October 12, 2010

Bronze Age culture discovered in the North Caucasus

The Telegraph reports (via AiE) that a previously unknown Bronze Age civilization has been discovered in the North Caucasus, after locating some 200 sites via air photography from the Soviet era. 

The Russo-German archaeological team found the sites all following a similar architectural plan, centered around an oval courtyard, and connected by roads. In some cases the foundations of the buildings retain up to a meter of their original height. 

The decorations and artifact styles are clearly related to the Kuban culture (axe at the left, from the Hermitage Museum), but this one is older by some 500 years, lasting from the 16th to the 13th century BCE. The sites are located rather high on the mountains, between 1400 and 2400 meters above sea level.

Approximate location of the findings
The sites stretch from the Kuban river to the west to the city of Nalchik by the East, in the autonomous republics of Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. While Russian and Turkic languages are now spoken in the area also, a natural thought is to imagine the inhabitants of these settlements speaking NW Caucasian languages.

One detail I notice in the Wikipedia reference is that so far it was believed that the Kuban culture was derived from the, slightly older Colchian culture of Abkhazia and West Georgia, however this discovery would suggest that the opposite is true instead. This in turn may provide a frame for the migration of NW Caucasian towards the South (but notice the possible affinity with extinct Hattic), or alternatively for the arrival of Kartvelian languages maybe. It looks too recent anyhow to be related to the expansion of the Indoeuropean Hittites, which are known to have been in Anatolia since at least the 18th century BCE. This matter is admittedly complicated and surely warrants further debate in any case.


Update (Oct 13): Jean points me to this other small article at the Kyiv Post, which includes several images of the sites and the air photos that allowed their localization:


The phrasing of the relationship with the Kuban culture is significantly different (merging instead of precursor) and also the description of the area (eastern limit is said to be Kislovodsk instead of Nalchik), but I'd say that the Telegraph article seems better informed, even if it lacks images.

16 comments:

  1. To the extent that this is not Indo-European, and the continuity of the culture with its neighbors in time and space seem to indicate that, it is suggestive of the possibility that the Hittites reached Anatolia from the West, rather than from the East, before they make their debut in history in central Anatolia.

    The more advanced cultures you have between them and Central Asia, the less likely it seems that they would have arrived via that route.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I was pondering also a possible arrival from the west or even from the Black Sea, via ships (their Palla neighbors by the Northern coast are also thought as Indoeuropean).

    A serious possibility might be that they would have arrived as mercenaries and/or that the Caucasus peoples allowed them to cross. There are other similar examples:

    1. Alans, Swabians and Vandals were allowed through Basque lands after a first successful resistance under Roman leadership. When the Roman commanders went back to Rome, Basques let Vandals and company pass through.

    2. While there's some people who questions the belonging of Baalberge culture (4th millenium BCE, East Germany, later expanding to parts of Poland and Moravia) to the Kurgan (IE) complex, for me it is probably part of it and the seed of all ulterior Western IE developments. This culture is more than a thousand kilometers west from the nearest contemporary Kurgan culture, which was in the East European steppes (Dniepr-Don), with offshoots into the East Balkans. One logic I have considered for its appearance is that they may have been summoned as mercenaries or "allies" by some of the parties that may have been struggling in Central Europe (Michelsberg vs. epi-Rossen late West Danubian duality). It's hard to tell for sure but I would not discard such kind of politically managed migration, later growing into a force of its own. After the initial Baalberge expansion, there were some 500 years of relative contraction before the Eastern part of this group (center at Cuyavia) would expand again as Luboń culture and successors (Globular Amphorae and Corded Ware).

    Guess that in any case, mountain regions were not the most appropriate areas for the peoples of the horse. This applies to the Caucasus, to the Pyrenees and even, I understand, to much of the Alps (I don't think Ligurians were IE) and even Dinaric mountains (before Illyrization).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Kyiv Post has site photos:
    http://www.kyivpost.com/news/guide/guidenews/detail/86027/

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, Jean. I'll add the link to the body of the post.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The reason to want a connection to the Caucuses, in addition to that area being one of two path from Europe to Anatolia, is that the Caucuses are the original iron workers which fits with the fact that some of the earliest iron artifacts are found among the Hittites and the Indo-Aryans in the NW of South Asia.

    At least in Anatolia, there is evidence of iron foundaries in some of the oldest layers of the oldest Hittite settlements, so that suggests that they either acquired the skills or brought with them people who had them, and the only place to learn that or to find someone who knew how in those very early days of iron working during the Bronze Age were in the Caucuses.

    Fluffier, but not so ephemeral that it should be dismissed is that the appearance of cremation coincides with the appearance of the earliest iron artifacts, which are made with very hot fires. It could also be a response to the drought around 2000 BCE give or take, but the idea of people making the connection of fired ceramics and baking to fired bronze to fired iron to cremation and the Avestian fire cult has some attaction.

    It also isn't clear to me to what extent the Hittites really were "peoples of the horse" until they encountered the Indo-Iranian Mittani. Why would Hittite have had to borrow so much horse related terminology from an Indo-Iranian language if they had it already?

    The Pyrenees and Alps would have been reached by IE people after Anatolian and Greek IE peoples had adopted horses for war, but it isn't obvious to me that this part of the culture of the Hittites, earliest IE Greeks, or Tocharians (who also, notably, were the only IE culture post ca. 2000-1600 BCE that did not adopt cremation, suggesting that they split from the rest of the IE world before this religious development took place).

    A final thought. Mountains are classic refugia. Were the Caucasians the pre-IE people of the Pontic Steppe who were forced to retreat to a mountain refugia or were wiped out on the Steppe but not in the mountains?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Call me nit-picky but I really feel I must correct your spelling of Caucasus, which is singular in principle. Feel free to correct me in pay-back when I misspell or even defenestrate English language in other aspects. ;)

    Anyhow, the origins of iron, or more properly steel smelting are not apparently related to the Caucasus as far as I can tell. I just checked Wikipedia to be sure and it seems steel manufacturing existed in India as early as c. 1800 BCE and in both Central Africa and Anatolia c. 1200 BCE.

    I do not know much about the Indian and African cases, but in West Eurasia it seems that sweet iron was known from a lot earlier, just that it was almost useless compared with bronze (sweet, unalloyed iron is too brittle).

    It seems that it was scarcity of bronze, or more specifically of the key alloy component tin, which caused steel metallurgy to develop and expand in the Eastern Mediterranean. I understand this has something to do with the demise of the Iberian civilizations of El Argar (clearly influenced by Mycenaean Greece in it's late phase) and Zambujal/VNSP, because the main sources of tin in that time were in the Atlantic coasts of Europe, specifically in NW Iberia and SW Britain (though this one probably became important only later).

    I understand that this loss of access to the tin trade routes, maybe related to the Sea Peoples' semi-mythical plunderings and/or the semi-legend of Atlantis (which I identify with Zambujal, in Portugal, not far from modern Lisbon), forced a drive for innovation, possibly first in Hittite lands but soon also in Greece and other places (the Philistines are known to have used iron weapons about that age, if we believe the Bible in this, though they may have been Greeks anyhow).

    I do not know where does people get the idea that the Caucasus had any particular role in the origin of metallurgy, sincerely. I can't find any reference for such claims, even if I have seen them before (though maybe for bronze instead of steel?)

    "It also isn't clear to me to what extent the Hittites really were "peoples of the horse"".

    Not the Hittites but the Indoeuropeans in general. Horse domestication seems to have happened in the West Eurasian steppe (now it seems that in West Khazakstan, earlier it was believed than Ukraine) and it's been argued for long that this was a trait characterizing the expansion of IE (Kurgan) peoples. The most apparent remain are chariots or rather initially prestige four-wheeled carts but the use of nose ring and maybe bite soon after in the steppe strongly suggest active horse riding, which anyhow is an almost compulsory condition for horse pastoralism (otherwise the horse packs will easily run away and go wild).

    Otherwise, Mediterranean geography rather favors the use of infantry, as the terrain is pretty much rugged. Also cavalry as such was surely only auxiliary or for rapid transport of infantry before the invention of the stirrup (traditionally attributed to Iron Age or Roman Age Germanic peoples). Without stirrup you cannot make cavalry charges, though Scythians and Parthians did use mounted archers a lot, something later adopted by Turco-Mongols.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Were the Caucasians the pre-IE people of the Pontic Steppe who were forced to retreat to a mountain refugia or were wiped out on the Steppe but not in the mountains?"

    That's a very good question. I like to toy with the hypothesis that NE Caucasian (and Hurro-Urartean and maybe even Sumerian) is very distantly related to Basque. There are some linguistic elements that could support this. And in that sense I tend to think that, let's call it, macro-NE-Caucasian was the language of Eastern Gravettian peoples and macro-Basque (surely including Iberian and Ligurian) that of Western Gravettian and then Solutrean and Magdalenian peoples. It makes some good sense if Zarzian (the Epipaleolithic culture of the Zagros) is actually derived from Eastern Epigravettian, as I have read occasionally, but I cannot confirm, so this is largely speculative.

    If this hypothesis is correct, macro-NE-Caucasian would indeed represent a remnant of Eastern European Paleolithic languages, regardless of it extension to parts of West Asia (Hurro-Urartean and maybe Sumerian), which would be explained by Zarzian genesis.

    But it could be something completely different. I am not the least sure about all this.

    What I do not have very clear is what is NW Caucasian (and Hattic?) Some put it together with NE Caucasian and then maybe with Basque (for instance Bengtson) but the extremely strange phonetics and residual existence of this linguistic family make very difficult to make a good assessment.

    Kartvelian (Georgian-plus) instead seems unrelated to the other Caucasian languages and its origins are totally unknown. Some have put it in Nostratic, together with IE, Uralic and others but this super-family is very feeble and tentative.

    It's difficult to explain, really, particularly Kartvelian. Maybe it's a remote relative of IE/Indo-Uralic? And, in that case, did it came from the North or did it came from India in a parallel scatter to that of pre-pre-IEs (per the R1a1 phylogeny)? Or something else?

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't think it is all that much of a stretch to assume that the languages of "Old Europe" and the pre-Indo-Aryan Indus River Valley (assuming that this was not the PIE homeland) were almost all:

    1. Agglutinative.
    2. Ergative.
    3. Prefixing.
    4. Used Base 20 numbers.
    5. Had a case system.

    These features are shared by almost every known language whose origins are known to pre-date IE languages and Semitic languages and the principal East Asian language families (i.e. Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic, Hmong and Austronesian).

    Some of the features are found, and none are ruled out in the Caucases, in Basque, in Sumerian, in Hurrian, in Hattic, in Elamite, in Etruscan, in the ancient hydronyms sometimes called "Vasconic," in many languages of Africa, Papua New Guinea and Australia, and in some of the oldest Siberian languages.

    Also, while it isn't indisputable, the fact that the early Egyptian-South Asian-West Asian-European share most of their crops make it plausible that the ancestors early Neolithic peoples of Old Europe, Egypt and the Indus River Valley probably spoke a small number of languages (my guess would be two or three, one Afro-Asiatic and one or two not) ca. 7000 BCE that largely replaced Upper Paleolithic Cro-Magnon languages (which themselves may not have been too deeply different from the early Neolithic languages). I would be surprised if more than one or two of the non-IE languages spoken in the Caucuses and Europe and Central Asia actually have an Upper Paleolithic, non-Fertile Cresent origin.

    The fact that these features are shared by languages that have been separated from each other prior to the Neolithic does make a good case for the argument that they features are present in the Upper Paleolithic languages.

    The hypothesized early histories of the languages that lack these features also make a case from creolization or other non-native language learner phenomena influences. There is a lot more evidence of language transformation to be more isolating and of it causing fine gramatical and phonetic distinctions to be lost, than there are of language changing in the reverse direction over a short time period. When two languages encounter each other and form a creole, the result has more in common grammatically with other creoles than it does with the parent languages even on non-lexical grammatical features that both languages share.

    I think that it is perilous to assume that Basque, or any of the languages of the Caucasus, or Na-Dene or any other language has actual continuity back to the Paleolithic in the places where those languages are now spoken in anything remotely recognizable as the same language by the ancestors of the current residents. The ancient Basque DNA, for example, shows more than one considerable shift in population genetics over the last few thousand years.

    The hetrogeneous population genetics of places like the Caucasus and Nuba Mountains also suggest that the peoples in these mountain refugia probably represent some quite distinct demographic waves. For example, the cluster of J1 haplotypes in the Caucasus in indicative of one of the more far flung bands of Semitic or pre-Semitic herders.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "the origins of iron, or more properly steel smelting are not apparently related to the Caucasus as far as I can tell. I just checked Wikipedia to be sure and it seems steel manufacturing existed in India as early as c. 1800 BCE and in both Central Africa and Anatolia c. 1200 BCE."

    2100 BCE - 1950 BCE Earliest smelted iron objects found at the Kaman-Kalehoyuk archaeological site in Turkey were there are also indications of iron working, about 100 kilometers southeast of Ankara (between the ancient city of Hattsua and the ancient city of Kadesh near the Red River). This would have been close to the formative area for the Hittites, but could also have been a non-Indo-European Hattite site. This location would not be inconsistent with Kussara, the original city-state of the Hittites.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "The ancient Basque DNA, for example, shows more than one considerable shift in population genetics over the last few thousand years".

    Does it? I see essentially continuity in Iberia, North Africa and among Basques in the known aDNA. High levels of mtDNA H are present all along. The rest also makes perfect sense. The argument of lack of mtDNA V does not stand when mtDNA V is today about 3% in the areas sampled by Izagirre and de la Rúa. The compared with Gipuzkoa instead, where no aDNA is known yet and the only Basque region with a higher level of V (c. 7%). V seems more common towards Catalonia.

    Exactly the same faulty argument (lack of mtDNA V) was used by Chandler to claim that Epipaleolithic Portuguese do not reasonably correspond to modern ones, in spite of being concordant at 90%.

    "the ancestors early Neolithic peoples of Old Europe, Egypt and the Indus River Valley probably spoke a small number of languages (my guess would be two or three, one Afro-Asiatic and one or two not) ca. 7000 BCE that largely replaced Upper Paleolithic Cro-Magnon languages"...

    I don't have this matter clear at all. I'd limit the range of expansion of "Neolithic" languages in Europe to the Balcans and Central Europe, probably not in the rest or most of the rest. Also if Basque would be Neolithic by origin we would not see the deep etymologies and complex structures: it would need to be a creole language like Indoeuropean ones, which have been dramatically simplified, as they were adopted by non-native speakers. When adults learn a new language they tend to simplify it a lot. Structural complexity and even redundancy (a children's trait) is signature of deep stability, not expansion. The more complex a language is the less likely it has expanded.

    "I would be surprised if more than one or two of the non-IE languages spoken in the Caucuses and Europe and Central Asia actually have an Upper Paleolithic, non-Fertile Cresent origin".

    I would not, specially because we have not evidence of meaningful direct migration of West Asian peoples into Europe in the Neolithic. Even Balcanic E-V13 has been suggested to be Epipaleolithic, regardless of its Afro-Asiatic roots. And Greek Neolithic shows a very early innovative drive, with one of the oldest potteries in West Eurasia. While Crete was probably colonized from Anatolia, Thessaly and the Balcans not so clearly so. The connections with Anatolian sites are rather shallow, not clearly suggestive of a Neolithic colonization but maybe of a mere cultural connection.

    ...

    ReplyDelete
  11. ...

    "The fact that these features are shared by languages that have been separated from each other prior to the Neolithic does make a good case for the argument that they features are present in the Upper Paleolithic languages".

    If you mean your list of features, I must say that they make a poor case for defining a close linguistic relationship (besides, I doubt is preffixing and only very mildly agglutinative, like German or so). I can say a linguistic relationship may exist when a large number of words are very similar in sound and nearly identical in meaning, in spite of distance. This does not happen between Basque and NE Caucasian, or rather it happens to a very weak stage, which cannot be that of a recent relationship such as Neolithic but must be older. Older is also the latest connection one can establish between the Caucasus/Zagros and Western Europe (nothing since Gravettian, unless NE Caucasian migrated eastward with Megalithism in the Bronze Age, what I doubt).

    We know of several languages that could have spawned from Anatolia: Etruscan, Eteocretan, Eteocypriot and Hattic. None of them look particularly related to Basque, nor probably NE Caucasian either. However, except Etruscan, they are all poorly known.

    "I think that it is perilous to assume that Basque, or any of the languages of the Caucasus, or Na-Dene or any other language has actual continuity back to the Paleolithic in the places where those languages are now spoken in anything remotely recognizable as the same language by the ancestors of the current residents".

    I am of the opinion that there is no "lexical clock", that while all languages innovate, expanding languages (or those otherwise placed in a situation of cosmopolitanism) do a lot faster than static and isolated languages. This can be evidenced for instance by Icelandic or Latvian, both very archaic in their kind. Icelandic is closer to old Scandinavian than any modern Scandinavian, because Icelanders are isolated, Latvian is probably the closest living thing to PIE for a very similar reason: marginality.

    So it'd be possible to have a connexion, which looks much weaker than for Afroasiatic (an Epipaleolithic or Late UP language family) and it being in fact Gravettian, assuming both linguistic residues to be isolated and not expansive in all this period (we know in fact of no Chechen nor Basque imperialism in history, and probably prehistory).

    "For example, the cluster of J1 haplotypes in the Caucasus in indicative of one of the more far flung bands of Semitic or pre-Semitic herders".

    I think it's not the case. I think that J1 in the Caucasus is probably older than the arrival of Afroasiatic to West Asia, where it picked the J1 marker.

    ...

    Re. the Hittite discovery of steel metallurgy, I'd ask for clear steel items, not sweet iron, which is known from very old but is nearly worthless. Not a single time in that article the word steel or carbon alloy is mentioned. If Hittites used iron tools without having developed steel metallurgy, they must have been desperately in need of some sort of metal and probably lacked the strategic tin, needed to make good bronze stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hittites were reputed to have a near monopoly on iron prior to Bronze Age collapse in contemporary records, although pre-Hittite iron in a Hattic tomb suggests that the technology may have been acquired, rather than brought with them.

    This near monopoly in West Asia and Europe suggests it as a possible cultural marker, and also suggests that they thought it had value relative to Bronze, whatever we may think today, something confirmed by ancient records of trade and royal gifts that valued iron very highly prior to the Iron Age.

    (Sweet iron is a form of non-stainless steel. It is an iron-carbon blend. You are using the term "Sweet Iron" to refer, I think, to iron that is not steel for want of carbon infusion or tempering.)

    My understanding is that Hittite iron prior to Bronze Age collapse, while scarce, was substantially similar to early Iron Age iron. Wikipedia, FWIW, describes the Anatolian find that I describe as steel.

    The relative age of the oldest iron in Anatolia and India and coincidence of IE cultures would suggest a connection with a flow from Anatolia or the vicinity to India, but this could be simply a function of less archeology having been done yet in India.

    One of the arguments for pre-IE iron metallurgy would be its association with the cult of Hephastus which survived in relict community in Greece where pre-IE languages were spoken.

    ReplyDelete
  13. @ Maju : "Latvian is probably the closest living thing to PIE"

    Hi.
    I'm pretty sure you meant Lithuanian, but the mistake is understandable :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Well, if I follow your own Wikipedia link, it says:

    "This theory is no longer held in the mainstream of scholarship,[12] since there is no archaeological evidence of the alleged Hittite monopoly. While there are some iron objects from Bronze Age Anatolia, the number is comparable to iron objects found in Egypt and other places of the same time period; and only a small number of these objects are weapons.[11]"

    Footnote [12] stands for James D. Muhly 2003 (a book on the origins of metallurgy in West Asia). Note [11] stands for Waldbaum 1978.

    That's what I understood anyhow: that the Hittite steel metallurgy origins have been debunked or at least lost preeminence in modern historiography.

    Continues: "A more recent theory claims that the development of iron technology was driven by the disruption of the copper and tin trade routes, due to the collapse of the empires at the end of the Late Bronze Age.[12]"

    Later it says that "However, there is no archaeological evidence that would suggest a shortage of bronze or tin in the Early Iron Age.[13] Bronze objects continued to be abundant, and these objects have the same percentage of tin as those from the Late Bronze Age".

    The main reason to suspect a temporary disruption of the tin routes is to be sought in Iberia, where, c. 1200 BCE, both extant civilizations (rooted in Chalcolithic) collapse, one of them apparently severely hurt by a tsunami. However this may only mean a shift of the tin trade routes towards 'Celtic' lands (proto-Celts or generic Western IEs are thought to have then expanded within the Urnfield culture). This time-frame of the late 2nd millennium is also that of the semi-mythical sea peoples, the destruction of Troy and Ugarit, and when Greece collapsed into the 'Dorian' Dark Ages, as well as the time of the collapse of the Hittite Empire, the late decomposition of Egypt (third intermediate period, with Libyans conquering the Delta), the rise of ancient Israel (whatever the exact details) in Southern Canaan, the coalescence of the Phoenician ethnos and its initial exploitation of the routes abandoned by Greeks (first or second colony was Gadir, a key tin routes port), etc.

    There was definitively a generalized crisis by the end of the Bronze Age and it's something that I can easily relate with the legend of Atlantis as told by Plato: Lybians conquering Lower Egypt, Sea Peoples (some of which may be Greek but others probably not), tsunami-caused (?) silting of the canal leading to Zambujal city (the true Atlantis?), a possible (but admittedly blurry) shortage of tin as the western routes collapsed for a century or two until Tartessos and the Phoenicians reactivated them.

    It's at least a very suggestive interpretation and I like it: rather than thinking of the Euro-Mediterranean area as a host of disconnected civilizations, we are surely in this time, thanks to Greek (and maybe earlier Cretan) naval trade and adventuring (though maybe also to the Western peoples' similar dynamics), before a "first globalization" of sorts, and with the corresponding clash of civilizations, in which, per Plato's account, Greek and Egyptians are described, in spite of their differences, relatively akin in comparison with the mysterious western barbarians (Megalithic peoples, including surely Libyans).

    I have to write again a page on this matter, at least a blog article or series, because it is a most fascinating part of proto-history. And I say proto-history because here Plato's account and other materials (Heracles' works, Egyptian historical references) act as early historical documents, distorted as they may be - with archaeology providing the main part of the evidence, most of which matches the records to some extent.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "One of the arguments for pre-IE iron metallurgy would be its association with the cult of Hephastus which survived in relict community in Greece where pre-IE languages were spoken".

    Metallurgy is a concept that clearly pre-dates the Iron Age (Bronze and Copper Age, with possible significance for the double axe symbol being associated). It's likely that, at least to some extent, copper and gold smiths of the Chalcolithic, recycled themselves into bronze smiths and then into iron smiths. There is surely some continuity between these trades and their traditions.

    But anyhow, as you mention, one of my favorite Basque odd words is 'labe' or 'laba' (oven), which clearly correlates with English and other languages' 'lava' (Basque and most Iberian languages lack the sound 'v' and make it sound 'b'), which in turn originates, via Latin, from some mystery Italian source. Considering the strong mythological evidence for a relation between the metallurgic forge and volcanoes (Hephaistos, etc.), I'd say this word, which may well be a Mediterranean loanword in Basque (there are surely others), is an old one for oven and related concepts: melted metals and slag (and by extension lava and volcanoes).

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi, Wagg. Sure: it must be Lithuanian (I was in doubt but did not bother checking), thanks for the correction. :)

    ReplyDelete

Please, be reasonably respectful when making comments. I do not tolerate in particular sexism, racism nor homophobia. Personal attacks, manipulation and trolling are also very much unwelcome here.The author reserves the right to delete any abusive comment.

Preliminary comment moderation is... ON (sorry, too many trolls).