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History of Iran


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.)



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