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Georgia - At  Crossroads Throughout History

A brief war with Russia two months ago thrust the small Caucasus nation of Georgia into the international limelight again and sparked sharp exchanges between Moscow and the West. Georgia has been at a strategic crossroads throughout history and remains so today, a fact that has often fueled conflict, but also trade and wealth. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Dmanisi in southwestern Georgia.

Nowadays, it's a sleepy hamlet nestled deep in the Georgian countryside. But Dmanisi wasn't always like this.

A walk up a steep hillside reveals some of its long hidden treasures. Dmanisi was once an important gateway for travelers and traders, and even our prehistoric ancestors found it a good place to stay.

Archeologist Jimsher Chkhrimiani has been working here for the past nine years and has uncovered some surprising secrets.

"In these layers of rock, we found remains that are older than 1.7 million years," he said. "We found at least five individuals. It's significant because these are the oldest human ancestors found outside of Africa."

The discovery of ancient human skeletons and largely intact skulls put Dmanisi on the archeological map.

David Lordkipanidze is General Director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi. He says very primitive human ancestors are believed to have migrated from Africa, much earlier than previously thought, and they came through Georgia before traveling onward.

"These finds are the missing link connecting Asia, Europe and Africa," said Lordkipanidze.

But nearly two million years ago was just the beginning for Dmanisi. It remained important throughout the Bronze Age and in medieval times, as the ruins of ramparts and watch towers on the hilltop can attest.

Ancient migration routes turned into trade routes.

And for centuries, rulers from within those same walls controlled trade to and from China, Persia and Byzantium, and they collected customs duties for it all as archeologist Chkhrimiani explains.

"This was the intersection of two big routes," he said. "People used to call it 'the camel route,' which went south through the mountains through Armenia and the Middle East. The other route went to western Georgia, to Byzantium and to the sea. Dmanisi owed its success to the Silk Road."

Back then, archeologists say, Dmanisi was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious town of some 10,000 inhabitants - an important stop on the Silk Road.

Today, wealth lies in oil and gas. And again, Georgia is a major transit point.

Lawrence Sheets, senior Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that is crucial for Georgia today. "These transit routes are very important because this is a small country of four million people," he said. "It's a largely agrarian economy, not an industrial economy and it relies very heavily on trade through Georgia [and trade in general].

Some say, Georgia's position between two continents - Europe and Asia - enhances its strategic importance, but also makes it vulnerable to big power rivalries. One example - the brief war Georgia fought in August with neighboring Russia over the breakaway Georgian enclave of South Ossetia.

Georgians are well aware of their place in history, as a young woman is quick to point out. "Let me remind you that we are the first Europeans," she said. "We always looked westward."

There is obvious pride that this was a crucial transit point for early humans over the vast Caucasus mountain range.

Paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze says it's part of Georgia's identity. "Georgia was always on the crossroads -- in prehistoric times, in historical times," he said. "If we look back on the archeological record, Georgia always had a place, the role of the connection [between] East-West. I'm sure Georgia will continue to play this role in the future too."

Back in Dmanisi, archeologists have uncovered a historical treasure trove.

But for modern day Georgia, the question is how it will navigate its position as a crossroads to shape its future.