The Potbelly Hill temple that reshaped pre-history

Until 1994 archaeologists had considered the transition of human societies, from pre-Neolithic nomadic hunger-gatherers to sedentary Neolithic agricultural societies, to have followed a relatively straight chronological line. It was considered that this step became possible due to the so called Neolithic Revolution around 8000-5000 BCE where various forms of domestication of plants and animals arose independently in six separate locales worldwide. It turned out they were underestimating human ingenuity.

The Gobekli Tepe (Turkish for “Potbelly hill”) in southeastern Turket was recognized as a manmade feature already back in 1964, but it was initially assumed to be of a much later date. First with the preliminary excavations in 1994 did archaeologists realize that not only do Gobekli Tepe date from prehistory, it is the oldest known human place of worship and around 2000 years older than the second oldest (Çatalhöyük also in Turkey).

The complex is believed to have been established around 10.000 BCE (about 12.000 years ago). This means that it not only predates pottery and even the wheel, it is pre-Neolithic (made before agriculture and animal husbandry). Gobekli Tepe covers roughly 25 acres and consists of at least seven of round megalithic buildings (thought to be houses and temples). Besides the megalithic structures the site contains a large number of T-shaped stone pillars finely carved with elaborate animal figure reliefs.

The construction of the houses/temples and the extraction and movement of heavy pillars (some weighing up to 50 tons) from quarries to the site about 500m away, is evidence of an organizational complexity not previously thought possible among pre-Neolithic hunger-gatherers.

Unfortunately we don’t know much of the people who built Göbekli Tepe. Archaeologists speculate that the site played a key function in the transition to agriculture and that the necessary social organization needed for the creation of these structures went hand-in-hand with the organized exploitation of wild crops. DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat has shown that it’s closely related to a wild wheat found on Mount Karaca Dağ 20 miles away. However, no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found, so it’s assumed the inhabitants were hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year.

The lack of domestic refuge indicates that Göbekli Tepe was cultic and not domestic. A further indication of the sites spiritual importance are the finely carved T-shaped pillars that seem related to a shamanistic religion. Perhaps Göbekli Tepe was a pilgrim site attracting worshipers from distant parts of modern Turkey. The site appear to have been active for several millennia, but then around 8000 BCD it was suddenly abandoned and the buildings covered with settlement refuse that must have been brought from elsewhere. Perhaps the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry changed the spiritual beliefs of the culture and caused the site lose to its significance. Whatever the reason Göbekli Tepe was deliberately buried under 300 to 500 cubic meters of soil and refuge. Luckily leaving the site preserved for modern archaeologists.

Göbekli Tepe has been called a Turkish Stonehenge, but that hardly do justice to the 7000 year older and far more complex construction. Only a small fraction of the site has yet been excavated and it’s certain that Göbekli Tepe still holds many surprises that can teach us about the transition of human societies from hunger-gatherers to sedentary farmers. We might find that organized religion predates settled communities and had a huge influence on the early development of civilization – perhaps it was even a prerequisite.

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