Prehistoric sites of the Azykh and Taghlar caves

Azerbaijan
Date of Submission: 23/08/2021
Criteria: (i)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Azerbaijan to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Khojavend region
Coordinates: N39 37 9.12 E46 59 18, N39 36 17 E46 57 53
Ref.: 6547

Description

The Azykh and Taghlar caves are two prehistoric sites of the Khojavend region of the Republic of Azerbaijan bearing exceptional value as places of dwelling of hominins since as early as 1,200,000 years ago and testimony of prehistoric fauna. The archeological excavations of the caves, started in the early 1960s, allowed discovery of a huge diversity of tools, animal fossils, remains testifying to the importance the region of South Caucasus has played in the human migrations in prehistoric times, providing evidence of prehistoric beliefs of hominin species and early use of fireplaces.

The Azykh cave (Azerbaijani: Azıx mağarası) is a prehistoric site located 3 km northeast of the village of Tug and 14 km northwest of the city of Fizuli, near the village of Azykh, on the left bank of the Guruchay River, at an altitude of 1400 meters above sea level. Located in a forest, the Azykh cave is quite sizable. It is the largest limestone cave ever found in the Caucasus and extends through maze-like passageways for nearly 600 meters. The cave comprises a total area of about 8,000 square meters and includes eight large hallways or grottos, some with very high domed ceilings reaching up to 20-25 meters. Stalactite and stalagmite columns can be found throughout the cave.

The first and most important archeological excavations of the Azykh cave were carried out by Azerbaijani paleontologist Mammadali Husseynov (1922-1994) in 1960-1982. Since 1975, Russian scientists have also been involved in the excavations and included paleozoologists, paleogeologists, paleogeomorphologists, paleontologists and specialists of other fields. As early as 1980, the preliminary results of the studies were published in a scientific publication.

Findings

The Azykh cave is a unique prehistoric site in the world, as it reflects several stages of the evolution of hominins and their material culture. The cave contains fourteen meters of cultural deposits relating to different periods. The archeological excavations of the cave have revealed multiple primitive work stones belonging to an early species of Homo erectus who settled in the Azykh cave around 1,200,000 years ago. These findings represent rather a river stone culture, which was named by Husseynov as “the Guruchai Culture”, considering that the Azykh cave is located in the Guruchai River basin. The only other known civilization equivalent to the Guruchai Culture dates back 1.5 million years and was found in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Husseynov believed the Guruchai Culture dated from between 1.5 million years to 730,000 years ago. At that time, this discovery was the 5th in the world in terms of its importance.

The findings of the Azykh cave also show that around 600,000 years ago another more advanced species of Homo erectus began to live in the Azykh cave, leaving the cave and returning again. 300,000 years ago, the cave was inhabited by people belonging to the Acheulean culture, referred to as “Azykhantrops” by Azerbaijani archeologists and known in the world as Homo heidelbergensis or the Heidelberg man. In 1968, Mammadali Husseynov discovered a lower jawbone of a hominid of Homo heidelbergensis species (between 350,000-400,000 years old). The jawbone, with one molar totally intact and another partially broken, is believed to have belonged to a female about 18 years old. Finally, the excavations have shown that, 120,000 years ago, the Azykh cave was inhabited by Neanderthal people of the Middle Paleolithic Mousterian culture, which makes the cave one of the oldest Neanderthal settlements in the South Caucasus.

As is true of many cave settlements, the Azykh cave has revealed bones of various animals; 45 distinct species have been identified, some of which are now extinct. After fire was introduced, it seems that most animal bones were burned. From all indications cave bears and various species of deer were the pride of the hunt. The cave bear seemed to have religious significance for people. A hiding place was discovered in the Acheulian layer near the hearths where skulls of the bears were laid out. All the skulls had been severed in a similar way. Both the upper and lower jaws were missing. In one case, two jawbones cut in halves formed a cross. In another case, a cross was repeated graphically, and in another, a crossed notch was found among other notches on one of the skulls. No such phenomena had ever been known for other relics of this period.

One of the most important findings in the 4th stratum dealt with the history of making fire. Under the influence of hunting, people began to make artificial hearths by digging pits in the ground and encircling them with masonry or semicircular bars. The area designated to hold the fire is rather shallow and seems to have been used not only for cooking meat but also for preserving fire artificially. Such a finding would indicate serious changes had taken place in the life of ancient peoples, separating them from other living beings. Between 1972-73, five fireplaces were discovered in different stratigraphic levels. One was surrounded by a crescent-like stone wall foundation 30 centimeters thick. This wall was built to protect the living area from sparks. It is the first known construction in the history of humankind and first known fireplace. It most probably dates to the period 700,000-500,000 years ago. Of particular interest is the fact that the hearths exist during different periods on the same site, important evidence for the continuity of traditions.

During the archeological excavations on the southern entrance of the Azykh cave, 10 archeological layers were recorded. The total thickness of the sediment is 14.5 meters. All the layers of the ancient Paleolithic period have been found in the sediments of the cave. Such a stratigraphic sequence between the cave camps has not yet been recorded anywhere in the world. In 1960-1973, 6 cultural layers were discovered; in layers 1 and 2, material remains of the medieval, bronze and Eneolithic periods were found. Remains of stone tools and animal bones of the Middle Paleolithic era were found on layer 3 of the cave. During archaeological excavations on layer 4, which is about 1-1.2 m thick, not a single sample of material culture was found, which raised assumptions that the cave had been abandoned by people for some time. Archaeological excavations on the 5th-6th layers of the cave contain rich material and cultural remains of the ancient, middle and late Achelian culture of the Paleolithic era. In 1974-1985, archaeological excavations of sediments below the 6th layer were carried out and 4 more layers were discovered. In 1974-1975 archaeologists continued working on the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th layers. 212 stone tools were found here, which were attributed consequently to the so-called Guruchai culture. The oldest 10th layer of the cave is 1.2 million years old.

The archeological findings made in the Azykh cave allowed making a hypothesis that people lived in the South Caucasus as early as 2 million years ago. The absolute age of archeological and paleoanthropological findings in the Dmanisi Paleolithic site in Georgia in the 2000s (1,750,000 years ago) confirmed this hypothesis. The results of the archeological and anthropological research provide information about the types, relationships and migration routes of ancient people.

Taghlar cave

Taghlar cave (Azerbaijani: Tağlar mağarası) is another archaeological site that was inhabited by prehistoric humans of the Mousterian culture during the Paleolithic. The cave is located in the Khojavend region of Azerbaijan, 3 kilometers from the Azykh cave, south of the Boyuk Taghlar village and on the left bank of the Guruchay River.

The cave was discovered during the Paleolithic archaeological expedition of the Academy of Science of Azerbaijan under the leadership of Mammadali Husseynov in 1960. The archeological excavations in the Taghlar cave can be divided into two stages: 1) 1963-1967, 1973 - intensive research, as a result, some archaeological layers found in 9 meters depth; 2) 1972-1982, 1986 - more advanced research.

Archeologists Vahid Hajiyev and Mammadali Husseynov gave the first information about the stratigraphy of the cave as a result of 1963-1964 excavations. Cleansing of the existing sections was carried out to study stratigraphy and lithology of sediments and the occurrence of cultural residues in 1976-1982. During the first year of excavations, archeologists found bone remains of animals in the cave, which were later classified in 1977-78. The clearing and study of the reference sections in 1976 were carried out by the joint efforts of the Paleolithic expedition of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan and the Caucasian expedition of the Institute of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Archaeological excavations in the Taghlar cave continued until 1986.

Findings

The cave is formed by a karst of dense Upper Jurassic limestone and consists of several cavities. About 75 sq. m of the cave have been so far excavated, which is approximately 2/3 of the entire site.

Starting from 1963, archaeological excavations resulted in discovering more than 7,000 stone tools and over 2,000 fossilized bones, along with six cultural sediment layers. The first layer belongs to the late Holocene while the rest belong to the late Pleistocene. The largest cavity of the cave with an area of 120 square meters was estimated to belong to the Pleistocene era. Other parts are linked to the Mousterian period.

Pottery shards of the Middle Ages, the Bronze Age and Copper Age were found right underneath the top layer. Indices of the Mousterian culture were found in between the 2nd and 6th layers. Archeologists also discovered numerous work-pieces of tool making of red, black, brown, grey, white and other colours. The most intensive presence of hominins was discovered during the excavations of layer 4b and the upper part of layer 5, since it is in these layers that the most significant hearth interlayers, accumulations of bones, coals and flints have been observed. It is generally accepted that the hominins lived in the Taghlar cave during the period from 64 thousand to 24 thousand years ago.

The 5th layer was marked by the discovery of remains of large mammals such as a horse, a noble deer, and a bull, as well as remains of bones of small mammals (Rodentia). The collection includes fragments of the lower and upper jaws of rodents with molars and incisors, as well as individual samples of incisors and molars.

A quantitative analysis of bone remains from the Taghlar cave shows that the main objects of hunting by hominins were red deer and bezoar goat, the former being rather present in the upper Mousterian levels, and the latter of the middle levels. At the same time, these species also serve as an indicator of significant changes in natural conditions in the area of the cave. The absolute predominance of the remains of red deer in layer 2, supported by the finds in the same layer of wild boar, bear, and badger bones, suggest a certain afforestation of the area, while the predominance of bezoar goat bones in layers 3 and 4a indicates a drier climate and more open spaces.

The tools discovered in the Taghlar cave reveal the fact that prehistoric people used a very wide range of sedimentary (shale and flints of various values) and volcanic (obsidian, andesite) stones. The predominant part of the tools is made up of schists, flints and obsidians. The unequal intensity of hominin settlement in the cave is testified by significant differences in the volume of collections of stone tools collected in each of the Mousterian cultural layers: layer 2 delivered 2502 stone tools, layer 3 - 2354, layer 4a - 1926, layer 4b - 1538, layer 5 - 498, layer 6 - 308.

The archeological material of the Taghlar cave provides an excellent opportunity to follow the evolution of stone processing techniques, observe not only the harsh influence of traditions, but also the emergence of interesting technological innovations both in the technique of stone splitting (maturation of the Upper Paleolithic technique), and in the technique of secondary finishing of tools (development of the technique of trunking and refinement) and multiplication of sets of finished tools (the appearance of more developed forms of nozzles at points in layers 2 and 3). The Mousterian culture of Taghlar can be called the culture of points and scrapers. The main significance of the Taghlar Paleolithic site and its culture lies in the fact that it allows to establish links with the Mousterian culture of the plains to the south of the Aras River with the Mousterian cultures of the Zagros mountain system (Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq).

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Located in the Khojavend region of Azerbaijan, the Azykh and Taghlar caves are of outstanding interest from the anthropological and archaeological point of view, considering the important findings in the cave, in particular the Azykh cave. The archeological material found in the Azykh cave has enabled to single out a specific culture (called ‘Guruchai Culture’), related to the period from 1.5 million to 730,000 years ago and evidenced by primitive work stones, many of which are related to an early species of Homo erectus. Moreover, it also revealed the remains of hominins belonging to the Acheulean culture, referred to as “Azykhantrops” (equivalent to the Homo heidelbergensis). Finally, both caves have given a substantial and unique collection of fossils of animals, especially in the Azykh cave, many of which are now extinct. The discovery of the human remains of Homo heidelbergensis in Azykh and other similar discoveries made in other parts of Europe allowed anthropologists to conclude, for the first time, that there was a vast pre-Neanderthal habitat in Europe.

As demonstrated by the discoveries carried out since 1960, the potential of the Azykh and Taghlar caves as archaeological sites is considerable, leaving space for further archaeological and anthropological research. The diversity of the material discovered in the caves testifies to the importance the region of the South Caucasus has played in the human migrations in prehistoric times.

Criterion (i): The findings in the Azykh Cave revealed one of the oldest evidences of construction and use of fireplaces by hominins. The excavations showed remains of five fireplaces, discovered in different stratigraphic levels (i.e. belonging to different epochs), which were used to preserve fire artificially. These include, most importantly, one fireplace with a crescent-like stone wall foundation 30 cm thick dated back to 700,000-500,000 years ago. Moreover, the archeological material of both Azykh and Taghlar caves represents an extraordinary testimony of evolution of human processing techniques of sedimentary and volcanic stones, in the way they were invented and applied by hominins.

Criterion (iii): The Azykh and Taghlar caves represent an exceptional testimony to the material culture of early species of Homo erectus (referred to as “Guruchai culture”), who lived in the caves between 1.5 million and 730,000 years ago. The objects and tools discovered in these caves represent exceptional elements of the so-called Guruchai culture. In particular, the Azykh cave carries the unique evidence of early religious beliefs linked to cave bears, which seem to have carried particular significance for the hominins. The caves also carry remarkable evidence of the presence of Homo heidelbergensis (300,000 years ago), as well as Neanderthals (120,000 years ago).

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity 

The archaeological research carried out between 1960 and 1982 and in 1986 by the Azerbaijani archeologists has determined the authenticity of the Azykh and Taghlar caves as an important record of human, zoological, behavioural and cultural origins. The authenticity of the property as a whole is supported by the presence of 10 archeological layers (14.5 meters deep) in the Azykh cave and 6 layers (9 meters deep) in the Taghlar cave, which have served to protect the layers until their excavation. The excavated artifacts, fossils and human remains express the values of the property. The cultural elements of the Azykh and Taghlar caves are considered authentic, thus providing an example of a property with outstanding significance and traces of human occupation of prehistoric times.

Integrity

Since the findings of the Azykh and Taghlar caves and excavations were made relatively recently, the both caves have preserved most of its elements necessary to express the value of the property as a whole. During the excavations of 1960-1982, detailed maps of the caves were created thus allowing to produce data on the dimensions and integrity of the both sites. However, there has been evidence of illegal archaeological excavations in both caves in 2002-2020, when the property was under occupation by Armenian forces. As a result, numerous material and cultural samples found during the excavation were illegally transported to the Republic of Armenia and misappropriated.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Azykh and Taghlar caves are comparable with several properties inscribed on the World Heritage List. The properties “Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura” (Germany), “Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel: The Nahal Me’arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves” (Israel) and “Gorham’s Cave Complex” (UK) are considered the closest in terms of remains of hominins and the archeological material revealed. Other properties, such as “Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca” (Mexico) and “Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley” (France), represent similarities in terms of evidence of hunting activity of hominins. However, both the Azykh and Taghlar caves stand out in terms of diversity and age of the archeological material discovered (encompassing the period from 1,200,000 to 120,000 years ago).

The findings of the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania are considered to be the closest to the so-called Guruchai culture of the Azykh cave (between 1.5 million years to 730,000 years ago). Similar tools and remains have also been found outside the Azykh cave, for instance, in the Garaja Paleolithic site on the shores of the Mingachevir Reservoir (Azerbaijan), as well as on the Paleolithic sites of Central Dagestan (Russian Federation).

The Azykh cave is also comparable with the findings of the Dmanisi archeological site of the Kvemo Kartli region of Georgia, especially in terms of stone artifacts of the era of Homo erectus, as well as animal fossils of the Pleistocene era. The archeological material of the cave actually allowed making a hypothesis of hominin species living in the South Caucasus as early as 2 million years ago.

The archaeological material discovered in both Azykh and Taghlar caves and related to the Mousterian period allowed establishing connection with the Mousterian culture of the plains to the south of the Aras River with the Mousterian cultures of the Zagros mountain system (Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq). Multiple stone tools, very similar to those of the Taghlar cave, were also found during the excavations of Kunji and Ghamari cave sites in Khorramabad (Islamic Republic of Iran).

When the remains of a young woman related to Homo heidelbergensis (referred to as “Azykhantrop”) were found in the Azykh cave back in 1960 by the Azerbaijani archaeologist Mamedali Husseynov, it was the fifth major finding in the history of world archeology. Moreover, this finding was considered similar to the ones of the Tautavel Man site in southwestern France.