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The Iranian Plateau during the Bronze Age

 | 
Jan-Waalke Meyer
, 
Emmanuelle Vila
, 
Marjan Mashkour
, 
et al.

Expansion of the Kura-Araxes culture in Iran

Toward a definition of the Kura-Araxes agropastoral systems

Alexia Decaix, Rémi Berthon, Fatemeh Azadeh Mohaseb et Margareta Tengberg

Résumé

Cet article décrit les systèmes agro‑pastoraux utilisés dans la culture Kura‑Araxes à partir d’études récemment publiées. Cette approche multi-disciplinaire basée sur des données archéozoologiques et archéobotaniques constitue l’une des premières synthèses sur l’exploitation des ressources animales et végétales dans le sud du Caucase et le nord‑ouest de l’Iran à l’âge du Bronze ancien.

Texte intégral

Introduction

1Since the last decades the development of new excavations in the southern Caucasus allows the international scientific community to have a renewed vision of the development of cultures in this neighbouring region of Iran. Moreover the recent contribution of bioarchaeological analyses (zooarchaeology, archaeobotany) is of great help to understand the constitution of past agro-sylvo-pastoral systems in this area.

  • 1 Marro, Bakhshaliyev and Berthon 2014.
  • 2 Palumbi and Chataigner 2014.
  • 3 See Sagona 2014 for a definition of Kura-Araxes wares.

2The beginning of the Early Bronze Age in the southern Caucasus is difficult to pinpoint since new discoveries have been made recently on the chronological range of different cultures. It has been argued that the Kura‑Araxes cultural complex started as early as the late 5th millennium in the Araxes Basin1. Therefore, Kura‑Araxes groups would have coexist with communities belonging to Chalcolithic cultures which lasted at least up to the second half of the 4th millennium2. Nevertheless, the faunal and botanical assemblages considered in this paper are coming from occupation layers dated between 3500 and 2500 BC and characterized by ceramic assemblages related to the Kura‑Araxes cultural complex3.

  • 4 Shimelmitz 2003; see also a discussion of the evidence in Piro 2009, p. 38‑50.
  • 5 For a synthesis of the archaeobotanical data for the Kura-Araxes culture, see Hovsepyan 2015.

3Previous discussions concerning agropastoral systems in the Kura‑Araxes cultural complex were dominated by a model based on pastoral nomadism4. The aim of the present paper is to test whether this is consistent with recent archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological discoveries. The bioarchaeological data recently published allow a better definition of the subsistence strategies used by Kura‑Araxes communities5. One of the questions on the research agenda is how these strategies differ from the one of the Chalcolithic cultures. Another important question is the homogeneity of the agropastoral practices over a region characterised by varied environmental settings.

Environmental setting

  • 6 Zohary 1973; Takhtajan 1986.
  • 7 Smith, Badalyan and Avetisyan 2009, p. 5‑6.

4The southern Caucasus is located at the crossroad of two phytogeographical units (Euro-siberian and Irano-turanian)6 and is characterised by a great diversity of environments, from the steppe in the valleys to the alpine meadows in the high mountains and the deciduous forests on the slopes of the Lesser and the Greater Caucasus. The flora is highly diversified with temperate species but also Tertiary relicts in areas such as the Colchis in Georgia or the Hyrcanian Forest in the south‑west coast of the Caspian Sea. South Caucasus can be roughly divided into four geographic provinces7. In the west, the Colchian Plain, drained by the Rioni and Enguri rivers, is surrounded by forested and humid mountains. Toward the east, in the valley situated in the middle part of the Kura River and in the northern highlands, hot dry summers and mild dry winters support temperate grasslands. Further to the east, low‑lying open steppes, crossed by the Kura and Araxes rivers, experience a rather dry climate. south‑west of the Lesser Caucasus, the climate of the middle Araxes River and nearby highlands is characterized by hot and dry summers while the winters are long and severe. The archaeological sites are located at different altitudes between 300 and 2200 masl (meter above sea level) and can therefore experience more severe local environmental conditions.

Material and methods

  • 8 Piro 2009.

5The bioarchaeological data considered in this paper come from 15 archaeological sites unevenly distributed over Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, northwestern Iran and northeastern Turkey (tab. 1, fig. 1). The Lesser Caucasus Highlands and the middle Araxes River valley are the most represented regions. Unfortunately both archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological data have been published only from Gegharot and Kohne Pasgah Tepesi. Most of the bioarchaeological remains were collected in domestic areas and therefore are likely to represent preparation and consumption of vegetal and animal products. With the exception of Sos Höyük where two successive Early Bronze Age faunal assemblages were published8, all other settlements are represented by only one assemblage which is likely to be a palimpsest of several Early Bronze Age occupations.

 

  • 9 Hovsepyan 2010.

6Ten sites have recently been the subject of archaeobotanical studies. The number of samples per site ranges between 1 (Aparan III) to 20 (Ovçular Tepesi). Except at Aparan III where the sediment was dry sieved then wet sieved, for all the other sites recently studied flotation method was used, sometimes with also wet sieving. The volume of sediments varies from 1 to almost 520 liters. Except for Maxta I and Kültepe II, for which an idea of the abundance of remains was given, the number of remains of each taxa found is given in the publications. The number of botanical remains identified for each sites ranges between 136 and 14177. The density of remains is between 0.262 and 4482 botanical remains for 1 liter of soil sampled (tab. 2). The site with the most important density of remains is Aparan III. It is probably due to the type of context from which comes the sample: the filling of a pottery which might represent cereal storage9.

 

  • 10 Lyman 2008.

7The eight faunal assemblages considered here were studied by different researchers. Moreover, the remains were mostly collected by hand and eye but sieving was occasionally performed in some of the settlements. Faunal assemblages are compared to each other using the Number of Identified Specimen (NISP) which is the most commonly used quantitative unit. Although the weight of the remains can be used for evaluating the economic importance of the different species10, it was unfortunately not published for some of the assemblages considered here. In order to reduce several biases inherent to the sampling techniques and to the experience of the researchers, smaller mammals (i.e. rodents), birds, fish and molluscs were not taken into consideration.

Fig. 1 – Map of the sites cited in this paper with the type of bioarchaeological study.

Fig. 1 – Map of the sites cited in this paper with the type of bioarchaeological study.

Table 1 – Sites cited in the text with detailed information on the bioarchaeological study bibliography.

Table 1 – Sites cited in the text with detailed information on the bioarchaeological study bibliography.

* The given range includes the earliest and latest date published for the occupation layers considered in this study.

Table 2 – Summary of the archaeobotanical data of Early Bronze Age sites recently excavated.

Table 2 – Summary of the archaeobotanical data of Early Bronze Age sites recently excavated.

P    < 1%;
+    < 5%;
++    from 5 to 25 %;
+++    from 25 to 50 %;
++++    from 50 to 75 %;
+++++     from 75 to 100 %.
*    presence but no informations about the percentage it represents

Results

Seeds and fruits remains

Cultivated plants

8Cultivated plants are mainly represented by cereals. Barley (Hordeum vulgare), naked wheat (Triticum aestivum/turgidum), emmer (Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccon) are the main cereals represented. Einkorn (Triticum monococcum subsp. monococcum) has also been identified in some sites but in very few numbers. They are identified through the caryopsis but also the rachis segments and glumes. Barley is largely dominating as it represents almost 50% of the cereals remains identified in the sites. It is followed by naked wheat (17%). Emmer and einkorn represent only 1% or less of the total of cereals remains. But those results have to be taken carefully. Indeed, barley in Gegharot represents more than 90% of the cereal remains identified and it is verging on the top the general proportion of barley. On the other sites, wheats are the main cereals identified and especially naked wheat.

9Only four sites have yielded pulses: Kültepe II, Maxta I, Ovçular Tepesi and Köhne Pasgah Tepesi. They are present in lower number than cereals. Grasspea (Lathyrus sativus), lentil (Lens culinaris subsp. culinaris), pea (Pisum sativum) and bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) have been identified. Seeds of the Vicieae tribe were found in the samples from Sotk 2, but identified as weeds by the author.

Gathered fruits

10In addition to the consumption of crops, inhabitants of the sites during the Early Bronze Age have also probably gather fruits even if remains are not very frequent, but quite diversified. Indeed, fruits of several Rosaceae trees (Crataegus sp., Pyrus sp., Rubus sp.), dogwood (Cornus mas), hackberry (Celtis sp.) or grapevine (Vitis vinifera) for example were identified.

11Four sites have yielded fruits: Chobareti, Mentesh Tepe, Ovçular Tepesi and Kohne Pasgah Tepesi.

Wild plants

  • 11 Willcox 2012.

12Wild plants have been identified in all the sites, sometimes in large numbers. Among them wild grasses from the Poaceae family are common, such as ryegrass (Lolium sp.), goatgrass (Aegilops sp.), brome grasses (Bromus sp.) but also bedstraw (Galium sp.), seeds from the borage family (Boraginaceae) such as heliotrops (Heliotropium sp.), sorrel (Rumex sp.) and cowherb (Vaccaria sp.). Some are common to all the sites and could be identified as arable weeds growing in the fields11.

Faunal Remains

Wild fauna

  • 12 Chahoud et al. 2015 and here references listed in table 1.

13Wild species play a very limited role in the Kura‑Araxes subsistence strategies. They don’t represent more than eight percent of the NISP12. Although the wild species are quite diversified, the main game mammal is usually red deer. Despite the selection of prey by hunters, the wild species somehow reflect the different biotopes surrounding the settlements. Hunting did obviously not play a significant role in the subsistence strategies. This activity more probably bearded social and symbolic meanings which are currently not yet fully understood.

Domesticates

14Human groups belonging to the Kura‑Araxes cultural complex obtained most of the animal products they needed from domestic ungulates. Sheep, goat and cattle represent more than 98 percent of these domestic ungulates (in NISP) with the only exception of Natsargora were pigs where frequently consumed (fig. 2). The assemblage from Natsargora is also distinct from the others in its Caprinae to cattle ratio (0.9:1). In all other settlements Caprinae outnumber cattle. The range of the Caprinae to cattle ratio is however quite large (from 1.2:1 to 3.6:1) hence reflecting different strategies for the composition of the herds. At this stage of the research, it is not yet possible to determine which factors (e.g. environment, chronology, function of the site) are impacting the composition of the herds.

Fig. 2 – Relative representation of Caprinae (sheep and goat), cattle and pig in the faunal assemblages in percent of the NISP. See references in table 1.

Fig. 2 – Relative representation of Caprinae (sheep and goat), cattle and pig in the faunal assemblages in percent of the NISP. See references in table 1.

Contribution of the sheep, goat and cattle to the diet

  • 13 Vigne 1991; Reitz and Wing 1999.

15When the NISP is used, sheep and goat are the most represented species in the Kuro‑Araxes assemblages, except at Natsargora. However, this quantitative method reflects more the composition of the herds than the contribution of each species to the diet. One cattle for instance produces from four to five times more meat and milk than a sheep. Meat indexes can be estimated in a variety of ways but all of them have drawbacks13. An easy way to estimate the economic contribution of each species is to look at the weight of the skeletal remains. This data is available in three assemblages where Caprinae are outnumbering cattle by far (Kohne Pasgah Tepesi, Sos Höyük I and Haftavan) [fig. 3]. Cattle represent more than 50 percent of the weight of skeletal remains at Kohne Pasgah Tepesi and Sos Höyük I. In Haftavan, that is a smaller assemblage, Caprinae are still more important than cattle. One can then assume that cattle played the first role in the exploitation of animal products in most of the Kura‑Araxes assemblages.

Fig. 3 – Relative representation of Caprinae (sheep and goat) and cattle at Köhneh Pasgah Tepesi, Sos Höyük I and Haftavan in percent of the NISP and weight of remains.

Fig. 3 – Relative representation of Caprinae (sheep and goat) and cattle at Köhneh Pasgah Tepesi, Sos Höyük I and Haftavan in percent of the NISP and weight of remains.

Discussion

16The botanical remains recently published show that cultivation was based on cereals harvest, mainly barley and naked wheat, but also hulled wheats. Besides, wild edible fruits were collected to complete the vegetal diet of the inhabitants of the Kura‑Araxes sites.

17The faunal remains clearly indicate that Kura‑Araxes communities were involved in a pastoral system (i.e. exploiting herds of domestic ruminants). This system was focused on cattle, sheep and goat. Such a pastoral strategy could imply some mobility of the herds in order to provide optimal grazing conditions to the animals. It does however not necessarily imply that the entire community was moving with the herds. Thus, the faunal spectra alone are not a piece of evidence that Kura‑Araxes communities were deeply involved in pastoral nomadism. Actually, the fact that the studied sites are closer to large and stratified settlements than to seasonal camps could mainly explain why these faunal assemblages are not likely to reflect highly nomadic forms of pastoralism. Moreover, the botanical assemblage, mainly dominated by crops, seeds but also sub‑products of the harvests, tends to show that they were cultivated locally, probably autumn sown according to the wild plants identified such as Galium sp. or Vaccaria sp. for example, and suggest a permanent occupation of at least a small part of the inhabitants of the sites.

  • 14 Berthon 2014.

18Kura‑Araxes patterns of animal resources exploitation differ from the Chalcolithic ones in the fact that they are relatively homogeneous. In comparison patterns of animal exploitation in Chalcolithic groups were distinct in each region (e.g. Araxes Basin, Kura Basin, western Georgia)14. This regional pattern is clearly not encountered in the Kura‑Araxes cultural complex. The Kura‑Araxes pastoral system is however not uniform due to the large range of the Caprinae to cattle ratio.

  • 15 Hovsepyan 2015.

19There are not enough studied faunal and botanical assemblages yet from the different environmental zones of the South Caucasus in each EBA sub‑period for investigating any clear diachronic change or regional pattern (see contra regional differences in the agricultural practices). The point that should be noticed here is the farming of pulses, which seems to be concentrated in the Araxes Valley at this period. This point will need more investigations, as those pulses seem to represent always a very small proportion in comparison with other botanical remains. Indeed, according to R. Hovsepyan, who did not find any cultivated Fabaceae in Armenia for this period, Kura‑Araxes cultivation would be strictly based on cereals, as a result of a human choice15.

Conclusion

20We are still far from understanding the Kura‑Araxes agropastoral systems. This review however provides some clues for future researches. The supposed nomadic mobility of the Kura‑Araxes groups is not supported by the zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical data. It rather seems that the settlements were inhabited all the year round by at least part of the community. The pastoral practices could have however implied some mobility of the herds. The patterns of this mobility are still under research, in particular through stable isotopes analyses. The Kura‑Araxes agropastoral system is less homogenous that it looks at first sight. Regional patterns are less clear than during the Chalcolithic period but the presence of pulses in the Araxes Valley for instance may indicate differentiated local agricultural strategies. The composition of the herd is not homogeneous in all Kura‑Araxes settlements. If cattle played a significant role, its importance greatly varies from one settlement to another. The Kura‑Araxes agropastoral systems were more diversified than previously thought. The understanding of the factors (chronological, regional, socio-cultural) behind this diversity should play a major role in the research agenda.

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Notes

1 Marro, Bakhshaliyev and Berthon 2014.

2 Palumbi and Chataigner 2014.

3 See Sagona 2014 for a definition of Kura-Araxes wares.

4 Shimelmitz 2003; see also a discussion of the evidence in Piro 2009, p. 38‑50.

5 For a synthesis of the archaeobotanical data for the Kura-Araxes culture, see Hovsepyan 2015.

6 Zohary 1973; Takhtajan 1986.

7 Smith, Badalyan and Avetisyan 2009, p. 5‑6.

8 Piro 2009.

9 Hovsepyan 2010.

10 Lyman 2008.

11 Willcox 2012.

12 Chahoud et al. 2015 and here references listed in table 1.

13 Vigne 1991; Reitz and Wing 1999.

14 Berthon 2014.

15 Hovsepyan 2015.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Map of the sites cited in this paper with the type of bioarchaeological study.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/8016/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 406k
Titre Table 1 – Sites cited in the text with detailed information on the bioarchaeological study bibliography.
Légende * The given range includes the earliest and latest date published for the occupation layers considered in this study.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/8016/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 224k
Titre Table 2 – Summary of the archaeobotanical data of Early Bronze Age sites recently excavated.
Légende P    < 1%;+    < 5%;++    from 5 to 25 %;+++    from 25 to 50 %;++++    from 50 to 75 %;+++++     from 75 to 100 %.*    presence but no informations about the percentage it represents
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/8016/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 122k
Titre Fig. 2 – Relative representation of Caprinae (sheep and goat), cattle and pig in the faunal assemblages in percent of the NISP. See references in table 1.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/8016/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 361k
Titre Fig. 3 – Relative representation of Caprinae (sheep and goat) and cattle at Köhneh Pasgah Tepesi, Sos Höyük I and Haftavan in percent of the NISP and weight of remains.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/8016/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 317k

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