Kura-Araxes implicated in the transformation of regional trade in the Near East


Craft production at Köhne Shahar, a Kura-Araxes settlement in Iranian Azerbaijan, by Alizadeh et al. J Anthropol Arch (2018) 51:127-143.

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):


Kura-Araxes communities first emerged throughout the southern Caucasus in the mid-4th millennium BC (Sagona, 1984; Rothman, 2005; Kohl, 2009) or possibly earlier in Nakhchivan (Marro et al., 2014; Palumbi and Chataigner, 2014: 250; Marro et al., 2015; Palumbi and Chataigner, 2015). By the late 4th-early 3rd millennium BC, their characteristic material culture, particularly hand-made black burnished pottery, spread throughout much of Southwest Asia after 2900 BCE (Fig. 1). The widespread dissemination of this material culture, along with the small size of most sites, the ephemeral nature of their architectural remains in these smaller sites, and their presence in both fertile lowlands and seasonally-inhospitable highlands, have been used to portray Kura-Araxes communities as small, egalitarian communities of mobile pastoralists or sedentary agriculturalists; economically undifferentiated and socially non-hierarchical (Smith, 2005: 258; Frangipane and Palumbi, 2007; Kohl, 2007: 113; 2009: 250). Limited evidence for craft production and trade among Kura-Araxes communities has further strengthened the argument that Kura-Araxes economies were dominated by domestic and subsistence-related activities (Palumbi, 2008: 53). With some rare exceptions (Marro et al., 2010; Stöllner, 2014; Simonyan and Rothman, 2015), Kura-Araxes settlements lack any evidence of craft production, mining, or resource extraction.

Distribution of Kura-Araxes material culture in the Near East (modified from Wikimedia).

Kura-Araxes communities, however, are also implicated in the evolution and transformation of regional trade in the Near East. Cause and effect of the spread of Kura-Araxes material culture beyond the Caucasus “homeland” and the establishment of diaspora is hotly debated. Among proponents of emigration, the strongest arguments for movement out of the Caucasus include the presence of strong pull factors, notably productive activities like meat and wool production, viticulture, and metals and metallurgy (Rothman, 2003). Kura-Araxes populations primarily inhabited mountains and intermontane valleys of the highland zone surrounding Mesopotamia. Kura-Araxes communities had access to metals, precious and semi-precious stones, stones for tool making, wood, and animal products; resources that were abundant in the mountain zone, yet critical to the evolution of Mesopotamian societies. The frequent appearance of simple bronze and copper objects at temporary camps of Kura-Araxes herders suggests that mobile agropastoralists engaged in metallurgy and trade in metals, especially with societies of the Upper Euphrates (Frangipane et al., 2001; Hauptmann et al., 2002; Rothman, 2003; Connor and Sagona, 2007; Frangipane, 2014). Wool and textiles products from sheep herded by mountainous communities may have been major exports of the mountain zone to Mesopotamia (Anthony, 2007: 284; Nosch et al., 2013; Breniquet and Michel, 2014).

It is argued that by the second half of the 4th millennium BC (Surenhagen, 1986; Algaze, 1989, 2004, 2007), Uruk polities of southern Mesopotamia established colonies across northern Mesopotamia, southern Anatolia, and western Iran to better control regional trade. Although the nature of these colonies and local developments is still debated (Stein, 2002, 2014), co-occurrence of the sudden abandonment of these colonies and regional expansion of Kura-Araxes communities by the end of the 4th millennium BC has led some scholars to argue that Kura-Araxes communities were emergent competitors of Mesopotamia whose economic activities possibly contributed to the decline and eventual collapse of the Uruk system (Algaze, 2001: 76; Kohl, 2007: 97–98; Lamberg-Karlovsky, 2008: 10).

Major Kura-Araxes sites in the Caucasus region and location of Köhne Shahar (modified map from wikimedia.org).


The abundant evidence of craft specialization at Köhne Shahar clearly shows that Kura-Araxes communities were not all homogenous and undifferentiated. Excavations and a geophysical survey at Köhne Shahar demonstrate that multi-craft production activities were practiced at a community-level inside the citadel at the site, and that a large portion of the population may have engaged in this specialized, extrahousehold craft economy. The possible involvement of a political apparatus with a specialized craft economy at Köhne Shahar may have necessitated control over various aspects of production such as labor, commodities, resource procurement, exchange, and grain storage. As Adam Smith (Smith, 2015: 106) argues, all of these point to complex labor coordination at Köhne Shahar.

Although excavations exposed a limited area, the scale of craft production at Köhne Shahar and the scarcity of finished products may suggest that consumers of finished goods were not necessarily residents of Köhne Shahar, but instead occupied other areas on the landscape. Communication between these nodes of production and consumption necessitated a network of exchange and interaction. The miniature sumptuary container at Köhne Shahar points to possible interaction with regions of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, while the bitumen used to mend vessels points to interaction with northern Mesopotamia or the Zagros mountains in western Iran. It is possible that long-distance interaction brought Köhne Shahar chiefs into contact with other complex societies in the region, connecting them to a larger inter-regional exchange and trade network.

Archaeological and geophysical evidence for community-level production documents Köhne Shahar’s emergence as a regional economic center. The extent of Köhne Shahar’s regional engagements and ambitions, however, have yet to be fully understood. Köhne Shahar’s economic focus on production may have enabled its producers to contribute to regional transformations. When trade became a significant part of the economy of early complex societies in the Near East in the second half of the 4th millennium BC (Surenhagen, 1986; Algaze, 1989, 2004), Kura-Araxes communities like Köhne Shahar may have emerged as a primary center of specialized craft production in the late 4th/early 3rd millennium BC. Alternatively, Köhne Shahar’s economic success may have been due to its ability to satisfy regional demand (highlands of NW Iran, eastern Anatolia, or northern Mesopotamia) by filling a supply vacuum created following the collapse of Uruk colonies. Political and entrepreneurial ambitions of Köhne Shahar chiefs may have also provided the impetus for the selection of the site’s naturally defensible area and the construction of a large and defensive fortification wall; two barriers intended to safeguard the production machinery of the citadel from the onset of the site’s occupation in the late 4th millennium BC (Alizadeh et al., 2015).

I don’t have much to add to what I recently wrote about potential intrusive steppe admixture in the Caucasus.


Agricultural origins on the Anatolian plateau


New paper (behind paywall) Agricultural origins on the Anatolian plateau, by Baird et al. PNAS (2018), published ahead of print (March 19).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

This paper explores the explanations for, and consequences of, the early appearance of food production outside the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia, where it originated in the 10th/9th millennia cal BC. We present evidence that cultivation appeared in Central Anatolia through adoption by indigenous foragers in the mid ninth millennium cal BC, but also demonstrate that uptake was not uniform, and that some communities chose to actively disregard cultivation. Adoption of cultivation was accompanied by experimentation with sheep/goat herding in a system of low-level food production that was integrated into foraging practices rather than used to replace them. Furthermore, rather than being a short-lived transitional state, low-level food production formed part of a subsistence strategy that lasted for several centuries, although its adoption had significant long-term social consequences for the adopting community at Boncuklu. Material continuities suggest that Boncuklu’s community was ancestral to that seen at the much larger settlement of Çatalhöyük East from 7100 cal BC, by which time a modest involvement with food production had been transformed into a major commitment to mixed farming, allowing the sustenance of a very large sedentary community. This evidence from Central Anatolia illustrates that polarized positions explaining the early spread of farming, opposing indigenous adoption to farmer colonization, are unsuited to understanding local sequences of subsistence and related social change. We go beyond identifying the mechanisms for the spread of farming by investigating the shorter- and longer-term implications of rejecting or adopting farming practices.

Map of central Anatolia showing the principal sites mentioned in the text.

Interesting excerpts:

The persistence of foraging and rejection of farming at Pınarbaşı is also worthy of further consideration. Pınarbaşı’s longevity as a settlement locale in the early Holocene appears to have been based on hunting of wild mammals, wetland exploitation, and significant focus on nut exploitation, all afforded by its ecotonal setting between the hills, plain, and wetland. Perhaps this existing diversity, including nutritious storable plant resources, was a key factor in a lack of interest in adopting cultivation. Another factor may have been a conscious desire to maintain traditional identities and long-standing distinctions with other communities, in part reflected in its particular way of life and its specific connections with particular elements in landscape, for example the almond and terebinth woodlands whose harvests underwrote the continuity of the Pınarbaşı settlement.

The variability in response to the possibilities of early food production in a relatively small geographical area demonstrated here is notable and provides an example useful in evaluating the spread of farming in other regions. It shows the possible role of indigenous foragers, the potential patchwork and diffuse nature of the spread of farming, the lack of homogeneity likely in the communities caught up in the process, the probability of significant continuities in local cultural traditions within the process, and the potentially long-term stable adaptation offered by lowlevel food production. The strength of identities linked to exploitation of particular foods and particular parts of the landscape may have been a major factor contributing to rejection or adoption of food production by indigenous foragers.

The results are also relevant for understanding the processes that underpinned the initial development of farming within the Fertile Crescent itself: that is, the region in which the wild progenitors of the Old World founder crops and stock animals are found. Recent research has rejected the notion of a core area for farming’s first appearance in southwest Asia and demonstrated that farming developed in diverse ways over the Fertile Crescent zone from the southern Levant to the Zagros, very analogous to the situation just described for Central Anatolia (2). Cultivation, herding, and domestication developed in that region, and it seems inescapable that exchange of crops and herded animals occurred between communities (2), involving a spread of farming within the Fertile Crescent, leading eventually to the Neolithic farming package that was so similar across the region and which spread into Europe (5). Central Anatolia was clearly linked to the Fertile Crescent, with significant evidence of exchange and some shared cultural traditions from at least the Epipaleolithic (22). The evidence presented here demonstrates very clearly the movement of crops between settlements and regions in early phases of the Neolithic through exchange, and thus allows us to identify episodes of crop exchange that were probably taking place within the Fertile Crescent itself, but are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish due to the presence of crop progenitors across much of the region.

A very interesting read in combination with 14C-radiometric data and climatic conditions showing potential triggers of dispersal of Neolithic lifeways from Turkey to Southeast Europe, e.g. Dispersal of Neolithic Lifeways: Absolute Chronology and Rapid Climate Change in Central and West Anatolia, by Lee Clare & Bernhard Weninger, in The Neolithic in Turkey, Vol.6 (2014), Edited by Mehmet Özdogan, Nezih Basgelen, Peter Kuniholm.

The Late Neolithic (6600-6000 cal. BC) witnesses the rapid westward dispersal of Neolithic communities, apparently reaching the Aegean in the space of a very short time (ca. 6600 cal. BC). This process is linked to the demand of individuals, groups, and communities for less vulnerable conditions in the face of climate fluctuation associated with RCC. Coastal areas not only offered respite from more frequently occurring physical impacts (extreme winters and high drought risk) in inner Anatolia, they may also have provided refuge for weaker (more vulnerable) social groups (…).

Featured image, from the latter: “In the Early Pottery Neolithic (7000-6600 cal. BC) there occurs a clear break with precedeing (PPN) traditions, attested by abandonment and decreasing size of settlements, albeit that evidence for migration of groups westwards towards the Aegean is still ambiguous (black arrows: human migrations; white arrows: Anatolian obsidian)”

See also: