The annals of Sargon

Sargon II of Assyria (722-705 BC) tells his story in his ancient epic voice.


200,000 to 70,000 BC

Our story begins in the middle of the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age.  Homo erectus, who had come out of Africa 1.6 million years ago to migrate into Europe and Asia, was still thriving in China and parts of SE Asia.  In Europe and W Asia, Neanderthals had emerged 350,000 years ago from their ancestor Homo heidelbergensis.  But in Africa, things were about to change and another offshoot of Homo heidelbergensis was about to emerge into the prehistoric record in E Africa.  This is Homo sapiens sapiens or anatomically modern humans.

Mitochondrial Eve (200,000 to 160,000 BC)

The earliest date for anatomically modern humans is believed to be somewhere in the region of approx 200,000 to 160,000 BC.  Known as Mitochondrial Eve, after the membrane found in most cells and the biblical Eve, this woman, according to researchers, was the common female ancestor of all humans living in the world today.  This theory suggests that there is an unbroken line on the female side, passing through mothers and mothers, until they all converge into one particular person.  As all mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to offspring, this DNA in every living person is descended from that one female ancestor, only differing by mutation e.g skin colour.

This theory is not without criticism.  Some geneticists have stated that the method is flawed and claimed that the interpretation was dubious, some even believing that this did not support the hypothesis of an African origin for all humanity or support a recent replacement of humans coming out of Africa.  However, even though dates differ for Mitochondrial Eve from 200,000 to 99,000 years ago, DNA tests have concluded that the “Out of Africa” hypothesis is accurate, as we shall see later on.

Omo Kibish (195,000 to 160,000 BC)

For actual physical evidence of the earliest Homo sapiens, we need to travel to the banks of the Omo River in SW Ethiopia.  Between 1967 and 1974 hominid bones were discovered and recovered by Richard Leakey and colleagues from the Kenya National Museum at Omo Kibish in Omo National Park.  Known as Omo 1 and Omo 2, bones consisted of 2 partial skulls, 4 jaws, a legbone, 200 teeth and several other bones.  Omo 1 remains displayed modern human morphology with some primitive features whereas Omo 2 showed more archaic traits.  Previously they were thought to have dated to 160,000 BC but in 2004 a survey of the geological layers around the fossils found that they were dated much earlier to 195,000 BC making these remains the oldest known Homo sapiens found anywhere in the world.

Herto Bouri (160,000 to 154,000 BC)

These Homo sapiens would actually evolve in a subspecies that was discovered in 1997 at Herto Bouri in the Middle Awash site of Ethiopia’s Afar Triangle.  This subspecies known as Homo sapiens idaltu consisted of 2 adult skulls and one of a 6 year old child that had been found shattered into 200 pieces.  All 3 skulls had signs of distinct cut marks that suggested that their flesh had been removed for cannibalistic purposes.  However, because these skulls had been polished, the current theory is that the flesh had been removed more for ritualistic purposes.  Did we start to conceive of religion already?  It is too early to tell.  Also found were remains of hippopotamus and buffalo suggesting that theses people had a meat-rich diet.

So we have found some bones suggesting some of our ancestors were living in Ethiopia but they were still not quite ourselves.

Eemian Stage Interglacial (130,000 to 115,000 BC)

We have now reached the peak of the Eemian Stage interglacial, a period of warmer and wetter conditions that lasted between 130,000 and 115,000 BC.  The weather was so warm that hippos managed to flourish in Germany and S England with forests reaching the northern reaches of Norway above the Arctic Circle.  During this period, some groups of Homo sapiens had migrated southwards to the tip of S Africa.

Sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than today.  Average sea temperatures were higher than in the Holocene thousands of years later, but not enough to explain the rise in sea levels so melting of ice caps must have occurred.  Fossil coral reefs were common in the Caribbean and Red Sea coastlines, containing internal erosion surfaces that showed significant sea level instability during the Eemian period.  In 2007, studies found evidence that the Greenland ice core site Dye 3 was glaciated during the Eemian, implying that Greenland contributed 6.6 feet to rise in sea levels.  Due to inundation of vast areas of N Europe and W Siberia, Scandinavia became an island.

Aterian Culture (130,000 to 30,000 BC)

Although there is possible evidence of an early site dated to 145,000 BC at Ifri n’Ammar in Morocco, the consensus is that the Aterian Culture started in N Africa in 130,000 BC.  This culture is distinguished through the presence of tanged or pedunculated tools. Bifacially-worked, leaf-shaped and tanged projectile points alongside earlier Levallois flakes and racloirs were also a common feature of this culture.  Apart from producing these tools, evidence of small perforated seashell beads found at Taforalt in Morocco dated to 82,000 BC provides the earliest evidence of personal adornment found anywhere in the world.  It is one of the oldest examples of regional technological diversification, evidencing differentiation to older stone tool industries in the area, such as the Mousterian.

The Aterian is associated with early Homo sapiens at a number of sites in Morocco.  Some studies of skeletal morphology suggested that these people existed on the same continuum as Jebel Irhoud specimens dated to 160,000 BC.  Aterian fossils also display similarities to earliest modern humans found out of Africa at Skhul and Qafzeh in The Levant. Apart from producing highly sophisticated stone tools, these people created what are the earliest African examples of personal ornamentation.  Examples of shell beads have been found inland that suggested the presence of long distance networks.

Faunal studies show that these people exploited coastal resources in addition to hunting. Hafting was widespread to maintain flexibility in the face of a pronounced dry season. Hafted scrapers, knives and points were used in a wide range of activities due to technological advances.

The culture lasted in N Africa until 30,000 BC when the impact of the Ice Age led to much drier conditions.

Klasies River Mouth Caves (125,000 to 75,000 BC)

At the Klasies River Mouth Caves in South Africa, 3 main caves and 2 shelters at the base of a high cliff revealed evidence of Middle Palaeolithic associated human habitation.  A 20 metre thick accumulation of deposits inside and outside the caves proved that these people knew how to hunt small game, gather plants and roots, cook by roasting on hearths and later fish and manage their land by fire.  Other evidence suggested that this site was only used on a seasonal basis before moving onto other hunting grounds.  A dark side to humanity was evidenced by fire-blackened fragments of skulls and other bones discarded with other food remnants that suggested possible evidence, like at Herto Bouri in Ethiopia, of cannibalism.

Abbassia Pluvial (120,000 to 90,000 BC)

An extended wet period known as the Abbassia Pluvial changed the climate of N Africa that lasted from 120,000 to 90,000 BC.  What is now the Sahara Desert was a lush and fertile ground fed by rivers, swamps and lakes attracting wildlife that would normally be found south of this area today.  Mousterian and Aterian stone age cultures flourished during this period.

After this, for the next 40,000 years, the climate became drier and cooler as a result of the start of the last glacial period of the Pleistocene Ice Age.  The Saharan river system dried up as a result of this with sea levels below modern levels as a result of which Siberia became linked to Alaska by the Bering land bridge.  Scientists believe that this event was the latest in a series of glacial events from a larger ice age that dated back over 2 million years.  This was a period of advancing and retreating glaciers that would last for the remainder of the period that we are covering in this first chapter.

El Skhul and Qafzeh Caves (120,000 to 80,000 BC)

Due to these drier and cooler conditions, small groups of archaic Homo sapiens started to migrate from Africa either by crossing the Red Sea to Arabia or via the Sinai Peninsula to The Levant.  Finds at El Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel represented features that tied in with these archaic Homo sapiens rather than the pre-existing Neanderthals that had been around for some time.

The remains are tentatively dated to between 120,000 and 80,000 BC.  They were initially regarded as transitional from Neanderthals to modern humans, or as hybrids between the two.  Neanderthal remains were found at nearby Kebara Cave dated to between 61,000 and 48,000 BC but it is hypothesised that the Skhul/Qafzeh hominids had died out by 80,000 BC, suggesting that these 2 types of hominids never made contact in the region.

A recent hypothesis is that the Skhul/Qafzeh hominids represented the first exodus of modern humans from Africa at approx 125,000 BC through the Sinai Peninsula.  Discovery of modern human made tools from 125,000 BC at Jebel Faya, UAE, may be from an even earlier exit of modern humans from Africa.

In 2005, a set of 7 teeth from Tabun Cave in Israel were studied and found to belong to a Neanderthal that lived approx 90,000 BC and another Neanderthal from Tabun was estimated to be approx 122,000 years old.  If these dates are correct, then it was possible that Neanderthals and early modern humans did make contact in the region with the Skhul/Qafzeh hominids being partially of Neanderthal descent.  DNA analysis has revealed that “non-Africans” contain 1 to 4% Neanderthal genetic material and it has been postulated that this coming together took place in the Levant.  However, it has been suggested that the Skhul/Qafzeh hominids represent an extinct line and that modern humans would exit Africa in approx 70,000 BC crossing a narrow stretch of water known as the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb between Eritrea and Arabian Peninsula, same as those archaic humans that were found at Jebel Faya.

At Skhul, remains of 7 adults and 3 children were found between 1929 and 1935 inside a cave in Mount Carmel.  Assemblages of perforated marine shells, different from local fauna, suggested that these people may have collected and used these shells as beads. Layer B has been dated to between 101,000 and 81,000 BC.  Skhul 5 contained a burial with the mandible of a boar on the chest.  Skull displays prominent ridges and jutting jaw but with a rounded braincase of modern humans.  As mentioned above, it was assumed to be an advanced Neanderthal but today it is assumed to be of a robust modern human.

Excavation of Qafzeh cave began in 1934 with the discovery of the remains of 5 individuals in the Mousterian levels.  Lower layers of the cave were later dated to 92,000 BC.  A series of hearths, several human graves, flint artifacts, animal bones, sea shells, lumps of red ochre and an incised flake were found.

Marine shells were brought from the Mediterranean shore some 35 km away.  These shells were complete, perforated, and showed traces of having been strung with a few ochre stains on them.  Remains of 15 hominids were recovered within a Mousterian archaeological context dated to approx 95,000 BC.

Qafzeh 6 contained the most well preserved skull.  Remains are believed to be of a young male.

Qafzeh 9 and 10 contained a double grave found in 1969 of a female adult and young child. The female had a high forehead, lack of occipital bun, a distinct chin but a corrective jaw.

Qafzeh 11 was found in 1971 containing the grave of a 13 year old buried in a pit.  Skeleton was lying on its back, with legs bent to the side and both hands placed on either side of the neck.  Antlers of a large red deer were clasped to the chest.

Qafzeh 12 contained a 3 year old child that suffered from hydrocephalus.

Blombos Cave (100,000 to 70,000 BC)

Back in South Africa, humans started to occupy a cave site 300 km east of present day Cape Town from approx 100,000 BC.  Excavations since 1991 have revealed new information on the evolution of our species in terms of behaviour in S Africa during the Late Pleistocene. First we started to produce an increased diversity of bone artifacts known as “Still Bay Points”.

More than 500 of these points have been recovered since 1991.  72% of these points were made of silcrete, a silica-rich duriclust found in hot, arid climates, the source of which could have been from outcrops some 30 km away from the cave or from sources now underwater.  Four phases of the production of these points can be classified.  First hard hammer and direct percussion was used in the initial reduction phase, then soft hammer and marginal percussion, a final retouch phase with pressure flaking, and a further hard hammer percussion to rework a few points.  The points provide the earliest evidence of pressure flaking.  Some have argued that these points were hafted for the usage of spear points and/or knives.

In addition to the Still Bay points, more than 8,000 pieces of ochre, 1,500 of which are 10 mm or less in length, have been recovered from Middle Stone Age levels.  With most of these ochre pieces engraved or incised, it would prove that humans began to use our abstract thought and process that would continue for thousands of years up to the present day.

Image result for blombos cave red ochre

In 2008, a workshop containing two toolkits that processed the ochre was found dated to 100,000 BC.  Two shells were used to produce and store a pigment-rich mixture with ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammerstones used as additional tools in the toolkits.  With the tools left in situ, the workshop was abandoned shortly after the mixture was made.  Sand blew into the cave from the outside, capturing the toolkits to preserve them before the cave was occupied again decades or centuries later.

More than 30 bone tools including awls and bone points have been attributed to the Still Bay units.  Awls were made on long-bone shaft fragments, scraped and used to pierce through soft material or shell beads.  Bone points were scraped and polished before being used either as projectile points or simply hafted to make a spear. One bone fragment was marked with 8 parallel lines.  Analysis showed that incisions represented an engraved pattern that was made with a stone tool, like the engraved ochre shown above.

More than 70 marine shell beads of a sea snail species have been found in the cave.  These were pierced with a bone tool to create a small-sized perforation before being strung on either cord or sinew to be worn as a personal ornament.  The wearing and display of these beads provides an insight into technological and behaviour aspects of humans living in the cave at that time with the ability to drill, use cord or gut for threading and tie knots to secure them.  It would not be until 40,000 BC when personal ornaments would be used in Europe.

Only 7 teeth have been found in the cave.  Diameters of some of these teeth are deemed to be “modern” implying that the cave was occupied by anatomically modern humans rather than the archaic variety further north.

A variety of land and marine remains are found from this period onwards.  People hunted large animals but also gathered, collected or trapped small animals such as tortoises and dune mole rats.  Seals, dolphins and whale meat, with the latter 2 scavanged from being washed up on the shore, were brought back to the cave for sustenance.  Faunal remains include fish, shellfish, birds, tortoise and ostrich shells, and mammals of various sizes. People regularly collected them at the shore, bringing them back to the cave to eat.  The huge variety demonstrates that people were able to practise a diverse set of subsistence strategies, effectively hunting, trapping and collecting land and coastal resources.

Toba Eruption (75,000 BC)

The earlier migration of archaic Homo sapiens from Africa to Arabia and The Levant became a false start though because events in Indonesia would threaten the very existence of our species.  An eruption at Mount Toba on the island of Sumatra at approx 75,000 BC ejected 2,800 km³ of material into the atmosphere plunging the world into a volcanic winter.  Many human groups died out with estimates suggesting that only thousands of Homo sapiens remained in S Africa causing a bottleneck in evolutionary terms.  Language and symbolism allowed remaining groups to exchange resources and information with one another that would make the difference between survival and extinction.

Other research has cast doubt on link between Toba and reduction in human populations. Ancient stone tools found in S India above and below the thick layer of ash suggested that dust clouds did not wipe out this local population.  Archaeological evidence from S and N India suggested lack of evidence for effects of eruption on local populations with authors of the study concluding that “many forms of life survivied the supereruption, contrary to other research which has suggested significant animal extinctions and genetic bottlenecks”.  Evidence from pollen analysis has suggested prolonged deforestation in S Asia with some researchers suggesting that the Toba eruption may have forced humans to adopt new strategies that may have permitted them to replace Neanderthals and “other archaic human species”.  This view has been challenged by evidence for the presence of Neanderthals in Europe and Homo floresiensis in SE Asia who survived the eruption in the period between 60,000 and 50,000 BC.

Additional caveats to the Toba-induced bottleneck theory include difficulties in estimating global and regional climatic impacts of the eruption and lack of conclusive evidence for eruption preceding bottleneck.  Genetic analysis of sequences across entire human genome has shown that effective human population size was less than 26,000 at 1.2 million BC; explanations for low population size of human ancestors includes repeated population bottlenecks or periodic replacement events from competing Homo subspecies.

After the Toba eruption, anatomically modern humans recovered sufficiently to start the trek northwards out of Africa between 70,000 and 60,000 BC. From there we started the long process of colonising the globe.

In the next chapter (70,000 to 30,000 BC), we will look at this migration and the implications that it would have on existing inhabitants such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis.  Plus the climate is still proceeding along like a rollercoaster.

Events of the 720s BC p1 King Pulu of Babylon

Once again a Chaldean usurper has taken the throne in Babylon away from the rightful king. The Assyrians go south to rectify the situation. The greatest king they ever had is leading the royal army. But once they win (again) what will Tiglath-pileser III do about the Babylonian problem? Its time for an entirely new solution!

We also check in with the enemy in the north; Urartu, trying to recover while Tiglath-pileser III is distracted elsewhere.

Please consider supporting our Fan of History effort on Patreon:



Fan of History podcast episode 23 The Battle of Qarqar

We normally publish the Fan of History podcast on another site with much bigger resources.

Here is the site with all the episodes:

Here is the itunes feed:

I still just wanted to mention this episode because it increased the listenership by a factor of 4! It seems you guys like ancient battles (even with Assyrian secrecy involved).

This was the greatest battle the world had ever seen up to this date.
On one side: The Royal Assyrian Army led by king Shalmaneser III. On the other side: The League of Kings, an alliance of twelve nations against the might of Assyria.
The two forces meet head-to-head near the city of Qarqar on the Orontes river to decide the fate of the near east.

The Lord of Massacres (Fan of History podcast 17)

Listen to the podcast here:

Now you will learn why you fear the night. Now you will learn why you are afraid of the dark. Now you will learn why we title Ashurnasirpal II “The Lord of Massacres”. Prepare for the darkest episode yet of our podcast. These massacres will become iconic for the Neo-Assyrians BUT they will not really reappear on this scale until the very last years of the empire far in the future.

After his great party, Ashurnasirpal II decides do deal with all the enemies of Assyria, i.e. everyone who refuses to pay protection money. He does this in a very handfast way and now we learn why the world remembers this particular king.

WARNING! This episode is not for the faint of heart. If you do not want to hear grim details of what Ashurnasirpal II decided to do to those that defied him, please skip ahead to episode 18.

Please consider supporting the Fan of History on Patreon here:

Check out the YouTube channel here: (History of Assyria 3000-1000 BC):

World Map:

A music video tribute to Ashurnasirpal II, king of Assyria:

Contact information:

youtube: (Fan of History)

Music: “Tudor Theme” by urmymuse.

Used here under a commercial Creative Commons license. Find out more at

Support the Fan of History on Patreon here: