Newsweek reports on revolutionary new theories of the significance of a site in Kurdish Turkey that has been re-dated and re-evaluated. Previously dismissed as a medieval cemetery of little interest, the GÃ¶bekli Tepe monument stones are being re-interpreted into “an Ice-Age Rome” associated with a completely new theory of the development of human culture during the Neolithic period, which moves human spiritual aspiration (temple building) into the center of causality replacing material technology (agriculture). How very German! And how very strange. A completely unique site of spectacular interest 1500 years older than Ã‡atalhÃ¶yÃ¼k and astonishingly more sophisticated.
The GÃ¶bekli Tepe site is clearly very rapidly going to become a world-wide cultural icon and a continuing focus of interest and interpretation.
They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies the biblical plain of Harran, and to the south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away, pointing toward the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, the region that gave rise to human civilization. And under our feet, according to archeologist Klaus Schmidt, are the stones that mark the spotâ€”the exact spotâ€”where humans began that ascent.
Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years agoâ€”a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agricultureâ€”the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that emberâ€”the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.
Though not as large as Stonehengeâ€”the biggest circle is 30 yards across, the tallest pillars 17 feet highâ€”the ruins are astonishing in number. Last year Schmidt found his third and fourth examples of the temples. Ground-penetrating radar indicates that another 15 to 20 such monumental ruins lie under the surface. Schmidt’s German-Turkish team has also uncovered some 50 of the huge pillars, including two found in his most recent dig season that are not just the biggest yet, but, according to carbon dating, are the oldest monumental artworks in the world.
The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. GÃ¶bekli Tepe is “unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date,” according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford’s archeology program. Enthusing over the “huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art” at GÃ¶bekli, Hodderâ€”who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sitesâ€”says: “Many people think that it changes everythingâ€¦It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong.”
Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.
This theory reverses a standard chronology of human origins, in which primitive man went through a “Neolithic revolution” 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the old model, shepherds and farmers appeared first, and then created pottery, villages, cities, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, andâ€”somewhere on the way to the airplaneâ€”organized religion. As far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thinkers have argued that the social compact of cities came first, and only then the “high” religions with their great temples, a paradigm still taught in American high schools.
Religion now appears so early in civilized lifeâ€”earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correctâ€”that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that “the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture,” and GÃ¶bekli may prove his case.
Smithsonian Magazine article.
Must see slideshow from the Smithsonian.
German Archaeological Institute site