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Tag Archives | Gobekli Tepe

Revolutionary Ideas from Göbekli Tepe

(via Wikipedia)

National Geographic has an article (HT Vipul) on Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey where people constructed a huge temple complex much before the invention of agriculture. This site is now prompting historians to rethink the theories on the origins of complex societies. How were foragers, who usually follow the resources like the Nanook, able to stay at one place and move 16 ton stones without wheels or animals? Why did they even bother constructing such a massive structure? Did pilgrimage pre-date the Neolithic revolution?

Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. “I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?” Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. “In 10 or 15 years,” Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”[Göbekli Tepe]

There is a new explanation for the origin of agriculture

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world. The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, “If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area.” Agriculture followed.[Göbekli Tepe]

and it is connected to religion

Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.

Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height. Today the closest known wild ancestors of modern einkorn wheat are found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. In other words, the turn to agriculture celebrated by V. Gordon Childe may have been the result of a need that runs deep in the human psyche, a hunger that still moves people today to travel the globe in search of awe-inspiring sights.[Göbekli Tepe]

See Also: Photos from Göbekli Tepe | Video of a clay model

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The First Buildings

We know that agriculture was invented about 12,000 years back in various places around the world, starting with the Fertile Cresent. Many models have been proposed to explain why humans left a foraging for farming. With the discovery of the 11,500 year old temple at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, we also know that religion played an important role quite early in the settled life.

Now we have new evidence of how people lived during that transitory period. The earliest permanent buildings found during this period were not individual homes, but places for communal living or gathering.

Finlayson, Mithen, and their colleagues conclude that the evidence from WF16, combined with evidence from other sites, suggests that the earliest villages were not made up of houses, but rather communal structures where people came together to process their wild harvests and possibly also to engage in community performances. “These settlements appear to be all about community and not about emerging households,” the team writes, adding that this “ritualized community activity” might have helped to bring together the work force necessary to harvest the wild crops.

The authors don’t speculate on where the farmers lived, and there is no way to be sure. Researchers working at similar sites have surmised that they lived in small camps near the central site, but such open air habitations are very difficult to find and often leave little or no archaeological traces.

Archaeologist Trevor Watkins, emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, says he “agrees strongly” with the authors’ conclusion that the social changes that took place during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming were at least as important as the later economic changes that led to full-blown domestication of plants and animals. But he thinks that it’s still possible that some of the other buildings at WF16 were used as domestic dwellings. Nevertheless, Watkins says, the communal activities at WF16 and other Neolithic sites probably created “powerful bonds of collective identity” in the earliest farmers that kept them together in stable societies “over many generations.”[First Buildings May Have Been Community Centers]

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Agriculture or Complex Societies?

The discovery of the 11,000 year old temple at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey raised an important question: Did complex societies arise after the discovery of agriculture or vice versa?

Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies. The immensity of the undertaking at Gobekli Tepe reinforces that view[Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple? | varnam]

The discovery of a 12,000 year old female shaman grave in Israel, 1000 years older than the stonehenges at Gobekli Tepe, supports the idea that complex societies arose before farming.

Agriculture was not established in the Levant when the Natufians lived there, but they still erected rudimentary structures to inhabit. Traces in the soil of the remains of mice and sparrows — animals that exist most commonly in places of human settlement — point to a significant population boom in the Natufian period. They may not have had seasonal harvests, but the people of this time lived in a complex and perhaps even flourishing society.[12,000-Year-Old Shaman Unearthed in Israel – TIME]

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Valuable Discoveries

(The Unicorn Seal)

The Smithsonian Magazine article about Gobekli Tepe, one of the oldest man-made place of worship yet discovered had the following anecdote.

Gobekli Tepe was first examined–and dismissed–by University of Chicago and Istanbul University anthropologists in the 1960s. As part of a sweeping survey of the region, they visited the hill, saw some broken slabs of limestone and assumed the mound was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery. In 1994, Schmidt was working on his own survey of prehistoric sites in the region. After reading a brief mention of the stone-littered hilltop in the University of Chicago researchers’ report, he decided to go there himself. From the moment he first saw it, he knew the place was extraordinary.[Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple? | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine]

The July 2008 edition of Calliope, a world history magazine for kids, has a similar anecdote about Sir Alexander Cunningham. This British archaeologist, who was the founder of ASI, was digging around in Harappa in 1853 and 1856 and found the unicorn seal. He did not make much of the seal and before he died in 1893, thought that his work was a failure.

On the contrary, this proved to be one of the most valuable archaeological discoveries ever made in India. Till then it was believed that the oldest cities in India dated to 700 BCE, but later work in Harappa pushed the antiquity of Indian civilization much farther in time and now we know that the Indus civilization peaked around 2500 BCE.

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Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?

The cover story of the Nov issue of Archaeology Magazine is about the World’s First Temple. The Smithsonian Magazine too has a detailed report about this amazing discovery in Turkey.

The temple consists of large carved stones, 11,000 years old, arranged in circles like at the Stonehenge.

In the pits, standing stones, or pillars, are arranged in circles. Beyond, on the hillside, are four other rings of partially excavated pillars. Each ring has a roughly similar layout: in the center are two large stone T-shaped pillars encircled by slightly smaller stones facing inward. The tallest pillars tower 16 feet and, Schmidt says, weigh between seven and ten tons [Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple? | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine]

The interesting bit is that the people who built the temple were hunter-gatherers and not ones who had started farming. One of the oldest grains in the world comes from a nearby village and is dated to five hundred years after the temple site making this an important region in human history.

It was believed that a stable society was required so that people could indulge in hobbies like cutting 10 to 50 ton stone pillars and arranging them in circles.

To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

The immensity of the undertaking at Gobekli Tepe reinforces that view. Schmidt says the monuments could not have been built by ragged bands of hunter-gatherers. To carve, erect and bury rings of seven-ton stone pillars would have required hundreds of workers, all needing to be fed and housed. Hence the eventual emergence of settled communities in the area around 10,000 years ago [Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple? | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine]

This begs the question: When you don’t have a proper supply chain for food, why would you go and build temples? There are no answers yet.

Finally, it would be presumptuous to say that this is the world’s first temple; that designation assumes that no other culture built temples before Gobekli Tepe. The correct terminology is buried in the Archaeology Magazine article – “oldest man-made place of worship yet discovered.”

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