Stone Age cave dwellers in Iran

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Caves and rock shelters were particularly attractive living places for the hunter gatherers of the early Palaeolithic period and the geographic situation of the Iranian Plateau with its bordering mountain systems including the Zagros range on the west and the Alborz range on the north has meant that there were many cave sites which would have been suitable for early cave dwelling man.  

Hutu Cave located on the northern slope of the Alborz Mountains [Credit: Tehran Times]

Although this multiplicity of cave habitats would seem to lend itself to the extended study of the early Stone Age hunting and gathering way of life, there has in fact been comparatively little scientific study of early cave man in Persia, possibly because of the stronger attraction to the archaeologists of the rich Neolithic remains of prehistoric agricultural settlers found throughout the country.  

There are, however, a few excavations which have produced material throwing light on the Palaeolithic period in Persia. An early expedition by Jacque De Morgan in the Caspian area collected stone implements in a Pleistocene geographic context, while Henry Field observed Palaeolithic implements among surface finds near Shiraz in Fars Province. One of the most notable early excavations was carried out in the 1950s when an expedition under the direction of Carlton Coon worked at Ghar-e sekarchian (Hunter’s Cave) near Bisotun, Tamtama Cave near Lake Urmia, Khonik Cave in southern Khorasan, and most importantly at Kamarband and Hutu Caves on the Caspian shore.  

In general the Zagros highlands have been subject to more Stone Age research and investigation than have the Alborz Mountains and therefore a more detailed picture of early cave dwelling life has been developed for the Zagros region where traces of cave dwellers from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic, and Epipalaeolithic periods have been found. Although other parts of Persia have been less investigated than the Zagros highlands, traces of cave dwellers have also been found at sites scattered throughout the Iranian Plateau and in the lowlands.  

Lower Palaeolithic (1,500,000-100,000 B.C.E.)  

Remains of the Lower Palaeolithic period, characterized in its earlier phase by stone tools made on pebbles, cobbles, or heavy flakes, and in its later phase by bi-facial tools such as hand axes and cleavers, have been found in eastern Azarbaijan (Sadek-Kooros), in the Kasafrud basin of Khorasan (Ariai and Thibault), and at Ladiz on the Sarhad plateau in Baluchistan (Hume). Archaeological surveys have also found Lower Palaeolithic remains at Pol-e Barik in Luristan (Mortensen), at Gakia Tepe in Kermansah (Braidwood), and at sites in Azarbaijan.   

Middle Palaeolithic (100,000-40,000 B.C.E.)  

Much more in the way of remains from the Middle Palaeolithic period, characterized by stone tools made on flakes with scrapers, notched pieces, borers and burins, have been found in various parts of Persia, especially in the Zagros highlands. Approximately twenty-two sites have produced material from this period, of which some of the most notable are Tamtama Cave near Lake Urmia, Ghar-e Koba near Kermansah, Ghar-e Khar near the Bisotun inscription, Hunters’ Cave also near Bisotun, several sites near Khorramabad including Konji, Arjana and Qomri Caves, and the site of Humian in Luristan. 

Kamarband Cave [Credit: Tehran Times]

Some surface material of this period has also been found at Dast-e Gol at Eva and on the Edha plain in northeastern Khuzestan, at Key Aram I cave in the Caspian lowland, at Khonik Cave near Birjand in Khorasan, near Ladiz in Baluchistan, and on the Tehran and Kerman plains. Most of these sites are concentrated in the Zagros highlands in the provinces of Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, and Luristan, with only limited remains found in other parts of Persia.

Upper Palaeolithic (40,000-15,000 B.C.E.) 

The Upper Palaeolithic period is characterized by burins and scrapers on flakes and notched blades as well as picks, choppers, and grinding stones. Although one would expect there to be more material from the Upper Palaeolithic as compared to the Middle Palaeolithic period found throughout Persia, remains thus far found from the Upper Palaeolithic period are rather scant and restricted for the most part to the Zagros highlands. Limited material related to the beginning of agriculture and food production has been found at Ghar-e Warwasi near Kermansah, at Gar-e Khar near the Bisotun inscription, and at Pa Sangar, Yafta, and Arjana caves near Khorramabad. 

Epipalaeolithic period (18,000-10,000 B.C.E.)  

Rather more remains from the Epipalaeolithic period, characterized by micholithic stone tools with some geometric elements such as triangles, crescents, and trapezoids have been found in Persia, centered mainly in the Zagros highlands and the Caspian lowlands. Major sites include Mar-Ruz, Mar-Gurgalan Sarab, Dar Mar, and Ghar-e Gogel in the Holeylian valley of Luristan, Pa Sangar near Khorramabad, Ghar-e Khar near Bisotun, Ghar-e Warwasi near Kermansah, Dast-e Gol at Eva and on the Edha Plain in northeastern Khuzestan, Kuhbanan in Kerman Province, and, most notably, the caves of Hutu, Kamarband and /Ali Tappa I on the Caspian foreshore.

Hutu and Kamarband caves  

Both Hutu and Kamarband caves are located in a massive projecting cliff on the northern slope of the Alborz mountains at the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea. Hutu Cave is rather large, with a northern wall about 30 m. long and a southern wall about 20 m. long. Several trenches cut at the site produced pottery shreds, stone implements and samples for determination. The excavator arranged the twenty-two samples for carbon analysis determination dates obtained from Hutu Cave into eight groups, each corresponding to a different culture which is separated from the others in the face of the trenches by soil changes.  

Prof. Negahban with objects

from Marlik, 1961

[Credit: Tehran Times]

It is evident that although some information has been developed on the cave dwelling way of life in Stone Age Persia, much more survey, investigation, and excavation in ancient caves and other prehistoric sites is required to produce a detailed and comprehensive picture of development during this period.  

**Ezatollah Negahban (1926 – 2009) was an Iranian archaeologist known as the father of Iranian modern archaeology. He was chief scientist in many excavations on Iranian ancient sites including Marlik, near Rudbar, Haft Tepe, near Susa and Ahvaz, where he founded a museum to showcase artifacts from the site, and on the plane of Hamadan Province, where a training center for students was established. 

Author: Prof. Ezatollah Negahban | Source: Tehran Times [September 26, 2011]

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