Kurdistan, Where Historical Credit is Due

By Mehrdad R. Izady, 1992

In correspondence with the prestigious British scientific journal, Nature (Vol.360,5, Nov. 1992, p.24), Rudolph Michel of the Museum of Applied Science, Center for Archaeology, Patrick McGovern of University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania and Vlrginia Badler, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Toronto, provide archaeological and laboratory evidence regarding the world's oldest existing trace of the production of barley beer. Their investigations took place at the archaeological site of Godin, six miles (10 kilometers) east of Kangawar in southern Kurdistan in Iran. It was at this same site where, a few years earlier, evidence of the earliest grape wine production (also dating between 4000-4500 years ago) was found by the Royal Ontario Museum of Canada team that originally excavated the site.

The disturbing, but not surprising, element in their report 1S that they attribute the development of beer making technology to the far off Sumerians, just as several years earlier winemaking technology was similarly attributed to the Sumerians.

Yet for the past three generations it has been in Kurdistan where archaeologists have been excavating to find evidence for the invention and development of the technologies that transformed man-the-hunter into man-the-farmer and ultimately into man-the-civilized. It is as if the Kurdish mountains and their inhabitants could not possibly have been the site of technologies of such significance, despite irrefutable evidence that they themselves unearthed. Almost instinctively, archaeologists have been reluctant to attribute origins to the original inhabitants of Kurdistan. Instead, they continue to search for external originating sources, at times with a measure of desperation. When such a source eludes them, they tend to list the originating culture as "unknown." By contrast, when evidence is found in other loci of civilization, as in Mesopotamia, Egypt or Greece, for example, it is automatically attributed to these cultures until proven otherwise.

The reverse is true in treating cultures of the Kurdish mountains. The irony is that, as in the case of bear and wine discoveries, the argument supporting Sumerian involvement is based on evidence that is not only indirect but of later date (i.e., from seal impressions). Kurdish hard evidence deriving from actual fermentation vats complete with dried calcium oxalate sediments (beer residue), is dismissed. Yet Michel et al admit that the carbonized remains of barley used in preparation of the beer was also found first at Godin, as were grapes used for wine making. A brief but close examination of the archaeological evidence and the relationship that existedbetween Kurdish mountain societies and the Sumerians indicate both the direction of influence and the reasons behind it.

Godin was by no means the isolated incidence of technological sophistication in an otherwise culturally and technologically barren region that would justify the search for an external civilizing influence. In fact, the mound of Godin (or Gawdin) is located in one of the world's richest archaeological regions stretching for one hundred miles from Shahabad, one of the capitals of the ancient Elamites, to Hamadan, the capital of the ancient Medians. In this region the problem for the archaeologist is not where to excavate but which to choose from the literally hundreds of mounds, temples, palace complexes and cave habitats. Here one finds some of the earliest evidence of the domestication of cereals (e.g., barley and wheat), livestock (e.g., goats and sheep) and development of other basic technologies datingback 11000 years (Braidwood et al,1960). Additionally, in the same region are found remains of the world's oldest glazed pottery at Seh Gabi (Levine, 1974; Vandiver,1990), earliest experiments with writing and accounting at Godin and Ganj Dara (Schmandt-Besserat, 1986; Nissen, 1986; Green, 1981), and now, wine and beer. At a time when most of the rest of the world inhabited caves, Godin appears to have been a major city with well planned and solidly constructed buildings, a city contemporaneous with the oldest cities of Sumeria and Akkadia. Today Godin can be seen as an imposing mound on the eastern horizon if one stands on the remains of its 2300-year-old grand staircases and the vast colonnaded temple platform of the Goddess Anahita at Kangawar.

This entire archaeological region straddles the old Silk Road which is predated by millenia by other important commercial arteries of the ancient world connecting East to West over the Iranian Plateau, lowland Mesopotamia and the Levant. As such, the region boasted a commerce oriented civilization that exported many of its technological achievements and products and now holds the remains of artifacts and raw materials imported from far away sources and cultures.

About 4500 years ago, this region served as the heartland of the native empire of the Qutils, who were among the Hurrian, Palaeo-Caucasic ancestors of the modern Kurds before their Arianization by immigrating Indo-European tribes: Medes, Sagarthians and Scytho-Alans. Qutil military might soon expanded from their capital of Aratta and the Kurdish mountains to subdue every neighboring region including Sumeria and Akkadia. In light of the discovery at Godin of many well constructed buildings, a wealth of artifacts and new technology, the city is the strongest candidate for the site of ancient Aratta.

The Qutil general, Merkar, declared his independence from the mountain domains of the Qutil Federation, whose king was his own brother. Having broken away from Aratta, circa 2500 BC, Merkar succeeded in establishing a separate Qutil dynasty that ruled independently over Sumerian and Akkadian citystates. Merkar took the reknowned Uruk (Erech-Kulab) of Gilgamesh for his capital. The Qutils actually settled and flourished in large numbers in Sumeria, populating, among others, the twin city of Kesh-Adab (Kramer,1987). Conversely, there has never been any evidence to indicate that the Sumerians expanded, let alone settled any part of the far off Kurdish highlands.

It is absolutely extraordinary that to this day, tablets have survived that record the correspondence between the Qutil ruler in Aratta and the rebellious Merkar (commonlyknown as Enmerkar. after he took up the Sumerian royal title of En). These now represent some of the most valuable written records of the history of the Kurdish highlands in ancient times. Fortunately, S. Noah Kramer, the foremost Sumerialogist, has translated this correspondence establishing that there was a good deal of commercial and political contact between Aratta and Uruk. In none of this correspondence is there a hint that the society at Aratta (Godin?) was less sophisticated or perceived as such by the Uruk of Sumeria.

Since the Kurdish mountains are the natural habitat of wild barley, wheat and many other cereals and evidence points to domestication there and not in the Sumerian marshlands and deserts where domesticated cereals were introduced from the highlands at a much later date one can logically conclude that the fermented product of barley for beer making also origined in the same highlands. Recent archaeological evidence alluded to above only reinforces this logic. In fact, the beer and wine discovered at Godin date from the precise time period of the Qutil takeover of Sumeria and could have been introduced by the group which gave rise to Enmerkar in Sumeria. Indirect Sumerian evidence from seal markings depicting people drinking beer through straws from a common vat post-dates the Qutil dynasty of that land.

Moreover, the Sumerian tablets also record another introduction into Sumeria by the Qutil, Enmerkar, the cult of the birdgod Anzu, still worshipped by the Yezidi Kurds as the bird icon Anzul (or Anzal).

While lacking in justification, hints by the Michel group of Sumerian origin for Godinbeer technologyprompted theNew York Tmes on 5 November to carry an article squarely attributing the invention of beer (and grape wine) to the Sumerians with no mention of the Kurdish mountains in Iran, deep inside which the actual discovery occurred. The contribution of the Kurds and their inventive ancestors was totally ignored. On the following day, the New York Post carried a cartoon depicting beer-guzzling "Sumerians" in ancient Egyptian costumes with a caption over their heads that reads, "Iraq's Best Beer."

Mehrdad R. Izady, Harvard University [Kurdish Life, Number 4, Fall 1992].

Sources: Braidwood, R. et al, "Seeking the World's First Farmers in Persian Kurdistan: A Full Scale Investigation of Pre-historic Sites Near Kirmanshah," Ill. Lon. News (October 22, 1960); Levine, L. D., "The Excavations at Seh Gabi," Proceedings of the Third Annual Symposium on Archaeological Research in Iran (Chicago,1974); Vandiver, P., "Ancient Glazes," Scientific American 262:4 (April 1990); Schmandt-Besserat, D., "An Ancient Token System: the Precursor to Numerals and Writing," Archaeology (November-December 1986; Nissen, H., "The Development of Writing and of Glyptic Art," (Wiesbaden, 1986); Green, M. W., "The Construction and Implementation of the Cuneiform Writing System," Visible Language, xv.4 (1981); Kramer, S. Noah, "Ancient Sumer and Iran: Gleanings from Sumerian Literature,"Bulletin of the Asia Institute, I (1987).