Five things you didn’t know about the Caucasus

According to Christian tradition it was the resting place of Noah's ark after the flood, and it later became known as the home of the purest members of the white race – hence today's descriptions of white criminal suspects as ‘caucasian’. Now, in a new Radio 3 series, historian Bettany Hughes travels to the Caucasus – a region at the border of Europe and Asia – to explore the mythologised and pivotal place in western history

Situated on the border of Asia and Europe between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus is shrouded in myth and mystery. In Sunday Feature: Caucasian Roots, Hughes examines the fables surrounding the Caucasus, and tests how far they are backed up by reality. She follows the trail of the Caucasus in antiquity from the Black Sea coast of Ancient Colchis to the shadow of Mount Ararat in Armenia.

Here, writing for History Extra, Hughes reveals five things you (probably) didn’t know about the Caucasus…

‘White Caucasian’

Every year millions of people around the world describe themselves as being ‘White Caucasian’. But why?

The answer is a combination of sexual fantasy and pseudo-science. In 1775 the anthropologist and passionate craniologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published the first draft of his thesis dividing the world in to five ‘varieties’: Mongolian, Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian and Caucasian.

He developed his findings from his own collection of 60 skulls, among which was the remains of a young Georgian woman [as in the American state]  – the ‘Caucasian’ variety. Believing this skull to be ‘perfect’, and moved by tales of the 17th-century Huguenot travel-writer Sir John Chardin – who described Georgian women as being simply the most beautiful in the world – Blumenbach concluded that the Caucasus was the locus for the origin of white people.

We have been calling ourselves Caucasian ever since.

Dmanisi’s early man

In a hilltop settlement close to the Armenian/Georgian border, excavations [details of which were fully published in 2013] uncovered the remains of five men and women of the homo erectus variety. Some standing under 3ft tall, these dated back 1.8 million years – making them the very oldest discovered outside Africa.

One male had been kept alive despite having a deformed jaw and no teeth – suggesting he was fed, and that these pre-humans operated guided by empathy. The group may well have been attacked and eaten by sabre-toothed tigers.
Best-selling myths

Some of the most tenacious and popular myths from the ancient world are located in the Caucasus. This was said to be the home of Amazons, of Medea and her aunt Circe, where Jason adventured with his Argonauts and where Prometheus was chained to a rock for the crime of stealing fire from the gods.

Early and prodigious metalworking did take place in the region – perhaps sparking those tales of Prometheus meddling with fire and being bound to the Caucasian mountains with iron rivets.

Drunk Noah

We’re told that Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat (Marco Polo popularised this as being the Mount Ararat in modern-day Turkey, just across the border from Armenia), and that he came down to cultivate the land and to plant vines – from which he ‘became drunken’.

The region claims to be the first to have domesticated the vine. Certainly, winemaking equipment and residues, 8,000 years old, have recently been discovered in both Georgia and Armenia.

Djabal al-Alsun

Mediaeval Arab geographers described this isthmus of land between the Black and the Caspian Seas as that “of many languages”. That tradition continues today – 40 languages are spoken in the region.

Recently in the Areni cave the world’s oldest leather shoe was found – dating back to c3500 BC. Rather than being a ‘liminal’ and ‘remote’ place, as the Caucasus was often described by classical authors, the area has long been a crossroads and congruence of cultures.

Circassian beauties

The idea of gorgeous, languorous women from a remote land promised good box office takings: PT Barnum ‘imported’ Caucasian women who, for a dime, would recount the tale of their capture and life in the Sultan’s Ottoman harem – and then liberation by one of PT Barnum’s agents.

Generally these were, in reality, young Irish girls who had their hair coiffured into ‘wild-woman’ bouffant hairstyles – reminiscent of the afro. The reason for this seems to have been a visual indicator of ‘slave’, and a cultural reference to the thick hair and sheepskin hats of native Caucasians. The false hairdos were held in place by a combination of beer and egg white.

The Circassians were in fact a tribe from North West Caucasus, but their name became interchangeable with Caucasian. Beauty treatments such as ‘The Bloom of Circassia’ lotion were bestsellers in Europe and the US throughout the 19th and early 20th  centuries.

Dr Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster – she is currently writing a new history of Istanbul. Visit www.bettanyhughes.com to find out more.

Hughes’s new series, Caucasian Roots, airs on Radio 3 on Sunday 22 March at 6.45pm. To find out more, click here.

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