Archaeologists worldwide are having hissy fits because numerous sites in modern-day Iran and the surrounding region are giving up evidence that a vast network of societies constituted the first cities, redefining the origins of modern civilization.
Residents of the cities traded goods across hundreds of miles and forged parallel but strikingly independent cultures. The social structures, wealth and technologies of this society slowly spread along the Nile and then the Indus rivers in the 3rd millennium B.C.
Archaeologists have thought modern civilization began in Mesopotamia, where the large Tigris and Euphrates rivers bounded a fertile valley that nurtured an increasingly complex society.
"People didn't think you could have large settlements this early without large rivers emptying into an ocean. No one knew of these sites," reporter Andrew Lawler wrote in the Aug. 3 issue of Science magazine on the key findings, which were discussed at a recent archaeological conference in Ravenna, Italy.
One site proved particularly important for convincing some scientists of the error of the accepted history. Locals had been uncovering artifacts in an ancient cemetery near Jiroft and flooding the art market with pottery and other goods. Researchers tracked these curiously unique pieces back to their source, where, Lawler said, they found "a vast moonscape of craters made by looters."
But further exploration of two nearby mounds found evidence of a large city, one that may have rivaled contemporary Ur in Mesopotamia. "These people were trading with the Indus, with Mesopotamia, to the north and south," Lawler explained.
According to Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky of Harvard University, the site dates back to 4000 B.C., signifying that the Jiroft site and its environs were once home to a long-lived culture, not a brief response to Mesopotamian wealth.
The entire area of interest spreads roughly from the eastern border of Iran to the Pakistani-Iranian border, and from the Russian steppes southward through the Persian Gulf area and onto the Arabian Peninsula.
The potential discovery of a new writing system was perhaps the largest controversy of the many discussed at the conference. Three tablets, the first discovered by a local farmer and the others subsequently unearthed by professional archaeologists, appear to contain a unique iconography.