Blog Post #10: Mountain Peoples of the Zagros with Steve Renette

Peopling the Past brings you an ongoing blog series, “Unknown Peoples”, featuring researchers who investigate understudied and/or marginalized peoples in the past.

The history of ancient Mesopotamia is usually written from the perspective of urban elites, with a focus on the emergence of cities and states, the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires. In many ways, such an approach makes sense considering how much urban elite culture and political endeavors have shaped the history of the region in the past 5000 years. At the same time, the contributions of peoples that did not live in cities remains underappreciated.

Figure 1. Map showing Iraq-Iran border and the Zagros Mountains

My own research focuses on the mountain peoples that lived at the eastern edge of the Mesopotamian plains, in the Zagros Mountains. These peoples feature in numerous Mesopotamian textual records, which provide us with ethnic labels such as the Guti, the Lullubi, and the Turukkeans or the names of geographical regions such as Elam. Despite glimpses offered in these textual records, the mountain peoples of the ancient Near East remain largely peoples without history, to borrow the term from Eric Wolf (1982). Just as Wolf emphasized the role of non-European peoples in the formation of the globalized, capitalist world in modern history, my research aims to investigate the contributions of the Zagros mountain peoples to the formation of the economically integrated Bronze Age world that encompassed societies from the eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia and northern India.

Archaeology of the Zagros Mountains

Research on the Zagros mountain peoples peaked during the 1960s and 70s when several archaeological teams set up long-term survey and excavation projects in western Iran. These projects came to a sudden end and often remained largely unpublished with the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. This pause in fieldwork activities also the publication of scholarly works that established the narrative of a mountainous landscape populated mainly by nomadic tribes (Carter & Stolper 1984; Hole 1987; Voigt & Dyson 1992). These projects attempted to reconstruct the lifeways of ancient Zagros peoples. Rather than relying on Mesopotamian textual sources, they used ethnographic studies of contemporary communities, which were often tribal and nomadic, alongside archaeological fieldwork (Kramer 1982; Mortensen 1993; Watson 1979).

Figure 2. The Basira (or Deleuzhe) pass through the Qara Dagh range
Figure 2. The Basira (or Deleuzhe) pass through the Qara Dagh range (photo by S. Renette)

Clare Goff’s pioneering work in the western Iranian province of Luristan is exemplary of this approach, described in her autobiographical account An Archaeologist in the Making (1980). Between 1963 and 1969, she traveled through the rugged terrain, which at the time largely lacked a modern infrastructure, to document archaeological landscapes in remote Zagros valleys, map the routes of nomadic tribes, and excavate a stratified sequence at the site of Baba Jan.

The archaeologists’ interest in the 20th century ways of life and use of the landscape in the Zagros Mountains shaped their interpretations of fieldwork results. Ironically, while they aimed to obtain direct information on the socioeconomic organization of the region’s ancient populations, their integration of ethnographically obtained insights often confirmed Mesopotamian accounts of mountain peoples as tribal nomads who at times reverted to a strategy of raiding sedentary communities. It is only recently that archaeologists have started re-examining these conclusions (Hammer & Arbuckle 2017; Potts 2014). These recent approaches emphasize that the ethnographically attested nomadic tribes of the 19th and 20th century have been affected by modern historical processes, imperial restructuring of societies, and capitalist exploitation. As a result, projecting the socioeconomic structures of modern populations back into the ancient past is an academic fallacy that skews interpretation of the archaeological record.

Reinterpreting archaeological data

This opens up the question of how we can study the ancient Zagros mountain peoples and how their societies were organized. These mountain peoples appear in the Mesopotamian historical record at a time when the first empires of Akkad (ca. 2350-2150 BCE) and Ur III (ca. 2100-2000 BCE) attempted to gain control over trade routes from the Iranian highlands through military expansion. Similar to European colonial administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries, these ancient exploitative states struggled with peoples who had developed different social structures and who often inhabited landscapes that were difficult to control.

The site of Kani Shaie during excavation in 2015
Figure 3. The site of Kani Shaie during excavation in 2015 (Kani Shaie Archaeological Project)
Figure 4. Early Bronze Age architecture remains at Kani Shaie (Kani Shaie Archaeological Project)

The depiction of mountain peoples, both ancient and modern, as tribal pastoral nomads obscures the variety in human adaptations to mountainous landscapes. Such narratives of ancient mountain peoples typically depict them as culturally static, only changing under influence from urban centers of innovation located in agricultural plains. Adhering to such an account renders them quite literally as peoples without history because it denies millennia of social evolution and cultural change.

Early Bronze Age sealing with cylinder seal impression from Kani Shaie
Figure 5. Early Bronze Age sealing with cylinder seal impression from Kani Shaie (Kani Shaie Archaeological Project)

My own work on this topic started by going back to the unpublished archaeological data. Archaeological surveys in the Zagros often failed to detect much evidence for occupation during the period of the first cities in Mesopotamia (ca. 3500-2500 BCE). This absence of evidence was quickly interpreted as evidence for a widespread adoption of pastoral nomadism and a complete abandonment of settled villages in response to the economic need for wool and other secondary animal products in Mesopotamian urban economies. However, excavations in 1978 at a site called Chogha Maran, near the present-day city of Kermanshah in Iran, unexpectedly produced evidence for settled occupation during this period. The ceramics in use at this settlement had not been recognized before, until they were found in context during this excavation.

Figure 6. The Darband-i Gawr rock relief (photo by S. Renette)

My reanalysis of survey records of the plains near Kermanshah with this information revealed that dozens of mounded sites showed evidence for occupation in this period, but had simply been missed because its material culture was poorly understood. My fieldwork project at Kani Shaie in Iraqi Kurdistan supports this reinterpretation of the old datasets. There, our team has also uncovered evidence for a thriving agricultural settlement during the early centuries of the third millennium BCE. Painted pottery from Kani Shaie provides evidence for economic engagement between communities in the Zagros foothills and upland valleys. The discovery of a large storage house that was filled with grain stored in sealed containers, together with large numbers of drinking vessels, suggests a communal organization of resources through periodic feasting events. 

Archaeology of resistance

While new archaeological fieldwork in the Zagros continues to elucidate the region’s ancient past, a postcolonial approach to the textual records of ancient mountain peoples reveals their inherent biases of assumed cultural superiority by urban elites. An interesting corpus of rock reliefs, carved in the aftermath of the collapse of the Mesopotamian empires (ca. 2000 BCE), contains some of the earliest visual and written evidence created by ambitious rulers in the western Zagros. Studies of these rock reliefs usually emphasize the influence of Mesopotamian iconography and the integration of Zagros peoples within the wider Mesopotamian cultural and political context.

My current project takes a somewhat different approach inspired by archaeologies of resistance. Following centuries of military incursions and forced economic integration by Mesopotamian states, Zagros peoples seized the opportunity to reassert their autonomy and rights to self-governance. As so often, this process was not peaceful and included conflicting reflections on identity. Such stories can be witnessed firsthand in the 21st century as our own world continues to deal with the aftermath of the European and American colonial enterprise of the past centuries. Again, mountain peoples that suffered through exploitation and repression at the hands of centralized states that are based on agricultural and industrial economic power are reasserting their independence and cultural identity in innovative ways that are closely connected to their mountainous landscape.


Carter, E. & Stolper, M.W. 1984. Elam: Surveys of Political History and Archaeology, Near Eastern Studies 25, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Goff, C. 1980. An Archaeologist in the Making: Six seasons in Iran, London: Constable.

Hammer, E.L. & Arbuckle, B.S. 2017. 10,000 Years of Pastoralism in Anatolia: A Review of Evidence for Variability in Pastoral Lifeways, Nomadic Peoples 20: 214-267.

Hole, F. (ed.) 1987. The Archaeology of Western Iran, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kramer, C. 1982. Village Ethnoarchaeology: Rural Iran in Archaeological Perspective, New York: Academic Press.

Mortensen, I.D. 1993. Nomads of Luristan: History, Material Culture, and Pastoralism in Western Iran, New York: Thames & Hudson.

Potts, D.T. 2014. Nomadism in Iran: From Antiquity to the Modern Era, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Voigt, M.M. & Dyson, Jr., R.H. 1992. The Chronology of Iran, ca. 8000-2000 B.C., in: Ehrich, R.W. (ed.) Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 122-178.

Watson, P.J. 1979. Archaeological Ethnography in Western Iran, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology 57, Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Wolf, E.R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Dr. Steve Renette is a Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies department at the University of British Columbia. His research takes an interdisciplinary approach to investigate how mountain communities of the Zagros region (present-day border region between Iraq and Iran) adapted to highland ecology, developed interaction networks through this fragmented landscape, and maintained their own identity in resistance to incursions from lowland states. Dr. Renette is the co-director of the Kani Shaie Archaeological Project (Iraqi Kurdistan), which explores the emergence of a local center on the border between the Zagros Mountains and the Mesopotamian plains during the Late Chalcolithic (ca. 4600 – 3200 BCE) and the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3200 – 2000 BCE). His current book project – “Resisting the State” – explores the role of mountain peoples in the time of state formation and subsequent expansive imperialism in the ancient Near East between ca. 4000–1500 BCE. 

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