOS ONE 12, e0164882-e0164882.
Sadowski, R.F. 2017. Neolithic Revolution. In: Thompson P., Kaplan D. (eds) Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_540-1.

Saƒae M.J., Nejsum P., Seersholm F.V., Fredensborg B.L., Habraken R., Haase K., Hald M.M., Simonsen R., Højlund F., Blanke L., Merkyte I., Willerslev E., Kapel C.M.O. 2018. Ancient DNA from latrines in Northern Europe and the Middle East (500 BC – 1700 AD) reveals past parasites and diet. PLOS ONE, 13: e0195481.

Zakh, V.A., Enshin, D.N. 2015. On the question of neolithization in the forest-steppe of Western Siberia. Bulletin of Kemerovo State University, 2 (62), Vol. 6, pp. 34-43.

Further Information

Please contact Dr Helen Mackay (helen.mackay@durham.ac.uk) when applying to this project. Note that there is scope to tailor specific components of this project towards the individual interests of the student.

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