Mobility and networks

In landscapes with difficult and unstable environmental conditions, mobility often plays a vital role. Despite its topographic diversity and variety of ecological niches (for example the oases of the central plateau or the mountain valleys of the Zagros), the Iranian Highlands is a region of heightened mobility and with integrative capacities for external groups. Regional and local mobility are closely tied to economic strategies and the routine use of variable ecological systems, whereas interregional mobility and migration are matters of trade, but also of one-time moves such as chain migrations. Here, again, multi-scalarity is an essential research element. From this perspective, it can also be fruitful for the analysis to focus on the interactions between mobility and networks in relation to the phenomenon of migration itself, and at the same time to go beyond the debates about the cultural-historical and cultural-anthropological paradigms in archaeology (Burmeister 2022).[1]

Mobility structures are already visible in the polydirectional spread of different groups at the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, for example at Ghar-e Boof in the Zagros (Ghasidian 2014; Heydari-Guran 2015).

Hypotheses of migration are connected to a debate on Neolithisation in certain regions of southwestern Iran (e.g. Zeidi et al. 2012). Early indications of a spread of a Neolithic way of life are found along the Zagros Mountains, whereas on the central plateau, such societies only appear later.

Evidence for extensive mobility has been identified as of considerable significance for 4th mill. BCE sites on the central plateau. Unlike the situation in major lowland plains such as Mesopotamia, evidence of complex social, political, and economic configurations in highland Iran are at least partially coupled with reduced settlement and population densities. These observations raise a series of as of yet unanswered questions regarding the forms and roles of mobility in connection with emerging states.

Beginning in the early 3rd mill. BCE, we see a clear change in northern and western Iran as well as the central plateau, caused by intrusions from the northwest that are Trans-Caucasian in character. These groups took possession of settled landscapes (e.g. Kangavar valley, Qazvin plain), but also inserted themselves into pre-existing Late Chalcolithic economic systems. However, this “Kura-Araxes expansion” also brought about new forms of transhumance and extensive herd keeping (Summers 2014). The precise balance between integration and takeover as well as the social and economic mechanisms by which these took place are in need of more detailed investigation.

The narrative of the “Indo-Iranian migration” from Central Asia into the Iranian Highlands was once a central theme of the population history of Iran. Today, it belongs to a set of outdated mobility discourses that tied pottery – here a grey ware – to linguistic groups (Young 1967; but see Kramer 1977). Current research suggests that the origin of “grey wares” may date back to the 3rd mill. BCE but the extent of regional differentiation is still debated (Piller 2005; Malek Shamirzadi 2011).

At present, ideas concerning the origins and importance of pastoral nomadism are promoted by Abbas Alizadeh (2006, 2010) who posits an exceptional development of Iranian highland societies towards state organization based on tribal nomadic structures. His proposals have been rejected by Daniel Potts (2014) on the grounds that they lack supporting evidence. New methods as well as conceptual developments in archaeology and archaeometry now enable us to empirically test the hypotheses, using isotope analysis of faunal and human remains and micro-archaeological examinations of artifact distributions and disposal.

[1] Stefan Burmeister: Migration Studies in Archaeology – a Methodological and Theoretical Challenge: Human Movement and Mobility in HighLandScape Environments, Online April 27-29, 2022; Preliminary papers.              

Leave a Comment