Prehistory of Iran

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The prehistory of the Iranian plateau , and the wider region now known as Greater Iran, as part of the prehistory of the Near East is conventinally divided into the Paleolithic, Epipaleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, spanning the time from the first settlement by archaic humans about a million years ago until the beginning historical record during Neo-Assyrian Empire, in the 8th century BC.

Greater Iran Cultural region

Greater Iran is a term used to refer to the regions of the Caucasus, West Asia, Central Asia, and parts of South Asia that have significant Iranian cultural influence due to having been either long historically ruled by the various imperial dynasties of the Iranian Empire, having considerable aspects of Persian culture due to extensive contact with the various imperial dynasties of Iran, or are simply nowadays still inhabited by a significant amount of Iranian peoples who patronize their respective cultures. It roughly corresponds to the territory on the Iranian plateau and its bordering plains. The Encyclopædia Iranica uses the term Iranian Cultural Continent for this region.

Paleolithic Prehistoric period, first part of the Stone Age

The Paleolithic or Palaeolithic is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers c. 99% of human technological prehistory. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c. 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene c. 11,650 cal BP.

The Neolithic, the final division of the Stone Age, began about 12,000 years ago when the first development of farming appeared in the Epipalaeolithic Near East, and later in other parts of the world. The division lasted until the transitional period of the Chalcolithic from about 6,500 years ago, marked by the development of metallurgy, leading up to the Bronze Age and Iron Age. In Northern Europe, the Neolithic lasted until about 1700 BC, while in China it extended until 1200 BC. Other parts of the world remained broadly in the Neolithic stage of development, although this term may not be used, until European contact.



A reconstruction of the Shanidar Neanderthal (Zagros Paleolithic Museum) Kermanshah Pal Museum-Neanderthal.jpg
A reconstruction of the Shanidar Neanderthal (Zagros Paleolithic Museum)
Biface (trihedral) Amar Merdeg, Mehran, Lower Paleolithic, National Museum of Iran Biface (trihedral) Amar Merdeg, Mehran, Ilam, Lower Paleolithic, National Museum of Iran.jpg
Biface (trihedral) Amar Merdeg, Mehran, Lower Paleolithic, National Museum of Iran

One of the potential routes for early human migrations toward southern and eastern Asia is Iran, a country characterized by a wide range of geographic variation and resources, which could support early groups of hominins who wandered into the region. Evidence for the presence of these early populations in Iran includes some stone artifacts discovered from gravel deposits along the Kashafrud River Basin in eastern Iran, the Mashkid and Ladiz Rivers in the southeast, the Sefidrud River in the north, the Mahabad River in the northwest, and some surface occurrences and isolated finds from the west and northwestern parts of the country.

Kashafrud Archaeological site in Iran

Kashafrud Basin is an archaeological site in Iran, known for the Lower Palaeolithic artifacts collected there; these are the oldest-known evidence for human occupation of Iran.,

Mahabad City in West Azerbaijan, Iran

Mahabad, ; is a city and capital of Mahabad County, West Azarbaijan Province, Iran. At the 2006 census, its population was 168,000 in 31,000 families.

The main known early human occupation sites in Iran are: Kashafrud in Khorasan, Mashkid and Ladiz in Sistan, Shiwatoo in Kurdistan, Ganj Par in Gilan, Darband Cave in Gilan, Khaleseh in Zanjan, Tepe Gakia ( 34°13′N47°13′E / 34.217°N 47.217°E / 34.217; 47.217 ) 14 km (8.7 mi) due east of Kermanshah, [1] Pal Barik in Ilam. These sites fall between one million years ago to 200,000 years ago.[ citation needed ]

Kurdistan Region in Middle East home to the Kurds

Kurdistan or Greater Kurdistan is a roughly defined geo-cultural historical region wherein the Kurdish people form a prominent majority population and Kurdish culture, languages, and national identity have historically been based. Kurdistan roughly encompasses the northwestern Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges. The territory corresponds to Kurdish irredentist claims.

Ganj Par

Ganj Par is a Lower Paleolithic site located in the Gilan province in northern Iran.

Darband Cave Cave and archaeological site in Iran

Darband Cave is a Lower Paleolithic site in the Gilan Province in northern Iran, located on the north side of a deep tributary canyon of the Siahrud River, a tributary of the Sefīd-Rūd River that flows into the Caspian Sea.

Mousterian Stone tools made by Neanderthal man have also been found in various parts of the country.There are more cultural remains of Neanderthal man dating back to the Middle Paleolithic period, which mainly have been found in the Zagros region and fewer in central Iran at sites such as Kobeh, Kaldar, Bisetun, Qaleh Bozi, Tamtama, Warwasi. In 1949 a Neanderthal radius was discovered by CS Coon in Bisitun Cave. [2]

Mousterian European Middle Paleolithic culture

The Mousterian is a techno-complex of flint lithic tools associated primarily with the earliest anatomically modern humans in North Africa and West Asia, as well as with the Neanderthals in Europe. The Mousterian largely defines the latter part of the Middle Paleolithic, the middle of the West Eurasian Old Stone Age. It lasted roughly from 160,000 to 40,000 BP. If its predecessor, known as Levallois or "Levallois-Mousterian" is included, the range is extended to as early as c. 300,000–200,000 BP.

Neanderthal Extinct species of the genus Homo

Neanderthals are an extinct species or subspecies of archaic humans in the genus Homo, who lived within Eurasia from circa 400,000 until 40,000 years ago.

The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are considerable dating differences between regions. The Middle Paleolithic was succeeded by the Upper Paleolithic subdivision which first began between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. Pettit and White date the Early Middle Paleolithic in Great Britain to about 325,000 to 180,000 years ago, and the Late Middle Paleolithic as about 60,000 to 35,000 years ago.

Evidence for Upper Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic periods are known mainly from the Zagros region in the caves of Kermanshah and Khoramabad such as Yafteh Cave and a few number of sites in the Alborz range and Central Iran. In October 2018 a tooth belonging to a Neanderthal child has been discovered in Iran for the first time. The tooth belongs to a six-year-old child that was found along with some rocky tools of the middle Paleolithic period in the mountains of Kermanshah province. [3]

Upper Paleolithic Subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age

The Upper Paleolithic is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. Very broadly, it dates to between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, according to some theories coinciding with the appearance of behavioral modernity Humans and before the advent of agriculture.

Kermanshah City in Iran

Kermanshah, the capital of Kermanshah Province, is located 525 kilometres from Tehran in the western part of Iran. According to the 2011 census, its population is 851,405. A majority of the population speaks Southern Kurdish. Kermanshah has a moderate and mountainous climate. Kermanshah is the largest Kurdish-speaking city in Iran. Most of the inhabitants of Kermanshah are Shia Muslims, but there are minorities such as Sunni Muslims, Yarsanism and so on.

Yafteh Cave and archaeological site in Iran

Yafteh is an Upper Paleolithic cave located at the foot of Yafteh Mountain in the Zagros Mountains range, located northwest of Khoramabad in western Zagros, Lorestan Province of western Iran.


The end of the Palaeolithic, called Epipalaeolithic, is in a period of about 7000 years from c. 18,000 to 11,000 BC. In those days groups of hunter-gatherers were mostly living in the caves of the Zagros Mountains. Compared to earlier groups of game hunters, a tendency towards increasing the number of the kinds of plants and animals, which were collected and hunted, can be observed. Not only smaller vertebrates were hunted but also pistachios and wild fruit were collected. Finally, consuming snails and smaller aquatic animals like crabs is new (Flannery 1973).

Epipalaeolithic Near East archaeological period

In the prehistory of the Near East, the Epipalaeolithic is the period after the Upper Palaeolithic and before the Neolithic, between approximately 20,000 and 10,000 years Before Present (BP). The people of the Epipalaeolithic were nomadic hunter-gatherers that generally lived in small, seasonal camps rather than permanent villages. They made sophisticated stone tools using microliths—small, finely-produced blades that were hafted in wooden implements—which are the primary means by which archaeologists recognise and classify Epipalaeolithic sites.

Map showing location of Ganj Dareh and other early Neolithic sites in western Zagros. Ganj dareh.jpg
Map showing location of Ganj Dareh and other early Neolithic sites in western Zagros.

Neolithic to Chalcolithic

Almost nothing is known about the 2500 years which followed the Epipalaeolithic after 11,000 BC. Only when discovering the place of Asiab (c. 8500-8000) in the Kermanshah area we are in better known periods. Asiab was a small camp of hunter-gatherers, only seasonally inhabited. Besides the fact that wild goats and sheep were hunted, great numbers of snail shells were found. These finds were interpreted in the way that from time to time the hunting activities of the inhabitants of Asiab were unsuccessful and that then they were forced to consume food which they usually did not like.

Clay human figurine (Fertility goddess) Tappeh Sarab, Kermanshah ca. 7000-6100 BC, Neolithic period, National Museum of Iran Clay human figurine (Fertility goddess) Tappeh Sarab, Kermanshah ca. 7000-6100 BCE Neolithic period, National Museum of Iran.jpg
Clay human figurine (Fertility goddess) Tappeh Sarab, Kermanshah ca. 7000–6100 BC, Neolithic period, National Museum of Iran

Some nearby and more constantly occupied settlements in the Zagros date from a short time after Asiab, from the time between 8,000 and 6,800 BC. Still the material culture of Tappeh Ganj Dareh and Tappeh Abdul Hosein does not include any pottery. Thus this period is often called “aceramic Neolithic”. This is also true for the oldest levels of Tappeh Guran, located in Luristan, as well as for the sites of Ali Kosh and Chogha Sefid in the plain of Deh Luran, west of the Zagros Mountains. There, flocks of sheep and herds of goats were kept for the first time. Managing animals meant a fundamentally new orientation of the Neolithic inhabitants of Iran and must be understood to be connected with a whole number of other innovations, particularly the architecture of houses. We do not definitely know if in those days there was any cultivation of cereals. Tools for harvesting and for making cereal products are there, but remnants of burned grain are extremely rare.

Neolithic sites in Iran Neolithic sites in Iran.jpg
Neolithic sites in Iran
Pottery vessel, fourth millennium B.C. Zagros National Museum of Iran. Sialk pot.jpg
Pottery vessel, fourth millennium B.C. Zagros National Museum of Iran.

In the eighth millennium BC, agricultural communities such as Chogha Bonut (the earliest village in Susiana) [4] started to form in western Iran, either as a result of indigenous development or of outside influences. Around about the same time the earliest known clay vessels and modeled human and animal terracotta figurines were produced at Ganj Dareh and Teppe Sarab, also in western Iran. [5] [6] The south-western part of Iran was part of the Fertile Crescent. Some of the oldest agricultural ground has been discovered in Susa (now a city still existing since 7000 BC). [7] [8] and settlements such as Chogha Mish, dating back to 6800 BC; [9] [10] there are 7,000-year-old jars of wine excavated in the Zagros Mountains [11] (now on display at The University of Pennsylvania) and ruins of 7,000-year-old settlements such as Sialk are further testament to that.

Early agricultural communities such as Chogha Golan in 10,000 BC [12] [13] along with settlements such as Chogha Bonut (the earliest village in Elam) in 8000 BC, [14] [15] began to flourish in and around the Zagros Mountains region in western Iran. [5] Around about the same time, the earliest-known clay vessels and modeled human and animal terracotta figurines were produced at Ganj Dareh, also in western Iran. [5] There are also 10,000-year-old human and animal figurines from Tepe Sarab in Kermanshah Province among many other ancient artifacts. [6]

The south-western part of Iran was part of the Fertile Crescent where most of humanity's first major crops were grown, in villages such as Susa (where a settlement was first founded possibly as early as 4395 cal BC) [16] and settlements such as Chogha Mish, dating back to 6800 BC; [9] [17] there are 7,000-year-old jars of wine excavated in the Zagros Mountains [18] (now on display at the University of Pennsylvania) and ruins of 7000-year-old settlements such as Tepe Sialk are further testament to that.

Bronze Age

Chogha Zanbil is one of the few extant ziggurats outside of Mesopotamia and is considered to be the best preserved example in the world. Choghazanbil2.jpg
Chogha Zanbil is one of the few extant ziggurats outside of Mesopotamia and is considered to be the best preserved example in the world.

Parts of what is modern-day northwestern Iran was part of the Kura–Araxes culture (circa 3400 BC—ca. 2000 BC), that stretched up into the neighboring regions of the Caucasus and Anatolia. [19] [20]

Susa is one of the oldest-known settlements of Iran and the world. Based on C14 dating, the time of foundation of the city is as early as 4395 BC, [21] a time that goes beyond the age of civilization in Mesopotamia. The general perception among archeologists is that Susa was an extension of the Sumerian city state of Uruk. [22] [23] In its later history, Susa became the capital of Elam, which emerged as a state found 4000 BC. [21] There are also dozens of prehistoric sites across the Iranian plateau pointing to the existence of ancient cultures and urban settlements in the fourth millennium BC, [9] One of the earliest civilizations in Iranian plateau was the Jiroft culture in southeastern Iran in the province of Kerman.

It is one of the most artifact-rich archaeological sites in the Middle East. Archaeological excavations in Jiroft led to the discovery of several objects belonging to the 4th millennium BC. [24] There is a large quantity of objects decorated with highly distinctive engravings of animals, mythological figures, and architectural motifs. The objects and their iconography are unlike anything ever seen before by archeologists. Many are made from chlorite, a gray-green soft stone; others are in copper, bronze, terracotta, and even lapis lazuli. Recent excavations at the sites have produced the world's earliest inscription which pre-dates Mesopotamian inscriptions. [25] [26]

There are records of numerous other ancient civilizations on the Iranian Plateau before the emergence of Iranian peoples during the Early Iron Age. The Early Bronze Age saw the rise of urbanization into organized city states and the invention of writing (the Uruk period) in the Near East. While Bronze Age Elam made use of writing from an early time, the Proto-Elamite script remains undeciphered, and records from Sumer pertaining to Elam are scarce.

Russian historian Igor M. Diakonoff states that the modern inhabitants of the Iranian Plateau are descendants of mainly non-Persian groups: "It is the autochthones of the Iranian plateau, and not the Proto-Indo-European tribes of Europe, which are, in the main, the ancestors, in the physical sense of the word, of the present-day Iranians." [27]

Early Iron Age

A gold cup at the National Museum of Iran, dating from the first half of 1st millennium BC Marlik cup iran.jpg
A gold cup at the National Museum of Iran, dating from the first half of 1st millennium BC

Records become more tangible with the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its records of incursions from the Iranian plateau. As early as the 20th century BC, tribes came to the Iranian Plateau from the Pontic–Caspian steppe. The arrival of Iranians on the Iranian plateau forced the Elamites to relinquish one area of their empire after another and to take refuge in Elam, Khuzestan and the nearby area, which only then became coterminous with Elam. [28] Bahman Firuzmandi say that the southern Iranians might be intermixed with the Elamite peoples living in the plateau. [29] By the mid-first millennium BC, Medes, Persians, and Parthians populated the Iranian plateau. Until the rise of the Medes, they all remained under Assyrian domination, like the rest of the Near East. In the first half of the first millennium BC, parts of what is now Iranian Azerbaijan were incorporated into Urartu.

See also

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Further reading