VIII.14. The Caucasus

The early Trialeti cultural complex (ca. 2000–1700 BC) shows a significant connection of the southern Caucasus with neighbouring lands, in particular Anatolia, and is characterised by their barrow tradition and mobile subsistence economy. The main difference between barrows is the richness displayed. The lavish and grandiose log structures corresponded to the elite social class, who practised cremation with ashes placed in wooden containers, and the only bones appearing in the burial being those of animals, especially cattle. This change in ritual has been associated with a religious change, a transformation of the physical into the metaphysical, which had the effect of entrenching power and authority of the leader and his kin (Sagona 2017).

In the second rank, the dead were interred. Some tombs were also rich, displaying four-wheeled vehicles, and animal remains probably consumed during a ritual feast. The lowest rank is represented by small barrows with poor assemblages. Bronze tools and weapons, which are not found in large numbers in elite burials, are more common in small barrows. Interesting is the deposit of skin of the sacrificed oxen (and later of horses) with its severed forelegs attached, a practice widespread in the Eurasian steppes during the 4th millennium BC, and seen in funerary rites in central and northern Europe up to the medieval period (Sagona 2017).

Wagons and carts, which had been known in the Caucasus since the Kura–Araxes culture, continue to be built and probably represent an important part of the subsistence economy and symbolism in Trialeti, with the practice of burial wagons spreading beyond its borders, and not being gender specific. This tradition was continued in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1000 BC), with some of the greatest concentrations and highest complexity of carpentry displayed during this time (Sagona 2017). There is no evidence of large-scale regional movements based on isotopic evidence, though, especially to the south into the Ararat Plain, although it is unclear how mobile specific local pastoralist groups may have been (Chazin, Gordon, and Knudson 2019). 

Their objects of precious metals and bronze show a fusion of local traits with foreign influences, suggesting its participation in a system of exchange extending to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd millennium BC. The slim sword blade (rapier) found in Trialeti, with its slender, sharply edged and pointed form, 1-meter long and widening at the handle end, is best suited for thrusting attacks. It has been suggested that it represents a local development on the basis of south Caucasian rapiers, that spread to the Aegean via Anatolia (Sagona 2017).

viii.14. Caucasians and Armenians

Individuals of the Late North Caucasus post-Catacomb horizon from Kabardinka (ca. 2200–2000 BC), one of hg. R1b1a1b-Z2103, show typical Steppe ancestry profile, while MBA samples from a site 90 km to the west, Kudachurt (ca. 1950–1775 BC), one of hg. J2b2a1-L283+, retain the typical ‘southern’ Caucasus profile. This ‘southern’ genetic profile is also seen in a recent individual of the western LBA Dolmen culture (ca. 1400–1200 BC), of hg. J2a-M410+. Contrasting with these populations, an individual of the Lola culture (ca. 2115–1925 BC), of hg. Q1b2a1a1a-L717+, resembles the ancestry profile of steppe Maikop individuals, of high ANE ancestry—one of which was of hg. Q1b2b1b-L932+clustering closely to Afontova Gora 3, which suggests the survival of certain isolated pockets in the region since the Epipalaeolithic (Wang et al. 2019).

The language ancestral to Armenian, like Phrygian, is believed to have belonged to the peoples that came from the west and overran the Hittite empire around the 12th century BC (Beekes 2011). The collapse of the Hittite power (ca. 1180 BC) seems to have only impacted regional centres over the next generation (i.e. by mid-12th c. BC), with a radical reorganisation of the economy over a relatively short period (less than 100 years), and a distinctive Early Iron Age material culture suggestinig an increase in population mobility across the region (Kealhofer, Grave, and Voigt 2019). The suggested migration of Balkan peoples through Anatolia, evidenced by the eventual rapid emergence of the Phrygian polity (ca. 9th c. BC) may be related to the intrusion of a population with elevated Steppe ancestry reflected in two sampled individuals of the Hellenistic period from Kalehöyük (ca. 1200–30 BC), although this ancestry is most likely related to later Iron Age Galatians, of Celtic origin (de Barros Damgaard, Martiniano, et al. 2018).

Armenia MLBA samples show an increase in EHG (ca. 10%) and Anatolia Neolithic ancestry (ca. 55%) relative to previous Kura–Araxes and Chalcolithic samples, with an intermediate position between both in the PCA (Allentoft et al. 2015). The diversity of haplogroups and the presence of certain clear outliers of steppe origin suggests close interactions between peoples of the southern and the northern Caucasus.

The sampling of Armenia MLBA includes three individuals of Nerquin Getashen (ca. 1900–1200 BC), one of hg. R1b-M343, two of hg. E1b1-P2; two samples from Kapan (ca. 1200–850 BC), one of hg. R1b-M343; two samples from Norabak (ca. 1200–900 BC), one of hg. J2b2a-M241; and one sample from Noratus (ca. 1050 BC). Interesting is the finding of R1b-M343 subclades in the region—although they may be related to the previously described resurgence of R1b1a-L388and especially of haplogroup J2b2a-M241, which is also found in the Jazinka Cave in the western Balkans (ca. 780 BC), with elevated Steppe ancestry (ca. 35%), supporting a potential recent Balkan origin of certain typically Neolithic subclades.

An individual of an Iron Age burial at Tepe Hasanlu (ca. 971-832 BC), of haplogroup R1b1a1b1b-Z2103+, and with contributions of Steppe ancestry, clustering close to previous Armenia MLBA samples (Broushaki et al. 2016), is most likely related to the arrival of Armenian speakers to the region. Another sample of Hajji Firuz Tepe, attributed to the Chalcolithic, but with a date incompatible with its reported haplogroup R1b1a1b1b-Z2103, also shows contribution of Steppe ancestry and a position in the PCA compatible with interactions with populations of the Caucasus (Narasimhan et al. 2018), being thus also likely related to incoming Armenians[33].

The origin of Armenian speakers in the region is complicated with the current data because of the poorly documented archaeological context of samples potentially related to Armenians published from Armenia and Northern Iran; the lack of peer-reviewed studies on the origin of the Steppe ancestry in these samples; and the potential origin of R1b1a1b1b-Z2103 in earlier northern Caucasus populations (potentially integrated in Caucasus populations since the Maikop period), in the Balkans (among Palaeo-Balkan-speaking populations), and probably among certain Indo-Aryan and Iranian groups expanding into the Fertile Crescent. Nevertheless, the clear genetic shift from previous Chalcolithic and EBA (i.e. Kura–Araxes) individuals to Armenia MLBA samples and their outliers is coincident with the expected period of their arrival in the region.

In the case of the Armenian highlands, there is ancestry levelling and genetic continuity in the Middle East during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic (Lazaridis et al. 2016), including ancient mtDNA lineages, also partially during the Bronze Age and Iron Age, which suggests a late and heavily male-biased migration of Armenians (Margaryan et al. 2017). This genetic continuity of Armenians has traditionally been explained by a history of genetic isolation from their surroundings (Haber, Mezzavilla, Xue, et al. 2016). The current data of northern Caucasus populations seems to contradict a late expansion of peoples from the steppe through the Caucasus.

Populations of the western part of the Armenian Highland, Van, Turkey, and Lebanon show genetic affinity with European populations, and their absence in previous studies “should be considered a consequence of the absence in their Armenian datasets of populations from the western region of the Armenian highland” (Hovhannisyan et al. 2014). Ascertaining the origin of Armenians is hindered by the loss of data due to the effects of the Armenian Genocide and massive population displacements of the 19th and 20th centuries.