Azykh cave

A number of relict caves have been explored and studied by the archaeologists from the Institute of History of Academy of Sciences of former Azerbaijan SSR. Among them are the Dashsalakhly and Damjily caves, the Shushagala cave, the Kilit and Dashkala caves, and the Azykh and Taglar caves, all in Azerbaijan. All these relict caves date back to various periods of human history.

Azykh cave is of particular importance for the archeaelogical science of the world and can boast unique discoveries. The cave was found by Mamedali Guseinov in 1960 and systematic investigations have been carried out there ever since. The representatives of the sciences, D.W. Hajiev, A.V. Mamedov, N.Sh. Shirinov, V.V. Velochko, A.C. Gafarov, V.M. Hajiev, S.D. Aliev and others, have also taken part in the complex research of the cave.


The cave is situated on the very verge of the south-eastern slope of the Garabakh upland within the territory of Azerbaijan and at the boundary with South Azerbaijan where the Araks river cuts the slopes of the Lesser Caucasus and the Mil-Mugan steppes. The cave is on the left bank of the Kuruchai river some 900 m above sea level. The cave entrance faces the Kuruchai river valley, a picturesque scenery with very rich soil. The south-western and the north-western parts of the valley are both protected by high massifs covered by alpine meadows (2.725 m above sea level). In the north and south the cave is surrounded by a foothill forest area. Stepped terraces of a different height (from 3 to 220 m) run to the east. The terraces begin from the cave and descent gradually until they merge with the Mil steppe.

Connected with the Mil steppe on one side and with highland and upland zones on the other, the Kuruchai valley had always very favourable climatic conditions for life. In ancient times, as far back as in the Late Pliocene and the Early Pleistocene, the fauna of various landscapes entered the area of the cave from the Kuruchai valley and was followed by primeval people similar to Homo habilis who lived in the East Africa about two million years ago.

The area of the Kuruchai valley, where Azykh cave is situated, is very rich in raw materials for producing work tools. Among them there are quartz, quartzite, flint, basalt, chalcedony, felsite, jasper, to name a few. Azykh cave is of a karst origin and was mainly formed during the Late Akchagyl - Absheron time. The cave roof is under the Early - Middle Akchagyl peneplanation plane while ots floor is level with the 11th terrace (180-200 m) of the Kuruchai river which as formed during the Absheron time. After this terrace had been formed and the Kuruchai riverbed had been lower than the cave entrance thus eliminating the danger of inundation. It was possible for man to populate the cave.

The cave is the largest species among the karst formations known in Transcaucasia. Along with other microentrances, it is more than 600 m long and has a total area of at least 8,000 square meters. The cave included 8 majestic grottoes with high (20-25 m) domes and many multiple, maze jammed passages. Characteristics of the cave are unique stalactite and stalagmite columns (about 2 m high and 0.5 to 1.5 m in diameter). In all grottoes the attention is attracted to sintered formations and large natural shelves which give the impression of being fixed to the walls. All these elements form one of the significant decorative feature of the cave.

During he last two decades ten layers with a total thickness of 14 m dating from different periods of the Early Paleolith have been determined in the southern entrance zone of the cave. All layers of the Early Paleolith such as cheulian or the pebble culture. Early Acheulian, Middle Acheulian and Final Acheulian or Early Mousterian. No such stratigraphy nor the sequence of cavern deposits have ever been known else where in the world.

Primitive stone implements of the so called pebble culture were formed in the lower layers (10 to 8).

Kuruchai culture. A new culture which has not yet been known in Azerbaijan and resembles the pebble culture of Olduvai has been discovered under the 6th layer which is more than 7000 thousand years old. Many course chopping tools were found here such as protochoppers, protochoppings, coarse cubes-happed scrapes, flake with hitting planes, etc.

Irrespective of their stratigraphic level, the stone artifacts are archaeologically identical. This is evident from their common appearance, similar degree of conservation or, to be more exact, degree of patinization, technical and typological composition and petrographical composition of the rocks.

The pebble tools were shaped by rough hitting. They were broken off from the central edge along one surface and more often along two surfaces. A narrow elongated end or a certain portion on one longitudinal edge was shaped in the latter case. It is seen from these implements that they represent the initial stage of shaping bifacial type of protochoppimgs. The flake tools were also quite a few. The most numerous among them were emarginated tools, which are shaped on one longitudinal edge in the form of an encoche or, very rarely, on the top flake end.

Among pebble implements, big chopper-like tools weighing 4 to 5 kg, which have not been known before and are tentatively termed gigantolites, are worthy of particular attention. No bifacies were found among the stone implements.


In spite of the above-mentioned, a genetic relation can be traced between the archaeological materials of the 6th layer and those of the lower layers. It can be seen that the pebble articles form the lower layers are prototypes of the implements from the 6th layers. The Azykh pebble culture in close to complex finds from the ancient camps sites in the Olduvai in East Africa. However, there are certain differences as well which justify our right to denote the culture from ten lower layers of Azykh as the Kuruchai culture. The age of the Kuruchai culture can be adequately correlated with the Absheron stage of the Caspian which is over 1.2 million years old.

Early Acheulian. After a long period of existence, the pebble (Kuruchai) culture in Azykh cave was replaced by the Early Acheulian culture. As was mentioned above, Early Acheulian was developed here on the basis of the local pebble culture and is represented by the 6th layer.

Archaeological excavations revealed numerous stone articles accompanied by strongly fossilized bone remnants of various animals. The stone articles can be classed into three groups: work tools, production wastes, and natural pebbles brought from the Kuruchai valley. The stone tools included mainly course and primitive work tools such as choppers, chopping rough clover-like bifaces of a very archaic configuration. These implements are all accompanied by the tools made from various course flakes with natural plane. More often than not the planes as well as backs are covered with natural crust. Along with choppers, numerous tools various flakes have been found such as various scrappers, dented and notched tools, beak-like and chisel-like tools, piercers, etc. They are all very coarse and archaic like pebble articles. The complex as a whole has no analogies among the earliest relicts of the Early Acheulian period. However, this archaeological material is similar to both the pebble culture of lower layers and the artifacts of the Middle Acheulian (5th) layer. This culture is a transition stage between the pebble and Acheulian.

A hearth 5-7 cm thick and 20 x 30 cm in diameter situated closer to the southern rock wall has been found and studied in this layer. This is the most ancient hearth which to authors opinion date back to the Early Mindelian Glacial epoch. Apart from the tools, numerous bones of various animals have bones found at this encampment. The bones are heavily fossilized and broken, some portions of them are charred.

Big animals were mainly hunted such as Vulpes off vulpes, Crocuta spelae, Spelearctos speleus, Ursus cf. arctos, Cervus mesopotamica, Equus succenbornensis, Equus hidruntinus, Dicerorhinus mercki, Bison schotensaei. From the animal species hunted by the inhabitants of Azykh cave it may be inferred that the climate grew markedly colder and damper in the Early Archeulian culture in Azykh is equivalent to the time of formation of the Baku deposits which, according to the most investigators, date back to the Mindelian Glasiation. It is observed that typical animal species of the Tiraspol complex such as Bison schotensaci, Dicerorhinus mercki, etc., have been found in the Early Acheulian layer which points to the fact that this layer dates back to the Baku period (Mindelian and Pre-Mindelian time of the Pleistocene, Tiraspol).

Middle Acheulian culture. As was already mentioned above, the lower series with the pebble culture is replaced by a hard layer containing the Early Acheulian culture which in turn is followed by the 5th layer represented by the Middle Acheulian culture (the end of the Mindel or Mindel-Riss). Archaeological excavations in the 5th layer discovered stone work tools consisting mainly of choppers which are accompanied by hand-axes and other implements made by the Clecton technique and coarse piercers. The stone artifacts are typologically very similar to those of the lower 6th layer or, to be more exact, the implements retain the appearance which is typical for the Early Acheulian.

It is evident from the artifacts of these Azykh layers that the development of work tools was slow and their change was gradual. However, one can see some progress in the development of tool-making industry as a whole.

In 1968 a fragment of the lower jawbone of a fossil man, whom we called Azykh man, was found in the Acheulian layer (V).  The fragment is the right-hand ramus of the mandible along with the back part of the body and the lower part of the ascending ramus.  Of the teeth, the third molar is left totally intact while the second molar is broken level with the crown. The first molar is absent but its socket is clearly defined. A conspicuous feature of the jaw is its massive structure expressed by a comparatively thick body. In this respect the mandible of Azykh man is inferior to that of the Australopitithecus and lies within the variation range of this feature in the Archanthropus or, to be more exact, occupies an intermediate position between the jaws of the Peking man and the Mauer man and is evidently bigger that that of the Paleoanthropus. 

It can be seen from the comparative data that in spite of having some specific structural indications, the jaw exhibits features of which some are characteristic of the Pithecanthropi, especially of the Mauer jaw, however, with a great number of progressive changes, and some are characteristics of the Pre-Neanderthalers form the Acheulian layer of Arago in France. 

Apart from crude stone implements and the mandible of a Pre-Neanderthaler a considerable amount of food scrap, a good few of hearths, remnants of a hiding-place and masonry, etc. were discovered in the 5th layer of Azykh which is of great interest for our research.


Hunting was an extensive occupation of the inhabitants of Azykh in the Middle Acheulian. While in the Early Aheulian II species of big animals were the object of hunting, the people in the Middle Acheulian used to hunt 45 species of animals and birds such as Bufo viridis Lauren, Testudo of graeca, Erinaceus europaecus L., Rh. ferrumequin um Scherb., Rh. mehelyi Matsch, Myotis oxygnathus Mont, Miniopterus Scheribersi Kuhl, Canis cf. lupus L., Canis aureus L., Vulpes vulpes L., Meles meles L., Martes cf. foina Erxl., Crocuta spelaca Coldf., Felis chaus Güld, Felis lynx L., Panthera pardus L., Spelaearctos spelaeus Rosnm., Ursus off. arctos L., Ursus sp., Sus serofa L., Caprelous capreolis L., Cervus (Dama) cf. mesopotamica Brooke, Megaloceros giganteus Blumen, Cervus elaphus L., Garella af. subgutturosa Güld, Capra aegagrus Erxl, Bison sp., Equus caballus L., Equue hidruntinus Reg., Dicerorhinus mercki Jaeg, Lepus aeropaeus L., Proochotona sp., Ochotona azerica Gadz et Ali, Hystrix leucura Sykes, Microtus cf. arvalis Palp., etc.

Cave bears and various species of deer were the principle hunting objects for Azykh man. According to the number of bones, Proochotona played a definite part in the nutrition of Azykh people who realized very well the importance of the game. Hunting provided people not only with food, it gave them clothes and offered them a possibility to make shelters, etc. The Acheulian period is characterized by a very high level of hunting.

It was under the influence of the rapid development of hunting that people began to make artificial hearths by digging pits in the ground and encircling them with masonry or with the semicircular bars. It is but natural that three hearths were found in the Acheulian layer of Azykh. One hearth alone occupies the area of about 10 square meters; it is encircled from three sides by wood charcoal and 30 cm high walls of flat limestone blocks were discovered in close vicinity. A small hearth was also found two edges of which were fixed by flat blocks. Of particular interest is the fact that the Early Acheulian and the Middle Acheulian hearths are on the same site. This is an important testimony to the continuity of traditions. 

Azykh people apprehended very well the economical significance of bear and deer hunting. In addition, the cave bear acquires religious significance for Azykh people. It cannot be accident that a hiding-place was discovered in the Acheulian layer near the hearths. Skulls of cave bears were laid into this hiding-place. All skulls were cut off in a similar ways, all of them are without both upper and lower jaws. No skulls have any traces of fraumata. Of particular interest is a skull with eight oblique notches 15, 18, 20, 24, 25, 45 and 47 mm long. The notch-to-notch distances are also different. These dimensions indicate the fact that there were no system in the length of the notches and in the distance between them. All notches are made by dented tools with bifacial edges. The notches seem to be related to some religious ideas of Azykh people. The skull notches in Azykh are the most ancient in the world. Similar findings were made in Bilzingsleben (Türingen, Germany). 

A unique phenomenon was discovered in the hiding-place of Azykh cave which is undoubtedly related to some religious notions of its inhabitants. In one case, we found two jawbones cut into halves and forming a cross. In the other case, this picture was repeated graphically; a cross notch was found among other notches on one of the skulls. No such phenomena has been known for any other relict from the Acheulian time. 

As far as keeping bear skulls in a special hiding-place is concerned, it is most probably related to the formation of religious conceptions. These rites are rare for the Acheulian epoch; they are discovered in the Acheulian layer in Kudaro in the South of Osetia (Georgia) and in the Lazaret Cave in the South of France.
The presence of some heat-loving animals shows that the climate became warmer in the Middle Acheulian epoch.

Early Mousterian culture.
The 4th layer of the cave is sterile. It is covered by the 3rd layer with the Mousterian materials. It is seen from the stratigraphic scale that Azykh people left the cave for a period of time after the Middle Acheulian, apparently in the beginning of Riss Glaciation. In the end of this epoch, man returned to the cave and dwelt there up to the middle of the Mousterian epoch. In Azerbaijan as in other countries, Acheulian is followed by the Mousterian period on the stratigraphic scales. More than two thousand stone artifacts and numerous animal bones were discovered in the Mousterian layer. The implements are denticulate the Mousterian with the presence of bifaces of final Acheulian type.

The terro-fauna of the Early Mousterian culture in the 3rd layer of Azykh cave is less rich as compared with the Acheulian fauna due to the absence of some heat-loving species. The animals discovered here were as follows: Spelaerctos spelaeus, Ursus aff. arctos, Sus scrofa, Capreolus capreolus, cervus (Dama) cf. mesopotamica, Megaloceros giganteus, cervus elaphus, Capra aegagreus, Equus hidruntinus, Dicerorhinus mercki.

There is reason to believe that this stage is chronologically coincident with the end of Riss Glaciation and, consequently, with the top of the Upper Khazar horizon of the Caspian Sea.
As is obvious from the foregoing, the Paleolithic cave encampment of Azykh is unique as to its age, multilayer character, stratigraphic sequence and the abundance of archaeological materials.

Based on the stone implement production technique of the Early and Middle Paleolith can be traced on the stratigraphic scale. The fauna and archaeological findings give us a deeper insight into the economic conditions of Azykh people. The materials found in Azykh cave greatly contribute to our knowledge of the life and creative activity of man in this remote epoch.

28.01.2011     Print  Print