The Paleolithic Archaeology of Pebdeh Cave, Iran

Iran had been a focus for archaeological investigations as Paleolithic studies began there from the 1950s onwards. Excavations in caves have revealed a rich prehistory, with findings consisting of a range of Palaeolithic stone tool assemblages and faunal remains. However, the dispersal and adaptation of multiple hominin species across Iran over the past 100,000 years remains poorly known.

Pebdeh Cave is situated in southwest Iran, along the Zagros Mountains, which is connected to the Mesopotamian plains further to the southwest. Besides its strategic location along the Anbar-Spid Strait, the cave itself is significant, measuring 110-meters length and up to 45-meters in width. The region is among the densest places for nomadic peoples who have a long history living in the region. Extensive excavations in Pebdeh Cave were conducted in the late 1950s by Roman Ghirshman and his team. Unfortunately, however, his excavation results were not published, and the importance of the cave has not been recognized to this day.

In 2019, as a collaboration between the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (ICAR) and the Department of Archaeology of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Pebdeh Cave was excavated using modern digital recording methods. The Pebdeh Cave excavation represents the first research expedition that focuses on southwestern Iran and its Late Pleistocene population. The first aim was to define the layout of the previous excavations, which was done by opening 1 by 1 meter test units in different areas of the cave. About six tons of sediment were dry sieved and moved out of the cave to a nearby river for wet sieving. For the first time in the Paleolithic archaeology of Iran, we conducted flotation of sediments. Accordingly, micro-organic residues were collected for microscopic studies.

The team focused on the excavation of the cave terrace as it showed the most potential for intact deposits. At the conclusion of the 2019 excavations, approximately 700 objects were recorded by a total station, including stone tools and faunal remains. Additionally, around 100 lithic artefacts and microfaunal remains were found during wet sieving.

Some of the most significant discoveries were the stone artefacts. We identified Levallois and Mousterian tool types representative of the Middle Palaeolithic, and blade-based tool forms representative of the Upper Palaeolithic. Samples were extracted for chronometric dating and for sedimentological and micromorphical studies and sediment DNA. The results of the 2019 excavation will hopefully shed more light on our understanding of Late Pleistocene populations in the southern Zagros and their relationship to the wider Palaeolithic world.

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