Conversations with: Dr Sonia Shidrang

Today’s guest is Dr. Sonia Shidrang, an archaeologist in the Palaeolithic Department of the National Museum of Iran. Sonia has led several field projects in the Central Western Zagros and recently has initiated a fieldwork project in the Southern Zagros to compare the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sequences in different regions of this Iranian mountain range. In her research, she attempts to understand the patterns of human behaviour in Late Pleistocene settlements of the Zagros Mountains, particularly in the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition and the beginning of Upper Palaeolithic, through the study of different aspects of lithic artefacts. Back in 2001, she began her Palaeolithic carrier as a junior research assistant at the newly established Centre for Palaeolithic Research of National Museum of Iran and some years later moved to Europe to complete her postgraduate studies in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology. She finished her PhD at PACEA, Bordeaux, in 2015 which proposed a new hypothesis suggesting that bio-cultural contact between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, as another potential explanation, beside site formation process, for the presence of Middle Palaeolithic tools in the beginning of several Upper Palaeolithic occupations in the Zagros.

Dr. Sonia Shidrang during a Palaeolithic survey (Bisotun Mountains, western Iran)

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

Broadly speaking, I am interested in understanding human bio-cultural evolutionary processes during the Pleistocene and the ways that different disciplines, like archaeology, palaeoanthropology, paleogenetics, paleoecology, etc., can be used together to try to explain these processes. I enthusiastically follow the ever-changing image that emerges from combining the results of all of these studies in different geographical regions.

As a Palaeolithic archaeologist, I am particularly interested in tracing the earliest emergence of Upper Palaeolithic cultures in Iran which marks a major dispersal route of modern humans through the crossroad region of Southwest Asia. I’m trying to find reliable evidence for possible contact between these modern newcomers and Neanderthals at our Iranian sites, particularly in Central and Southern Zagros. The main focus of my research has been on the techno-typological and taphonomic studies of lithic artefacts, the most frequent archaeological material left behind by Pleistocene human populations. I am mainly interested in the reconstruction of the operational sequences of Early Upper Palaeolithic lithic industries as they reflect changes in techno-economic behavioural patterns of modern populations when compared to the late Middle Palaeolithic lithic industries of Neanderthals in Zagros.

I think it is absolutely fascinating to trace and understand these variable patterns of human interactions with their environment through time and space with the help of different disciplines.

The Mar Tarik cave excavation, a Middle Paleolithic site in Bisotun, Zagros, Iran (2004)

What originally drew you towards Palaeolithic archaeology? 

Nowadays, the love for archaeology grows from very early ages, as kids watch many archaeological science-fiction movies and documentaries as well as reading fantastic archaeology books especially designed for them. In my case, my love for archaeology started from the early ages as well, but in quite different circumstances. I read my first archaeology-related books, which were extremely rare in the chaotic times of post Iran-Iraq war, when I was ten-years-old. Reading those few books, and later watching movies about Egyptian dynasties, fascinated me and consequently led me to apply for a BA in archaeology at the age of seventeen.

Back in 2001 and during my MA, I started to work at two newly founded centres for Achaemenid studies and Palaeolithic research at the National Museum of Iran as a research assistant, thanks to my computer skills that were quite rare at the time. This was the beginning of my lifelong interest in Palaeolithic archaeology and here I focused on learning how to study lithic artefacts under the direction of Fereidoun Biglari, the first Iranian scholar specialized in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology in Iran. These studies intertwined with reading the pioneering works of Deborah Olszewski and Harrold Dibble on the Warwasi lithic assemblages, and works of several other pioneering researchers, introduced me to the topic of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transitions and the Aurignacian as the first widespread culture made by modern humans in the vast area of Western Eurasia. The second waves of inspirations that ensured me of my lifelong carrier in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology came from a trip to south-western France in 2003 where I met several outstanding French prehistorians. Among them, two prominent women, Laurence Bourguignon and some years later Liliane Meignen inspired me to choose this path seriously as a female researcher in a male-dominated field, especially in Iran.

Sonia’s first inspirations from Paleolithic archaeology of France (Périgord, 2003).

By 2005, I moved to Europe as an Erasmus Mundus Masters student in Quaternary and Prehistory and some years later enrolled in a PhD at PACEA, the University of Bordeaux, as a Wenner-Gren grantee and started my PhD under the supervision of Jacques Jaubert and Jean-Guillaume Bordes. Alongside working on my PhD project at Bordeaux University, I went back to Iran constantly to work on several projects with my colleagues Fereidoun Biglari (a Palaeolithic archaeologist) and Marjan Mashkour (a zooarchaeologist), two outstanding researchers that I have had the privilege of working with from the beginning of my carrier.

I found that it was sometimes difficult to constantly balance life and work within the two completely different worlds of the East and West, but I think dealing with the cross-cultural differences have considerably expanded my perspectives on life and my professional development as an archaeologist who is trying to understand the behavioural patterns of our ancestors in early Prehistory.

Sonia presenting her work during Erasmus Mundus Masters in Quaternary and Prehistory, Ferrara University and Institute for Human Paleontology, Paris (2006).

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My PhD topic was on the Early Upper Palaeolithic of Zagros, involving the techno-typological assessment of three Baradostian lithic assemblages from Khar Cave, Yafteh Cave and Pa-Sangar Rockshelter in the Central Western Zagros, Iran. As previously mentioned, I had the opportunity and privilege to work with two prominent French Prehistorians with deep knowledge of Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic lithic technologies, Jacques Jaubert (Professor of Prehistory) and Jean-Guillaume Bordes (Director of research) who became my supervisors at PACEA. In my PhD, I mainly focused on tracing the techno-typological changes of lithic artefacts throughout the whole sequence of the Baradostian by analysing the three mentioned lithic assemblages from the west of Iran. I tried to contextualize each lithic industry and detect their techno-typological characteristics and cultural changes synchronically and diachronically which all led to me describing three clear phases for the Baradostian in the study region, of which some of their characteristics were highlighted by the previous works.

I also tried to address these issues from a research historical perspective. I took a closer look at all published reports from Dorothy Garrod’s time until the last decade to examine the lithic-based dominant hypothesis of Middle Palaeolithic-Upper Palaeolithic (MP-UP) continuity in all of the excavated sites in Zagros. When all of the chrono-cultural information and their correlations to the stratigraphy were put together, it seemed that despite the dominant hypothesis of MP-UP lithic industrial continuity, the evidence for technological continuity between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic elements is very scarce. Back in 2012-2013 when I was gaining more insights into the MP-UP sequences of Zagros, increasing evidence for interbreeding between archaic and modern humans during Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition was revolutionizing our understanding of interactions between different human populations, initially thanks to the ground-breaking advances in Neanderthal genome sequencing. This was the time that I started to look at my collected information on the peculiar mixture of MP-UP elements in Zagros from a different perspective. Besides emphasizing the importance of site formation processes and the mechanical mixing of archaeological remains, I launched another possible hypothesis for explaining the mixture. The hypothesis, as simple as it was, gave us another option to consider: the cultural indicators of two different human populations, Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, who might have occupied the landscape in an overlapping timespan. Just recently, it was adopted by other researchers working in Zagros, and some competing ex-colleagues included the hypothesis in their publications, without referring to the original source of the idea.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

Prior to my PhD, I worked as a researcher for the Palaeolithic department of the National Museum of Iran, and during my PhD project in France, I remained an associated researcher to this department and at the same time also worked as a project archaeologist, leading several Palaeolithic investigations (some of which were salvage projects) in western Iran. After finishing my PhD, I went to Austria for a short term post-doc at OREA and then came back to Iran to join a newly founded research institute called the Saeedi Institute of advanced studies at Kashan University on a 2-year contract. For now, I am at the National Museum of Iran as a project archaeologist leading and trying to find budgets for my own Palaeolithic archaeological excavation projects, focused on the issues of MP-UP transition and the emergence and development of Early Upper Palaeolithic cultures in the Zagros. I also teach Masters courses related to Palaeolithic archaeology and human evolution at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University. As well as this, I have published a book on Upper Palaeolithic of Iran in Persian to help Iranian students of prehistoric archaeology understand the objectives of this field of research.

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

Over the past several years, we have conducted several Palaeolithic excavations in the Western and the Southern Zagros with my colleagues, Fereidoun Biglari (Director of Palaeolithic department, National Museum of Iran) and Marjan Mashkour (CNRS, Director of research) and other international colleagues from around the world. We are currently working on the recovered archaeological materials from these excavations and their related analysis. One of the cases that we are focused on right now is the results of an extensive salvage project in the prehistorically unknown region of Hawraman in Kermanshah and Kurdistan, which resulted in the discovery and documentation of a considerable number of Palaeolithic sites and significant Middle and Upper Palaeolithic archaeological materials. We hope that the outcomes of these excavations will improve our understanding of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic settlements of this region and the crucial shift events that led to the major bio-cultural change in human populations during MIS4 and MIS 3.

The Kenacheh cave excavation, Hawraman, Kurdistan, Iran.

What project or publication or discovery are you most proud of?

Apart from our ongoing discoveries in the new sites of the western and southern Zagros and our 2005-2008 discoveries in Yafteh cave, I’m proud about the hypothesis that I proposed in my PhD for the mixture of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic elements in the very beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic in the Zagros, launching this idea that we may consider the mixture as the result of site formation process or even the cultural indicators of two different human species, who might have occupied the same landscape during an overlapping time span. This is an idea that I am pleased to see other researchers working in the same area have begun to adopt. Since my return to Iran, I have been busy with field works and teaching in the past few years and consequently have had less time for finishing all the publications of the results, but a brief overview of my PhD was published in the Springer book series:Replacement of Neanderthals by Modern Human in 2017, along with a few other papers.

What is your favourite memory from your career?

The field of archaeology, particularly in our case with Palaeolithic archaeology, is usually full of amazing adventures, discoveries, and pure moments that only can be found in remote and inaccessible areas where we work during our field projects. Apart from all of the excitements and wonderful moments that I have had experienced at the time of important archaeological discoveries, a non-science-related memory comes to my mind right now.

In 2009, during our Palaeolithic surveys in Kermanshah province, I had borrowed my friend’s car as our survey’s vehicle and took over the driving myself to prevent any damage to the borrowed car. During the surveys, we visited several villages where respecting the strict local traditions and fundamental values, particularly for women, is one of the most important rules in the daily life of inhabitants. Driving that car (totally common in the Iranian cities) with my archaeological outfit and male colleagues in the car was the most unusual event that attracted much attention and curiosity everywhere on our way. I will never forget the astonished and surprised looks on people’s faces when they saw such an unusual woman and to our surprise, their warm and respectful reactions during our conversations with them.

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in Palaeolithic archaeology over the last 5 years?

Undoubtedly, many exciting discoveries have improved our knowledge and understanding of Palaeolithic periods during last 5 years, from the Lomekwi stone tools dating to 3.3 million years ago that drawback the timespan of Palaeolithic archaeology considerably, to the many Neanderthals footprints at Le Rozrl of Normandy, France that enables us to trace the size and composition of Neanderthal groups. But speaking about a revolution in our understanding of Palaeolithic times and societies, I definitely think the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome was a real revolution in human evolution studies and related disciplines in the past decade (even more, considering the work of Richard Green and colleagues in 2008) and all these fossil genome sequencings still continue to surprise us each year with new game-changing findings.

But in the geographical area that I work, Iran, I think the most exciting discovery was the first direct evidence for the presence of Neanderthals that came from a small cave called Wezmeh near Kermanshah at the west of Iran. A premolar tooth that belonged to a Neanderthal child between 6–10 years old was found with large numbers of animal fossil remains. It is suggested that the child most probably was killed by a carnivore or his carcass was found by a carnivore in the area and brought to the cave. We re-excavated this interesting cave last year and yielded interesting results.

Wezmeh cave excavation, Kermanshah, west of Iran (2019).

What is your favourite thing about your job? What would you change if you could?

The best thing about my job, I think, is the feeling of freedom, discovery, and adventure from our research. What has kept me in this profession, despite all of its difficulties, is the sense of freedom that it gives me to explore the inaccessible areas of the world and taking the risks associated with this, in an attempt to try to understand past and present societies during our projects and correlate them to their environments.

Regarding the question of what would I change if I could…. it certainly would be the ever growing unhealthy competition and the “publish or perish” culture in academia that I think is against the integrity of research and its original purpose. It forces and ultimately leads researchers to produce publishable results at all costs.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

One thought on “Conversations with: Dr Sonia Shidrang

  1. Thanks for this very important conversation on Iran Palaeolithic archaeology. I always thought of Iran as a geographical crossroad on the way to south Asia and that it was first stop for modern humans outside Africa. A lot more information from this region expected through the ongoing research in Iran. good luck to Dr Sonia.

    Liked by 1 person

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