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Living on the Edge: The Earliest Modern Human Settlement of the Armenian Highlands in Aghitu-3 Cave

Authors:
  • Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften

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Aghitu-3 Cave is the first stratified Upper Paleolithic (UP) cave site discovered in Armenia. The site is situated at an elevation of 1601 m in the southern Armenian Highlands and has yielded three intact archaeological horizons. The site has an excellent preservation of paleoecological archives, which allow for a comprehensive interpretation of the climate and environment at the time when the first modern humans populated the region.
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This paper aims to understand the cultural diversity among the first modern human populations in the Iranian Zagros and the implications of this diversity for evolutionary and ecological models of human dispersal through Eurasia. We use quantitative data and technotypological attributes combined with physiogeographic information to assess if the Zagros Upper Paleolithic (UP) developed locally from the Middle Paleolithic (MP), as well as to contextualize the variation in lithics from four UP sites of Warwasi, Yafteh, Pasangar, and Gh are Boof. Our results demonstrate (1) that the Zagros UP industries are intrusive to the region, and (2) that there is significant cultural diversity in the early UP across different Zagros habitat areas, and that this diversity clusters in at least three groups. We interpret this variation as parallel developments after the initial occupation of the region shaped by the relative geotopographical isolation of different areas of the Zagros, which would have favored different ecological adaptations. The greater similarity of lithic traditions and modes of production observed in the later phases of the UP across all sites indicates a marked increase in inter-group contact throughout the West-Central Zagros mountain chain. Based on the chronological and geographical patterns of Zagros UP variability, we propose a model of an initial colonization phase leading to the emergence of distinct local traditions, followed by a long phase of limited contact among these first UP groups. This has important implications for the origins of biological and cultural diversity in the early phases of modern human colonization of Eurasia. We suggest that the mountainous arc that extends from Anatolia to the Southern Zagros preserves the archaeological record of different population trajectories. Among them, by 40 ka, some would have been transient, whereas others would have left no living descendants. However, some would have led to longer term local traditions, including groups who share ancestry with modern Europeans and modern East/Southeast Asians.
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While the Armenian Highlands have benefited from a longer history of research into the Early and Middle Paleolithic occupations of this region, its Upper Paleolithic settlement has only recently begun to come into focus. With this brief contribution we summarize new archaeological data from two high elevation sites that together span the majority of the Upper Paleolithic. These well stratified sites in the Armenian Highlands benefited from the use of modern excavation methods. The first evidence for modern human behavior is seen at Aghitu-3 Cave in Syunik Province of southern Armenia, while cultural remains from the late Upper Paleolithic are documented in the north at the site of Kalavan-1, located in the wooded montane landscape north of Lake Sevan. We hypothesize that any hominin who entered the Armenian Highlands had to solve the problem of how to survive in this high altitude environment. Under modern conditions, which we view as analogous to an interglacial, the climate is continental, exhibiting a large fluctuation between summer and winter temperatures. This high altitude region, much of it above 2000 m, is blanketed by snow during the winter and well into spring. During glacial periods, alpine ice sheets would have covered a considerable portion of the region, providing a significant impediment for human habitation. Such environmental hurdles would surely have imprinted on the early inhabitants of the region and facilitated the solutions that led to their survival at these high altitudes.