Gobekli Tepe — 10 kilometers from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey — is the home of what some have described as the world’s oldest temple — one that perhaps predates villages. Dated to 11,000 years ago, 6,000 years older than Stonehenge and and 5,000 years older than the first Egyptian pyramids, it sits on the summit of a hill and consists of megaliths carved with images. It was built by a mysterious group of hunter-gatherers millennia before metal tools or even pottery were invented. [Source: Andrew Curry, Smithsonian magazine, November 2008]

Gobekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh) sits in the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent. Describing the main excavation site Andrew Curry wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “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 lay out: in the center are two large stone T-shaped pillars encircled by slightly smaller stones facing inward. The tallest pillars towers 16 feet and...weighs between seven and ten tons. As we walk among them, I see that some are blank, while others are elaborately carved: foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures abound, twisting and crawling on the pillar’s broad side.”

Gobekli Tepe (meaning “Belly Hill” in Turkish) was excavated for many years by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI).
In addition to the megaliths archaeologists have found elaborate terrazzo floors, ceremonial buildings, stone buildings with hearths. What is unusual about the megaliths is that they were raised and buried. The images in the megaliths are difficult to interpret as they were made 6,000 years before the invention of writing, which is more time than has elapsed since the invention of writing and today.

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Structures at Göbekli Tepe

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: More than 20 light-colored limestone structures climb the hill of Göbekli Tepe, a 45-foot-high rise on a rolling plateau in southeastern Turkey. Some of these structures are round or oval spaces enclosed by sturdy walls. Many of them have large T-shaped pillars standing just off-center in the middle and around the edges, incorporated into the walls or into raised stone benches. On a clear, sunny day, the stones are a uniform, dusty brown. At night, when not artificially lit, they disappear into the landscape. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

The smallest of the buildings is 20 feet across, with pillars rising to about 10 feet high, while the largest circle, which archaeologists call simply Building D, measures no less than 65 feet across. Building D is punctuated by two 18-foot-tall freestanding limestone central pillars, each weighing an estimated eight tons. The pedestals they rest on are carved directly from the bedrock, as if rising out of the earth.

The megaliths and other structures at Gobekli Tepe are made of limestone, which is plentiful at the site and may been why the site was chosen. Limestone can be cut and carved even with Stone Age flint tools. Schmidt thinks the megaliths were shaped and carved where the limestone was found and then carried to the summit of the hill and lifted upright. He said once the stone rings were finished the ancient builders covered them over with dirt.

Later they placed another ring on top of the buried one, and over centuries a large hill was created. To do all this Schmidt said would have required hundreds of workers to carve and move the stone. Making sure all of them were housed and fed would have required a high degree of organization.

Pillars at Göbekli Tepe

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: From a distance, the pillars have an abstract appearance, a combination of straight lines and gentle curves. But, moving closer to them, it soon becomes clear that the pillars aren’t simply geometric shapes, but stylized depictions of people. Standing inside the circles, it’s possible to make out finely carved reliefs decorating the massive stones — arms and folded hands, along with fox pelts hung from simple belts to form loincloths. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

Eleven smaller T-pillars form a circle around the central standing figures in Building D. They too are decorated, with carvings featuring a menagerie of crawling, flying, and running wild beasts. Snakes, birds, and foxes dominate the array, but the predators among them are accompanied by gazelles, ducks, and aurochs. Right next to this circular structure is another, with smaller T-pillars at its center and carvings dominated by depictions of snakes. Foxes slink across the pillars of yet another circle just a few feet away. Other motifs mix with the animals — circles, mesh nets, phalluses, and what appear to be disembodied human heads.

And while Schmidt thought worshippers may have gathered around the T-pillars under open skies, Kinzel and other researchers now think the circular buildings were covered. They base this conclusion on markings on top of the pillars that indicate that they could have supported or anchored roofs. For Thomas Zimmermann, an archaeologist at Bilkent University, these spaces had a very particular character that reflected a male-centric view dominant in hunter-gatherer society. He imagines them as dark and gloomy, with flickering firelight illuminating the carved T-pillars looming over men gathered inside. “It’s all male, male, male. It’s a theater of horror filled with abrasive male animals ready to attack,” Zimmermann says. “It represents a staunch, conservative, male-dominated hunter-gatherer culture.” In this telling, there’s a reason there are no signs of domesticated grains or tools typical of the Neolithic period at Göbekli Tepe — according to Zimmermann and Clare, they were forbidden. The threatening imagery was intended to keep Göbekli Tepe’s residents in line. “Narratives are very important in keeping groups together and creating identity,” Clare says. “This is about the promotion of a group identity in the face of advancing Neolithization.”

Ian Hodder of Cambridge and Stanford also sees the columns at at Gobekli Tepe as part of a ceremonial center and finds it interesting these structures appear to have been built before permanent residences. There are no signs of cooking hearths, houses or trash bins as is the norm at archaeological sites where people lived. He told Smithsonian magazine the site “shows socio-cultural changes come first, agriculture comes later. You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.” Hodder has speculated that the high number of menacing creatures might have meant the site was a attempt by ancient man to gain mastery over his fears.

View overlooking the main excavation area of Göbekli Tepe

Images on the Pillars at Göbekli Tepe and What They Might Mean

The columns of Gobekli Tepe contain images of birds caught in a net, oxen, foxes, cats and turtles. In some cases images of people are intermixed with the animals and the animals are presented in a non threatening. But the majority of the images are of menacing creature such as snakes, lions, scorpions and spiders, Numerous animal bones have been found at Gobekli Tepe, all of them wild. Most come from gazelles. Other are from wild boars, wild sheep, red deer and a dozen different bird species, including vultures, cranes, ducks and geese. Evidence from other sites in the region indicate that sheep, cattle and pigs were domesticated in the area within 1,000 years after Gobekli Tepe was built. The first evidence of wheat farming, also from nearby, dates to 500 years before it was constructed.

Carvings of wild animals, especially predators, cover many of Göbekli Tepe’s T-pillars. These include a crouching cat, a wild boar and vultures, a fox, and a snarling lion or leopard. The 18-foot-tall carved T-shaped limestone pillar at the center of Building D depicts stylized arms and hands and a fox pelt hanging from a belt. The pillar itself likely represents a person or a divinity.

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: Unlike later Neolithic sites, which feature carvings of domesticated animals, such as bulls, and female animals, as well as possibly fertility-related imagery, the carvings at Göbekli Tepe depict species that seem different — wilder, and somehow more dangerous. Threatening creatures feature prominently, from scorpions and spiders to vipers and vultures. The mixture of animals, phallic and other symbols, and pillars resembling humans does not appear to be random or merely decorative. Some pillars, such as the one that combines a vulture, a fox, and a severed human head, seem to tell a story. “If you look at the symbolism and depictions carved on the pillars, they’re set up as narratives,” Clare says. “These aren’t just animals one sees every day.” [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

Is Gobekli Tepe the World’s First Temple?

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: In 2006, after a decade of work at Göbekli Tepe, the DAI and Schmidt reached a stunning conclusion: The buildings and their multiton pillars, along with smaller, rectangular structures higher on the slope of the hill, were monumental communal buildings erected by people at a time before they had established permanent settlements, engaged in agriculture, or bred domesticated animals. Schmidt did not believe that anyone had ever lived at the site. He suggested that, in the Neolithic period between 9500 and 8200 B.C., bands of nomads had come together regularly to set up stone circles and carve pillars, and then deliberately covered them up with the rocks, gravel, and other rubble he found filling in the various enclosures. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

Aerial view of the main excavation area, showing circular enclosures A, B, C and D and a number of rectangular structures

Schmidt posited that both the construction and abandonment of what he called “special enclosures” had been accompanied by great feasts of local game washed down with beer brewed from wild grasses and grains. Those who gathered for these periodic monumental building projects scattered before coming back decades or centuries later to do it all again. He called Göbekli Tepe “a cathedral on a hill,” and imagined it might have been a place where hunter-gatherers bid farewell to their dead or staged ceremonies to emphasize their shared identity.

Schmidt believed Gobekli Tepe was established by hunter-gatherers as a sacred place and was formed before ancient man settled into villages and started farming and domesticating animals. He told Smithsonian magazine, “This is the first human-built holy place.” He has come to this conclusion based on the fact many images may have symbolic meaning”the presence of vulture in the carvings, for example, hint at spirituality in that some culture revere vultures for carrying the flesh of the dead into the heavens — and no settlements have been found in the area. Schmidt thinks if he digs deep enough he will find human remains, and suggests the site might have been a ceremonial center for a death cult.

The conventional theory has also been that ancient people learned to farm and live in settled communities and over time developed the organization and expertise to build temples and support complicated social structures. Schmidt argues it is the other way around: that ancient people first came together to construct ceremonial monuments like Gobekli Tepe and the organization skills required to complete that task paved the way for organizing people into communities that could develop agriculture and large settled communities.

Göbekli Tepe and the Development of Agriculture

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: The discovery of Göbekli Tepe promised to change the way scholars understood the Neolithic period. Around the time the earliest stone pillars were being carved, people were beginning to settle down and grow crops in an area stretching from modern-day Israel north to Turkey and east to Iraq. Though modest at first, the advent of farming and settlement paved the way for the development of complex civilizations and the way most of the world lives today. Archaeologists long agreed that only after adopting all the elements of the so-called Neolithic package, including permanent settlements and plant and animal domestication, could societies progress to what they saw as the luxury of creating social hierarchies, constructing monumental buildings, and carrying out complex rituals. The move toward the stratified civilizations of the present could only have begun, the argument went, once people had a surplus of food and a fixed address to call home. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

The first finds at Göbekli Tepe soon threw that time line into question. Reinforced by radiocarbon dates taken from bones found amid the rubble, the dates of the stone tools at the site placed its construction firmly at the beginning of the Neolithic period, around 9000 B.C., centuries before the first domesticated grains appeared at settlements in the area. Some of the first evidence of domesticated grain in both the region and the world comes from a site called Nevalı Çori, a few dozen miles to the west of Göbekli Tepe. Founded in 8400 B.C. and abandoned a few centuries later, Nevalı Çori overlaps only with the very latest occupation of Göbekli Tepe.

We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization. Mann wrote in National Geographic, “Archaeologists are still excavating Göbekli Tepe and debating its meaning. What they do know is that the site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species' deep past. Just 20 years ago most researchers believed they knew the time, place, and rough sequence of the Neolithic Revolution — the critical transition that resulted in the birth of agriculture, taking Homo sapiens from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to farming villages and from there to technologically sophisticated societies with great temples and towers and kings and priests who directed the labor of their subjects and recorded their feats in written form. But in recent years multiple new discoveries, Göbekli Tepe preeminent among them, have begun forcing archaeologists to reconsider.

At first the Neolithic Revolution was viewed as a single event — a sudden flash of genius — that occurred in a single location, Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq, then spread to India, Europe, and beyond. Most archaeologists believed this sudden blossoming of civilization was driven largely by environmental changes: a gradual warming as the Ice Age ended that allowed some people to begin cultivating plants and herding animals in abundance. The new research suggests that the "revolution" was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.

Göbekli Tepe and the Development of Religion and Society

Göbekli Tepe also challenges the conventional wisdom about how religion developed. Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: Schmidt thought the existence of Göbekli Tepe before agriculture and established villages this demonstrated that complex social organization and the performance of rituals actually predated permanent settlement and agriculture, and that the people who banded together and built the monumental structures were nomadic hunter-gatherers. He suggested that, eventually, the demands of gathering these nomads together in one place to carve and move the huge T-pillars and build the circular enclosures pushed them to take the next step and begin domesticating plants and animals in order to create a more dependable food supply. These innovations, he argued, spread from the hilltop throughout the region and eventually the globe. Ritual and religion, it seemed, launched the Neolithic Revolution, not the other way around. “First the temple, then the city” was how Schmidt summed it up. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

Pillar 43, Enclosure D: the "Vulture Stone"

Mann wrote in National Geographic, "Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims’storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices — burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines — had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

"At the time of Göbekli Tepe's construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Construction of the site would have required more people coming together in one place than had likely occurred before. Amazingly, the temple's builders were able to cut, shape, and transport 16-ton stones hundreds of feet despite having no wheels or beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Göbekli Tepe lived in a world without writing, metal, or pottery; to those approaching the temple from below, its pillars must have loomed overhead like rigid giants, the animals on the stones shivering in the firelight — emissaries from a spiritual world that the human mind may have only begun to envision.

As important as what the researchers found was what they did not find: any sign of habitation. Hundreds of people must have been required to carve and erect the pillars, but the site had no water source — the nearest stream was about three miles away. Those workers would have needed homes, but excavations have uncovered no sign of walls, hearths, or houses — no other buildings that Schmidt has interpreted as domestic. They would have had to be fed, but there is also no trace of agriculture. For that matter, Schmidt has found no mess kitchens or cooking fires. It was purely a ceremonial center. If anyone ever lived at this site, they were less its residents than its staff. To judge by the thousands of gazelle and aurochs bones found at the site, the workers seem to have been fed by constant shipments of game, brought from faraway hunts. All of this complex endeavor must have had organizers and overseers, but there is as yet no good evidence of a social hierarchy — no living area reserved for richer people, no tombs filled with elite goods, no sign of some people having better diets than others.

Organization of Göbekli Tepe

On Göbekli Tepe, Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “Superficially, the site appears to be a typical tell: it is a nine-hectare the mound is formed of anthropogenic debris and structures built mainly of stone. However, in the fifteen years that the site has been in excavation no normal occupation remains, either structural or occupation debris, have been found. By far the greatest part of the matrix that forms the mound consists of small-to-fist-size pieces of the hard, local limestone, together with some soil, many chipped stone pieces and amounts of broken animal (and some human) bone. The site’s stratigraphy is rather complex. The latest stone-built structures so far found are, as one would expect, close to the surface of the site and near its highest point. But the earliest structures encountered to date were built in huge, cylindrical cavities that were dug into already existing deposits. These early structures date to the second half of the tenth millennium . In respect of general structure, being circular and subterranean, they are similar to the community buildings at Jerf el Ahmar, but they are much larger (and probably earlier). The extraordinary T-shaped monoliths that were set within thesimilar monoliths have been found associated with a community building at Neval Çori, a small settlement some distance to the northwest of Göbekli Tepe. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

Pillar 27, Enclosure C: predator (perhaps a lion) hunting a boar

“There is much evidence of rebuilding of the large circular structures at Göbekli Tepe, of monoliths being moved and set in new locations, for example, set within a perimeter wall that concealed some of the reliefs sculpted on the monolith; and there are instances where sculpted designs on the surface of a monolith were erased so that new designs could replace them. And, as at Jerf el Ahmar, the subterranean buildings at Göbekli Tepe were deliberately obliterated by filling with hundreds of tons of soil, stone chips and other debris. One feature can be noted across the range of buildings, from the regular domestic, through the special purpose, public buildings and at the central places, Göbekli Tepe and Kfar HaHoresh: buildings were carefully and elaborately constructed, and were then repeatedly re-surfaced, modified, replaced on the same site, and often carefully and elaborately obliterated at the end of their use-lives. What impresses the archaeologist-excavator is the repetition, the continual acts of one kind or another, and finally the deliberate acts of closure. At Çatalhöyük, the excavators have come to believe that the walls of the houses were treated with a new coat of white marl wash perhaps each year, or even twice a year; and any of the new washes might receive painted motifs, a carpet of painted decoration, or whole scenes, only for the paintings to be covered by another coat of wash within a few months or a year. What should impress us is that it was the act of building, or re-making, or redecorating, that was important: by our actions and our attention we can show how much we care, but I shall argue that these were acts of memory. /+\

“The repetition of actions underpins the formation of an archaeological phenomenon of local, regional and supra-regional networks of sharing and exchange. What we have are distribution maps and, in the case of obsidian, statistics of the frequency of obsidian amongst all the chipped stone; but our maps and tables of numbers are very partial and static representations of innumerable acts of exchange that took place over hundreds, even thousands, of years. We have had glimpses of the functioning of extended networks of exchange for a long time. In the 1960s, Colin Renfrew and his colleagues began to analyse the extent of exchange networks that carried central Anatolian obsidian as far as southern Jordan, and east Anatolian obsidian as far as southwest Iran; and that research has been greatly extended by more recent collaborative work. We can add other materials, such as marine shells, serpentine, or malachite beads, that were exchanged between communities and across these supra-regional networks. It is important to note that these artefacts and materials were not the only things that were shared across the networks: it is becoming clear that in the north Levant, at sites in north Syria and southeast Turkey, there was a repertoire of shared signs that well as some shared iconography in the larger carvings.” /+\

Construction of Göbekli Tepe

Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, "Göbekli Tepe is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals — a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture — the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

The pillars were big — the tallest are 18 feet in height and weigh 16 tons. Swarming over their surfaces was a menagerie of animal bas-reliefs, each in a different style, some roughly rendered, a few as refined and symbolic as Byzantine art. Other parts of the hill were littered with the greatest store of ancient flint tools Schmidt had ever seen — a Neolithic warehouse of knives, choppers, and projectile points. Even though the stone had to be lugged from neighboring valleys, Schmidt says, "there were more flints in one little area here, a square meter or two, than many archaeologists find in entire sites." [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

The circles follow a common design. All are made from limestone pillars shaped like giant spikes or capital T's. Bladelike, the pillars are easily five times as wide as they are deep. They stand an arm span or more apart, interconnected by low stone walls. In the middle of each ring are two taller pillars, their thin ends mounted in shallow grooves cut into the floor. I asked German architect and civil engineer Eduard Knoll, who works with Schmidt to preserve the site, how well designed the mounting system was for the central pillars. "Not," he said, shaking his head. "They hadn't yet mastered engineering." Knoll speculated that the pillars may have been propped up, perhaps by wooden posts.

To Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars are stylized human beings, an idea bolstered by the carved arms that angle from the "shoulders" of some pillars, hands reaching toward their loincloth-draped bellies. The stones face the center of the circle — as at "a meeting or dance," Schmidt says — a representation, perhaps, of a religious ritual. As for the prancing, leaping animals on the figures, he noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them, or incorporating them as totems.

Puzzle piled upon puzzle as the excavation continued. For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power, or at least their charm. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones — a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

Bewilderingly, the people at Göbekli Tepe got steadily worse at temple building. The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.

Settlements at Göbekli Tepe

It was first thought that Göbekli Tepe was simply a meeting place for hunter-gatherers and people didn’t live there permanently but that view has changed. Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that the site was a settlement after all, and that many of its large ritual structures were used contemporaneously, not built one after another over the course of centuries. The settlement of Göbekli Tepe was built on a slope, with circular structures at the bottom and rectangular structures, now interpreted as dwellings, on the hill above.That interpretation supported the theory that Göbekli Tepe was built by hunter-gatherers, not settled farmers. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

What Schmidt thought were smaller rectangular ritual structures built later in the site’s history were actually domestic buildings that existed alongside the large round and oval buildings. The team suspects that the structures would have been covered with flat roofs, with entrances on top, like other houses from the ninth millennium B.C. in Syria and Turkey. Debris inside the houses suggests people were working and eating on the roof, or on an upper floor, which eventually collapsed, leaving grindstones, charred wood from fireplaces, and tools mixed in with the rubble below. Clare, Kinzel, and other members of the team think that Göbekli Tepe was probably a village with large circular buildings in a natural dip at the base of the hillside. Smaller, rectangular houses climbed the slope all around them. “I see this not as a site for cults and death but as a full settlement,” Kinzel says. “There’s a relationship between the special enclosures and daily life. It really tells a much richer story than before.”

Steles and sculptures from Göbekli Tepe in Şanlıurfa Museum

"These people were foragers," Schmidt told National Geographic, people who gathered plants and hunted wild animals. "Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources. They can't maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can't carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then here is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that." [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

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."

Evidence of Farming and Food Processing at Göbekli Tepe

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: During the 2020 excavations, the team recovered organic material, including charred wood and plant remains, along with phytoliths, or mineral residues of plants. This evidence could tell them what was growing and what people were cooking at the site more than 10,000 years ago. Laura Dietrich, a DAI archaeologist, also went back to examine thousands of grindstones, mortars, and carved stone vessels that had been excavated at the site over the years and then ignored. These include vessels large enough to make 43 gallons of beer or porridge. The evidence pointed to large-scale food processing for both special occasions and daily life. “We got an idea of normal household assemblages that actually were not special at all,” Kinzel says. This was yet another indication that Göbekli Tepe was home as well as church. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

Another major discovery the team made was a pit 25 feet across and almost eight feet deep carved from the bedrock that could have served as a cistern for people living on the hilltop. Some 150 yards from the main building area, they found a carved channel in the bedrock that they identified as a type of early plumbing likely used for collecting rainwater. “They were harvesting water,” Clare says. “That’s a good indication of domestic settlement.”

In 2016, Dietrich began analyzing thousands of stone grinding tools that had been excavated at Göbekli Tepe over the course of nearly two decades. The tools, along with hundreds of stone vessels, had mostly been ignored by researchers. Using a combination of use-wear studies, experimental archaeology, and microscopy, Dietrich analyzed the way in which the stones had been worn down over time and showed that they had been used to process grains and legumes. She identified chemical residues on many of the vessels that provided evidence they had been used to cook vats of porridge or perhaps the occasional batch of prehistoric beer. “Most probably,” Dietrich says, “these people were cultivators, or at least had strategies to gather large quantities of wild grain.”

Gobekli Tepe ‘Skull Cult’

Gobekli Tepe skull

Gobekli Tepe also contains an excessive number of fragments of human skulls — including some that now appear to have been carved by ancient human hands, according to a study by a team of researchers led by Julia Gresky. Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The ritual use of human skulls may seem macabre to most of us today, but the archaeological record suggests that skull cults — groups that assigned symbolic importance to skulls — were quite common in the area around the Mediterranean Sea. [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2017]

The study published in Science Advances reveals that the people who came here to venerate their ancestors or their gods, or to mark life transitions, may also have been greeted by human skulls hanging from cords…Archaeologists working in the region have uncovered “skull nests,” piles of skulls, that have been separated from the rest of their skeletons, as well as skulls that appear to have been decorated with ocher or covered in clay.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “In Turkey, Carved Skulls Provide the First Evidence of a Neolithic "Skull Cult": Three carved skull fragments uncovered at a Neolithic dig site in Turkey feature modifications not seen before among human remains of the time, researchers say. Thus, these modified skull fragments could point to a new "skull cult" — or ritual group — from the Neolithic period. Throughout history, people have valued skulls for different reasons, from ancestor worship to the belief that human skulls transmit protective properties. This focus on the skull has led to the establishment of the term skull cult in anthropology, and various such cults — each with characteristic modifications to skull bones — have been catalogued. [Source: Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm and Lee Clare. “Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult,” . Scientific Advances, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700564. American Association for the Advancement of Science, June 28, 2017]

“Julia Gresky and colleagues observed a previously unknown type of modification in three partial skulls uncovered at Göbekli Tepe. Each skull had intentional deep incisions along its sagittal axes and one of those skulls also displayed a drilled hole in the left parietal bone, as well as red ochre remnants, the authors say. By using different microscopic techniques to analyze the fragments, Gresky et al. verified that the carvings were executed using lithic tools, thus ruling out natural causes, like animal gnawing. In addition, they were able to discount scalping as a source of the marks, due to the depth of the carvings; however, other minor cut-marks on the skulls show signs of possible defleshing, they say. More likely, the skulls were carved to venerate ancestors not long after their death, say the authors, or, to put recently "dispatched" enemies on display. These findings present the very first evidence for treatment of the dead at Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe Suggests Religion Preceded Agriculture

Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt's way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm — a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants — and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin believed this change in consciousness was a "revolution of symbols," a conceptual shift that allowed humans to imagine gods’supernatural beings resembling humans — that existed in a universe beyond the physical world. Schmidt sees Göbekli Tepe as evidence for Cauvin's theory. "The animals were guardians to the spirit world," he says. "The reliefs on the T-shaped pillars illustrate that other world."

Schmidt speculated 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 crafts-people. 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 Dag(, 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.

Some of the first evidence for plant domestication comes from Neval Çori (pronounced nuh-vah-LUH CHO-ree), a settlement in the mountains scarcely 20 miles away. Like Göbekli Tepe, Neval Çori came into existence right after the mini ice age, a time archaeologists describe with the unlovely term Pre-pottery Neolithic (PPN). Neval Çori is now inundated by a recently created lake that provides electricity and irrigation water for the region. But before the waters shut down research, archaeologists found T-shaped pillars and animal images much like those Schmidt would later uncover at Göbekli Tepe. Similar pillars and images occurred in PPN settlements up to a hundred miles from Göbekli Tepe. Much as one can surmise today that homes with images of the Virgin Mary belong to Christians, Schmidt says, the imagery in these PPN sites indicates a shared religion — a community of faith that surrounded Göbekli Tepe and may have been the world's first truly large religious grouping.

Naturally, some of Schmidt's colleagues disagree with his ideas. The lack of evidence of houses, for instance, doesn't prove that nobody lived at Göbekli Tepe. And increasingly, archaeologists studying the origins of civilization in the Fertile Crescent are suspicious of any attempt to find a one-size-fits-all scenario, to single out one primary trigger. It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places.

In Schmidt's view, many of his colleagues have been as slow to appreciate Göbekli Tepe as he has been to excavate it. This summer will mark his 17th year at the site. The annals of archaeology are replete with scientists who in their hurry carelessly wrecked important finds, losing knowledge for all time. Schmidt is determined not to add his name to the list. Today less than a tenth of the 22-acre site is open to the sky.

Schmidt emphasizes that further research on Göbekli Tepe may change his current understanding of the site's importance. Even its age is not clear’schmidt is not certain he has reached the bottom layer. "We come up with two new mysteries for every one that we solve," he says. Still, he has already drawn some conclusions. "Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces," Schmidt says. "I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind."

Enclosure C

Archeology at Göbekli Tepe

Only about 10 percent of Göbekli Tepe has been excavated thus far, and these excavations have focused on the T-pillars and monumental buildings. The excavation has been examined with penetrating radar and geomagnetic surveys, which have revealed other megaliths rings buried over 22 acres.

The site was first examined in a cursory manner by University of Chicago and University of Istanbul anthropologists in the 1960s as part of a sweeping survey of the area and dismissed as nothing more than a medieval cemetery after uncovering only a few limestone slabs. In 1994, after reading the University of Chicago description, Schmidt decided to take a look himself. Schmidt had spent the autumn of 1994 trundling across southeastern Turkey. He had wanted to to find a place that would help him understand the Neolithic period better and ended up in the very old city of Sanliurfa. North of Sanliurfa the ground undulates into the first foothills of the mountains that run across southern Turkey, source of the famous Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nine miles outside of town is a long ridge with a rounded crest that locals call Potbelly Hill — Göbekli Tepe. Schmidt was immediately impressed by what he saw and taken by the rounded, almost made-made shape of the hill itself. Schmidt returned the next year with five colleagues and uncovered the first megaliths. Today works is being carried by a team of more than a dozen German archaeologists, 50 local laborers and however many students can be must mustered up. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: The original discovery of Göbekli Tepe prompted other archaeologists to reexamine previously excavated settlements and to search out new ones in hilly areas nearby. A survey conducted by archaeologist Bahattin Çelik of Iğdır University, for example, found at least a dozen sites with similar round buildings, T-pillars, and animal carvings. And ongoing excavations at a site called Karahan Tepe about 30 miles southeast of Göbekli Tepe suggest Göbekli Tepe might not even contain the oldest monumental T-pillar architecture. Göbekli Tepe now appears as if it may actually be a particularly well-preserved example of a widespread cultural phenomenon. The other sites “are homogenous, even when you look at the ritual buildings,” says Istanbul University archaeologist Mehmet Özdoğan. “They’re subterranean, and they all have pillars. It’s standard, like the plan of a church or mosque.” [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

What Caused Göbekli Tepe’s Demise

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: When they were first uncovered, the dozens of structures at Göbekli Tepe were filled with rocks, soil, and tens of thousands of wild animal bones. That suggested to Schmidt that the buildings represented a series of sanctuaries or temples built over the course of nearly 1,500 years, one after another. After a century or so of use, he argued, the circles and their pillars were ritually buried, and new structures were sometimes built on top. The animal bones found in the rubble were, he thought, remains of feasts staged to attract workers to the hilltop for periodic building parties, the prehistoric equivalent of barn raisings. Over time, this repeated backfilling and rebuilding created the rounded mound that gives Göbekli Tepe its name, which is loosely translated from Turkish as “Potbelly Hill.” “Klaus’ big statement was this wasn’t a settlement at all, but a ritual site for surrounding communities,” says Douglas Baird, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

But when DAI archaeologist Moritz Kinzel first began examining old excavation reports in 2017, he questioned whether the ritual structures had been built sequentially. Originally trained as an architect, Kinzel found the idea that the rubble filling the monumental buildings had been shoveled in all at once by the site’s builders and topped with the remains of feasts puzzling. “There are a lot of features in the ruins that are strange if the buildings were backfilled,” Kinzel says. For example, if the structures had been filled in all at once, the damage to the walls would be consistent all the way around. Instead, the walls closest to the slope of the hill are in the worst condition. “They show clear signs of slope slide or pressure,” explains Kinzel. “The walls farthest away from the slope are much better preserved.”

And there is further evidence that undercuts the idea that the temples were deliberately filled in and then abandoned. The construction of a swooping roof canopy made of steel and fabric over the site in 2017 gave Kinzel and Clare the opportunity to reexamine a few spots where the roof’s support pillars were to be placed. “It was like keyhole surgery, going straight down through the deposits,” Clare says. “We had a good chance to look at the site’s deepest layers and lowest deposits.” These new excavations offered a way to investigate whether people were living at Göbekli Tepe from the start, or whether it slowly evolved from an isolated religious center to a village. “In deep soundings, we went right down to the natural levels of the mound,” says Clare. “We found middens, fireplaces, hearths, lithics — all smelling very domestic. For me, there was domestic activity from the beginning right to the very end.”

Having dug down until they reached bedrock, Kinzel and Clare noticed that several of the largest buildings had been repaired or rebuilt multiple times. Furthermore, many of the central T-pillars leaned in the same direction, as though knocked off balance by the same event. Kinzel and Clare now think that instead of having been filled intentionally, the circular buildings were instead rocked by earthquakes or buried by landslides over the centuries, and then renovated or reerected over and over again. “Suddenly, we realized that maybe the monumental buildings had a much longer use life than we had thought,” Kinzel says. Clare explains that he now believes that much of the fill is simply debris created by collapsing buildings. “All these bones which were interpreted as feasting deposits are actually the remains of previous phases that slipped in,” he says. New radiocarbon dates obtained from a sampling of the animal bones, meanwhile, suggest that the buildings higher on the hillside were probably in use at the same time as the enclosures farther down the slope.

Was Göbekli Tepe the Last Redoubt of the Hunter-Gatherers

Did Göbekli Tepe start as a hunter-gatherer meeting place and end up as a Neolithic village? Or were its T-pillars defiant monuments to a hunter-gatherer tradition that stretched back thousands of years to the Ice Age? “That,” says Austrian Academy of Sciences archaeologist Barbara Horejs, “is the billion-dollar question.”

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology Magazine: A growing group of scholars, including the DAI’s Lee Clare, who took over excavations at the site after Schmidt’s death in 2014, argue that Göbekli Tepe’s towering anthropomorphic pillars and powerful animal carvings do not mark the beginning of the Neolithic period. Instead, they contend, the entire site represents a last-ditch attempt to hold onto a vanishing way of life. The people of Göbekli Tepe weren’t driving the Neolithic Revolution forward — they were shoving back against it as hard as they could. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2021]

Göbekli Tepe was constructed in a region and at a time when people were gradually adopting an entirely new way of life. The dates of the larger circular enclosures at Göbekli Tepe coincide with these first stirrings of change. By the time the site was abandoned for good in 8200 B.C., the Neolithic period was in full swing. But the new evidence suggests the site didn’t play the crucial role in the Neolithic Revolution that scholars once thought. “I don’t agree with the idea of Göbekli Tepe as the smoking gun of the Neolithic,” Clare says. Rather than representing the inspiration for agriculture and settlement in this region, he claims, Göbekli Tepe’s communal structures were built as the last stand of the region’s hunter-gatherers. Instead of embracing the changing lifestyles they witnessed in the flatlands to the south, east, and west, Göbekli Tepe’s builders pushed back.

Read this way, the evidence suggests it worked, at least for a while. Perhaps the settled hunter-gatherers at Göbekli Tepe relied exclusively on wild grasses and plentiful game from the fertile plains that stretched out below their perch, the way their ancestors had. As communities across the region were adopting new lifestyles and technologies, the people at Göbekli Tepe were “looking back and placing the emphasis on what had been, not what was going to be,” Clare says. Many scholars suggest there may have been good reasons for them to resist; across the world, the introduction of farming and sedentary life also introduced overcrowding, more disease, and worse nutrition to the human experience.

Ultimately, though, the shifting world proved too much to withstand. Around 8200 B.C., occupation at Göbekli Tepe completely stopped. There is no evidence that people there slowly adopted domesticated grains or began herding goats and sheep. “All of the art and narratives are there to emphasize this dying hunter-gatherer tradition,” Clare says. “Then it collapsed. That explains why the people there don’t trickle out — they just disappear.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except map, Smithsonian, and skull, Public Radio International

Text Sources: Live Science, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com , Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2024

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