By Natalie Hunter*
In the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in southeastern Turkey lies the ancient mound of Göbekli Tepe. This is the site of a Neolithic temple complex of megalithic architecture that is at least 10,000 years old. Since excavations began in 1994, the discoveries made here have fascinated the world and turned conventional theories of human prehistory and the development of civilization on its head.
The mound contains as many as 20 separate circular compounds comprised of a series of upright T-shaped stone pillars placed in ring patterns, with the spaces between closed in by stone slabs and cobbled walls of rough-cut stone. Two T-shaped pillars of enormous size stand in the central area of four of the compounds so far excavated. Many of the pillars, both the centrally located ones and those of the compound perimeter, are carved with images of various animals and petroglyphs.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Göbekli Tepe is that the entire complex was intentionally backfilled and buried about 8,000 years ago. A happy fact in that the site was thus preserved, but also a tantalizing mystery because so far we have no clue as to why a complex that had been in continuous use for more than 4,000 years was suddenly buried and subsequently forgotten.
There is little debate that the complex served a ritual function of some kind. This implies that some cultural force compelled the people of the area to invest a lot of energy to construct these monuments. That cultural force clearly had to have been religious in nature, but with a level of sophistication and organizational acumen that far exceeded what had long been assumed about pre-agricultural human societies.
This failed assumption lies at the nexus of scholarly debate over Göbekli Tepe. Before Göbekli Tepe, scholars from traditional and online schools alike believed the development of agriculture had provided the impetus for humans to adopt a sedentary cultural pattern. Thus providing a reliable food source that allowed communities to grow, and freed up labor and time for the pursuit of activities beyond basic subsistence. It was only then (the previous assumptions held), after urbanization was well under way, that priestly hierarchies could develop with the level of sophistication and power to construct ritual edifices as imposing as Gobekli Tepe.
The old assumption was that first came the city, then came the temple. It was believed that nomadic hunter-gatherers had to spend most of their time and energy on subsistence, and could not possibly have had the time, leisure or organizational skill to create a sophisticated architectural achievement as that of Göbekli. This also defies the old assumption that held that no pre-agricultural, pre-urban society could muster the organizational skills or manpower necessary to build such large structures.
It was further assumed that the complex theological ideas that must have underpinned the rituals and art motifs of Göbekli could not have been possible at the pre-agricultural stage of human development. But, as the lead archeologist at Göbekli Tepe, Klaus Schmidt of the German Archeological Institute, put it: “Fist came the temple, then the city.”
So far, no evidence has been found of habitation on the site, such as cooking hearths or living areas. Nor has any evidence been found of domesticated plants or animals, which indicates that Göbekli was a pre-agricultural center throughout its existence. Intriguingly enough, the time when the complex was deliberately buried is roughly contemporaneous with the earliest developments of agriculture. As such, it remains a snapshot of a temple that stood 4,000 years before the first urban centers grew up down the rivers.
Some scholars contend that Göbekli itself may have provided the impetus that pushed mankind toward agriculture and the domestication of animals. Meanwhile, others have speculated that Göbekli Tepe represents the actual Garden of Eden and was the home to the Watchers and Nephalim of the “Book of Enoch.” Still others have found fodder to add to the many theories of ancient extraterrestrials.
This sensational discovery is perhaps one of the most important archeological finds of all time. Accordingly, the debate and speculations surrounding this mysterious place will likely be ongoing for years to come. Whatever the truth may be, what is certain is that there are more discoveries to be made at Göbekli Tepe since so far only about 5 percent of the area of the site has been excavated.
*About the author: Natalie Hunter grew up wanting to be a teacher, and is addicted to learning and research. As a result she is grateful for the invention of the internet because it allows her to spend some time outside, rather than just pouring through books in a library. She is fascinated by the different methodologies for education at large today, and particularly by the advent of online education. She also loves to travel and learn via interaction with other people and cultures.