The Kura–Araxes culture

The Kura–Araxes culture (Azerbaijani: Kür-Araz mədəniyyəti, Armenian: Կուր-արաքսյան մշակույթ, Georgian: მტკვარ-არაქსის კულტურა) or the early trans-Caucasian culture was a civilization that existed from 3400 BC until about 2000 BC, which has traditionally been regarded as the date of its end; in some locations it may have disappeared as early as 2600 or 2700 BC. The earliest evidence for this culture is found on the Ararat plain; it spread northward in Caucasus by 3000 BC (but never reaching Colchis).

Altogether, the early trans-Caucasian culture enveloped a vast area approximately 1,000 km by 500 km, and mostly encompassed, on modern-day territories, the Southern Caucasus (except western Georgia), northwestern Iran, the northeastern Caucasus, eastern Turkey, and as far as Syria.

The name of the culture is derived from the Kura and Araxes river valleys. Kura–Araxes culture is sometimes known as Shengavitian, Karaz (Erzurum), Pulur, and Yanik Tepe (Iranian Azerbaijan, near Lake Urmia) cultures. It gave rise to the later Khirbet Kerak-ware culture found in Syria and Canaan after the fall of the Akkadian Empire.

The Kura-Araxes cultural tradition existed in the highlands of the South Caucasus from 3500 to 2450 BCE (before the Christian era). This tradition represented an adaptive regime and a symbolically encoded common identity spread over a broad area of patchy mountain environments. By 3000 BCE, groups bearing this identity had migrated southwest across a wide area from the Taurus Mountains down into the southern Levant, southeast along the Zagros Mountains, and north across the Caucasus Mountains. In these new places, they became effectively ethnic groups amid already heterogeneous societies. This paper addresses the place of migrants among local populations as ethnicities and the reasons for their disappearance in the diaspora after 2450 BCE.

The effort to understand the role of ethnic identity in forming distinct cultural traditions and defining group interactions requires analytical clarity. First, one must be clear that ethnicity only occurs(ed) in heterogeneous societies, which means societally complex ones. Second, an appropriate and specific definition is necessary. Barth defines ethnicity according to four criteria. Ethnicity “1. is largely biologically self-perpetuating, 2. shares fundamental cultural values […], 3. makes up a field of communication and interaction, and 4. has a membership which identifies itself, and is identified by others, as constituting a category distinguishable from other categories of the same order” . A shorthand version of the last criterion is if I say I am and you say I am, then I am a member of a particular ethnicity. This idea of ethnic identity is not always immutable; it adapts to conditions. When I worked in the former center of Armenian occupation in modern eastern Turkey, the Muş Province, a local grocer whom I befriended declared himself a Muslim Kurd, although pictures of his grandparents holding Armenian crosses hung in his house. Other than the biological aspect of this definition, which archaeologists are only beginning to investigate, criteria by Barth affect archaeologists’ analysis in that there are two distinct aspects of the definition. Gross calls one the Essentialist definition, which emphasizes culture content: “Given the emphasis on culture-bearing aspect, the classification of persons and local groups as members of an ethnic group must depend on [consciously] exhibiting the particular traits of the culture” . Gross contrasts this with the Boundary definition, which emphasizes, on the one hand, competition and conflict between ethnic groups and on the other hand, a possible division of labor, in which each has an occupational specialty on which the others depend. For example, the analysis by Barth of the ethnic division of labor in Afghanistan cites the different ecological niches in which various ethnic groups lived.

A more traditional archaeological view of ethnicity often conflates ethnicity with culture (ethnos) and even race . The problem with the traditional definitions and the reason that I chose the modern anthropological one is that ethnicity is not, as I mentioned above, static. Although ethnic groups share(d) a common cultural heritage, which may have been derived from an original culture area, it can only be understood in the context where it currently exists or existed archaeologically. For example, Armenians constitute a strong, self-conscious ethnicity outside the nation-state of Armenia. However, to understand “Armenian-ness” in Los Angeles and Damascus as if it were identical is a mistake in my opinion. The cultural context, the nature of social boundaries, and the kinds of interactions are all different. As Roaf asserts, ethnicity as such is hard to establish archaeologically, especially in prehistoric times. Nonetheless, to me, ignoring significant elements in an explanatory model because they are hard to assess is admitting defeat before one starts.

One should use the concept and its explanatory power when one can. Such a case, I believe, is the Kura-Araxes cultural tradition.