Iran’s Past Harmony With Natural World

Iran’s Past Harmony With Natural WorldIran’s Past Harmony With Natural World

Evidence of 200,000 Years of Human-Animal Bonds in Iran, was the name of a recent exhibition held at Tehran’s Iran National Museum from August to October.  Alongside museum director Mahnaz Gorji, archaeologist Fereydoun Biglari, head of the museum’s Palaeolithic Department, was the main force behind the exhibition.

The exhibition highlights the precarious balance of man’s 200,000-year-old relationship with the natural world, explained Biglari, reported the Guardian.

  Balance Torn Apart

Although man hunted for food and sport and clothing, and was a creature who could dominate landscapes, a delicate balance did not allow for mass species extinction. “In the past century, we have seen that balance completely torn apart,” Biglari said with chagrin. “With this exhibition, we hope to begin a discussion on the path that we have taken.”

In her introduction to the exhibition brochure, Mahnaz Gorji calls the exhibition a “warning bell”. And if this is a bell, Biglari shakes it with vigour, reminding us that once in Iran, there lived lions and tigers.

The Iranian big cats are animals whose disappearance are well know and well publicized.  The critically endangered Asiatic cheetah, for instance, featured on the jerseys of the Iranian National Football Team at the World Cup in Brazil. But there are many other, less well known species within Iran that are already gone or on the verge of disappearance.

“The Asiatic cheetah is present in public conversation, but for some reason, most probably to do with its looks, no-one speaks of the vultures of Iran, who are on a path to extinction,” says Biglari, referring to gypaetus barbatus, often known as the bearded vulture.

This exhibition is all the more timely given vast environmental changes in Iran today. Rivers and lakes are drying up, farmland is turning into barren desert. Many mammals, birds and fish are becoming creatures of a bygone era.

Those behind this exhibition at the National Museum believe the Iranian public needs a broader perspective on humans’ place in the wider world, and that such education can be helped by exposure to Iran’s strong past role in human migration, or to its having been home to Neanderthals, an extinct species closely related to humans that walked the earth from 250,000 to 40,000 years ago.

  On Display

There was in the region of 350 items exhibited, including a 200,000-year-old jaw of an extinct bear (ursus deningeri) found at Darband cave in Roudbar, Gilan Province, in northern Iran by the Caspian sea.  “The cave is a lower Palaeolithic site, which means it dates from the early part of the Palaeolithic period that stretched from 2,500,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago, when humans or their forerunners used tools but had not developed sophisticated art or religious practice,” the curator explained.

Far more recent than the bear’s jaw, and more instantly reflecting humans’ co-existence with other animals, were the exhibition’s miniature paintings of the Safavid era (1501-1736), 19th-century gilded birds from Isfahan, and a magnificent 19th century Qajar book cover featuring mythical creatures including a horse-man and a lion-bird.

There was a 16th-century copy of Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing, a book by Al-Qazwini, the 13th-century astronomer and geographer. The work is partly fiction, partly science, a whimsical chronicle of real and imaginary species, and this copy had never been previously displayed.

Also open to public view for the first time were tooth ornaments worn by humans from 35,000 to 30,000 years ago (during the upper Palaeolithic period) excavated at Yafteh cave, Lorestan Province, western Iran. Tear shaped and fashioned from the teeth of wild deer, their rarity suggests they were worn to denote high status.

A third-millennium BC copper flag from Shahdad, Kerman Province, southern Iran, featured a man and a woman facing each other. The delicate bird at the edge of the flag pole seems at first like a child’s doodle, as do the intricate details of humans, animals and trees. This simplicity is somehow profound: over 4000 years ago lived men who saw themselves at one with their natural surroundings. How drastically things have changed.

Other marvels on display that would be worth seeing again and again included a stone figurine of a boar from the 7th-millennium BC, found at Tape Sarab, Kermanshah. There were grander figurines on display, but the boar was so full of character and carved to the finest detail – despite its tiny size, perhaps a third of an index finger – that one could almost imagine it running out of the glass case.

  Curator’s Hopes

One of Biglari’s hopes is that such an exhibition will encourage the Iranian Heritage Organization to fund future Palaeolithic excavations. Sites in Kermanshah and Gilan have shown there is a much older history than currently understood just waiting to be revealed: “Gilan currently furnishes the most convincing evidence for the earliest evidence of the presence of hominins [humans and our immediate ancestors] in the Iranian plateau,” writes Biglari.

Biglari himself has also been involved with efforts to excavate middle Palaeolithic sites in Kermanshah, such as Warkaini, where middle and upper Palaeolithic stone tools have been found. “Neanderthals lived in Kermanshah caves 85,000 to 40,000 years ago,” reports the Iranian Centre for Archaeology and Bordeaux University, after an excavation project headed by Biglari.

While he and his team have not had the opportunity to excavate further in Darband cave, the ecological similarity between the west of Alborz mountains and the northern Caucasus where Neanderthal remains have been found encourages hope of further finds. In places such as Shanidar cave in Iraqi Kurdistan and Azykh cave in Azerbaijan bones attributed to Neanderthals have been excavated and studied. Biglari hopes that in coming years, more serious resources will be invested to pursue such scholarship in Iran.

Biglari regrets not translating the exhibition posters from Farsi, since at the time of planning, there were few foreign tourists in Tehran. “As luck would have it, the situation improved and now we are seeing busloads of tourists, but all we had time for was an English brochure.”

  Historic Sites Vulnerable

Biglari disapproves of tourists being given access to certain sites.  He recounts how the Roudbar cave was open to visitors, and how on his return there a few months after excavations ended:  “For days, the team and I were going around collecting juice and water bottles. We simply don’t have the infrastructure to allow in tourists without destroying what is there, ” he noted.

With its archaeological treasures, historic sites all over Iran are vulnerable, the curator said. Referring to the rampant looting at Susa, “Khuzestan is tragic story,” Biglari said, shaking his head in bewilderment.

In so many ways, “the world we know today is so unlike the world opened up by the exhibition in which we sense the interconnectedness felt with their surroundings by the creators of bowls, figurines, incense burners or books. Perhaps what we take away most is the comfort with which man seems to have once spoken of other beings; and sense that there is no clear boundary between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.”

Although it may never influence policy nationally or internationally, and though we may continue to plunder until there is nothing left, the exhibition depicts where we began and how we got here. Fereydoun Biglari is out to show us Iran in a way we have never seen before and to remind us that we must save other creatures if we are not to lose ourselves.