Göbekli Tepe is an ancient city in south-east Turkey (just at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent) where 11,000 year-old megaliths (predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years) have been discovered. Experts are suggesting that it is the world’s first holy place. Seven-ton stone pillars are arranged in circles, but there are no signs of a settlement (e.g. cooking hearths, trash pits, figurines). Nearby, evidence of the world’s oldest domesticated strains of wheat have been found, dated to about 10,500 years ago. Other sites in the region have shown that within a 1,000 years settlers will have corralled sheep, cattle and pigs. So it looks as if a major socio-cultural effort occurred before the emergence of agriculture. Pillar carvings are of lions, spiders, snakes and scorpions, and not deer or cattle. Was it a burial ground, or a centre of a death cult, or perhaps it had a role to play in helping people master the fears of the unknown?
This article highlights a number of additional features about this particular site. Firstly, stone toolmakers usually lived and worked near water and game, but this mound is located at the highest elevation of the mountain range, approximately 305 m above the surrounding plain. The closest water source is 5 km away. No evidence of livestock has been found at the site, so the builders may have had to travel down to hunt or farm.
Based on the abundance of stone tools and bones from wild animals, this site is classified as Aceramic or Pre-Pottery Neolithic. This means there is no evidence of pottery, not even ceramic figurines, as is common among other sites classified as Pottery Neolithic. Most tools were made of flint, along with a few made out of bones and antlers. Mortars, pestles, and other stone vessels were made of basalt or limestone and used in the absence of pottery. Other items of daily life hint that Göbekli Tepe’s residents were much like the other stone toolmakers in the region. They wore small drilled beads, a common jewelry for this period, found with decorated stone vessels, and stone cups and bowls with crafted designs.
But what makes this site special is the architecture, with terrazzo floors, massive stone pillars, and even some abstract art. Archaeologist uncovered buildings containing several rectangular rooms and round structures, with terrazzo floors. The round structures were made out of massive stone pillars, arranged into concentric circles. Each circle was between 9 m and 30 m in diameter. The terrazzo was made of burnt limestone and clay and then polished to give it a spotted appearance. Terrazzo produced in this way creates a flooring surface that is extremely durable and resistant to moisture. The most outstanding feature were the T-shaped monolithic pillars. Each column is made from a single piece of stone and ranges in height from 1.5 m to 5.5 m and weighs up to 16 tons. Researchers have discovered ancient quarries where the pillars were cut, located a quarter mile away in the surrounding limestone outcropping. At least three of the unfinished columns still lie there, and they appear to have been made with simple flint tools. So far only four circles have been uncovered, containing 47 T-shaped pillars. According to a geomagnetic survey of the mound, which included ground-penetrating radar, there are possibly up to twenty such circular areas. The sheer size of the pillars and the effort required to create these monumental spaces suggest that they were not homesteads but something much more significant. Most archeologists now believe that Göbekli Tepe was a sanctuary or retreat used for spiritual or communal purposes rather than a city with homes and children.
If so, this does not fit the secular view of human culture, which assumed hunter-gatherers eventually learned to farm, settled down, and only then made monuments. This site has forced archaeologists to consider the possibility that the human drive to build and worship came first.
If we stopped there, the story of Göbekli Tepe would be fascinating enough. But there is more. Not only did the builders create beautiful terrazzo floors and transport 16-ton pillars, but they also fashioned their pillars and stoneware with decorative human and animal motifs. All the pillars were built with the same abstract design. The rectangular top looks like a head, and then human arms and hands were sometimes carved into the body. These human forms were often clothed with loincloths, jewelry, and belts, complete with buckles.
The majority of the artwork at Göbekli Tepe depicts animals. Snakes are most common, but you can also find foxes, boars, asses, cranes, ducks, vultures, scorpions, spiders, bulls, and rams. The fox seems to have played a significant role in the lives of these people. At the center of two circular structures are twin pillars with foxes on them. In one impressive pillar, the fox is held under the right elbow of the human figure, who also appears to be wearing a fox skin. Nowhere else among Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites is the fox image given this much importance. No known ancient religion gives the fox such a significant role, and its role at Göbekli Tepe is still a matter of debate.
Few of the creatures depicted in the stone carvings are among the piles of bones found at the site. Instead, over 90% of the bones are of hoofed animals such as the wild ass. So it appears that the carved animals were not decorations about daily life but had symbolic significance.
So how do we classify a place such as Göbekli Tepe? Was it a religious sanctuary? Could the enclosures have been hunting lodges with symbols telling the stories of hunts past? What is apparent is that the people of Göbekli Tepe devoted enormous energy, time, and craft to construct and maintain these buildings. It has been estimated that hundreds of people would need many years to complete just one structure.
All Too Human
I must point out that one of the most difficult things about Göbekli Tepe has been the Historians and Archaeologists that have invested so much into a paradigm of human development, that they found it nearly impossible to accept the realities that Göbekli Tepe presented. This has hampered progress, funding and peer review of Göbekli Tepe. This shows how even the most empirical Researchers and Scientists are all too human and fall prey to the fear of a rewriting of history to a more accurate context. It is my profound hope that Göbekli Tepe helps to change this point of view in some material way.
Here are just some of the new insights Göbekli Tepe has produced:
Organized society is now at least 13,000 years old and perhaps far older as there is evidence that at least another society lead up to this site. This nearly doubles the period that was assumed before. It was assumed prior to Göbekli Tepe, that the Sumerians were the first Organized Society, and perhaps in some measure this is still valid but not by every measure (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civ...). We see signs of a very high level of cooperation spanning almost 3000 years at Göbekli Tepe. (This Data is published and not currently challenged).
At Göbekli Tepe we are confronted with what appears to be the earliest yet discovery of a human writing. This is very early days but there appears to be about 20 symbols in use. This in itself does not portend to a complete language but there is promising signs in some of the most recent digs at the site. Prior to this discovery it was assumed that it was a product of the ancient sumerian culture in perhaps 3200 BCE. Göbekli Tepe may move this back to at least 10,000 BCE. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lis...) (This Data is published but not to the level of a determination of a complete written language)
The neolithic period is still called the "Stone age" and at this point the defining characteristics, stone tools and "primitive clans" needs massive adjustment. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo...). There is nothing 'Stone age" about this culture. Stone tools did not carve these amazing artistic reliefs. Stone tools did not create an almost a perfect circle through stone pillars. One can try to debate that stone tools were used to create what we see here, but that would have to face Occam's razor for believability. (This Data is published however many still hold to the current view that all you see at this site was performed with stone tools)).
Plant domestication is clear. They grew crops and perhaps irrigation systems and cultivation systems. Prior assumptions placed this to about 6000 BCE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agr...). Today the closest known ancestors of modern Einkorn Wheat is found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. This strain has been domesticated and dates back to about the time this site was in peak use (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ein...) (This Data is published in some forms, eg: the location of the first domesticated wheat crops, however many still challenge the view early Neolithic cultures had the insight or technology to domesticate plants. More data should be published soon).
There is very provocative evidence (thus far unpublished, no photo) that the people of Göbekli Tepe used at the very least "Pull Sleds" or in a more fantastic possibility, "Wheeled Carts". There are "roads" that show tracks formed in what was mud and limestone that clearly shows that this took place over 100s if not 1000s of years. Prior to this discovery it was thought only the Sumerians processed the knowladge of the wheel in perhaps 3000 BCE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel) and the use of sleds in 5000 BCE. (This Data is not published and would be very vigorously challenged).
Göbekli Tepe has the earliest discovery of bread making and the corollary to this, beer production. Prior to the discovery of these Beer making Vats, it was assumed that this was first produced in what is now modern China about 5000 BCE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His...). Here is a rather old citation at National Geographic on the discovery of Beer Vats (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.co...). (This Data is not yet fully published and is not currently challenged. However it would likely be challenged once published).
Massive building projects on the scale seen at Göbekli Tepe were never attributed to Neolithic people. The prior example was at Stonehenge, it was built perhaps 6000 years later. The design, engineering, workmanship and overral site complexity is not in the same realm as Göbekli Tepe. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meg...) (This Data is published and not currently challenged).
Thus far all the evidence we see at Göbekli Tepe the people lived in relative peace for over 3000 years. The site shows none of the signs one would expect from conflicts. This does not 100% rule out the possibility, but thus far there is none of the expected evidence one would expect. There have not been any human remains discovered so we do not have this information to go by. But we also do not see any signs that victory in battle would produce in countless other ancient and modern cultures.
We also know this, it takes a rather sophisticated culture to build and operate such a complex. It takes and even more forward thinking culture to completely bury a site that was in continuous use for 3000 years and to do it with such delicate care.
Thus far we have been convinced by most accounts that no long term organized society existed without great battles and conquests. Prior to this discovery it seemed most cultures could not last perhaps a few hundred years peacefully. If this turns out to be confirmed at Göbekli Tepe we will have a completely new insight on how a culture can thrive through what was certainly very difficult times.
Göbekli Tepe has like every major discovery created more questions than it has yet to answer. For example, where did everyone live? There are no signs of human habitation thus far unearthed. Professor Schmidt has found himself also at odds about the use of this site. He had postulated that this site was purely ceremonial however his new findings may now change this view.
This is just some of the grand discoveries that has been found up until this point. The site is not even 15% unearthed (we have unearthed 3 Circle complexes, there are at least 20 more with other structures yet to be unearthed, some may be older then 13,000 years). There are no doubts that there will be far more truly world changing discoveries. And just as fascinating is the cultures that lead up to Göbekli Tepe as it is clear there had to be a few thousand years of evolution of culture to produce what we see here today.
All of us will stand witness, in this generation, to discoveries that perhaps our ancient family hoped us to rediscover, as a testament to not only what we could do, but who we really are.