Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Göbekli Tepe and the Dawn of Civilization

Photo--National Geographic

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.

Göbekli Tepe, the recently discovered 11,600 year-old temple ruin in Turkey, is the now oldest known religious structure ever built. Consider that this temple was built 7000 years before the first of 138 Egyptian pyramids (2600 BC), and 7500 years before the Ziggurat at Ur (2100 BC).

At the time Göbekli Tepe was constructed, people were still living hunter-gatherer lives in caves and temporary huts throughout the Fertile Crecent.

The Fertile Crescent is an arc of land that curves northeast from Gaza into southern Turkey and then sweeps southeast into Iraq. Bounded on the south by the harsh Syrian Desert and on the north by the mountains of Turkey, the crescent is a band of temperate climate between inhospitable extremes. Its eastern terminus is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq—the site of a realm known as Sumer, which dates back to about 4000 B.C. At the opposite, western end of the Fertile Crescent, in the Levant—the area that today encompasses Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, and western Syria—archaeologists have discovered settlements dating as far back as 13,000 B.C. Villages sprang up across the Levant as the Ice Age was drawing to a close, ushering in a time when the region's climate became relatively warm and wet.

Archaeologists have long speculated that the advent of agriculture allowed people to cluster around resources like water, arable soil, and hunting grounds. The desire to band together to protect shared resources, it was thought, gave rise to civilization, i.e., settling down, constructing permanent homes, developing written and spoken language and counting systems, and so on. 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.

"In 10 or 15 years," predicts German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, chief archaeologist at ancient temple site, "Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason."

Few human-built residential, commercial, or civic structures that may have pre-dated Göbekli Tepe have been found.  What this suggests, at least to the archaeologists working at the Göbekli Tepe site, is that the human sense of the sacred—and not the advent of agriculture—may have given rise to civilization itself.


Hat tip to Mark!