9 Steps to Understanding Gobekli Tepe

by Erik Schimek on April 7, 2010

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1. Gobekli Tepe is The Missing Link

A subject I find fascinating is the evidence of possible ‘missing civilizations’ in our history, which would bring back the origins of human civilization back several millenia.

However, many of these locations (such as the Gulf of Cambay, and off the coast of Cuba) are difficult to investigate. Therefore, even if they were proven to be more than oddly-shaped natural rock formations, they would offer little insight into the ancient cultures that built them.

This is what makes Gobekli Tepe so interesting: People armed with arrows and flint knives built a series of temples in the middle of the fertile crescent thousands of years before the earliest civilization, and then deliberately buried them under thousands of tons of earth.

This archeological site offers insight into early human cultures, and is the missing link that provides many clues on the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer that created the modern world.

Gobekli Tepe Carved Figure

Gobekli Tepe Carved Figure

2. What we Know About Gobekli Tepe

a. Gobekli Tepe is located in the northern end of the fertile crescent. During the time the structures were built, the climate was very mild and wildlife was abundant.

b. The site is huge. There are around 20 groups of pillars, each group ranging from 30 to 90 feet across. The largest of the stone pillars are 16 feet tall, weighing nearly 10 tons. The site was constructed over several hundred, perhaps several thousand years.

c. Radiocarbon dating places the age of these buildings at around 12,000 years old, which is several thousand years older than any previously discovered complex structures (the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge are around 5,000 years old).

d. The symbols on the pillars “are decorated with carved reliefs of animals and of abstract pictograms … very carefully carved reliefs depict lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes and other reptiles, insects, arachnids, and birds, particularly vultures and water fowl.” [Source]

e. It was buried under 15,000 cubic feet of soil, which is the area displaced by the Big Ben clock tower. Clearly, the burial of these structures was as much of a ‘team effort’ as their construction.

3. What Does Gobekli Tepe Look Like?

Sean Paul Kelly toured the site, offering an excellent set of photos and the following description:

“There is no doubt that the human footprint has altered the place beyond anything imaginable 11,000 years ago. I tried my best to think about what it looked like, based on the flora and fauna native to the area. There must have been amazing fields of wild wheat everywhere. Gazelles grazing in the landscape. A wealth of fruit bearing trees. And multiple streams and rivers coursing about everywhere.” [Source]

4. Why did They Create Gobekli Tepe?

It was a meeting place for numerous tribes, as evidenced by the fact that it would have taken a large and sustained human effort to create the structures. The project was too large for any single group of people.

There is, however, no evidence of permanent habitation at Gobekli Tepe. It was likely a place of religious or cultural importance, attracting hunter-gatherers from many miles around.

But why these specific structures, with carved animal pictograms, at this specific location?

Berthold Steinhilber observes that, “The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe’s builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn’t speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean.” [Source]

One clue is that the pictograms depict mainly aggressive animals such as snakes, spiders and lions — and not passive herbivores like gazelles, whose bones constitute 60% of the game hunted at Gobekli Tepe during its construction.

Tom Knox writes that, “The stones seem to represent human forms – some have stylised ‘arms’, which angle down the sides. Functionally, the site appears to be a temple, or ritual site, like the stone circles of Western Europe.” [Source]

The site’s importance is difficult to discern, but the decision to bury it is even more puzzling.

5. Why did They Bury Gobekli Tepe?

Gobekli Tepe was buried under around 15,000 cubic feet of soil, which would require a level of coordination and effort on par with creating the site in the first place.

There are two likely reasons for the burial:

a. They may have been buried in order to protect them, as most other motives could be satisfied by a combination of toppling, smashing and burial.

b. Burying the stones may have been a religious practice, as part of a death or burial ritual.

Arguing in favor of protecting the site is possible conflict with a nearby agricultural settlement at Cayonu, which is believed to be the place where pigs were domesticated and several early grain crops were first planted.

Darker events were also afoot at Caynou: “Archaeologists … unearthed a hoard of human skulls. They were found under an altar-like slab, stained with human blood.[T]his may be the earliest evidence for human sacrifice: one of the most inexplicable of human behaviours and one that could have evolved only in the face of terrible societal stress … victims were killed in huge death pits, children were buried alive in jars, others roasted in vast bronze bowls.” [Source]

It is possible that Gobekli Tepe was considered sacred, or was threatened in some way by the rise of agricultural civilization.

6. Farmers and Hunter-Gatherers in Conflict

This is an old conflict, illustrated by the story of Cain and Abel in which the farmer (Cain) kills his brother (Abel). A version of this story appears in both the Jewish/Christian bible, and in the Muslim Qur’an.

Daniel Quinn suggests that the conflict between Cain and Abel, and ‘The Fall’ of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden aren’t simple morality tales. Quinn believes that these stories offer insight into the development of human culture during the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist lifestyles.

Quinn writes that:

“(The farmers) began to encroach on the territory of their neighbors … They began to water their fields with the blood of (the farmers).”

“The (hunter-gatherers) needed some sort of explanation for this behavior. (The farmers) were acting as if they ate at the gods’ own tree of wisdom, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But embracing this knowledge carried its own penalty. Instead of living the easy and carefree life they formerly enjoyed, they were now living by the sweat of their brows as tillers of the field. Eating at the gods’ tree of wisdom is assuredly going to carry a curse.” [Source]

According to this interpretation, Cain (the farmers) killed Abel (the hunter-gatherers) and became cursed to work the soil, rather than live off the bounty provided by the natural world (The Garden of Eden).

Eliane Arthur expands upon this theory, writing that, “Abel represents the last vestige of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The farmers (Cain), advancing mile after mile as the centuries passed, sought to capture the wild lands and adapt them for use by humans. The hunter-gatherers were slowly driven to extinction” [Source]

Gobekli Tepe is the only significant piece of physical evidence we have from this time period, when agriculturalists and farmers may have come into conflict with one another. The site may have been buried in order to preserve sacred ground, and prevent the monuments from being destroyed.

7. The Spread of Farming Across the Fertile Crescent

By describing the people who created Gobekli Tepe as ‘hunter-gatherers’, this does not mean that farming was a foreign concept to them.

Agriculture is a scalable activity, ranging from ‘dropping tasty seeds along the path we take to get to the winter camp’ to ‘tear up the ground and plant rows of seeds, then water and weed and guard them against predation’. There are any number of variations inbetween, including sophisticated techniques to manage native vegetation and increase food production among wild plants.

To a group of hunter-gatherers, intensive agriculture was not a very attractive way to procure food. It was substantially more work, and required the tribe to stay in one place. This meant that other food sources would not be available in the same quantities (such as seasonal berries, wandering groups of animals, etc).

Hunter-gather lifestyles, by contrast, were quite a bit easier. Studies of numerous tribes have shown a comparatively easy lifestyle in even marginal lands. At the time that Gobekli Tepe was created, the lands were lush with wildlife and vegetation — a genuine Garden of Eden.

Intensive agriculture also produced a lower quality of food, as people who “make the transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture … grow smaller and less healthy as the human body adapts to a diet poorer in protein and a more wearisome lifestyle.” [Source]

What intensive agriculture did provide, however, was a stable food surplus. This allowed for an increased population density and increasing levels of specialization.

However, these early farming methods denuded the soil and made the land less productive. In order to maintain food production, the farmers would have needed to expand the range of their agricultural plots.

This is the likely causation of the Cain and Abel story; of the farmers moving into the lands of the hunter-gatherers, and taking them by force.

8. An Emerging Darkness

The most fascinating aspect of Gobekli Tepe is what it reveals about the transition from hunter-gathering to farming, and the changes in human culture that this transition created.

As shown by the parable of Cain & Abel, a dark part of human nature began to emerge around 10,000 years ago. It may have been created under duress; it may have been there all along, unable to find expression in hunter-gatherer society. Whatever the causation, its manifestation was new to the human experience.

What might have caused this change?

While intensive agriculture allowed groups of humans to stockpile food and develop specializations like ‘soldier’ and ‘farmer’, this specialization led to a deteriorating quality of life.

Early agricultural techniques were unsustainable, as they decreased soil quality — which necessitated an expansion of acreage in order to maintain food production. Therefore, a change from hunter-gathering to farming also carried with it an inherent level of aggression. Agriculturalists who did not expand their territory would not have enough food to sustain their population, and could not ‘move on’ to another region because they were tied down to the soil. Thus, they would have needed to choose between expansion and starvation.

This aggression would come to dominate the region through selection pressures, as bordering tribes would have been left with a choice:

a. The neighboring tribes could adopt similar methods to the aggressive farmers, and start building granaries and armoires.

b. The tribes could do nothing, and be overrun by the aggressive farmers.

c. The tribes could leave the area, allowing their land to be overrun by the aggressive farmers.

As this culture spread throughout the fertile crescent, it created significant changes in how humans saw the world. There were large shifts in religious outlook (from animism to monotheism), the size and complexity of tribes, and an increased focus on creating new technologies like metalworking.

These changes may also have revealed a darker part of human nature, as the fall from the Garden of Eden came with a price. Humans became cursed with the knowledge that in order to feed their tribe and family, they had to expand into someone else’s territory.

Human psychology is very good at explaining away this sort of thing, however. So eventually, we ceased seeing this land as “someone else’s” and began seeing it as “land those other people aren’t using the right way.”

Gobekli Tepe is a symbol of our hunter-gatherer heritage, and provides clues on how we may adapt to change in the coming decades.

9. How Does Gobekli Tepe Speak to Our Future?

Gobekli Tepe provides us a window into how humans managed to come together and work cooperatively, prior to the adoption of intensive agriculture. The complexity of the site offers evidence that humans don’t require cities, written codes or many of the other hallmarks of civilization in order to create sophisticated, culturally relevant public works.

All technologies shape the people who use them. Agriculture changed the way we view the natural world, shaping us into a culture that sees the natural world as something to be managed for human benefit.

As we look towards a future of 9 billion people and declining natural resources, Gobekli Tepe offers us a reminder that prevailing cultural attitudes can shift dramatically when selection pressure is applied.

A more personal lesson from Gobekli Tepe may be that the promise of the Garden of Eden is still within us, and that the loss of innocence brought about by a new technology (agriculture) can be amended. Any technology created by man can also be reshaped to serve a new purpose.

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