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Azykh and Taghlar caves - prehistoric sites of Azerbaijan

There are hundreds of archaeological monuments related to the rich history of Azerbaijan in Karabakh. Among the most famous ones are the Azykh and Taghlar cave camps.  

Azykh Cave was formed as a result of the washing action of water on tufa deposits when humans did not yet exist. It was discovered as an archaeological monument from the Upper Palaeolithic period by Azerbaijani palaeontologist Mammadali Huseynov in 1960. Indeed, tools belonging to the Upper Palaeolithic period (150 thousand years ago) were discovered at a depth of 2-3 meters, and becoming a highly skilled specialist in this period was important to identify human activity among those stones. In 1960, the only specialist on this period of history in Azerbaijan was Mammadali Huseynov, Doctor of Historical Sciences. It is not coincidental that he is referred to as the founder of ancient Stone Age science in Azerbaijan.      

During the archeological excavations on the southern entrance of the Azykh cave, 10 archeological layers were recorded. The total thickness of the sediment is 14.5 meters. The first ten meters cover layers 1-6. The remaining 4.5 meters are layers 7-10. The first upper layer was uninhabited. However, during the last 3-4 thousand years, at the same time, in the Middle Ages, until it was possible to easily enter the cave, shepherds herding cattle found shelter there. Archaeologists have determined this by finding several pottery fragments belonging to those periods in the upper layer of the cave. Simply, in modern times, shepherds carry water in plastic containers, previously in glass containers, and in ancient times, they used vessels made of clay, and the remnants belong to that period.      

Azykh cave (Azykh means "bear" in ancient Turkic languages) is one of the rare examples of ancient cave-type human settlements worldwide. It is the only multi-layered monument belonging to the Lower Anthropogenic period. The cave has served as a dwelling and workshop for archanthropes and even more ancient humans, proving that habitation existed approximately a million years ago in the territory of Azerbaijan. The Azykh cave consists of six chambers connected by narrow passages. A part of the jawbone of an early human from the Acheulian period was found in the Azykh cave making it the third such discovery in the world. This finding confirms that ancient people inhabited the territory of Azerbaijan. The cave exhibits layers with a thickness of 10-14 meters, representing different periods. In the Lower Palaeolithic layers, over 30,000 fossilized animal bones, mainly from hunted animals, and occasionally fish bones, indicate that the cave's inhabitants were engaged in both hunting and fishing. Recent excavations in the Acheulian layer revealed four fireplaces. 

Azykh cave is located on the southeastern slope of the Lesser Caucasus mountains in the southwest of Azerbaijan, between the villages of Azykh and Salakatin of the Khojavand region of Karabakh, in the Guruchay area, 14 km from the city of Fuzuli, so this ancient residential complex is called "Guruchay culture".          

One of the caves registered as a state monument of global significance is the Taghlar cave camp. The cave camp is another archaeological site that was inhabited by prehistoric humans of the Mousterian culture during the Paleolithic. The cave is located in the Khojavand region of Azerbaijan, 3 kilometers from the Azykh cave, south of the Boyuk Taghlar village and on the left bank of the Guruchay River.   

Taghlar cave camp is considered one of the best-studied archaeological monuments in Azerbaijan for the Middle Palaeolithic period, known as the Mousterian culture in scientific literature. In that period, the ancient people living in the territory of Azerbaijan spread to wider areas. They settled in the southeastern slopes of the Lesser Caucasus, in the regions of Nakhchivan, Karabakh, and Gazakh. Our archaeologists discovered and studied rich examples of material culture from the Middle Palaeolithic period in the caves of Gazma in Nakhchivan, Damjili in Gazakh and Taghlar in Karabakh. 

Archaeologists Mammadali Huseynov and Asadulla Jafarov conducted archaeological research in the Taghlar cave camp in 1963-1978. Archaeological excavations resulted in the discovery of more than 7,000 stone tools and over 2,000 fossilized bones, along with six cultural sediment layers. The first layer belongs to the late Holocene, while the rest belongs to the late Pleistocene. The largest cavity of the cave with an area of 120 square meters, was estimated to belong to the Pleistocene era. Other parts are linked to the Mousterian period. Pottery shards of the Middle Ages, the Bronze Age and the Copper Age were found right underneath the top layer. Indices of the Mousterian culture were found in between the 2nd and 6th layers. The most intensive presence of hominins was discovered during the excavations of layer 4b and the upper part of layer 5, since it is in these layers that the most significant hearth interlayers, accumulations of bones, coals and flints have been observed. It is generally accepted that the hominins lived in the Taghlar cave during the period from 64 thousand to 24 thousand years ago. The 5th layer was marked by the discovery of remains of large mammals such as a horse, a noble deer, and a bull, as well as remains of bones of small mammals (Rodentia). The collection includes fragments of the lower and upper jaws of rodents with molars and incisors, as well as individual samples of incisors and molars. A quantitative analysis of bone remains from the Taghlar cave shows that the main objects of hunting by hominins were red deer and bezoar goat, the former being rather present in the upper Mousterian levels, and the latter of the middle levels. At the same time, these species also serve as an indicator of significant changes in natural conditions in the area of the cave. The absolute predominance of the remains of red deer in layer 2, supported by the finds in the same layer of wild boar, bear, and badger bones, suggests a certain afforestation of the area, while the predominance of bezoar goat bones in layers 3 and 4a indicates a drier climate and more open spaces. The tools discovered in the Taghlar cave reveal the fact that prehistoric people used a very wide range of sedimentary (shale and flints of various values) and volcanic (obsidian, andesite) stones. The predominant part of the tools is made up of schists, flints and obsidians. 

During the occupation period, illegal excavations were carried out by Armenia in the Azykh and Taghlar caves, just like in other historical and cultural monuments. 

It should be noted that the relevant scientific institutions of Azerbaijan took action against the illegal excavations conducted in the Azykh cave and exposed the unlawful actions of Armenians and their supporters based on available scientific evidence, both at the international and regional level. In 2002, within the framework of the International "INTAS-2000" program, 22 eminent scientists from European countries, led by Professor Henri de Lumley, visited Baku. They familiarized themselves with the material culture remains found in multi-layered sites such as Azykh, Taghlar, Gazma and others. These scientists unanimously acknowledged the exceptional scientific importance of these findings for the fields of world archaeology, paleontology, and paleoanthropology.   

Currently, significant efforts are being made for the restoration and preservation of the historical and cultural monuments located in our territories liberated from occupation. In this regard, one of the implemented measures concerns the Azykh and Taghlar cave camps. The State Service for Protection, Development and Restoration of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture has taken relevant steps regarding the establishment of the "Azykh-Taghlar cave camps" State Historical-Archaeological Reserve located in Khojavand district.   

Azerbaijan’s Prehistoric sites of Azykh and Taghlar caves located in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan were inscribed in the Tentative List by the decision of the 45th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh on September 23, 2023.