Biology Magazine

Göbekli Tepe: The Claims

By Cris

Göbekli Tepe has received more press coverage in recent years than perhaps any other archaeological site, including Stonehenge. Some of this coverage is due to the simple fact that Göbekli is the oldest megalithic site in the world. For this reason alone, it deserves our attention. It seems, however, that much of this attention has been due to claims that have been made about the site by its excavator, Klaus Schmidt.

I wouldn’t normally look to popular press coverage to determine what an archaeologist is thinking or saying, but in this case it seems warranted, primarily because Schmidt has been interviewed for many of the articles and makes similar claims in his professional publications (which will be the subject of the next post). So let’s look at some of this coverage, which has garnered worldwide attention.

The most recent is National Geographic’s “The Birth of Religion” (June 2011) which comes with this byline: “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.” Discussing the people who built and used the site, Schmidt stated:

These people were foragers, 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.

The author then contextualizes Schmidt’s claims:

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….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.

In 2008, the Smithsonian covered Göbekli in “The World’s First Temple?” Interviewed for the piece, Schmidt asserts that Göbekli is “the first human-built holy place” and humanity’s first “cathedral on a hill.” When it was constructed and in use, Göbekli was like “paradise” and much different from what it is today (after 10,000 years of settlement and farming):

Prehistoric people would have gazed upon herds of gazelle and other wild animals; gently flowing rivers, which attracted migrating geese and ducks; fruit and nut trees; and rippling fields of wild barley and wild wheat varieties such as emmer and einkorn…From here the dead are looking out at the ideal view. They’re looking out over a hunter’s dream.”

Visions like these were the apparent impetus for Spiegel’s cover story suggesting that Göbekli may have been the mythical “Garden of Eden.” Perhaps most surprising were Ian Hodder’s comments on Göbekli’s significance: “This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later. You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.” Hodder is the Stanford based archaeologist who is excavating Çatalhöyük, another famously important Neolithic site in Turkey.

Also in 2008, Science covered Göbekli in “Seeking The Roots of Ritual.” This article best sums up the claims being made by Schmidt:

Schmidt insists this was no settlement. He’s convinced that the circles were designed to be open to the sky, like Stonehenge. Telltale signs of settlement—such as hearths, trash pits, and small fertility figurines—are conspicuously absent. And the hilltop is a long hike from any water sources.

“We know what settlements from these times look like,” Schmidt says. “This isn’t one of them.” Instead, Schmidt argues that hunter-gatherers from across the region gathered here periodically, pooled their resources temporarily to build the monuments for some ritual purpose, and then left.

Schmidt argues that the site’s antiquity and the lack of domesticated animal and plant remains is strong circumstantial evidence that symbolism and religion led to agriculture and domestication, not the other way around.

“Developing from hunter-gatherers to farmers happened here and spread south,” Schmidt says. “Not just architecture and monumental architecture, but turning wild animals into domestic livestock happened here. This is the starting point for a whole front of innovation.”

Ian Hodder appears to agree and comments that elaborated symbols and ideas came first, and the domestication of plants-animals followed. Religion, in other words, supposedly spurred the Neolithic Revolution and “civilization.”

These are extraordinary claims that have been challenged. In coming posts, we will look at Schmidt’s professional publications and recent reactions to them.

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