The Aurignacian in the Zagros Region: New Research at Yafteh Cave, Lorestan, Iran

Article excerpt

Introduction

In Europe, modern humans and the Aurignacian culture appeared, abruptly, at around 36 500 BP (Verpoorte 2005). The absence of local regional traces suggests an external origin for the phenomenon, by way of a significant population migration. This radical demographic expansion led to both the disappearance of local Neandertals and the establishment of modern European populations. Over many years, we have followed the lines of this tradition and this population, in Eastern Europe, the Near East and Central Asia. By its extraordinary density of Aurignacian sites, Central Asia (centred on modern Iran) is today proposed as the most probable centre of origin for this dual ethnic movement: in both anatomy and cultural tradition. Excavations during the twentieth century have already demonstrated the great antiquity of this process (Coon 1957; Solecki 1955; Hole & Flannery 1967; Rosenberg 1988). It was thus necessary to organise new research in this region in order to clarify the homogeneity of the assemblages, obtain new AMS dates and particularly to clarify the local evolutionary processes for the transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic.

The new research project has been developed between the University of Liege and the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (ICAR), focusing on the Palaeolithic of the Zagros. In the past few years, within the framework of this project, we have re-analysed lithic assemblages from earlier excavations and re-examined the potential of many sites, leading to new test excavations at the site of Yafteh Cave (Otte 2004; Otte & Biglari 2004; Otte & Kozlowski 2004; Otte et al. 2004). At the outset, the aim was to clarify the role played by the Zagros in the origin of anatomically modern humans in Eurasia. Many earlier publications demonstrated the early age of the Aurignacian in Central Asia, based on sites in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan (Garrod 1930; 1937; 1957; Coon 1951; see also Davis 2004). Recent field surveys in Iran led to the discovery of new early Upper Palaeolithic sites in the Zagros region and on the Iranian Central Plateau (Shidrang 2005; Shidrang & Biglari 2005). However, led by the richness of Iran, our project also includes research on the Lower Palaeolithic (Otte et al. 2004) as well as, in particular, the magnificent corpus of protohistoric rock art in the Houmian region of Lorestan (Adeli et al. 2001; Otte et al. 2003; Remacle et al., in press).

Site selection

After re-examination of various sites (Figure 1), Yafteh Cave in the Khoramabad region (Lorestan province) was selected for new test excavations, with the assistance of the regional archaeological services (Figures 2 and 3). This large cave had been previously excavated in the 1960s by an American team from Yale University, directed by F. Hole and K. Flannery (Hole & Flannery 1967). Thanks to the extreme helpfulness of Frank Hole, we were able to study the old lithic collections at Yale University. Examination of the lithic assemblages bears out the importance of the Aurignacian component (Otte & Kozlowski 2004), present in a stratigraphic sequence around 2m deep (Figure 4). This study also demonstrated the diversity of internal components from the Aurignacian period: laminar, lamellar and prepared flakes. Our objectives in re-excavating Yafteh Cave were thus to verify the homogeneity and integrity of these assemblages and to obtain new radiometric dates to confirm the antiquity of the Aurignacian in this region.

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Stratigraphy

The zone to the left of the cave entrance was chosen for the excavation of a 2 x 2m test pit because this zone had not been previously excavated by Frank Hole (Figure 3). We had a plan of the site drawn by Hole during his excavation which clearly showed the location of the test pits, and in addition, one of the workers who participated in the 1960s project and still resides in the nearby village was able to point out the original location of Hole's trenches on the ground. …