Tuesday, March 02, 2010

New data on the Middle Paleolithic of Iran

There's been a glut of interest on the Middle Paleolithic of Iran in recent years, in part because of how distinctive the 'Zagros Mousterian' lithic industry is from more traditional European assemblages (e.g., Lindly 2005), and because the Shanidar Neanderthals were found in the area (though on the other side of the Iraq-Iran border), including the much debated 'Flower Burial' at Shanidar (Solecki 1971). In the past, this blog has touched on some recent discoveries on the Mousterian of that region, too.

The Zagros Mousterian is generally seen as being dominated by heavily retouched stone tools including scrapers and Mousterian points, though it does have some internal variability (Lindly 2005). This view has been extrapolated to much of the Iranian Middle Paleolithic, but recent research is starting to show that Middle Paleolithic technology was much more variable than previously believed, which is frankly unsurprising given the size of Iran and the topographical and environmental variability its modern boundaries encompass. Contributing to this finer grained understanding of the Middle Paleolithic, and presumably of Neanderthal behavior, in that region, are two new but very brief reports in the freely accessible Project Gallery of Antiquity, detailing the newly discovered sites of Mirak and Tapeh Mes.

The open-air site of Mirak is located some 220km east of Tehran at the edge of the Iranian Central Desert and stands out especially due to its sheer size (Rezvani and Vadhati Nasab 2010). The investigators report that the site extends over four hectares and comprises tens of thousands of stone tools, many of which are diagnostic Mousterian and Levallois types. The presence of such a large site in an open and arid setting and which contains so many implements very distinct from the heavily retouched tools clearly underscore how variable Middle Paleolithic occupations were in Iran. In addition, this new site along with many others cited in the report leads the authors to conclude that

"There is a common misconception that hominins spent most of their times in caves and rockshelters during the Upper Pleistocene. This idea has arisen largely from the difficulty of defining other types of site and their vulnerability today. But the new discoveries suggest that open-air sites were by far the more abundant."

Middle Paleolithic point from Mirak, Iran (from Rezvani and Vadhati Nasab 2010).

This view is certainly borne out by the report on Tapeh Mes, another open-air site but this one found a few hundred kms south of Tehran (Eskandari et al. 2010).Tapeh Mes is much smaller than Mirak: only 85 implements were recovered from an area of about 100x150m, including several centripetal Levallois cores on which an attribution to the Middle Paleolitihc is based. What is striking about Tapeh Mes is its location: it's found at an altitude of 2184m asl on the central plateau of Iran. Here, the morphology of the implements (and the absence of predetermined Levallois products) conforms much better to the idea of the Zagros Mousterian, as does the site's location in a high altitude setting. What sets it apart, though, is the fact that it is an extensive open-air locality, whereas most prior knowledge of the Zagros Mousterian was based on assemblages recovered either from caves and rockshelters.

Much of this material remains undated and only published in very summary form, but it testifies to how active Paleolithic research is in Iran these days. These reports, along with some of the work of other Iranian researchers such as F. Biglari (click for some free pdfs), is really providing us with an increasingly refined understanding of the behavioral variability of Middle Paleolithic hominins in the area. This is quite important as it fleshes out our understanding of these behavioral dynamics in what would have been part of the eastern end of the Neanderthal range, which is arguably the most poorly known.


Eskandari, Nasir, Akbar Abedi, Nazli Niazi, and Sa'di Saeediyan. 20010. Tapeh Mes: a possible Middle Palaeolithic site in the Delijan Plain, central Iran. Antiquity 84 (323): http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/eskandari323/

Lindly, John M. 2005. The Mousterian of the Zagros: A Regional Perspective. Anthropological Research Paper, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Rezvani, Hassan, and Hamed Vahdati Nasab. 2010. A major Middle Palaeolithic open-air site at Mirak, Semnan Province, Iran. Antiquity 84 (323): http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/resvani323/

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