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About the project

The transition from hunting and gathering to food production – often described as the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution – is one of the most fundamental shifts in recent human evolution and history. The advent of food production and sedentary village life had profound environmental, economic and social consequences without which the emergence of the world's first civilisations would have been impossible.

In recent decades researchers have increasingly acknowledged that the origins for these fundamental changes must lie amongst the last hunting and gathering populations of the late Pleistocene. Evidence from the Levant suggests, for example, that gatherer-hunters at the final Upper Palaeolithic/ early Epipalaeolithic site of Ohalo II already intensively exploited the wild progenitors of the cereals that later became domesticated. This and other evidence suggests that the transition to food production was a long and drawn out evolutionary process.

Previous research in the central Zagros mountains of Iran has demonstrated the central role this region played in the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture during the Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic.

Although many sites from this time frame are known, most have been excavated before key scientific methodologies (e.g. floatation, micromorphology, AMS dating) became standard in archaeology. Adding to this, many of the sites excavated between the late 1950s and late 1970s have not been fully published and many of the original excavation records have been lost.

Although recent research at Sheikh-e Abad, Jani, East Chia Sabz and Chogha Golan has begun to address these gaps in our knowledge, research into the last hunter- gatherers of the Epipalaeolithic in the Zagros is still lacking critically behind.

Warwasi, the only Epipalaeolithic site with an apparently continuous sequence between 20,000 – 9,600 cal BCE, is undated radiometrically, has not been fully published and is currently inaccessible to researchers for re-examination. We therefore know very little about the chronology, environment, economy, settlement pattern and social life of the Epipalaeolithic in the central Zagros at present.

Research elsewhere in southwest Asia has identified the Younger Dryas event as a critical factor in the emergence of food producing economies. Previously sedentary hunter-gatherers are said to have been forced into plant cultivation as the cooler and more arid conditions of the Younger Dryas led to a drop in carrying capacity of local habitats. In the central Zagros this critical time period is particularly poorly understood.

There are therefore many unresolved questions about the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture in the central Zagros concerning the chronology, palaeoenvironment and economy of the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic inhabitants of this region. Given this lack of knowledge the 'Levantine primacy' model of the beginning of agriculture, which suggests that the first Neolithic societies arose in two core zones to the west, still prevails. From these core zones plant cultivation is supposed to have spread out through the Levantine corridor across southwest Asia.

Given these issues, we propose to initiate a joint Iranian-Danish research project in the central Zagros to investigate the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Unlike previous investigations which have only focused on single early Holocene sites without studying late Pleistocene sequences, we aim to investigate both time periods simultaneously through survey and sondages at key select sites.

The project will initially last for five years and will focus on surveys and excavations in two areas in the central Zagros southeast of Kermanshah in areas that have already been partially investigated by Mortensen and Mortensen and Smith. In particular, we propose to continue and complete the unfinished survey of Mortensen and Smith that ended in 1977, and expand on the work by Mortensen in the Huleilan Valley and further south along the Saimarreh river.

Aims and objectives: 

  1. To obtain a better understanding of the role played by the central Zagros in the Neolithisation process, i.e. plant cultivation, animal domestication, sedentarisation and emerging social complexity during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (c. 13,500 – 6,000 cal BCE).
  2. To reconstruct the late Pleistocene and early Holocene landscape of the central Zagros and to better understanding the impact of macro-scale climatic changes on the environmental conditions to evaluate their impact in late Pleistocene and early Holocene communities.
  3. To establish a detailed chronology of the transition from the Epipalaeolithic to the early Neolithic (Transitional Neolithic) in the central Zagros through stratigraphy, artefacts and radiometric dating.
  4. To reconstruct settlement patterns, plant and animal subsistence economies, social interaction, raw material acquisition, material exchange and social life of Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic communities in the central Zagros.