Arbil, Iraq Discovery Could be Earliest Evidence of Humans in the Near East

Czech archaeologists have excavated remains of a prehistoric settlement in Arbil, north Iraq, which could date back as far back 200,000 years, placing it among the earliest evidence of hominid activity in the region.

The expedition, led by Dr. Karel Novacek from the University of West Bohemia in Plzen, unearthed clusters of stone artifacts at the bottom of a 9-meter-deep pit dug just outside the tell in Arbil.

Novacek recently explained to Heritage Key that the excavated stone tools, comprised of flakes, scrapers and cores, can be traced back to the Late Middle Paleolithic Age (200,000-40,000 years before present). The discoveries align chronologically with excavations carried out by Americans in the 1950s in the nearby plains between Kirkuk and Suleymaniya.

Novacek’s team still has a lot to learn from the excavation. For example, they still cannot determine whether the tools were left behind by humans or Neanderthals. Had they been unearthed almost anywhere else in the world, the type of flint tools found at Arbil (called ‘Mousterian’ by archaeologists), would be attributed unequivocally to Neanderthals. But the Near East is an exception: Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens coexisted in the region during the Middle Paleolithic and both were known to make Mousterian tools. Novacek and his team will have to look for further evidence.

While mysteries remain, there is plenty cause for excitement in Novacek’s finds. First of all, Novacek noted that the artifacts were found in situ, or untouched, a rare condition for Middle Paleolithic artifacts which allows archaeologists to learn a great deal more from an artifact than if it has been shifted. Also notable is the site’s size: Novacek says the team “found two concentrations of the stone artifacts in roughly the same stratigraphic position at approximately 220 m distance.” Such a large hunter-gatherer site – and one of such extraordinary antiquity – is a rarity.

The prehistoric hominids who left these tools behind would be forefathers of a very long tradition: Arbil is one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in the world, going back at least seven millennia.

Whatever species they may be, the ancient inhabitants of Arbil are forefathers of a long tradition: the city is one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in the world, going back at least seven millennia. While there are clear remains from a Chalcolithic settlement (5000-3200 BC), the first historical mention of Arbil came when King Sulgi of the Third Dynasty of Ur(2095-2048 BC) invaded the city. Later, it was an important Assyrian center, evidenced not only by the Assyrian tombs recently found within the citadel, but by an entire extinct 3km-square Assyrian town recently discovered beneath modern constructions just outside the tell. Beyond the Assyrians, the site was ruled by the Persians, Sasanians, Arabs and Ottomans. Today, Arbil is the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, but is still dominated by its ancient citadel walls.

Such continuously inhabited sites provide an archaeological conundrum, wherein the richest, most diverse troves of artifacts are the most difficult to excavate. Arbil, which appears in aerial photos as a dense labyrinth of narrow streets, is no exception; this is one reason why it has seen so little attention from excavators.

Novacek, whose expedition at Arbil is the first since 2006, recognizes that “research of the archaeological heritage in the vivid, explosively developing town organism” will be a challenge. But it’s a necessary challenge, for he knows what Arbil may reveal. “[We] must use all relevant data sources and variety of methods, mainly the non- or less-invasive ones, and catch all occasions for excavation and recording provoked by the building activity.” Also essential to work at Arbil, Novacek added, will be continued cooperation with local archaeologists at Salahaddin University.

Ultimately, the most exciting part about the recent excavation at Arbil may not be the prehistoric tools it yielded, but that it even happened in the first place. Novacek’s excavation indicates that, as violence in Iraq diminishes, archaeologists will once again be allowed to excavate. “In Arbil as well as anywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is plenty of archaeological work,” said Novacek. “We are still in the beginning.” Indeed, this is a vast understatement. If politics in Iraq remain stable, the next decade could be a Golden Age of Near Eastern archaeology. Legendary sites such as Babylon and Ur will certainly enjoy international coverage as they become accessible again, but look for the lesser-known site of Arbil, with its vast record of continuous habitation, to gain