New evidence of Palaeolithic activity from South Khorasan, eastern Iran
During the Palaeolithic period, eastern Iran was located between two possible late Pleistocene corridors of human dispersal into East Asia: one through the Sistan region and the other along the northern edge of the Iranian Central Desert (Dasht-e Kavir) (Singer & Wymer 1978; Vahdati Nasab et al. 2013). Despite this potentially important geographical location, the unfavourable environmental conditions and the lack of permanent water sources have meant that archaeologists have paid little attention to this area. Evidence of lower and middle Palaeolithic activity has been documented from both the northern (Kashafrud) and southern (Ladiz) parts of eastern Iran (Ariai & Thibault 1975; Hume 1976; Vita-Finzi & Copeland 1980; Biglari & Shidrang 2006; Jamialahmadi et al. 2008; Vahdati Nasab et al. 2010). But in central eastern Iran—the province of South Khorasan—evidence is restricted to C.S. Coon’s (1951; 1957: 87) middle Palaeolithic excavations at Khonik Cave, near Birjand, and some material from recent surveys of Sarbisheh County (Barfi & Soroush 2013).
This article reports the results of a survey of Khosf County, in the western part of South Khorasan. During 2014, the first ever landscape project conducted in this region was launched with the aim of identifying all of the archaeological sites in the area (Sedighian & Nikzad 2014).
The survey covers c. 13 000km2 across the south-west of the South Khorasan province, on the edge of the Lut Desert (Figure 1). There is limited average precipitation (c. 166mm per annum), but rainfall can be heavy and erratic (Masoudian & Kaviani 2005); there are no permanent rivers. The region comprises three distinct areas: desert, hills and mountains, varying in altitude from 1100–2500m asl. The west and south-west of the survey area (the Ghaleh Zari district) are particularly dry and unsuitable for cultivation (Figure 2); moving east, the availability of water and agricultural land increases.
The 2014 Survey
The survey was directed by Hossein Sedighian from Tehran University during the spring of 2014. Due to the size of the area and its lack of favourability for human settlement, the survey was carried out by a vehicle; locations of higher potential, such as the terraces of seasonal rivers or springs, were surveyed on foot. The survey identified 238 sites, dating from the Palaeolithic through to the late Islamic period.
The Palaeolithic sites
Although most of the sites identified are of historical and late Islamic date, lithic artefacts of probable (middle) Palaeolithic date were identified at six locations (Figure 1): Ghaleh Khanand (Kh. 038), Khanand 2 (Kh. 039), Kamarbaik (Kh. 053), Lakh Atash (Kh. 054), Bar Andaz (Kh. 078) and Sarab Hamand (Kh. 170). These sites are located predominantly in the foothills (1328–1750m asl) in the far east of the survey area where the environment, access to water and the availability of raw lithic materials are most favourable. The numbers of artefacts at these sites are relatively small and typically spread across an area of c. 30 × 30m. The largest and most important site in terms of artefacts is Sarab Hamand (Kh. 170) (Figure 3).
The lithic artefacts collected from these sites are made from red, light-brown and yellowish light-brown chert, green tuff and white quartz, most of which was of medium to high quality (Figure 4). The assemblages are predominantly flake productions and include Levallois flakes, disc-shaped cores, single/double side scrapers, end scrapers, notches, denticulate flakes, a borer on Levallois flake and retouched pieces (Figure 5). Most pieces have no cortex, and there are no blanks or cores with cortex, with implications for raw material acquisition. The artefacts from three sites (Kh. 039, Kh. 054 and Kh. 078) are confined to a few atypical stone tools such as flakes and retouched pieces that permit the attribution of only a general Palaeolithic date. The presence, however, of Levallois flakes, side and end scrapers, notches and denticulate flakes from the other three sites points towards the middle Palaeolithic.
Lithic raw materials
During the survey, a 40 × 30m outcrop of chert was located on the western edge of Reg village in the foothills of the eastern part of the study area. This outcrop, known as Lakh Atash, shows clear traces of exploitation (Figure 6). The site of Kh. 054 was located at the southern edge of the outcrop, and Kh. 053 and Kh. 038 were located at 150m and 4000m from this outcrop respectively. Surface survey of the quarry and its vicinity produced three cores and three retouched flakes. Although these artefacts are different from those collected from the sites described above, the raw lithic material used at these Palaeolithic sites resembles that from this outcrop, suggesting that this source was exploited at that time.
The 2014 survey has identified new evidence for (middle) Palaeolithic activity, concentrated in the eastern, hilly part of Khosf County. Even though the number of findspots recorded so far is small, this research points to the great potential, in terms of Palaeolithic archaeology, of further fieldwork in eastern Iran, and on the edge of Lut Desert in particular. In turn, this promises to shed new light on the late Pleistocene human dispersal corridors through Iran, and south-west Asia more broadly.
We thank Hamideh Chobak, the head of the Iranian Centre for Archaeological Research, who made the preparations for the survey; Fereidoun Biglari, Hamed Vahdati Nasab and Sajjad Alibaigi for their valuable comments; and Mohammad Farjami at the Cultural Heritage Office of South Khorasan province for his cooperation. We also thank Mohsen Heydari and Khosro Ahmadi for their cooperation in the field; Saeid Bahramian for providing Figure 1; and Mahdieh Divargar for artefact drawings.
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* Author for correspondence.
- Meisam Nikzad*
Department of Archaeology, Tarbiat Modares University, Jalal Al- Ahmad Highway, Tehran, Iran (Email: email@example.com)
- Hossein Sedighian
Department of Archaeology, Lorestan University, Koram Abad-Tehran Road, Khoram Abad, Iran (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Elham Ghasemi
Department of Archaeology, Sistan and Bluchestan University, Daneshgah Street, Zahedan, Iran (Email: email@example.com)