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Middle East Kingdoms

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Early Cultures IndexEarly Middle East

The pre-history of the Middle East (or more strictly, in historical terminology, the Near East) is a long and largely uncertain period in which small windows of opportunity to view events can be gained through archaeology. Masses of material are found each year by archaeologists, and a system was long ago needed to help organise all these findings. The system that evolved in the early twentieth century was one that involved cultures, with each culture being defined by distinct similarities in burials, settlements, technology, or objects in space and time. Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

These cultures are defined on the basis of pot shards, grave types, architecture, and other material remains. They are meant to capture and define regional variation within a broad sweep of generally similar artefacts. They show the progress of cultural advancement, where such advancement usually means replacing one culture with another to highlight a marked progression. This practice tends to result in a profusion of cultural names, some of which refer to the same culture but which bear different names when they cut across modern national borders. Every attempt has been made here to combine different cultural names that refer to the same culture. The relationship between the archaeological cultures listed here and the living cultures which they represent may seem tenuous, but every attempt has also been made to link, where possible, perceived social and linguistic cultures with their matching archaeological cultures. The social and linguistic fields are more theoretical than the archaeological ones, and there is resistance on both sides by academics when it comes to accepting the other, but recent progress has shown that both disciplines can work well together.

Prehistory IndexThe region's earliest cultures are perhaps the easiest to catalogue and also amongst the most frustrating, the latter due to the relatively small number of artefacts (and also population figures) left behind to provide evidence of existence. These early cultures include the near-universally widespread Mousterian culture, the immediate predecessor of the first wholly Homo sapiens-driven cultures, the Baradostian and Emireh. The latter is especially interesting as it charts human progress after around 25,000 BC, roughly around the time at which the most recent Ice Age was building to a peak (very severely in Europe and less so in Central Asia) and shortly after the last of Europe's Neanderthals had died out. Now humans had no cultural competition except from other humans, provided of course that they could survive another 15,000 years of Ice Age (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

Cataloguing the vast range of human cultures is a complex process. It starts off reasonably easily, with the result that most early cultures can be included on this page. As cultures become more numerous, and rival cultures spring up in different regions at the same time, listing them on one page becomes more complicated. Care has been taken to log rival and neighbouring cultures in each entry but, after a certain point, when the cultures become so regional that they can be located almost entirely within the borders of a single modern nation, then they will be shown in the relevant page rather than here. The easiest way to view it all is as the roots of a tree, with the main trunk starting here and heading down through the page (ie. into the soil) and the ever-smaller roots forking outwards to link into other pages.

(Additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds).)

Anatolian relief

Early Cultures IndexMousterian Culture (Middle Palaeolithic)
c.600,000 - 40,000 BC
Incorporating the Micoquien Culture

Prehistory IndexThe Mousterian was a Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Old Stone Age) culture that incorporated the Afro-Eurasian region, covering northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. It was named after its type-site, Le Moustier, a rock shelter in Dordogne in France. Associated primarily with Homo Neanderthalis and with its immediate predecessor, Homo Heidelbergensis (which was also the ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa) it therefore lies largely outside the scope of modern human prehistory except that it was this culture that suffered at the hands of modern human migration. However, it is difficult to proceed with documenting the earliest Homo sapiens cultures outside of Africa without also documenting the Neanderthal cultures with which they integrated and ultimately outperformed. This includes the Mousterian in the Middle East and Europe and its successor in Europe, the Châtelperronian (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

The Micoquien culture was an early Middle Palaeolithic (Neanderthal) industry which flourished between 130,000-70,000 BC. Its name was originally coined by O Hauser, who thought that the industry of the upper layers at La Micoque in south-western France was an independent stage between the Mousterian and the European Aurignacian culture. Sites associated with it are primarily located in western and central Europe, but similar tools have been found across eastern Europe and in the Middle East. The overall picture regarding Neanderthal cultures is a confused one, with changing parameters. The Micoquien in Germany has also been referred to as the 'Keilmessergruppen' (KMG) to differentiate it from the more hazy French variation, but overall a single Neanderthal culture with various potential sub-groups can be said to have existed (until more detailed cultural groups can be established by archaeologists).

FeatureIt was into this relatively little-known window of Neanderthal existence that Homo sapiens intruded somewhere around the 70,000-60,000 BC mark, during the most recent 'Out of Africa' migration into the Middle East (see feature link, right - a 1904 revision of German spelling produced the 'tal' spelling to replace the earlier 'thal', but in English texts the traditional spelling of Neanderthal has been retained, despite some modern revisionists trying to force a change).

Human culture had developed from several industries in Stone Age Africa. At the moment - as with the Neanderthals - the overall picture of this phase of early human cultures seems to be fragmented. There is no clear linear progression between those Stone Age cultures and the first culture of the Middle East, the Baradostian (from about 36,000 BC). The long-lasting Aterian culture in North Africa which was contemporary with Homo sapiens migrating into the Middle East was largely a dead end, so the first Homo sapiens in the Middle East must have formed their own basic culture which provided the basis for its successors, something that the Aterian failed to do. What this culture or cultures was or were is yet to be worked out satisfactorily. Even so, this has to be one of the most fascinating periods in early modern human history. Just how did Homo sapiens react to the Neanderthal populations they found when migrating into the Middle East, and how did they interact with them? No one knows for certain. What is known, however, is that the Neanderthal populations were eventually outperformed by the new arrivals, and went into a terminal decline.

(Additional information from Middle Palaeolithic Symbolism: A Review of Current Evidence and Interpretations, P G Chase & H L Dibble (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology No 6, 1987), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Science, and Platform Variability & Flake Morphology, H L Dibble (PDF), and the Bradshaw Foundation: Origins. and TalkOrigins, and A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France (The Atlantic.com).)

c.300,000 BC

FeatureThe Mousterian is defined by the appearance of a method of stone-knapping or reduction known as the Levallois Technique, named after the type site in the Levallois-Perret suburb of Paris in France. The Levallois Technique is traditionally dated to this period, marking as it does the very beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Old Stone Age).

Levallois Technique tool
Levallois Technique tool-making was pioneered by the Neanderthals of the Mousterian around three hundred thousand years ago, at least a hundred thousand years before the first appearance of anatomically modern humans

 

Closer analyses reveal that Levallois may develop from tools of the preceding Lower Palaeolithic (Early Old Stone Age) universal Acheulean culture (about 1.76 million years ago to 100,000 BC). Levallois involves striking flakes from a prepared core. A knapper takes this core and trims the edges by flaking off pieces around the outline of the intended tool. After a good deal of use, the core acquires a distinctive tortoise-shell appearance. This technique allows greater control over the size and shape of the flake products, but it also indicates a great leap from the cognitive requirements of previous Acheulean technologies. Although there are still doubts about the significance of the Levallois, examples of cognitive increases become more common and more robust as the Mousterian develops (the North African Aterian culture also exhibits such evolution).

140,000 BC

FeatureShortly after the Aterian culture first appears in Africa around this time, rainy spells in what is now Israel match the period which sees the first modern human settlements in the Middle East. The wet periods form what, essentially, are climatic windows that allow migration north through the Sahara and up into Asia via a 'land bridge' on the Sinai Peninsula.

88,000 BC

At Atapuerca in Spain there is evidence of the intentional storing of bones from at least thirty-two people in a cave chamber as early as 300,000 years ago. This behaviour suggests a belief that dead humans are not the same as other animals. By 90,000 years ago, several Neanderthal cave sites provide the first reasonably good evidence of intentional burial of the dead. They presumably bury relatives and friends in shallow graves that have been dug into the soft midden soil of their living areas at the mouths of caves and rock shelters. Bodies are usually coiled into a foetal position.

Neanderthals picking flowers for the dead
Neanderthal folk of the Middle Palaeolithic not only buried their dead in shallow graves, in some cases it can be proved that they also picked flowers to lay alongside their dead friends or relatives

Frequently, the bones are stained with hematite, a rust-red iron ore. Most likely the bodies are either sprinkled with hematite powder or the powdered pigment is mixed with a viscous liquid medium, such as vegetable seed oil or animal fat, and is painted on the bodies. The practice implies that Neanderthals are trying to prepare the dead for their journey into a form of afterlife. Notably, the habit of adding a red powdered pigment to grave burials is adopted (or shared from its origin) by Homo sapiens. Even Neolithic forager cultures of the Black Sea coast practice it (such as the Khvalynsk culture of the fifth millennium BC).

80,000 BC

Dated to around this time, anatomically modern human remains (teeth - unmistakable identifiers of modern humans) are found in eastern China. To have reach this far east, it is estimated that this group of Homo Sapiens may have left Africa around 100,000 years ago, perhaps even earlier. While this breaks all previous estimates for the earliest modern humans to leave Africa, it does not provide conclusive evidence of anything other than one small migration, perhaps only by a single tribe.

49,000 BC

Modern humans move from Africa into the Middle East as early as 120,000 years ago, according to fossils of archaic modern humans at the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel. But they apparently skirt the colder climes of Europe and northern Asia until much later, about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. Instead, their presence remains firmly rooted in Africa, with seemingly occasional forays into the Middle East that perhaps only last a few generations at a time before fading out or retreating back.

However, researchers still see the Middle East as a likely place for early encounters between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Fossils in Israel, such as a 49,000-year-old Neanderthal at Tabun Cave, may belong to people who are alive at the time of unions between the two groups, or just afterwards. Could such unions be the way in which Homo sapiens gains a more permanent foothold in the Middle East, or have they now become more technically advanced than the Neanderthals who have dominated the hunting here for well over two hundred thousand years?

45,600 BC

There is abundant evidence that Neanderthals regularly occupy the mouths of caves and rock shelters in Europe and south-western Asia. Such cave openings often face south, providing the maximum level of direct sunlight and warmth. It is unlikely that Neanderthals often venture deep into large caves since such areas are extremely dark and dangerous. However, some Neanderthals do leave artefacts hundreds of feet into Bruniquel Cave in southern France, and they are still in use around this period. Concentrated smoke residues high on the walls of the cave suggest that torches are being used to light the way.

Bruniquel Cave in France
This hidden chamber in Bruniquel Cave in France was discovered in the nineties - it contained an interesting man-made structure that utilised broken stalagmites, and burnt bear bone was carbon dated to 47,600 years ago - but it was only fresh examination of the stalagmites in 2013 that produced a date of 176,500 years ago for the structure's construction

43,000 BC

FeatureSuddenly, it seems, populations of Homo sapiens have already colonised areas of Siberia. The discovery in 2008 of fossilised human bones at Ust-Ishim leads to the oldest sequenced human genome to date (as of 2016). Genetically he just barely postdates the Neanderthal introgression into modern humans (crossbreeding between the two species). Almost as soon as modern humans arrive in northern Eurasia, they make themselves at home in harsh climates. Ust-Ishim is at about the latitude of Stockholm or Juneau in Alaska, and the temperature is comparable with that of today. Humans have clearly made an advance which allows them to cope with the colder temperatures, and to hunt and survive in colder climates. However, they are not alone in Siberia. Evolutionary cousins, Homo Denisovan, are already well established there.

41,000 BC

FeatureStarvation and cannibalism could be part of everyday life for a population of Neanderthals living in northern Spain around this time. Eight Neanderthal skeletons are found in an underground cave system at El Sidron in Asturias, and bones and teeth found here bear the hallmarks of a tough struggle for survival. Signs of starvation or malnutrition in childhood are evident.

Neanderthal populations are beginning to find themselves under pressure thanks to competing groups of Homo sapiens, certainly in the Middle East, but now also with the same process beginning in Europe. As Neanderthal populations dwindle between 40,000-30,000 BC, Mousterian implements also disappear from the archaeological record, marking the end of Neanderthal culture and the beginning of replacement modern human cultures. In the Middle East this is in the form of the Baradostian, while in Europe it is the Aurignacian culture.

Early Cultures IndexBaradostian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.36,000 - 18,000 BC

The Baradostian was an Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) flint tool culture which succeeded the Neanderthal-led Mousterian culture across an area of the Middle East (largely focussed on northern Mesopotamia and eastern Anatolia - modern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey - and centred on the Zagros Mountains between Iraq and Iran). It was contemporary with the Aurignacian culture in Europe and is thought by some (M Otte at least) to be an eastern expression of that (or perhaps more correctly, the Aurignacian is a western expression of the Baradostian, expanding along with modern human settlement in Europe).

Due to the paucity of archaeological remains from this period, the emergence of the Baradostian is not well understood, and neither are its origins. Anatomically modern humans lived alongside Neanderthal populations for up to thirty thousand years, although population numbers may have waxed and waned during that time. They also integrated them to an extent, with a notable percentage of Neanderthal DNA being found in modern human populations of this time period and region, and also immediately after it. It is probably the case that Homo sapiens brought their own Stone Age African tool-making traditions with them, but these skills must have been influenced by what they found the Neanderthals doing, so the Baradostian may be as influenced by Neanderthals as was human DNA.

With a type site in a cave at Shanidar (Iraqi Kurdistan), radiocarbon dates suggest that this is one of the earliest Upper Palaeolithic complexes. It was certainly extant by 30,000 BC and may have begun as early as 36,000 BC. Its relationship to neighbouring industries, however, remains unclear, even in regard to the potential sister Emireh culture in the Levant. Other major sites include Warwasi rock-shelter and Yafteh Cave in the western Zagros, and Eshkaft-e Gavi Cave in the southern Zagros. The Baradostian seems to have ended with the maximum cold of the last phase of the Würm glaciation, the most recent cold phase of the Ice Age. Following possible cultural and typological discontinuity it was succeeded by the Zarzian culture in northern Mesopotamia and eastern Turkey.

(Additional information from Palaeolithic Hominin Remains from Eshkaft-e Gavi (Southern Zagros Mountains, Iran), J E Scott, from Makers of the Early Aurignacian of Europe, Steven E Churchill & Fred H Smith (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology Vol 43:61-115 (2000)), from The Palaeolithic Prehistory of the Zagros-Taurus, Harold L Dibble, from Eighty Years of Iranian Archaeology Vols 1 & 2, Yousef Hassanzadeh & Sima Miri (Eds), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Encyclopaedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory, Second Edition, N Benco, A S Brooks, E Delson, C Kramer, & J J Shea (PDF Extract, 2000). and Makers of the Early Aurignacian of Europe, Steven E Churchill & Fred H Smith (2000).)

37,000 BC

The latter part of the Interpleniglacial (or Middle Würm glaciation) is marked by the Hengelo/Denekamp temperate period between 37,000-27,000 BC. It is during this relatively warm and wet interval that the Mousterian culture and Neanderthals disappear, Initial Upper Palaeolithic (IUP) cultures proliferate and then also disappear, and the Aurignacian/Baradostian cultures emerge. Modern humans now enter Europe from the Middle East and become established there.

Shanidar cave in Iraqi Kurdistan
Solecki’s pioneering archaeological studies of the Shanidar cave skeletons and their burials suggested the complex social skills that Neanderthals are now acknowledged to have possessed (External Link: Creative Commons Licence)

36,000 BC

Directly overlaying the Mousterian occupation levels at Shanidar cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, the early Baradostian industry of the Zagros region shows that modern humans supplant Neanderthals here. The Baradostian is characterised by a high percentages of burins (chisel-like stone tools), some with a distinctive nosed profile that is reminiscent of Aurignacian burins. (The findings here served as the basis for the novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, regarding an anatomically-modern human being raised by Neanderthals.)

30,000 BC

The rock-shelter at Warwasi in the western Zagros Mountains sits at an altitude of 1,300 metres above sea level - an idea location from which to spot game on the Tang-i-knisht Valley below. There seems to be little tree cover to obscure the view during this interglacial, which manifests itself in a harsh, dry climate in this region. The late Baradostian archaeological levels found here show an increased manufacture of microlithic tools. This is in comparison to the less frequent use of microliths at early Baradostian sites such as Shanidar cave. The increase, which can be dated between 30,000-20,000 BC, could be related to an increasing population at the late period site (about 1,800 artefacts compared to twenty-three from Shanidar). It could also be part of the shift from the Baradostian to the succeeding Zarzian culture in the region.

26,000 BC

Eshkaft-e Gavi cave experiences a long period of occupation across the Mousterian and Baradostian, although not necessarily unbroken use. The cave is located in the southern Zagros Mountains of Iran and is one of the few archaeological sites in the region to preserve both Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic occupations. Excavation of the site carried out in the 1970s discovers an assemblage of lithic and faunal remains. These include bone fragments from a minimum of four hominins, including two juveniles. Although many of these remains could be Epipalaeolithic (ie. Mesolithic) in age, the mandibular molar from one of the juveniles is found at the base of the cave's Upper Palaeolithic sequence. The remains are very fragmentary, but modern humans are indicated.

FeatureFour of the fragments that date to around 28,000 years ago display clear evidence of intentional butchery in the form of stone-tool cut marks. These fragments, along with a fragment of parietal bone, are also burned. Although this evidence is consistent with cannibalism, the small sample makes it difficult to say whether or not the individuals represented by the hominin remains were butchered and cooked for consumption. Nevertheless, the cut-marked Eshkaft-e Gavi specimens add to a growing sample of hominin remains that display evidence of intentional defleshing.

Eshkaft-e Gavi cave
Carleton Coon's 1951 examination of the Eshkaft-e Gavi cave in the southern Zagros Mountains was one of a large number of expeditions into the region until political events in Iran curtailed any further work for some decades

18,000 BC

The little-understood and poorly recorded Upper Palaeolithic flint tool culture of the Baradostian has been accelerating its use of microliths for at least then thousand years. Now that acceleration tips over into a replacement culture in the Zagros Mountain region, that of the Mesolithic Zarzian culture (with the Levant-based Kebaran as a contemporary sister culture).