Urgeschichte und Naturwissenschaftliche Archäologie

Tübingen-Iranian Stone Age Research Project (TISARP)

Prof. Nicholas J. Conard, Dr. Mohsen Zeidi

Since its establishment in 2004 by Prof. Nicholas J. Conard, TISARP has conducted numerous archaeological surveys and excavations in various regions of Iran, such as the Central Plateau, western, and southern Zagros Mountains (Fig. 1). The main research objective of TISARP is to study long-term patterns of cultural evolution during the Stone Age. The following specific goals are considered: 1) Studying the sequence and cultural connections in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic periods in the Zagros Mountains; 2) Investigating Upper Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic settlements and cultural practices in the southern and western Zagros Mountains of Iran; Neolithization and the spread of farming in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

Dasht-e Rostam

The Dasht-e Rostam region is situated in the southern part of the Zagros Mountains in the northwest of Fars Province. The province is predominantly spread across the Zagros Folded Belt. The majority of elevations in this belt consist of parallel limestone anticlines that are typically oriented from northwest to southeast. The intermountain plains of Rostam, known as Dasht-e Rostam, have mean elevations of 800 meters above sea level. They are located in Rostam County, in the northwest of Fars Province. Limestone ridges running in a northwest-southeast direction surrounded the region. The Yaghe Sangar pass connected the eastern (Rostam-e Yek) and western (Rostam-e Do) plains (Fig. 2). The main sources of water in the Rostam region are the seasonal stream of Solak, the permanent spring of Sarab Siyah, and the semi-permanent rivers of Fahliyan and Shive. Members of the TISARP conducted a survey of Dasht-e Rostam and found various Paleolithic sites, including open-air sites, caves, and rock shelters dating back to the Middle Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic, Epipaleolithic, and early Neolithic periods.

Ghar-e Boof

Ghar-e Boof is a small cave situated at an elevation of 905 meters above sea level in the center of the Yagheh Sangar corridor (Fig. 3). The cave covers an area of approximately 60 m² and faces north (Fig. 4). Eshkaft-e Yaghe Sangar, later named Ghar-e Boof by TISARP, was first discovered and documented in 1997 by Mr. R. Nowroozi from the cultural heritage office of Shiraz. It was later recorded again by an Iran-Australia joint team in 2003. TISARP visited the site in 2005 and identified it as one of the most promising locations with well-preserved sediments suitable for systematic excavations. The initial excavations were conducted in 2006 and 2007, co-directed by N. J. Conard and M. Zeidi. Two additional excavation seasons occurred in 2015 and 2017. The excavation at Ghar-e Boof covers an area of 18 m2 (2 by 9 m), stretching from the site's entrance to the back wall along its north-south axis (Fig. 5). The stratigraphic sequence comprises approximately 6 meters of well-stratified deposits (Fig. 6), which include Middle Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic, and Epipaleolithic layers. Ghar-e Boof is primarily known for its abundant Upper Paleolithic artifacts, particularly those related to bladelet production.

Archaeologists have identified six main geological and archaeological horizons (AHs) and 13 sub-horizons. The early Upper Paleolithic sequence ranges from AH III to IVb, with radiocarbon and OSL dates placing this entire stratigraphic complex between 42,000 and 35,000 years cal. BP. The primary feature of the early UP technocomplex is the prevalence of small bladelets, retouched bladelet tools, and small platform cores crafted from radiolarian-chert cobbles. Besides lithic artifacts, archaeologists also documented combustion features and personal ornaments, such as perforated shells and teeth. Our zooarchaeological data show that, during the Upper Paleolithic, foragers primarily hunted caprines for meat and marrow, but there is also evidence of the exploitation of a wide range of animal species. Both AH IVc and IVd do not contain typical artifacts of the UP techno-cultural repertoire found in the Zagros region, like perforated shells and Arjeneh points (Fig. 7). These artifacts were discovered in AHs IV to IVb despite having similar low find densities. As a result, AHs IVc and IVd have been provisionally assigned to either the Middle Paleolithic or the Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic transition. The MP deposits have only been excavated in three quadrants so far, which are situated in the central-northern part of the excavation area. The OSL chronology places AHs V to Vc between 63 and 46 kyr, while AH VI ranges from 81 to 72 kyr. Initial analysis of lithic artifacts from the Middle Paleolithic period suggests a technology that prioritized the production of flakes and various scrapers (Fig. 8), which differs from the Upper Paleolithic industries found at Ghar-e Boof. Overall, the MP record of Ghar-e Boof likely indicates short-term hominin occupations or low populations in the Dasht-e Rostam region during the MP period. Paleoenvironmental data inferred from the small vertebrate record of Ghar-e Boof, show that during most of the Late Pleistocene, the landscape around the site was mainly dominated by warm, arid conditions with dry, open meadows, shrublands and rocky terrain, and water sources nearby. Finally, hominin remains have not been found at Ghar-e Boof so far. Nonetheless, there is a general agreement among archaeologists and paleoanthropologists regarding the association of early/initial UP sites in the Zagros exclusively with Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH)s, though AMH skeletal remains are very rare in the region.


Chogha Golan

Archaeological excavations conducted by TISARP and collaboration of ICAR in 2009 and 2010 at the Aceramic Neolithic site of Chogha Golan in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran (Figs. 9-10) improved our understanding of the emergence and development of village life, food production and human adaptations at the onset of Holocene in this region. The archaeological site of Chogha Golan is exclusively an Aceramic Neolithic tell site (Fig. 11) occupied between 11,700-9600 cal. BP and consists of 11 Archaeological Horizons (AH), each containing abundant organic and inorganic remains, represent a key site for investigating the early Neolithic of the region and provides an extraordinary case study to examine human behavioral adaptations linked to an emerging agricultural economy and village life in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. A detailed study of archaeological and bioarchaeological analysis of the material from the site led to reconstruct human activities and their subsistence at the site. The range of occupation at Chogha Golan is significant, as it encompasses the crucial period of both plant and animal domestication. Abundant artifacts were recovered through the sequence, including lithics, ground stone, clay figurines, and ornaments, as well as substantial amounts of floral and faunal remain. Multiple plaster floors and architectural building phases are recorded. One of the striking features of Chogha Golan, however, is the quantity of botanical remains, which allows for a high-resolution of on-site development from pre-domestication cultivation of a number of wild taxa to the cultivation of domesticated emmer wheat. Through the sequence, wild barley and possibly cultivated goat grass occur in large abundance, and then there is a shift to the use of small-seeded grasses, which are eventually supplanted by wheat. The zooarchaeological samples are yet to be fully analyzed but preliminary results demonstrate a diverse use of animals including gazelle, sheep, goats, wild pigs, equids, cattle, partridge, hare, tortoise, and fish at the site. By studying the faunal remains we will be able to see if there is any shift of using different species and whether shifts in the faunal record track those observed in the botanical remains, and if such changes were largely driven by environmental, demographic, or cultural forces. The time span represented at the site, and fine-scale excavation and recovery techniques, gives the Chogha Golan faunal remains the potential to significantly augment our understanding of the Neolithic transition in this region. Ongoing lithic analyses provide insight into raw material procurement, and continuity of cultural traditions between the Epipaleolithic and early Neolithic of the Zagros region. The main characteristics of the lithic assemblages at the site are rather constant throughout the sequence. The locally available chert always dominates and knappers at Chogha Golan produced mainly bladelet by pressure flaking technique using unidirectional cores (Fig. 12) for making different standardized tool types. Furthermore, lithic analyses demonstrate long-distance transport of obsidian as an exotic raw material, probably from eastern Anatolia nearly at the end of the sequence. In short, archaeological research at Chogha Golan contributed significantly in our knowledge regarding the development of Neolithic societies, and human adaptations to their surrounding environments during the early Holocene in the Zagros region.

Qadi Barmshour

Qadi Barmshour Cave is located about 11 kilometers southeast of Shiraz in Fars Province in southern Iran (Fig. 13). The site opens to the northwest and overlooks the Eshkaft-e Goad valley (Fig. 14), which is about 500 meters long and 200 meters wide, where it empties into the Maharlu Salt Lake. Qadi Barmshour is a large cave with a high ceiling, located 1490 meters above sea level. The earliest known archeological evidence for the Eshkaft-e Goad Valley and Qadi Barmshour Cave comes from Henry Field's publication in 1939. Piperno’s studies in 1970s, however, provides additional useful information by describing the caves and shelters of the Eshkaft-e Goad Valley and the lithics recovered during survey. The first systematic excavations at the site conducted by TISARP in December 2020 and January 2021 which yielded promising results. Our test excavation continued to a depth of 1.8 m, and the team defined three main stratigraphic units. The uppermost stratigraphic unit had the highest density of finds, but the entire sequence yielded Paleolithic finds and, equally important, faunal and botanical remains. Based on this test excavation, the TISARP team continued the excavation at Qadi Barmshour in the summer of 2021 (Fig. 15) by expanding the excavation to three square meters to establish a reliable stratigraphy for the cave and to improve the sample size of all classes of archeological material.

Defining the stratigraphic sequence in Qadi Barmshour Cave was perhaps the greatest challenge. After extending the excavation by three meters along the north-south axis, we were able to identify the structure of the sediments and their geometry. As the excavation progressed, the team extended the excavation to a depth of about 2 meters. Immediately below the surface of the cave, excavators began to recover Paleolithic finds. The three major stratigraphic units are characterized by an upper Geological Horizon (GH) 1 with relatively little limestone debris, GH 2 with much limestone debris and often large limestone blocks, and GH 3 with comparatively little limestone debris. Although we do not yet have reliable estimates for the ages of the main strata at Qadi Barmshour, we do have two radiocarbon dates from the 2020 excavation. These dates from the charcoal from GH 1 are older than 45 ka cal BP and appear to represent the minimum age for the upper stratigraphic unit. Interestingly, the majority of the archeological assemblage from GH 1 is dominated by Upper Paleolithic artifacts, suggesting that the lithic artifacts correspond to early Upper Paleolithic use of the cave.

Each of the three main stratigraphic units has produced a rich faunal and botanical record. The faunal finds from Qadi Barmshour are also impressive. Initial studies of the faunal remains have provided important information about past environments and human behavior. Gazelle seems to be the principal game species in all horizons, with equids also well represented. Large bovids are also present in small numbers. Compared to the Middle and Upper Paleolithic sequence at Ghar-e Boof, where caprines dominate the assemblages, gazelles are much more abundant at Qadi Barmshour. These differences in species representation likely relate to the different topography. The research carried out by the TISARP team at both Ghar-e Boof and Qadi Barmshour Cave indicates that the southern Zagros Mountains during the Late Pleistocene offered multiple ecosystems, in which past hunter-gatherers were able to exploit a diverse range of animal species.

All three major stratigraphic units at Qadi Barmshour yielded lithic artifacts (Fig. 16). Diverse raw materials are present in the assemblages with reddish-brown chert as the most common raw material utilized in all the find horizons. The artifacts are generally small, which likely reflects the relatively small size of the available nodules of the principal materials. The lithic industry at Qadi Barmshour Cave is characterized by a mixture of flake, blade, and bladelet technology that includes both Middle Paleolithic (i.e. Levallois blank, Levallois core) and Upper Paleolithic (i.e., bladelet core, End-scarper, retouched bladelets) elements. Regarding the procurement of raw material, the inhabitants of the site mainly exploited locally available raw materials of different varieties and qualities, with the use of fine- to medium-grained reddish-brown chert predominating.

Following the excavation at Ghar-e Boof, TISARP's excavation at Qadi Barmshour Cave, one of the most important Paleolithic sites in the Shiraz Plain, represents an important step towards documenting and the Stone Age sequence of the region. The results of the 2020-2021 seasons at Qadi Barmshour including the outstanding bioarchaeological record and significant lithic assemblage demonstrate that the site warrants further excavation. We are particularly pleased to present the results of the first systematic excavation of a Paleolithic site in the Shiraz region, and we hope that future work at Qadi Barmshour will represent an important step toward future research in Fars Province that will illuminate new aspects of Pleistocene hunter-gatherer lifeways in this part of the Zagros region. We also anticipate that future excavation will establish a reliable chrono- and cultural stratigraphy of the late Middle Paleolithic and early Upper Paleolithic in southern Zagros that will facilitate meaningful comparison with other regions of Iran and southwest Asia.