Worlds in transition: migrations, innovations and environmental change in the Caucasus from the Neolithic to the Iron Age

An International Research Network focused on Caucasian Late Prehistory

An international Research Network (IRN) focused on Caucasian Late Prehistory was launched in 2019 by the present authors. As indicated by its name: Worlds in transition: migrations, innovations and environmental change in the Caucasus from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, this project aims at studying the interactions between past societies and their environments.

The Worlds in transition network, which is planned to last for five years (2019-2023), involves five major scientific bodies from Azerbaijan, France, Germany and Georgia, but scholars and students from all countries working on Caucasian Late Prehistory are invited to join and participate in the scientific events organised by the IRN. This project is funded by the French National Centre for Scientific Research, together with the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, the German Archaeological Institute (Eurasian Branch), the German Mining Museum in Bochum, and the National Museum of Georgia.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, increasing collaboration between Caucasian and western scientists has produced a large body of new data in many fields, often with the help of pioneering approaches and technologies, such as isotopic analyses or paleogenetics. This work has resulted in important changes in analytical paradigms.

The Worlds in transition network aims at taking advantage of this wealth in new data to reassess several major issues related to Caucasian prehistory, with a special emphasis on the environmental context in which human societies organized themselves, expanded or, to the contrary, simply disappeared. This network includes specialists from many different fields, from archaeology to bioarchaeology and environmental studies, who are invited to discuss their data in relationship with certain selected themes.

A first workshop was organised in December 2019 at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul, Turkey.

It was focused on The Neolithization processes of the Caucasus, an issue of special interest, since the formation of the « Neolithic way of life » occurred fairly late in Caucasia (ca. 6200 BCE), especially when compared with the nearby Fertile Crescent, where evidence of agriculture and herding dates back to the 9th millennium BCE. Since Neolithic villages developed in the Caucasus roughly at the same time as in North-Western Anatolia, several colleagues working on the Anatolian Neolithic were also invited to join in.

The cultural substratum on which the Caucasian Neolithic developed is certainly complex, among other things because the geographic and climatic specificities of the South Caucasus foster a wide range of biotopes that favour distinct vegetation and fauna species; hence a potential variety of sustainable subsistence strategies. But as usual with human societies, cultural choices may prove to be the main factor for explaining diverging regional evolutions. On this particular point, it seems relevant to note that the Caucasus, which is sandwiched between the Eurasian steppes, Iran and the Mesopotamian lowlands, lies at the crossroads of several cultural spheres, whose influence over the area has certainly fluctuated through time. Whatever the importance of cultural choices, it should nonetheless be stressed that the adoption of a Neolithic way of life in the Caucasus coincides with the 8.2 ky BP climatic change (Marro et al. 2018), whose impact on the region at large remains to be characterized. For all these reasons, the study of the processes underlying the neolithization of the Caucasus requires a multi-disciplinary approach, while the available data should be discussed from different angles. This was one of the main tasks of the Istanbul workshop.

A second workshop was organised on-line in November 2020; it was focused on The integration of the mountains into the agro-pastoral systems between the Neolithic and the Iron Age.

This workshop actually combined two meetings that initially were planned to take place respectively in Nice (From Pastoral Mobility to Mountain Communities, organized by R. Berthon and G. Palumbi) and Bordeaux (Mobility and the exploitation of natural resources, F.-X. Le Bourdonnec and C. Marro. This meeting is also linked to the PAST-OBS project). These events were eventually cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The idea of working on this theme originally stemmed from the fact that most of the Neolithic settlements of the Caucasus are located in the valleys and the river plains. Very few sites have been found in the mountains: apart from the rock-shelter of Bavra Ablari in Georgia (Varoutsikos et al. 2018), the site of Cmi in North Ossetia (Rostunov et al. 2009), and possibly the mobile camp of Uçan Agil in Nakhchivan, there seems to be a gap without clear traces of human occupation in the Caucasian highlands between the Mesolithic and the beginning of the 5th millennium BCE. Does this situation result from the vagaries of archaeological research, or does this pattern have a historical meaning? Among other issues, the answer to this question may have implications in the interpretation of the exploitation of Caucasian obsidian outcrops, most of which are located in the Armenian highlands. If these outcrops were extensively used by local communities throughout the Neolithic, the actual processes through which this obsidian was retrieved remain unknown; in point of fact, the presence of cortex on some of the tools found at Kültepe I, for instance, suggests that at least part of this obsidian may have been collected in the bed of the rivers flowing from the uplands, rather than tapped from the actual obsidian beds.

A related question pertains to the beginning of vertical mobility. Together with the adoption of a Neolithic way of life in the Caucasus, where mountains and foothills represent a major component of the general landscape, as well as providing valuable food resources for livestock (fig. 1), one may expect vertical mobility, that is transhumance, to have developed from the onset.

Fig. 1: The Lake of Tetri Tba, Georgia – 2600 m asl. © Sébastien Nomade

The available data so far do not support this assumption; the isotopic analyses conducted at Kültepe I actually tend to disprove it (Vautrin 2019). In the present state of research, it seems that the beginning of vertical mobility in the South Caucasus only started with the rise of extractive metallurgy, and the resulting search for copper, in the course of the 5th millennium BCE (fig. 2 & 3).

Fig. 2: Gemikaya, Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan – 4000 m asl Animal petroglyphs recalling the Chalcolithic caprines of Ovçular Tepesi © MBA – Rémi Berthon
Fig. 3: Gemikaya, Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan – 4000 m asl – A field of petroglyphs.
© MBA – Rémi Berthon

As a point of fact, the South Caucasus, especially the regions located between North-Western Iran and Lake Sevan, are particularly rich in copper deposits. It may be no coincidence that during the Chalcolithic a number of mobile groups, some of which originated from the Lake Urmiah basin, started to camp along the Sirab foothills, also renowned for water springs, possibly on their way to the Upper Karabagh pasturelands. The Sirab foothills are located between the large copper deposits of Misdağı 1 and Misdağı 2 (Gailhard et al. 2017), but other copper deposits are to be found near rich pasturelands, as in Göygöl (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: The copper deposits near Göygöl – Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, 3079 m asl.
© MBA – Catherine Marro.

Whether it concerns copper or obsidian, the underlying hypothesis behind these scenarios is that raw materials from the highlands were collected and possibly circulated by pastoral nomads, a hypothesis that still remains to be demonstrated. As a preliminary to these debates, a conference focused on the role of the Araxes river between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was organised in Lyon in May 2019: The Araxes river in Late Prehistory: Bridge or Border? This conference was mainly funded by the Collegium of Lyon, but since it entailed Caucasian research issues, several members of the Worlds in transition network were also invited to present a paper.

This conference was a welcome opportunity to examine new data from North-Western Iran, in particular from the Lake Urmiah basin, and to compare the cultural evolution of the areas located respectively north and south of the river between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. It appears from the archaeological assemblages, in particular from the obsidian circulation patterns, that the relationships between the communities living north and south of the Araxes river were fairly limited during the Shomu-Shulaveris phase of the Caucasian Neolithic (6th millennium BCE), with the notable exception of the Mil steppes. This situation changes completely during the Chalcolithic (ca. 5000-3500 BCE), possibly again in relationship with the rise of extractive metallurgy.

The data that have been examined during these three meetings all suggest that the density of human occupation in the South Caucasus tended to vary greatly through time. Settlement patterns between the Neolithic and the Iron Age seemingly undergo marked variations, with regions that remain virtually unoccupied for several hundred years. This is the case with the first half of the 5th millennium, for instance, for which very few sites are known in the Kura, as well as in the Araxes basins. If the first half of the 4th millennium BC is illustrated by a few settlements, such as Leyla Tepe or Tekhut, the number of sites decreases during this period, while many of those known to exist are only small, mobile campsites. After a period of dense occupation that followed the settling of Kura-Araxes mobile groups (ca. 3350 BCE), which lasted for about a thousand years, the end of the 3rd millennium BCE is again marked by a sharp decrease in occupation density, with many groups apparently turning to mobile pastoralism. This again raises the question of the environmental conditions presiding over these apparent « crises », which need to be described before we may consider any explanation. This will be the theme of a third workshop, planned in October 2021: Crises & and collapse in the Caucasus during the Holocene: environmental and human factors. Depending on the evolution of the pandemic, this workshop may or may not be organised on-line.

In spite of the difficulties created by the on-going sanitary crisis, our goal is to favour sustained collaboration between the specialists working on the Caucasus in different fields, especially in archaeology, bioarchaeology and environmental studies. More than ever, we need to develop new methods and analytical tools that may help to analyse the often unpredictable outcomes of human-environmental interactions. One of the main difficulties in studying these interactions lies in the essential difference between human as opposed to climatic pace, which often translates into some form of time-lag. The best way to tackle interpretation issues resulting from time-lag is to make sure that archaeologists and environmentalists are fully aware of the possibilities, but also the limitations, of all the disciplinary fields involved in studying the past.

The proceedings of the scientific events organized in the framework of the WIT network will be published in separate volumes. Those of the Lyon conference (The Araxes River in Late Prehistory) are currently in preparation by Catherine Marro and Akbar Abedi (Collegium de Lyon, U. of Tabriz, Iran).


Gailhard N., Bode, M., Bakhshaliyev V., Hauptmann A., Marro, C.  2017. Archeometallurgical investigations in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan: was does the evidence from Ovçular Tepesi tell us about the beginning of extractive metallurgy ? Journal of Field Archaeology 42/6, 530-550.

Marro, C. Bakhshaliyev, V., Berthon, B. Decaix, A., Andrieu-Ponel, V., Saulnier-Copard, S., Mokadem, F. Bihannic, I. Kuzucuoglu, C. 2018. The Neolithization processes of the Caucasus: new archaeological and environmental evidence from Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan); Communication présentée au XVIIIe congrès de UISSPP, Paris (7 juin 2018) .

Rostunov V., Ljachov S., Reinhold S. 2009. Cmi – Eine Freilandfundstelle des Spätmesolithikums und Frühneolithikums in Nordossetien (Nordkaukasus). AMIT 41, 47-74.

Varoutsikos B., Mgeladze A., Chahoud J., Gabunia M., Agapishvili T., Martin L. et Chataigner C. 2018. From the Mesolithic to the Chalcolithic in the South Caucasus: new data from the Bavra Ablari rock shelter ». In A. Batmaz, G. Bedianashvili, A. Michalewicz et A. Robinson (éds.), Context and Connections. Essays on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Honour of Antonio Sagona. Leuven, 233-255.

Vautrin, A. 2019. Les pratiques pastorales néolithiques dans le Petit Caucase: l’exemple du site de Kültepe I (Azerbaïdjan). Mémoire de Master 2 non publié, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Master Evolution, Patrimoine Naturel et Sociétés.

Les auteurs

Catherine Marro est chargée de recherches au CNRS, archéologue et céramologue, spécialiste du Proche-Orient, de l’Anatolie et du Caucase. Elle est membre de l’UMR 5133, Archéorient – Environnements et Sociétés de l’Orient Ancien.

Erwan Messager est chargé de recherches au CNRS, palynologue, spécialiste des milieux montagnards. Il est rattaché à l’UMR 5204 – EDYTEM.

Estelle Herrscher est directrice de recherches au CNRS; elle est spécialiste de la santé et de l’alimentation des populations de l’Holocène. Elle est membre de l’UMR 7269 – LAMPEA.

Pour citer ce billet : Catherine Marro, Erwan Messager et Estelle Herrscher. Worlds in transition: migrations, innovations and environmental change in the Caucasus from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 19 mars 2021, [En ligne]

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