Life at the Crossroads: Prehistoric Occupation of the Lesser Caucasus

Located at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Europe and Asia, the Caucasus served as a natural passage, the so-called Trans-Caucasian corridor, that facilitated hominin dispersal out of the Levant and into the rest of Eurasia since the Pleistocene. In addition, this area is characterized by a complex topography and different altitudes that produce a high variety of ecosystems and microclimates. The specific environmental and geographic characteristics of the Lesser Caucasus make it a region of major interest for evaluating spatial and temporal patterns of human behaviour, along with the influence humans had on the landscape as they adapted to, and functioned in, their environment.

Early hominin presence in the Lesser Caucasus is demonstrated by rich paleontological, anthropological and cultural records dated from Early to Late Pleistocene. The extensive fossil collection from the Dmanisi site in Georgia indicates that the area was repeatedly occupied by Homo erectus at least since 1.85 million years ago. Additionally, Azokh Cave, also located in the region, has provided evidence for the presence of two other hominin species: Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis, who occupied the region during the Middle Palaeolithic. Paleoarchaeological studies in the region revealed the presence of Neanderthals up to 43,000-42,000 years ago and by anatomically modern humans (AMH) from 42,000-39,000 years ago.

Recent excavations of other sites in the region is starting to reveal the lifeways of Late Pleistocene-Early Holocene human populations in the region, but much remains to be elucidated. Likewise, little is known about the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding and the full establishment of settled lifestyles in the Caucasus. The earliest Neolithic villages known so far in the Southern Caucasus date from about 8,000 years ago (ca. 3,000 years later than those in the Fertile Crescent). Such settlements are attested in the Kura and Ararat plains, grouped into the so-called Aratashen-Shulaveri-homutepe culture, and are characterized by a sedentary economy, full establishment of a food producing lifestyle, and close links with the Syro-Mesopotamian world (e.g. Samarra and Halaf traditions) (from Bobokhyan 2016). Although its chronology is well defined, the Chalcolithic period in the Southern Caucasus, dated from ca. 5,000 to 3,500 BC - prior to the appearance of Kura-Araxes material that defines the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, is still one of the least understood in terms of the region's social and cultural development.

In order to deepen our understanding of human occupation history over the past 30,000 years of this dynamic region, we started the exploration of a number of human settlements and cave sites scattered in Armenia dating back from the Late Iron age all the way back to the Upper Palaeolithic.

Combining zooarchaeological, paleoproteomic and stable isotope approaches, we aim to reconstruct the faunal diversity and environment of the region, human subsistence dynamics, herd management in terms of mobility and seasonality, as well as adaptation to peculiar environmental settings. In particular, we aim to generate a mechanistic understanding of how local populations responded to changing climates (glacial interglacial cycles) and major socio-economic turnovers (establishment of producing lifeways, emergence of metallurgy, birth of states).

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