Ancient History & Civilisation



Until 1949 textbooks and scientific journals alike were silent on the prehistory of Iraq. Archaeological work had concentrated on the Mesopotamian plain, where prehistoric remains, if they ever existed, would by now be buried under a very thick layer of alluvium. The lowest levels of several tells had supplied enough material for historians to build up a sequence of five proto-historic cultures which announced and explained the dawn of the Sumero-Akkadian civilization in about 3000 B.C., but all these cultures belonged to the late Neolithic and to the Chalcolithic ages and covered, at the most, a couple of thousand years. Prehistory proper, the Stone Age of Iraq, was practically unknown. True, a few worked flints had been found on the surface in various parts of the Syro-Mesopotamian desert,1 and as early as 1928 Professor D. A. E. Garrod, the lady archaeologist well known for her studies on prehistoric Palestine, had visited Kurdistan and found palaeolithic artefacts in two caves near Suleimaniyah; but these discoveries attracted little attention outside a small circle of specialists. Twenty years were to elapse before Professor R. J. Braidwood publicized the Neolithic site of Jarmo and aroused enough interest to promote further research in this long-neglected field.2 Since then, the American excavations at Barda-Balka, Palegawra and Karim-Shehir (1951), the survey of the Zab basin by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (1954 – 5) and the startling discoveries made by Dr R. Solecki in Shanidar cave3 since 1951 have contributed considerably to our knowledge of Iraq's most ancient past and filled a very regrettable gap in Near Eastern prehistory.


Among the three classical subdivisions of the Stone Age – Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic – the first named is by far the longest. It entirely fills the geological period called Pleistocene because it is ‘the most recent’ (pleistos kainos) chapter in the very long history of the earth. The Pleistocene began approximately two million years ago and ended in about 10000 B.C., to be replaced by the Holocene (‘latest’) period in which we are still living. Pleistocene and Holocene together constitute the Quaternary era.

The beginning of the Pleistocene was marked by the ultimate and weaker convulsions of the previous period, the Pliocene, which in the Near East led to the formation of the Taurus and Zagros ranges, which are part of the Alpine-Himalayan system, to the deep fault of the Rift Valley linking the Dead Sea and the Red Sea to the great East African lakes, and to the creation of the Mesopotamian plain and the Arabo-Persian Gulf due to sliding of the rigid Arabian platform underneath the not less rigid Iranian plateau. These tectonic movements were accompanied by a considerable plutonic activity, as witnessed by the numerous volcanoes, most of them nowadays extinct, that are scattered all over Turkey, the Caucasus range and Iran, as well as by the extensive lava fields to be found, for example, in Syria, south of Damascus.

About one million years ago, the surface of the earth, which by then had almost reached its present configuration, entered a period of relative rest, the main activity being erosion of the relief. This was largely facilitated by the expansion and retraction of four successive ice-caps lying over the northern parts of Europe and America: the four glaciations called, at least in Europe: Günz, Mindel, Riss and Würm, and their consequences. It must be noted that in tropical, subtropical and equatorial regions long periods of heavy rains (pluvials) alternating with periods of relative drought (interpluvials) corresponded approximately to the glacials and interglacials of Europe and North America.

Stone industries in Iraqi Kurdistan: 1 – 4, microlithic (Shanidar B); 5 – 13, Aurignatian (Baradostian, Shanidar C); 14 – 16, Mousterian (Shanidar D); 17–19, Levalloisian-Acheulaean (Barda Balka). After R. Solecki and H. Wright Jnr, Sumer, VII, 1951 and VIII, 1952.

Although there is some evidence of cyclic glaciation in the Taurus and Zagros mountains, the great ice-sheets never reached as far south as the Near East. Iraq stood at the junction of areas subjected to sub-glacial and sub-pluvial conditions, and the climatic changes which took place in that country during the Pleistocene were never as dramatic as in other parts of the world. None the less, they indirectly modelled its physiographical features. The level of the Gulf fluctuated with the variations in the polar ice-cap, as we have seen, and this influenced the profile of the rivers and their erosive action.4 On the other hand, phases of heavy rains accompanied by active erosion alternated with dry periods marked by extensive deposition of silt and gravel in the river beds. In at least one region of the Kurdistan foothills four such successive cycles have been identified and correlated to the last two glacials and interglacials.5 Hard as it is to imagine, there were times when large rivers flowed across the desert, when the Tigris and the Euphrates were perhaps as broad as the Mississippi and when the two Zabs and the Diyala, carrying ten times as much water as they do now, were cutting deep and wide valleys into the ridges of Kurdistan. Throughout most of the Pleistocene period both the western desert and the foothill region of Iraq were grassy steppes and uplands benefiting from a comparatively temperate and uniform climate and offering highly favourable conditions to the existence of prehistoric men.6

Probably the most ancient traces of human presence in Iraq are limestone, flint and quartzite ‘pebble tools’ (i.e. river pebbles from which flakes have been struck off so that they can be used as hand-axes) found a few years ago in the upper Tigris valley north of Mosul.7 These implements were diagnosed as ‘upper Acheulaean industry’, which would date them to the last quarter of the immensely long Lower Palaeolithic sub-period, circa 500,000–110,000 B.P. Then comes, on the scale of time, the interesting site of Barda-Balka near Chemchemal, between Kirkuk and Suleimaniyah, discovered in 1949 by Iraqi archaeologists. There, around a megalith of Neolithic age, were palaeolithic flint tools lying on the ground. A sounding made in 1951 by two American archaeologists traced their origin to a once open ‘workshop’ or ‘camp site’ now buried under three to five feet of silt and gravel.8 The flint implements consisted of heart-shaped or almond-shaped hand-axes and of side-scrapers made out of flakes. There were also limestone ‘pebble-tools’. This industry has strong affinities with the Acheulaean, Tayacian (a derivative of Clactonian) and Mousterian cultures and has been attributed to the end of the Riss-Würm interglacial, about 80,000 years ago.

A further step into the Middle Palaeolithic is represented by the mixed Levalloiso-Mousterian industry discovered in 1928 by Miss Dorothy Garrod in the lowest level of the ‘Dark Cave’ of Hazar Merd, about nineteen kilometres south of Suleimaniyah.9 But nowhere is the true Mousterian better illustrated than at Shanidar cave, excavated between 1951 and 1960 by Dr R. Solecki of the University of Michigan.10

Shanidar cave is a very large rock shelter (the size of four tennis courts) in the southern flank of the Baradost mountains overlooking the valley of the Upper Zab, not far from the small town of Rowanduz. It is still used in winter by Kurdish shepherds. Digging through its floor, Dr Solecki was able to reach a depth of fourteen metres and to identify four occupation levels. In level D, the lowest and thickest (8.50 metres), successive layers of hearths and ash deposits mixed with bones and flint implements proved that the cave had been inhabited at various periods in Middle Palaeolithic times. The stone artefacts consisted of points, scrapers and borers typical of the Mousterian culture in its last phase. Animal bones were those of oxen, sheep and goats, suggesting a moderately cold climate, and there were numerous tortoise shells. Of special interest are the nine human skeletons in level D: those of two small children and of seven adults. The bones generally were in poor condition, but the skull of skeleton I – a man about thirty-five years old, 1.50 metres tall – could be restored with a fair degree of accuracy.11 It exhibited all the features of the Neanderthal man: the thick bones, the massive chinless jaw, the sloping forehead, the prominent brow-ridges; and there is every reason to believe that the other individuals belonged to the same race. Dr D. T. Stewart, who examined these remains, could also diagnose that the arm of one of the Shanidar men, already crippled from birth, had later been amputated with a crude flint knife. Some of these people had been killed by huge blocks falling from the roof of the cave, though by no means at the same time. The body of a cave-dweller rested on a bed of branches and flowers and these flowers, when examined, enabled the date of death to be estimated as ‘between late May and early July’. The ages of three skeletons were determined by radiocarbon: two were dated 46,000 and 50,000 B.P. respectively and the third one, stratigraphically lower, was as old as 60,000 years.12

Level C of Shanidar cave takes us well into the Upper Palaeolithic period. By means of carbon 14 tests carried out on the charcoal of its hearths, it has been possible to fix its lower and upper limits at ‘more than 34,000 years' and ‘about 25,500 B.C.’ respectively. The stone material was of the blade-tool type characteristic of the Aurignacian cultures. As it contained some well-made gravers of unusual form, Dr Solecki has proposed for this industry the name of ‘Baradost' or ‘Baradostian’ from the mountains in which the cave opens. The upper part of level C and the greater part of level B immediately above yielded samples of the same industry, but with a tendency for the artefacts to be undersized (microliths). This late Aurignacian or ‘extended Gravettian’ culture is represented in several palaeolithic sites of Northern Iraq. Small round scrapers and ‘pen knife’ blades, and bladelets with deeply notched edges, in particular, were found in abundance in the cave of Zarzi, near Suleimaniyah, by Miss Garrod9 and in the cave of Palegawra, 32 kilometres to the east of Chemchemal, by B. Howe.13 They also occur in various caves explored by Professor Braidwood and his co-workers in 1954 – 5, especially Kaiwanian and Barak, west and south of Rowanduz. It appears that some at least of these small objects could be hafted and used as weapons to kill wild horses, deer, goats, gazelles, sheep and swine, which then lived in a still cool but already drier country.

The Palaeolithic men of Iraq were not isolated. Through the Syrian desert – where Stone Age artefacts have been found in various places – they were in contact with the Palaeolithic men of Syria–Palestine, and it is not by chance that the flint industries of the two countries have some features in common. They also had commercial intercourse with the Anatolian plateau and the Iranian highlands. The material of Shanidar D and Hazar Merd, for instance, is almost identical with that of Bisitun cave in Western Iran and in many details similar to that of Korain cave in Turkey. In Upper Palaeolithic times the men of Shanidar made some of their tools of obsidian (volcanic glass), the nearest source of which was in the Lake Van district of Armenia. Indeed, from camp to camp stone-working techniques were taken as far away as Europe, if we are to believe with some authorities that the Aurignacian culture originated in the Near East. Yet Iraqi Kurdistan, because of its semi-secluded position in a corner of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, retained its own characteristics. According to Solecki, the ‘Baradost' industry is unique in the Near East, and the Neanderthal men of Shanidar, though somewhat more recent than those of Mount Carmel, do not seem to have mixed with or evolved towardsHomo sapiens like the latter, and remained ‘conservative’ in their physical features. Finally, the Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures which, in Western Europe, succeeded the Aurignacian and flourished in late Palaeolithic times never reached Iraq – nor, for that matter, any other part of Western Asia. In those countries the passage from Aurignacian to microlithic (Mesolithic) was direct, and the Mesolithic period was but a short step from the Neolithic revolution.


Mesolithic (or Epipalaeolithic) is the name given to a transitional period between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic or, in terms of economy, between hunting and food-gathering and food-producing. It is characterized by lithic industries consisting of very small and extremely varied flint or obsidian tools (microliths) and by a tendency to full or partial sedentism with all its social and economic consequences, notably the need for storing food and controlling its sources. In Iraq, the Mesolithic period lasted from about 9000 B.C.(the upper limit of Shanidar Bi level as determined by radiocarbon analysis) and 7000 B.C. (the approximate date of pre-pottery neolithic Jarmo).14

The first stage of Mesolithic in Iraqi Kurdistan is represented by the Bi level of Shanidar cave and by the open-air site of Zawi Chemi Shanidar, on the left bank of the Upper Zab.15 The only trace of settlement at this site is a low and curving wall made of field stones and river pebbles, which might have surrounded a hut or a tent. In the cave as in the camp the stone tools were microlithic flint flakes or ‘impoverished Zarzian’ type and bigger implements, such as grinders, querns, mortars and pestles, which did not exist in Lower Palaeolithic times and were most probably used to pound wild grains and pigment's. Other novelties were awls made of bone and sometimes decorated with geometric designs, and such body ornaments as bone beads and pendants, animal teeth and coloured stones. The people who presumably lived there part of the year and spent the winter in the nearby Shanidar cave ate wild goat, wild sheep, wild pig and red deer, as well as fish, fresh-water mussels and turtles. Most of the twenty-six human skeletons found in Shanidar cave level B1 were gathered in a ‘cemetery’, lying on stone platforms, and each of the eight adults buried at Zawi Chemi was accompanied by a child, which suggests some awful ritual. All the skulls studied were of the Protomediterranean type, and many showed signs of trepanation and disease, notably tooth decay. Radiocarbon tests yielded a date of 8920 ± 400 years B.C. for the open-air site.

A gap of perhaps a thousand years separates Zawi Chemi Shanidar from two other sites which are roughly of the same date: Karim-Shehir and Mlefaat.

Karim-Shehir, ten kilometres east of Chemchemal,16 covers two acres and consists of one occupation level only, just below the surface. The flint artefacts, microlithic in character, are associated with objects which can be regarded as agricultural tools: flint sickle blades, chipped-and-ground stone hoes, and milling stones. In addition, a very irregular pebble pavement spread over the whole area suggests hut floors, though no plans of habitations are recognizable. If Karim-Shehir was, as it is thought, a camp site of semi-nomads, it represents a very early stage in the development towards sedentary life.

A more permanent type of agricultural community probably occupied the third site, Mlefaat.17 In that small mound near the Kirkuk-Erbil road were found pit-houses, some of them surrounded by walls of piled-up stones and paved with pebbles. The tools consisted mostly of stone celts and mortars.

Outside Iraq, but still in Mesopotamia, or very close to it, one can find mesolithic sites of great interest as they provide good sequences and examples of regional variations. These are Tell Mureybet in Syria and Tepe Ali Kosh in south-west Iran.

At Tell Mureybet,18 located on the great bend of the Euphrates, American, then French archaeologists have revealed evidence of continuous occupation for more than 1,300 years (from before 8600 to 7300 B.C.) and divided it into three phases. The phase I settlement was a camp of hunters and fishers using the ‘Natufian’ type of stone tools that was then common in the whole of Syria and Palestine. In phase II, this camp had become a village of round houses built of pressed mud (tauf in Arabic), and in phase III these round houses had partly been replaced by wider, multi-roomed rectangular houses built of limestone blocks. There, the goats and sheep of Kurdistan did not figure on the menu, and all meat (and hides) came from the wild and fast animals of the neighbouring steppe (wild asses, gazelles, aurochs, fallow deer, wild boars, hares) shot down by arrows. The wild plants consumed were einkorn and two-row barley, lentils, vetches and pistachios. It must be noted that wild wheat and barley do not grow at all in that region, and it has been hypothesized that they were imported from the nearest source: the region of Gaziantep, in Turkey, ninety-three miles away, and replanted locally. Another remarkable feature of Mureybet is that some buildings contained horns, skulls and bones of wild oxen buried under a clay podium or hung on the walls, thus resembling the remarkable but more recent Neolithic shrines of Çatal-Hüyük in central Anatolia.

Tepe Ali Kosh,19 one of several mounds excavated by American archaeologists in the Deh Luran valley (Luristan), was stratified into three different cultures. The lowest, neolithic level of occupation (c. 8000 – 7000 B.C.) yielded very small houses of mud-bricks with thin walls. The people who lived there, possibly in the winter only, hunted the same animals of the steppe as the inhabitants of Mureybet, but they also herded goats and sheep, as did their contemporaries in Kurdistan. They collected the seeds of a very wide variety of legumes and wild grasses, but it seems that they imported emmer wheat and barley already domesticated from the region of Kermanshah. The presence on the site of obsidian tools in fair amounts and of cowrie shells as ornaments indicate relations with faraway Armenia and with the much nearer Gulf.


From these examples and from the results of excavations on other Near-Eastern sites, it appears clearly that the Mesolithic period was a time of settlement and of slow but tremendous advances in several fields. During these crucial millennia, not only were the chipped stone techniques perfected to produce very fine tools for all kinds of household purposes, but the house-building technology was acquired and, above all, innumerable experiments were performed to ensure a permanent supply of vegetable and animal foods, available in all seasons in the vicinity of the settlement. These experiments eventually resulted, in various places and at different times, in the development of a primitive but fairly efficient ‘food technology’ which made it possible to cultivate and store selected strains of wheat and barley and to herd and breed goats and sheep first, and later cattle and pigs.20 Mesolithic men and women of course continued to hunt and fish and to collect wild edible plants and fruit, but this gradually became a relatively small part of their activities. When a given community began to live principally on agriculture and animal husbandry, it had played its role in the so-called ‘Neolithic revolution’.

It has often been said that this revolution took place on the hilly flank of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ (as defined by the line of 25 centimetres of rain) because this was – and still is – the only part of the world where emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum), einkorn (T. boetium) and two-row hulled barley (Hordeum dis-tichum) grow naturally. However, in 1966, two American botanists, J. R. Harlan and D. Zohary, who worked in Eastern Turkey, noticed that these wild cereals still covered thousands of hectares. Harlan went out with a flint-toothed sickle and within one hour collected enough wheat to produce one kilo of pure grain with a protein content that was twice as high as that of domesticated wheat. He calculated that after three weeks of moderate work, a family could have harvested more grain than they could eat in a year. The botanists exclaimed: ‘If wild cereal grasses can be harvested in illimited quantities, why should anyone bother to till the soil and plant the seed?’21

A number of theories have been put forward to answer this question. The most plausible one, based on Bingford's ‘equilibrium model’, was developed by Flannery.22 According to this author, all groups of Palaeolithic hunters-gatherers lived in limited ‘ecological niches’ and tried to keep their number below maximum capacity of their environment. However, when some of these ‘central’ areas became relatively over-populated a number of their inhabitants had to move into ‘marginal’ areas with poorer natural resources, and this stimulated a search for new sources of food, notably cereals. Mureybet and Ali Kosh might have been settlements of this kind. This theory is concordant with the ‘broad spectrum revolution’ observed on some sites of the Late Upper Palaeolithic period, where the presence around hearths of the remains of small animals (notably snails) in huge amounts seems to indicate a need for the exploitation of all potential nutriments, probably because of over-population.

In Iraq the most important Neolithic site is Jarmo, not far from Chemchemal, excavated by Professor R. J. Braidwood of the University of Chicago in 1948, 1950 – 51 and again in 1955.23 The 7-metre-high artificial mound rests on top of a very steep hill and is formed of sixteen layers of superimposed habitations. Eleven of these layers are characterized by the absence of pottery and belong to the same ‘pre-ceramic Neolithic’ cultural stratum. The inhabitants of Jarmo lived in square, multi-roomed houses built of pressed mud (pisé), with mud-ovens and baked-in clay basins sunk in the ground. They ate with bone spoons, sewed with bone needles, and their stone spindle-whorls show that they could weave or plait flax and perhaps wool. They used microlithic and normal-sized flint and obsidian blade tools, in particular sickles made of flint fixed with bitumen to a wooden backing, but most of the heavy objects lying about in the rooms, such as axes, celts, saddle-querns, hand-rubbers, mortars, pestles and vases, were of limestone, often beautifully ground. These objects, together with carbonized grains of wheat and barley, leave no doubt concerning the agricultural activities practised at Jarmo, while ninety-five per cent of the animal bones found were those of domesticated animals: sheep, cattle, pigs and dogs. Lentils, peas, vetches and acorns completed the menu. They were probably eaten as thick soups brought to ebullition by throwing red-hot stones in large round or oval clay-lined pits sunk into the ground. Other foods were roasted in clay ovens provided with a chimney. These people adorned themselves with simple clay or stone necklaces, grooved bracelets of marble and shell pendants, buried their dead under the floor of their houses, and modelled clay figures of animals and of a steatopygous, pregnant woman who presumably embodied for them the mysterious forces of fecundity. Pre-ceramic Jarmo was first dated by radiocarbon tests on snail shells at about 4750 B.C., but further tests on charcoal gave higher figures, and c. 6750 B.C. is a more likely date.

Several other Neolithic sites have been discovered in northern Iraq, but among these two are of special interest. The first site is represented by the lower levels of the otherwise mainly historic Tell Shimshara, situated in the upper valley of the Lower Zab, not far from the town of Rania, and excavated by Danish archaeologists from 1957 to 1959.24 The only difference between Shimshara and Jarmo lies in its stone industry, and notably in the predominance of obsidian (85%) from Armenia or Anatolia, but it has also the merit of filling, at least partly, the chronological gap between Jarmo and Hassuna (c. 5800 B.C.), the first of a long series of proto-historic settlements. The second site is Maghzaliyeh, an important tell on the plain west of the Tigris, excavated by Soviet archaeologists between 1977 and 1980.25 The most important feature of this Neolithic village is a curving wall with semi-circular projections suggesting towers. If this is the case, then we are confronted with the most ancient fortified settlement ever discovered in Mesopotamia.

Thus, around 7000 B.C. in northern Iraq and in other parts of the Near East man ceases to be a wandering hunter depending for his living upon his luck and skill and becomes a farmer attached to the small piece of land from which he obtains a regular food supply. Out of clay he builds himself a house. He uses new tools to perform new tasks. He secures in sheep and cattle a permanent and easily available source of milk, meat, wool and hide. At the same time his social tendencies develop, for the care and defence of the land call for close cooperation. Each family probably erects its own farm, cultivates its own field, grazes its own flock and makes its own tools; but several families are grouped together and form a hamlet, the embryo of a social organization. Later other revolutions will occur: metal will replace stone, villages will grow into cities, cities will be united into kingdoms and kingdoms into empires. Yet the essentials of life, the labour of man bent over mother earth and enslaved to the cycle of seasons, has not changed since those remote days.

The absence of pottery in eleven out of sixteen occupation levels makes Jarmo one of the earliest agricultural communities in Western Asia, together with Ali Kosh and Tepe Guran in Iran, Hacilar in Anatolia and Jericho in Palestine, to mention only the main ‘aceramic’ sites. With the exception of Jericho which, with its well-built houses and strong city-wall of undressed stones, must have looked like a small medieval town, all these were modest villages covering only a few acres and apparently unfortified. The people who lived in those villages used stone bowls, baskets made waterproof with bitumen and probably skins and gourds as containers, but they already handled clay with some skill to build the walls of their houses, to line pits or basins dug into the ground and to model figurines of animals and women.26 From this to baked clay, and therefore pottery, there were but a few steps which seem to have been made much earlier than formerly believed, since coarse, lightly fired clay vessels have been found at Mureybet, in northern Syria, in a level dated c. 8000 B.C. by a radiocarbon sample, and at Ganj Dareh, an eighth millennium site in western Iran. Similar vessels also occur at Jarmo, c. 6300 B.C., but they already coexist with a decorated pottery characterized by lines of oblique tadpole-shaped blobs painted in red on a pinkish-buff surface, also found at the contemporary site of Tepe Guran.

Ceramic by itself is perhaps not as momentous an invention as agriculture, but for the archaeologist it heralds a new era where bowls, cups, plates and vases will henceforth play for him the same role as fossils for the geologist. From about 6000 B.C. to the beginning of history more than three millennia will elapse, and these long years will of course be filled with cultural developments, commercial ventures, ethnic movements and no doubt wars and conquests, but because written documents are lacking, the actors will always remain nameless and silent. All we have to try and reconstruct the events of that distant past are material remains among which pottery is of special interest, as it is found in abundance on all sites and lends itself to comparative studies. Interpreted with caution – for changes in pottery styles may be due to many reasons and do not necessarily betray the replacement of one population by another27 – the distinctive wares found at different levels in archaeological excavations represent both the hall-marks of successive cultures in late prehistoric Mesopotamia and fairly reliable indicators of the relationship between these cultures and those of surrounding countries.

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