Where It All Began: Göbekli Tepe
In the last few decades it’s become reasonable to think that our views on early civilization are stereotyped by events in ancient Mesopotamia. Since the 1960s, archaeologists studying civilizations elsewhere have made more than a few discoveries which are downright odd by the standards of the Fertile Crescent. Just to give you one example, there’s the controversial (yet still respectable) theory that Peruvian civilization invented farming not for food but for fibers. The Humboldt Current off the coast is the most productive marine ecosystem in the world, and it’s certainly possible to support a lot of people by fishing in it. So when digs in Peru keep suggesting that cotton may have been farmed before anything else, and that it was used to make fishing nets, people are probably right to be suspicious of the conventional idea that you can’t get the hallmarks of civilization—writing, organized religion, craftsmen, monumental architecture, and so on—without growing food first.
As it happens, the assumed sequence is being challenged even in the region that first led archaeologists to suggest it. Starting in the 1990s, the previously obscure archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey has been twisting the very beginnings of history into a new shape.
Even though it was excavated nearly fifty years ago, Çatal Hüyük is still the name that pops up most often when discussing the age of civilization in the Fertile Crescent. It was founded some time near 7500 BC, and no other site has pushed that age much further back. The earliest signs of permanent settlement at Jericho (a considerably smaller town) are around 8000 BC. So it came as some surprise about fifteen years ago when word started spreading of a monument site that was coming back with carbon dates in the vicinity of 8800 to 9100 BC. This was Göbekli Tepe (“Potbellied Hill”, in Turkish), previously dismissed as a medieval era cemetery but that on close examination proved to be quite unlike anything seen before.
The tepe is a limestone hill about ten miles from the city of Şanlıurfa (better-known in the West as Edessa) and not far from the border with Syria. On top of the hill is a megalithic site, apparently a temple.
The main part of the site consists of rounded open courtyards with drystone walls, up to twenty meters in diameter. The walls are punctuated with T-shaped pillars, made of one rectangular stone slab balanced (on edge!) on another; larger megaliths of the same type are inside the courtyards. The larger stone blocks weigh about seven tons; one, still attached to the native rock from which it was being quarried, would have been thirty tons and seven meters high. The sides of the rock slabs are elaborately decorated with carvings of animals, people, and geometric designs. Some of the interior pillars are topped or otherwise adorned by carved animal statues, including lions and lizards. The stone enclosures and their pillars are the most noticeable artifacts at Göbekli Tepe, but there are loose items of other sorts too, including the oldest statute on Earth.
All of this work was done in the period immediately following the Younger Dryas, the final blast of the last Ice Age, which could be telling. One theory on the development of agriculture is that human populations grew quickly as the climate finally warmed and rains came more regularly to the Middle East. At first the local cultures could support themselves as hunter-gatherers—as they always had—but eventually it became necessary to develop agriculture in the face of a rising population freed from the effects of the distant ice fields. Others argue that this is putting the cart before the horse. Completely modern human beings are something like 130,000 years old. Glacial maximums have come and gone and populations had surely hit the limits of hunting and gathering in the local area any number of times before. What was different this time?
Göbekli Tepe sits prettily in the narrow window between the end of the Younger Dryas and the domestication of the Fertile Crescent’s important crops. The head of the excavation team, Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, has suggested that this is not a coincidence. As the temple grew more complex, it was necessary to feed more workers and it outstripped what hunter-gatherers could bring in. Agriculture developed as a way of intensifying the amount of food produced and so the fraction of it that could be devoted to a spiritual construction.
That’s a big claim, so it’s worth examining more closely. There are some who argue that Göbekli Tepe is the product of farmers, not hunter-gatherers. If the temple’s people were farmers, though, they would have been growing rye; it’s controversial, but even at the hill temple’s distant era it may have been domesticated on a small scale in Syria to the south. Rye has generally been pooh-poohed by people studying the history of agriculture, as it was something of a dead end and quite a minor part of human diet until farming took hold in Northern Europe thousands of years later. Emmer wheat has always been the grain of interest to archaeologists, as it was the earliest one grown that had the yields to support whole civilizations; it was the primary grain of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization. But emmer comes onto the scene too late to help with the bulk of Göbekli Tepe’s building, somewhere around 8800 BC or afterward. Barring further discoveries that overturn the fairly well-established early history of cultivation, it’s rye or nothing.
That leads to the issue of the food remnants have been turned up in the few percent of Göbekli Tepe unearthed so far: plants and animals (including a large fraction of crows, whatever that might mean), all of wild types, and no sign of rye as a staple crop during the temple’s lifetime.
On the other hand, wheat might work out if you think it’s a response to a desire to build higher and better at Göbekli Tepe, after centuries of getting by without agriculture. In 1997 Science published a paper titled “Site of Einkorn Wheat Domestication Identified by DNA Fingerprinting” (einkorn being the other kind of wheat besides emmer that was grown in the early Fertile Crescent). The site identified was the Karacadağ Hills. Standing on top of Göbekli Tepe, one can see the Karacadağ Hills—they’re that close. Circumstantial evidence is not proof, but if the two events aren’t related that’s an amazing coincidence.
Besides agriculture it’s worth spelling out what the people who built Göbekli Tepe didn’t have, as it illustrates just how far back in the past they lived. There was no metal, except for rare natural bits of gold and copper that were used for jewelry, and bronze smelting was three thousand years in the future. The site’s carvers worked without metal tools. Further, they had another 4500 years to go before wheeled vehicles were invented, and there weren’t even any draft animals to drag their megaliths around; cows, and so oxen, were domesticated a mere five hundred years after Göbekli Tepe, but horses and donkeys were five thousand years away when the temple was at its height. Writing? Five thousand years too. The invention of writing is about as close to the 21st century, going in the opposite direction, as it is to these people.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that excavators have only hit the bottom of one Göbekli Tepe’s enclosures. There’s the distinct possibility that the hill’s religious significance stretched back well into the Upper Paleolithic, and that the monumental architecture is just the final flowering of a tradition older than anything this side of Lascaux; those famous cave paintings are, after all, “only” 7000 years older than the dates already being batted about for Göbekli Tepe.
And after thinking about the start of the temples, think of their end: it was just as mysterious as its beginning. Sometime not long after 8000 BC they were covered deliberately with several hundred tons of soil. There’s no obvious signs of violence or displacement on any structure uncovered by archaeologists, so it seems the locals simply decided they wanted to bury it. There’s no hope of any inscriptions explaining why, so it’s likely we’ll never know what they were thinking. On the other hand, the change corresponds to when fields of emmer wheat were spreading rapidly across the area. It’s entirely possible that, having crossed one of the great thresholds in human history, they were drawing a line under their old way of life before embracing the new one they’d discovered.