Which historical facts prove that Karabakh is an ancient human settlement and its history dates back to the Stone Age?

A systematic scientific-archaeological investigation of North Azerbaijan’s territory (Azerbaijan Republic) began during the early years of the Soviet era. The historical-archaeological entity – The Society for Investigation and Research on Azerbaijan – was formed in 1923 and investigated the country’s ancient monuments; in a short period of time, it enriched the country’s scientific historiography with valuable historical artifacts relating to different historical periods. The active archaeological expeditions that began during that time visually proved that the territory of Azerbaijan is one of the birthplaces of the world’s ancient civilizations. Ethnographer Professor Ivan Meshchaninov, the head of these archaeological expeditions, therefore called Azerbaijan an “underground museum”[1] consisting, among other historical artifacts and treasures, of Azikh cave, Taglar cave, Garakopektepe, Kerkicahan, Dolanlar, and Gargarchay, not to mention the Khojaly-Gadabay archeological culture that inhabited the historical-geographical territory of Karabakh.

In 1960, Mammadali Huseynov, a prominent Azerbaijani archeologist, discovered the Azikh cave, an ancient human settlement on the banks of the Guruchay River in Azerbaijan’s Fuzuli region. Azikh cave was considered an outstanding scientific discovery in archeological history due to its rich findings. Between 1960 and 1980, a major archeological study of the cave was conducted by Azerbaijani scientists and archeologists to investigate the cultural layers in an area of less than 8,000 square meters. The archaeologists restored a corridor in the cave divided by eight large grottoes with 20-meter-high domes and 2-meter-long stalactites with a girth of 1.5 meters. The cave is one thousand meters high.[2]

In 1968, Huseynov found a piece of jaw with two teeth in the cave’s fifth stratum, considered a scientific discovery essential to Azerbaijan’s archeological historiography. The investigation that was carried out with the help of modern methodologies and technical tools proved that this piece of jaw belonged to a woman between the ages of 18 and 22[3] who lived 350,000-400,000 years ago (the Middle Ashel Age in the Lower Paleolithic Period).[4]

This was the most ancient jaw discovered in the territory of the former Soviet Union and was given the name called “Azikhantrop” (“human from Azikh”).[5] According to Lumlee, the French paleontologist, the “Azikhantrop” is the fourth oldest human relic in the world. The first one was discovered in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, by Richard Leakey, the second one in Kenya, and the third one in France. The “Azikhantrop” was the oldest discovery in the former Soviet Union.[6]

Azikh cave is significant because every stage of Stone Age history is represented there. The cave has ten cultural layers and stratums with a total capacity of 10-14 meters. In the seventh and tenth stratum of the cave, there are historical artifacts belonging to the early Stone Age. Furthermore, in the cave’s third, fifth, and ninth stratums, more than 15,000 Lower Paleolithic stone tools and artifacts used by ancient humans have been found. The fifth and tenth layers are considered the oldest and belong to the pre-Acheulean Period.[7]

Archeologists maintain that the discoveries in the cave’s fourth stratum refer to the history of making fire. Thus, with the impact of hunting, people who lived at that time dug pits in the ground to make artificial hearths. They surrounded these hearths with masonry or semicircular bars. It seems that the place the fire was made was used not only for cooking but also for preserving the fire. In the early 1970s, five similar hearths were found in different stratums of the cave. “One was surrounded by a crescent-like stonewall foundation 30 centimeters thick… It is the first known construction in the history of humankind and first known fire place. It most probably dates back to the period 700,000-500,000 years ago.”[8]

Scholars maintain that “Azikhantrop” also dealt with the construction to create artificial living places. “A bear’s skull found in the Azikh cave has eight slanting lines inscribed on it and gives us some further insight into the mysterious spiritual life of the “Azikhantrop.” These lines could be a reflection of any thought, number, ritual, picture etc. The fact that such attention was paid to a bear’s skull, and not to other animals, is indicative of early totemism.”[9]

The discovery of the Azikh cave caught the attention of a large scientific audience worldwide. Scholars identified it as a significant step toward gaining a better understanding of the most ancient history of human beings. The cave’s discoveries were thus exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition – the most ancient inhabitants of Europe – on December 8, 1981.[10] Furthermore, because of this finding, Azerbaijan was included on the map of “the most ancient inhabitants of Europe,” and the Azikh cave was recognized as one of the oldest human settlements in the world.

However, after the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions, Armenians began to destroy historical artifacts in those regions and falsify the history of Azerbaijan. In his book “History and Architectural Monuments of Nagorno-Karabakh,” S. Mkrtchyan writes “a woman’s “statue” belonging to the Acheulian culture had been found in the Azikh cave and that the woman’s clothing was very similar to the clothing of modern Armenian women.”[11] Another Armenian scholar, S. Khanzadyan, a literary critic with little knowledge of archeology, supported Mkrtchyan’s groundless idea in his review of Mkrtchyan’s book published in the “Avanqard” journal in 1986. However, in reality, it was a 2-meter stone stalactite that was topped by ice due to water dropping for thousands of years.[12]

Another significant historical discovery by Azerbaijani archeologists in Karabakh is the Taghlar cave, which is situated on the left bank of the Guruchay River. Taghlar cave is not far from the Azikh cave. The distance between these ancient human settlements is 3 km. The cave’s name was taken from the nearby Taghlar village. Mammadali Huseynov, the Azerbaijani archeologist who discovered the cave, considered it one of the most important archeological and historical artifacts in the Caucasus. He maintained that the findings in the first and second stratums belonged to the middle and late Mustye (Mousterian) phases. It was estimated that the last stratum of the cave was formed at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period.[13]

During the excavation, the remnant of vertebrate animals and many stone tools were discovered in the lower stratum of the Taghlar cave. Many stone artifacts and products had been made with particular ingenuity. Azerbaijani historian Igrar Aliyev has stated that these discoveries give the impression that the cave’s inhabitants knew simple ways to make tools for hunting and gathering and also had a natural and spiritual understanding of the environment.[14]

Along with these two caves, other caves were also discovered in Karabakh. Although they were not as old as Azikh and Taghlar caves, they did contain plenty of valuable historical artifacts and materials. In the 1940s, I.M. Jafarov highlighted the significance of these caves for learning about the local population’s ancient beliefs and religions. According to Jafarov, there are many caves in the Qubadli region. Unlike the artificial caves, these caves were called “kaha” (cave, cavern) by the local population: for instance, the “Ag kaha” (“White cave”) or the “Gara kaha” (“Black cave”) that are situated near the village of Aliguluushaghi. Locals believed these caves were places of worship.[15]

There was a big gap in studies of the Mesolithic Period in Karabakh until the discovery of the Garakopektepe – a unique archeological Karabakh monument – that is situated in the Fuzuli region. Therefore, scholars who had studied the archeology of ancient Karabakh skipped the Mesolithic Period and passed directly from Taglar cave to the Eneolithic Period in the region. However, the stationary excavation of Garakopektepe in the 1960s filled this gap to a certain extent and significantly enriched Azerbaijan’s archeology.[16]

The Bronze Age and the Iron Age are also significant for the archeology of the Karabakh region. Together with Garakopektepe, various graves and other discoveries in the region are also important in this regard. These discoveries by archeological expeditions that were sent to Karabakh in the 1930s also enriched Azerbaijan’s archeological collection. In this regard, the discoveries of 1938 in Karkicahan by Y.I. Gummel, which is located near the village of Karkicahan, were considered one of the significant discoveries in the archeological investigation of the former Soviet Union.[17] Other significant discoveries in the Iron Age archeology of Karabakh are the ancient graveyard near the village of Dolanlar in 1948.[18]

Generally speaking, the discovery of ancient discoveries and historical artifacts in Karabakh, such as the Azikh cave, Taghlar cave, Garakopektepe, Kerkicahan, Dolanlar, and Gargarchay, as well as the Khojaly-Gadabay archeological culture, paved the way for investigations into all historical periods throughout history in Azerbaijan and played a significant role in changing the way the international community viewed Azerbaijan and the Caucasus, and began to look on it as an ancient human settlement.

[1] Гаджиев, Г., Аббасов. В., “Историко-археологические исследования Гаргарчайского бассейна Карабахской зоны Азербайджана,” Наследие, No. 4-5, 2007, p. 43.

[2] Султанов, Р.Г., “Геологическое строение палеолитовых карстовых пещер Азыха и Таглара в Нагорном Карабахе Азербайджана,” Материальная культура Азербайджана (Баку, 1974), Том VII, p. 32.

[3] Cəfərov, Ə., Quruçay dərəsində (Bakı, 1990), pp. 31-34.

[4] Алиев, И.Г., Нагорный Карабах: история, факты, события (Баку, 1989), p. 7.

[5] Zardabli, Ismail Bey, The History of Azerbaijan: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (Rossendale Books, 2014), p. 14.

[6] Mustafayev, Arif, “Jawbones and Dragon Legends: Azerbaijan’s Prehistoric Azikh Cave,” Azerbaijan International, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1996; http://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/42_folder/42_articles/42_azikhcave.html. Accessed on December 1, 2022.

[7] Султанов, Р. Д., “Геологическое строение Азыхской пещеры в долине р. Куручай,” Материалы сессии, посвященной итогам археологических и этнографических исследований 1964 г. в СССР. Тезисы докладов (Баку, 1965). See also: Ширинов, Н.Ш., “О геоморфологической датировке возраста Азыхской пещерной стоянки палеолитического человека,” Материалы сессии, посвященной итогам археологических и этнографических исследований 1964 г. в СССР (Баку, 1965). See also: Гусейнов М.M., Древний палеолит Азербайджана (Баку, 2010), pp. 12-62.

[8] Mustafayev, “Jawbones and Dragon Legends”.

[9] Shukurov, Karim K., “A History of Azerbaijan: From the Furthest Past to the Present Day,” Vision of Azerbaijan, March-April, 2010; http://www.visions.az/en/news/35/fdf8b4b9/. Accessed on December 1, 2022.

[10] Cəfərov, Quruçay dərəsində, p. 36.

[11] “Armenian excavations in Azikh or how history is falsified,” Heritage, Vol. 4, No. 23, 2015, p. 12. See also: Karabağ Sorular ve Gerçekler (İstanbul, 2011), p. 16.

[12] Karabağ Sorular ve Gerçekler, p. 39.

[13] Hüseynov, M., “Tağlar mağarasında paleolit düş̧ərgəsi haqqında,” Материальная культура Азербайджана (Баку, 1974), Том VII. pp. 11-19.

[14] Алиев, Нагорный Карабах, pp. 7-8.

[15] Джафаров, И.М., “Следы древней культуры человека на территории Азербайджана,” Сборник статей по истории Азербайджана. Выпуск I (Баку, 1949), p. 20.

[16] Исмаилзаде, Г., “Гаракепектепе – сокровищница истории,” Наследие, Vol. 6, No. 24, pp. 46-47.

[17] Гуммель, Я.И., “Раскопки в Нагорно-Карабахской Автономной Области в 1938 году,” Известия АзФАН СССР, No. 4, 1939, pp. 77-80.

[18] Минкевич, Н.В., “Разложения родового общества в древнем Азербайджане,” Сборник статей по истории Азербайджана. Выпуск I (Баку, 1949), pp. 53-54.