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The early hisotroy of Iran may be divided into three phases: 

(1) the prehistoric period beginning with the earliest evidence of man on the Iranian Plateau (c. 100,000 BCE) and ending roughly at the start of the 1st millennium BCE; 

(2) the proto-historic period covering approximately the first half of the 1st millennium BC; and 

(3) the period of the Achaemenid dynasty (6th to 4th century BC), when Iran entered the full light of written history. The civilization of Elam, centered off the plateau in lowland Khuzestan, is an exception, for written history began there as early as it did in neighbouring Mesopotamia (c. 3,000 BC).



The sources for the prehistoric period are entirely archaeological. Early excavation in Iran was limited to a few sites. In the 1930s archaeological exploration increased rapidly, but work was abruptly halted by the outbreak of World War II. After the war ended, interest in Iranian archaeology revived quickly, and since 1950 numerous excavations have revolutionized the study of prehistoric Iran.

For the proto-historic period the historian is still forced to rely primarily on archaeological evidence, but much information comes from written sources as well. None of these sources, however, is both local to and contemporary with the events described. Some sources are contemporary but belong to neighboring civilizations that are only tangentially involved in events in the Iranian Plateau; for example, the Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform records from lowland Mesopotamia. Some are local but not contemporary, such as the traditional Iranian legends and tales that supposedly speak of events in the early 1st millennium BC. And some are neither contemporary nor local but are nevertheless valuable in reconstructing events in the proto-historic period (e.g., the 5th-century-BC Greek historian Herodotus).


Palaeolithic (ca. 100,000-10,000B.C.E)

Enigmatic evidence of man's presence on the Iranian Plateau as early as Lower Palaeolithic times comes from a surface find in the Baktaran Valley. The first well-documented evidence of human habitation is in deposits from several excavated cave and rock-shelter sites, mainly located in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, dated to Middle Palaeolithic or Mousterian times (c. 100,000 BC). There is every reason to assume, however, that future excavations will reveal Lower Palaeolithic man in Iran. The Mousterian flint-tool industry found there is generally characterized by an absence of the Levallois technique of chipping flint and thus differs from the well-defined Middle Palaeolithic industries known elsewhere in the Middle East. The economic and social level associated with this industry is that of fairly small, peripatetic hunting and gathering groups spread out over a thinly settled landscape.

Locally, the Mousterian is followed by an Upper Palaeolithic flint industry called the Baradostian. Radiocarbon dates suggest that this is one of the earliest Upper Palaeolithic complexes; it may have begun as early as 36,000 BC. Its relationship to neighbouring industries, however, remains unclear. Possibly, after some cultural and typological discontinuity, perhaps caused by the maximum cold of the last phase of the Würm glaciation, the Baradostian was replaced by a local Upper Palaeolithic industry called the Zarzian. This tool tradition, probably dating to the period 12,000 to 10,000 BC, marks the end of the Iranian Palaeolithic sequence.


The Mesolithic (ca. 10,000-5500 B.C.E).

Evidence indicates that the Middle East in general was one of the earliest areas in the Old World to experience what the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe called the Neolithic revolution. That revolution witnessed the development of settled village agricultural life based firmly on the domestication of plants and animals. Iran has yielded much evidence on the history of these important developments. In the early Mesolithic, evidence of significant shifts in tool manufacture, settlement patterns, and subsistence methods, including the fumbling beginnings of domestication of both plants and animals, comes from such important western Iranian sites as Asiab, Guran, Ganj-e Dareh, and Ali Kosh. Similar developments in the Zagros, on the Iraqi side of the modern border, are also traceable at sites such as Karim Shahir and Zawi Chemi-Shanidar. This phase of early experimentation with sedentary life and domestication was soon followed by a period of fully developed village farming as defined at important Zagros sites such as Jarmo, Sarab, upper Ali Kosh, and upper Guran. All of these sites date wholly or in part to the 8th and 7th millennia.

By approximately 6,000 BC these patterns of village farming were widely spread over much of the Iranian Plateau and in lowland Khuzestan. Tepe Sabz in Khuzestan, Hajji Firuz in Azerbaijan, Godin Tepe VII in northeastern Luristan, Tepe Sialk I on the rim of the central salt desert, and Tepe Yahya VI C-E in the southeast have all yielded evidence of fairly sophisticated patterns of agricultural life (Roman numerals identify the level of excavation). Though distinctly different, all show general cultural connections with the beginnings of settled village life in neighbouring areas such as Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Soviet Central Asia, and Mesopotamia.


Chalcolithic (ca. 5,500-3,500 B.C.E.)





(Susa II-III = Late Uruk-Jemdet Nasr-Early Dynastic I, ca. 3500-2800 B.C.E.)




Bronze Age

(Susa IV = Early Dynastic II-Old Babylonian, ca. 3000-1350 B.C.E.)




Iron Age I-II (ca. 1350-800 B.C.E.)






O. Aurenche, J. Evin, and F. Hours, eds., Chronologies du Proche Orient/Chronologies in the Near East. Relative Chronologies and Absolute Chronology 16,000-4,000 BP, British Archaeological Reports International Series 379, Oxford, 1987. 

F. Bagherzadeh, ed, Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Symposium on Archaeological Research in Iran, 1974, Teheran, 1975. 

M. J. Blackman, "Provenience Studies of Middle Eastern Obsidian from Sites in Highland Iran" in Archaeological Chemistry III, ed. J. B. Lambent, Advances in Chemistry Series 205, Washington, D.C., 1984, pp. 19-50. 

S. Buson and M. Vidale, "The Forming and Finishing Process of the Pear-shaped Beakers of Shahr-i Sokhta. Analysis of the Relationships between Technological and Morphological Evolution through Experimental Simulation," East and West 33, 1983, pp. 31-51.

R. Ciarla, "The Manufacture of Alabaster Vessels at Shahr-i Sokhta and Mundigak in the 3rd Millennium B.C. A Problem of Cultural Identity" in G. Gnoli and A. Rossi, eds., Iranica, Seminario di Studi Asiatici, Series Minor 10, Naples, 1979, pp. 317-33. 

S. Cleziou and T. Berthoud, "Early Tin in the Near East," Expedition 25/2, 1982, pp. 14-19. 

J. E. Curtis, ed., Bronze-Working Centres of Western Asia c. 1000-539 B.C., London, 1988. 

C. J. Edmonds, "Luristan, Pish-i Kuh and Bala-Gariveh," Geographical Journal, 1922, pp. 335-56, 437-53. 

R. Ghirshman, Fouilles de Sialk pre‚s de Kashan, 1933, 1934, 1937, Paris, 1938. 

A. Gilbert, Urban Taphonomy of Mammalian Remains from the Bronze Age, Godin Tepe, Western Iran, unpubl. Ph. D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1979. 

C. Goff Meade, "Lûristân in the First Half of the First Millennium B.C.," Iran 6, 1968, pp. 105-134. 

R. C. Henrickson, "Šimaški and Central Western Iran. The Archaeological Evidence," Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 74, 1984, pp. 98-122. 

D. Heskell and C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, "An Alternative Sequence for the Development of Metallurgy. Tepe Yahya, Iran" in T. A. Wertime and J. D. Muhly, eds., The Coming of the Age of Iron, New Haven, 1980, pp. 229-66. 

B. Hesse, Evidence for Animal Husbandry from the Early Mesolithic Site of Ganj Dareh in Western Iran, unpubl. Ph. D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1978. 

F. Hole, "Tepe Tula'i. An Early Campsite in Khuzistan, Iran," Pale‚orient 2, 1974, pp. 219-42. 

Idem, Studies in the Archaeological History of the Deh Luran Plain. The Excavation of Chagha Sefid, Museum of Anthropology, Memoir 9, University of Michigan, 1977. 

Idem, ed., The Archaeology of Western Iran. Settlement and Society from Prehistory to the Islamic Conquest, Washington, D.C., 1987. 

G. A. Johnson, Local Exchange and Early State Development in Southwestern Iran, Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Papers 51, University of Michigan, 1973. 

C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky and M. Tosi, "Shahr-i Sokhta and Tepe Yahya. Tracks on the Earliest History of the Iranian Plateau," East and West 23/1-2, 1973, pp. 21-58. 

M. T. Larsen, "Commercial Networks in the Ancient Near East" in M. Rowlands, M. Larsen, and K. Kristiansen, eds., Centre and Periphery in the Ancient World, Cambridge, 1987, pp. 47-56. 

R. F. Marschner and H. T. Wright, "Asphalts from Middle Eastern Archaeological Sites," Archaeological Chemistry 21, 1978, pp. 51-171. 

R. H. Meadow, Animal Exploitation in Prehistoric Southeastern Iran. Faunal Remains from Tepe Yahya and Tepe Gaz Tavila-R37, unpubl. Ph. D. diss., Harvard University, 1986. 

J. Meldgaard, P. Mortensen, and H. Thrane, "Excavations at Tappeh Guran," Acta Archaeologica 34, 1963, pp. 97-133. 

R. M. Schacht, "Early Historic Cultures" in F. Hole, ed., pp. 171-204. 

M. de Schauensee, "Northwest Iran as a Bronzeworking Center. The View from Hasanlu" in J. E. Curtis, ed., Bronze-Working Centres of Western Asia c. 1000-539 B.C., London, 1988, pp. 45-62. 

E. F. Schmidt, Excavations at Tepe Hissar, Damghan, Philadelphia, 1937. 

Idem, "Proto-Elamite Civilization in Fars," in U. Finkbeiner and W. Röllig, eds., Gamdat Nasr. Period or Regional Style?, Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients B 62, 1986, pp. 201-11. 

Idem, "Prelude to Proto-Elamite Anshan. The Lapui Phase," Iranica Antiqua 23, 1988, pp. 23-43. 

M. Tosi and M. Piperno, "Lithic Technology Behind the Ancient Lapis Lazuli Trade," Expedition 16/1, 1973, pp. 15-23. 

Idem, "The Graveyard of Shahr-e Suxteh" in F. Bagherzadeh, ed., 1975, pp. 121-39. 

G. Tucci, ed., La Citta Bruciatta del Deserto Salato, Venezia, 1977. 

P. B. Vandiver, "Sequential Slab Construction. A Conservative Southwest Asiatic Ceramic Tradition ca. 7000-3000 B.C.," Paleorient 13/2, 1987, pp. 9-35. 

M. L. Vidali, E. Vidali, and C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, "Prehistoric Settlement Patterns around Tepe Yahya. A Quantitative Analysis," JNES 35, 1976, pp. 237-50. 

M. M. Voigt, Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran. The Neolithic Settlement, University Museum Monograph 50, Philadelphia, 1983. 

Idem, "Relative and Absolute Chronologies for Iran between 6500 and 3500 cal B.C." in O. Aurenche, J. Evin, and F. Hours, eds., pp. 615-46. 

M. M. Voigt and R. H. Dyson., Jr., "The Chronology of Iran, ca 8000-2000 B.C." in R. Ehrich, ed., Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, 3rd ed., Chicago, 1992, pp. 122-78. 

P. J. Watson, Archaeological Ethnography in Western Iran, New York, 1979. 

H. Weiss and T. C. Young, Jr., "The Merchants of Susa," Iran 13, 1975, pp. 1-17. 

C. Wilson, Handbook for Travellers in Asia Minor, Trans-caucasia, Persia, etc., London, 1895. 

I. J. Winter, "Perspective on the 'Local Style' of Hasanlu IVB. A Study in Receptivity" in L. D. Levine and T. C. Young, Jr., eds., Mountains and Lowlands. Essays in the Archaeology of Greater Mesopotamia, Malibu, 1977, pp. 371-86. 

Idem, A Decorated Breastplate from Hasanlu, Iran, Philadelphia, 1980. 

Idem, "The 'Hasanlu Gold Bowl'. Thirty Years Later," Expedition 31/2-3, 1989, pp. 87-106. 

A. Woosley, Pollen Studies in Archeology. Correlation of the Prehistoric Pollen and Cultural Sequences of the Deh Luran Plain, Southwestern Iran, unpubl. Ph. D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1976. 

A. Woosley and F. Hole, "Pollen Evidence of Subsistence and Environment in Ancient Iran," Pale‚orient 4, 1978, 59-70. 

H. T. Wright, ed., An Early Town on the Deh Luran Plain. Excavations at Tepe Farukhabad, Ann Arbor, 1981. 

Idem, "The Susiana Hinterlands during the Era of Primary State Formation" in F. Hole, ed., pp. 141-56. 

H. T. Wright et al., "Early Fourth Millennium Developments in Southwestern Asia," Iran 13, 1975, pp. 129-48. 

T. C. Young, Jr., "A Comparative Ceramic Chronology for Western Iran, 1500-500 B.C.," Iran 3, 1965, pp. 53-85. 

T. C. Young, Jr., and L. D. Levine, Excavations of the Godin Project. Second Progress Report. Art and Archaeology Occasional Paper 26, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1974. 

Y. B. Yusifov, Elam (in Russian), Moscow, 1968. 

A. Zagarell, The Role of Highland Pastoralism in the Development of Iranian Civilization, unpubl. Ph. D. Dissertation, Free University, Berlin, 1977. 

M. Zeder, Feeding Cities, Washington, D.C., 1991.





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