At the end of the Stone Age there were three main indigenous groups in the Caucasus: 1) the Northwest Caucasus, or Abkhaz-Adyghe, people, occupying the area between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov; 2) the Northeast, or Nakh-Dagestanian, peoples, south of the Caspian Sea and in present-day Azerbaijan; and 3) and the South Caucasus, or Kartbelian, people in what is now Georgia.

Little is known about the early inhabitants of the Caucasus. Artifacts found in archeological sights indicate they were hunter-gathers who began raising crops in Dagestan around the same time agriculture was developed in the Middle East. A people known as the Koban culture began using copper and iron tools around 1000 B.C. and traded with Greece using Black Sea routes. Strabo and other ancients described the Caucasus as “the gate at the end of the world.” Strabo and other ancients described the Caucasus as “the gate at the end of the world.”

The northern Caucasus has been a major crossroads between the Mediterranean, Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe since the Bronze Age. And this is reflected in the in the mix of linguistic groups—Turkic, Caucasian and Indo-European. Over centuries different groups adopted Christianity and Islam and mixed them with their own traditional beliefs,

1.7-Million-Year-Old Hominid Fossils in Georgia

As of 2005, more than 50 bones from four Homo erectus individuals were found in Dmanisi in Georgia, 50 miles from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. It is the largest collection of Homo erectus bones ever found in one place. Not only that they are the oldest undisputed fossils found outside of Africa. One individual stood four feet seven inches?a bit shorter than other Homo erectus specimens. The foot bones are thick suggesting that its owner was quite strong and spend a great deal of time walking around. The first hint that interesting thing were to be found in Dmanisi was the discovery of 1.8 million year tools there in 1991. Bones from African species such as ostriches and short-neck giraffes were also found there. [Source: John Fischman, National Geographic, April 2005]

In 1997, a 1.7 million-year-old jaw bone of a teenager was found beneath the ruins of the medieval castle of Dmanisi. In 1999, two skulls and stone tools were found at Dmanisi. The tools were similar to tools found Homo erectus sites in Africa. The bones were found between layers of basalt and ash deposited by volcanic eruptions and dated by examining grains of magnetic material that recorded the direction of the earth's magnetic fields around 1.78 million years ago when the magnetic poles of the earth changed from north to south.

In 2002, scientists found the 1.77-million-year-old cranium of a toothless “old man” near Dmanisi. The skull held a brain that was a quarter smaller than the other skulls found there and had an apelike brow and huge canine teeth. Scientists also found stone chopping and scraping tools similar to those found Homo habilis sites in Africa. The discoveries were made by a team led by the Georgian David Lordkipanidze, a paleoanthropologist and director at the Georgian State Museum.

An article published in Nature in September 2007 said the Dmanisi fossils contained a surprising mix of primitive and modern traits: spines and lower back are similar to those in modern humans, which enabled them to walk fully upright and make long-distance treks, but arms that were more like those on australopithecines than people. The tools found at the site were less sophisticated than researchers had expected.

The skulls found at Dmanisi have straight brow ridges and nasal cavities like those of Homo erectus. But otherwise the skulls are small for erectus and rounded instead of angled at the back, traits associated with habilis. Some scientists say the fossils belong to Homo Erectus . Others think they were closer to Homo habilis , the H. erectus predecessor. Many see them as a link between erectus and habilis. Yet others said they belonged to different species, Homo ergaster . Others still say they belong to a new species Homo georgicus .

Lifestyle of the 1.7-Million-Year-Old Hominid Fossils in Georgia

The Dmanisi bones were found on a wooded plateau thought to be a hunting ground for a number of predators. The site was surrounded on three sides by water and deep gorges---ideal for trapping prey. Bones of predators such as saber-tooth tigers wolves and hyenas and prey including deer, ostriches, giraffes and horses were all found at the site.

Stone tools have been found near deer bones with cut marks made by the tools, the earliest evidence of carnivorous hominids outside of Africa, supporting a theory meat eating allowed early humans to survive in northern latitudes, where plant could not provide food in the winter as they can in Africa, and was key to the migration out of Africa. Scientists are not sure how the humans obtained the meat.

Paleoanthropologist Philip Rightmire told National Geographic: “The hominids probably did more scavenging than hunting. They had only crude stone tools, is it is likely they chased predators away from carcasses. Their tools---stones flakes made by knocking stones together---were not sophisticated or deadly enough for hunting."

Humans were as likely to be hunted as the hunters. Teeth marks appear on at on at least one of the Dmanisi hominid bones, suggest it may have been fed on by another creature. Piles of stones found with Dmanisi bones are thought to have been kept for defense against larger predators or drive large animals away from carcasses that used to kill smaller prey.

The “toothless” old man is thought to have been about 40. Not only are there no teeth but all the sockets are smooth, filled in by bone that grew over the spaces, suggesting he continued to live for several years after his teeth fell out. In harsh survival of the fittest terms it is surprising that such a helpless individual would be allowed live to such an old age. It seems likely that someone cared for him: preparing soft food for him since he was unable to chew meat. This is regarded as the first evidence of compassion, a characteristic key to being a modern human. Skeptics say he could have been a tough old geezer. Studies of primates and other animals show that individuals can survive many years without teeth.

Implications of the 1.7-Million-Year-Old Hominid Fossils in Georgia

The Dmanisi fossils raise many questions about the Out of Africa theory. They seem to suggest that a creature more primitive than the relatively big-brained Homo Erectus was the first to migrate out of Africa and that a large brain was not necessary to accomplish break from Africa. They also raise question about the role of big brain in both the evolution and migration of hominids. Lordkipanidze told Reuters, “these are the earliest humans found outside of Africa. This is the time when our genus spread outside of Africa. Their heads are primitives, Their legs are very human-like."

Some scientists think the hominid at Dmanisi were the precursors of Homo erectus . They theorize some members of this hominid group migrated further east and gave rise to Peking Man and Java Man and other erectus fossils found in Asia while another group doubled back to Africa and developing into a more slender verison of erectus---Homo ergaster .

The tools and the bodies of the Dmanisi hominids were much less well suited for traveling and hunting than those of fully developed homo erectus, which had long legs, were relatively tall and had hand axes and sharp-edged stone tools.

The well developed legs of the fossils found at Dmanisi raise the possibility that hominids could have migrated out of Africa, learned to walk upright in Eurasia and then them migrated back to Africa. Lordkipanidze has suggested that Homo erectus might have even evolved dn Eurasia. Other scientists have been struck the similarity between the Dmanisi hominids and the hobbits found in Indonesia (See Hobbits Under Early Man factsanddetails.com).

Albanian Kingdom

Present-day Azerbaijanis north of the Araxes River regard themselves as the descendants of the ancient Caucasian Albanians (Albania is the former name of the region west of the Caspian Sea), who established a kingdom in the Caucasus region that lasted until the Muslim conquests. Caucasus Albania was occupied by a number of tribes. It is believed they spoke languages of the Northeast Caucasian Family, which are now spoken by the Udi, Lzgin and other Caucasus groups.

The Kingdom of Albania emerged around the 4th century B.C. By the A.D. 2nd century it was a major region power. Ancient literatures described Caucasus Albania as a separate state with a diverse economic base. Its borders were essentially the same as present-day Azerbaijan and the included regions of Nakhchivan and Daghlig-Garabagh. By the 3rd century B.C. a number of important trading, artistic and administrative centers were established. Among them were Baku, Barda, Ganja and Nakhchivan, An Albanian Union of 26 tribes was described by Strabo and Plutarch.

Christianity arrived in the A.D. 2nd century. the first Christian communities were formed in present-day northern Azerbaijan in the Kingdom of Albania. By the first quarter of the A.D. 4th century Christianity was the major religion of Caucasus Albania. The first churches erected in northern Azerbaijan were the first to be erected in the Caucasus region.

Caucasus Albania defeated by Sassanids of Iran in the A.D. 3rd century. It became a vassal state of the Persian Sassanids but enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and was virtually an independent state. In the late A.D. 7th century the Kingdom of Caucasian Albanian was conquered by Arabs. It continued to exits as a vassal of the Arab Caliphate through the 9th century.

Incursions in Early Caucasus History

The Caucasus has traditionally been a place where invaders sought refuge, where traders sought access to ports, and oilmen looked for oil. The Caucasus has been explored, invaded and occupied with varying degrees of success by Sycthians, Sarmatians, Alans, Kipchaks (ancestors of the present-day Balkars and Tatars), Romans, Persians, Huns, Pechenegs, Khazars, Byzantines, the Persian Sassanids, Arabs, Mongols, Tamerlane, the Ottoman Turks, Russians and Soviets. The Nazi even held the region briefly in World War II.

The groups that had the most impact were the Alans who established a state the ruled northern Ossetia in the 10th century, the Turkic Kipchaks, Polovtsy and Nogao that constantly raided the region in the 11th century and weakened the Alan. The Mongols invaded in the 13th century and Tamelrand destroyed what remained of the Alan states and drove Caucasus groups deeper into the mountains,

The Avars are said to have descended from a Turkish group related to the Huns who arrived from China and Mongolia in the 6th and 7th century and advanced as far as the Balkans. Most historians say that this was not the case. They contend the two groups may have bad some contacts but were not related to one another.

The Avars began to take shape as an ethnic group in the A.D. 3rd century after the Albanian Union was defeated out by the Iranian Sassanids. A political entity called the Sarir, based in Khunzakh, was established. The rulers of Sarir was called an Avar and they ruled until 1834. The ruling khans reportedly traced their ancestry back to the Egyptian pharaohs.

The Arabs had little impact on the Avars. Tamerlane left the region after suffering huge losses in the 14th century when he attacked Avarai with a force of 100,000. A combined army of Avars of Dagestani mountaineers annihilated the Persian Nadi Shah in 1747. The Avar khanate was at its zenith around this time. It had military and political influence across the Caucasus. The Avars were at the center of the Caucasus Wars (1817-1864). Shamil was a native of the Avar village of Gimri.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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