Biology Magazine

Göbekli Tepe: Series Conclusion

By Cris

In the Göbekli Tepe series opener, I noted that several claims have been made about this exceptional archaeological site:

  • It was built by nomadic hunter-gatherers rather than sedentary or village agriculturalists.
  • It was a religious or ritual pilgrimage center that attracted people from far and wide.
  • The massive stone pillars or megaliths were “temples” or “shrines.”
  • Göbekli was not a residential site and the structures were not occupied.

From these conclusions flow the claim that a new kind of symbolism led to the domestication of plant and animals. According to the excavator Klaus Schmidt, hunter-gatherers living in the region developed a new religion 11,000 years ago which resulted in the Neolithic Revolution, and this radically new way of life spread from Göbekli to the rest of the world. Modern civilization supposedly begins at Göbekli.

These are extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence. In the previous posts in this series, we have examined some of the evidence and over the past week I have read most of the Göbekli papers. The evidence does not, at this time, support these claims.

Let’s start with what the evidence does show, keeping in mind the all-important point that perhaps 5% of the total site (and none of the surrounds) have been excavated:

  • The people who built and used Göbekli were hunting and gathering.
  • The structures and symbols at Göbekli had ritual significance.
  • The T-shaped pillars are the oldest known megaliths.
  • People were preparing and eating plants-animals while at Göbekli.
  • People were making tools at Göbekli.

Göbekli is undoubtedly impressive and important. It was built and used during a momentous transition in human history: from food gathering to food production. This transition or “Neolithicization” was not a single event that occurred in one place and one time. It was sporadic and uneven, taking several hundreds or even thousands of years. It occurred fitfully at different times and in different places. Göbekli was not the sole source of this transition and is not the seat of the Neolithic Revolution.

It obviously required substantial resources to build Göbekli, so how was it done? If the builders were in fact hunter-gatherers without incipient agriculture, one possible answer comes from Klaus Schmidt. The picture he paints of Göbekli 11,000 years ago is of a veritable paradise or “hunter’s dream.” If the area surrounding Göbekli was as rich and full of year-round resources as he suggests, the people there would not have been ordinary hunter-gatherers.

When hunter-gatherers are fortunate enough to find themselves in resource rich areas, they tend to settle and their societies become bigger and more complex. The paradigmatic example comes from the American Northwest Coast, where natives settled on stretches of river that provided abundant and reliable salmon. They built impressive structures and developed a rich symbolism; their rituals were elaborate. Where resources are concentrated and dense, populations grow and people have time to do things other than gather and hunt. Perhaps Göbekli was such a place.

It seems more likely however that the people at Göbekli were hunting and gathering in a resource rich area, in addition to being in a region where the process of Neolithicization was well underway. We are fortunate to have excellent descriptions of this process, which began in the Levant, in the October 2011 pre-print issue of Current Anthropology (Banning’s Göbekli article is in the already printed October issue).

In “Becoming Farmers: The Inside Story” and “Neolithization Processes in the Levant: The Outer Envelope” (open access), Anna Belfer-Cohen and Nigel Goring-Morris survey the many developments in the region which culminated in the domestication of plants and animals. The authors provide the larger historical context into which Göbekli fits and effectively demystify Göbekli in the process.

This brings us back to Banning and the questions he raises in “So Far a House.” Banning was not the first archaeologist to suggest that Schmidt’s interpretations and claims were questionable but he was the first to write a substantive article about them. Banning is not alone in thinking that Göbekli may be a Neolithic village and not a hunter-gatherer cult center.

It is premature to decide these issues one way or another. Too little of the site and surrounding area has been excavated. Those monumental portions that have been excavated have yielded suggestive evidence. More (and finer-grained) excavation, without preconceived ideas about what is being excavated, needs to occur. Specific hypotheses need to be formulated and tested. Until these things happen, Göbekli should be bracketed with maybes.

Whatever questions remain, there is no question that Klaus Schmidt deserves enormous credit and thanks. His keen eye resulted in the discovery of Göbekli, and his hard work has yielded up an historical treasure. He understands that this treasure is a large box that will keep giving for decades to come and is not to be ripped out of the ground in a fast frenzy, monetary and political pressures notwithstanding. He is by all accounts the most gracious of hosts who shares his time and finds freely.

Göbekli is and will remain one of the world’s premier archaeological sites, no matter what it actually is or represents.


Goring-Morris, A., & Belfer-Cohen, A. (2011). Neolithization Processes in the Levant Current Anthropology, 52 (S4) DOI: 10.1086/658860

Belfer-Cohen, A., & Goring-Morris, A. (2011). Becoming Farmers: Current Anthropology, 52 (S4) DOI: 10.1086/658861


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog