Discovered by renowned German archeologist Klaus Schmidt (sadly passed away in 2014), Göbekli Tepe changed our view on how recent cultural evolution of humanity migh have unfolded. Civilization as we hypothesized was a sequential progression in the following manner:
Agriculture > Sedentary societies > Religion
Early documentaries such as The Ascent of Man by Charles Bronowski is an example of the way our thinking was organized. Göbekli Tepe now suggests the order of religion and agriculture may need a chess rook:
Religion > Sedentary societies > Agriculture
The archeological discovery was brought to world’s attention by The Smithsonian Magazine in 2008. Two years later, Newsweek followed with a brief article. National Geographic carried the story to it’s cover in 2011. Same year, The New Yorker also covered the story.
In all of these high profile media coverage, the wonderment about the extraordinary “project management capacity” of our ancestors at a time when there was no writing, no metal tools and no domesticated work animals and even pottery is a common theme. Indeed, the illustration prepared for National Geographic does a great job to give us a sense of the scale of the site:
How was it built, we are beginning to understand little by little. Why was it built is another deeply curious question. Archeologists are not alone in hypothesis generation. Evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin thinks Göbekli Tepe may not be an anomaly or an outlier in our understanding of early Human civilizations. Man made mounds (Höyük or Tell) are quite common in the area. Not far from Urfa, in another pre-pottery neolithic site in Dhra Jordan, archeologists have uncovered circular granaries that look like the miniaturized form of Göbekli Tepe dating back to 11 thousand years. This is right after a cold spell that lasted 3000 years called Younger Dryas which prevented “profitability” of agriculture. Climate is a prerequisite for agriculture. You can find a brief synopsis about the tight climate-agriculture relationship in climate-agriculture relationship compiling genomic aspects of plant domestication. Agriculture may have been invented perhaps as early as 100k years ago but had to be abandoned multiple times simply because of climate change. Grinding stones discovered from caves in Mozambique covered with Sorghum starch dating back to 105 thousand years ago. Food processing is an indicator of social sophistication.
One explanation is that circular buildings might have been used as an observatory or perhaps a very large calendar to track a distinct astronomical object. Characteristic T-shaped central pillars within some more than 20 circular closures were set to frame Sirius. When the sky of the 11 thousand years ago was simulated, position of the Sirius provides credibility to the hypothesis (remember, it is still a hypothesis, NOT a theory yet).
Anthropologist Ted Banning suggests that Göbekli Tepe may not be a temple complex but houses for people. This argument echoed in National Public Radio (NPR). Presence of art or decoration in structures should not always be attributed to religion. As Klaus Schmidt states in his TEDx talk, art and decoration have reached a certain level of sophistication in Göbekli Tepe that we don’t see before. Rather than reproducing an accurate picture, artists depict objects in a stylized, symbolized ways which can be seen as a precursor to amblems, signs or perhaps even letters in alphabets. Especially 12 minutes into the talk of Schmidt the transition from “image as image” into “image as Bildzeichen“ is quite a notable cognitive ability. Like the Ain Sakhri Lovers found in a Judean cave at around that time abstract representations started to appear in Human-made objects.
In an excerpt from a BBC documentary “How to Grow a Planet” the film crew visits Göbekli Tepe and then tells how plant domestication and agriculture began in the region. Grasses like wheat and barley were selected by early farmers leading to plants with reduced seed shattering ability. Non-shattering seeds were easier to harvest especially when using a sickle. Non-shattering seeds is viewed as a hallmark of a suit of characters all together referred as domestication syndrome including reduced dormancy and fast germination, reduced branching, insensitivity to day length and larger grain size.
Archaeology is continuing to fascinate us. Just like the surprisingly complex and intelligent contraption like the Antikythera Mechanism, Göbekli Tepe is a source of respect for ancestral wisdom and resourcefulness. It is a window into Human nature and cultural evolution. Catapulted into world fame with high profile magazines, Göbekli Tepe is now an archeological site becoming increasingly popular by all world citizens.