The Mystery of Gobekli Tepe

Melissa 9
Göbekli_tepeAbout eleven thousand years ago, in a remote corner of the cradle of civilization, Stone Age people who lacked cities, agriculture and metal tools built an enormous complex of multi-ton stone pillars called Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill) in a region in modern day Turkey. The high degree of artistic skill and organizational wherewithal discovered at the site has caused the field of archaeology to question one of its most basic theories.

The Complex

Situated at the northwest edge of Mesopotamia in Southeastern Turkey, Gobekli Tepe is a tell; that is, an ancient manmade hill built from the accumulated layers of millennia of building atop the ruins of those who came before. At the lowest level, its most significant construction dates back to 10,000-11,000 BC, a period that predates the introduction of writing, metal tools and the wheel in the region by 6,000 years.

Armed with only the simplest technology, the ancient builders used stone tools to chip enormous blocks of limestone into pillars, each weighing between 11 and 22 tons. Then hundreds of people would work together to move the pillars anywhere from 100-500 meters to the complex.

At the site, the large stones were arranged in circular rings of approximately eight upright pillars, each. Every pillar is comprised of two stones that form a T shape. Typically, six pillars, connected with low walls, are set around the circumference, and two taller pillars are situated in the center. The tallest pillars reach16 feet in height, and the largest rings are 65 feet in diameter. To date, nearly 200 pillars have been found at the dig.

398px-Gobekli_Tepe_2A menagerie of animals, including bulls, foxes, snakes, vultures, spiders, insects, donkeys, gazelles and lions, have been carved in relief into the stones. There are also bizarre depictions of humanoid forms hewn into the stones as well. Experts have noted that, unlike other Stone Age art, which typically depicted herd animals, at Gobekli Tepe, the images are of a “scary, fantastic world of nasty-looking beasts.”

The Excavation

Although archaeologists had been aware that there were old limestone slabs on the innocuous hill since the 1960s, the remnants had been dismissed as the broken gravestones of a medieval cemetery, and the site was essentially ignored for decades. Then in 1994, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt took a second look and realized that the unusually rounded shape of old Potbelly was something that “only man could have created.” Thinking it had to be a Stone Age site, Schmidt got to work.

In addition to traditional excavation, which has unveiled a treasure trove of flint tools and uncovered four of the rings, geomagnetic surveys were conducted in 2003 that revealed 16 additional rings buried in the hill. These remain undisturbed due to the relative locations of the rings and their method of burial: it appears that every now and then, the builders would fill in a ring, pillars and all, with dirt, gravel, flint, old tools and animal bones. Then they would erect a new circle on or near the old, buried one. The result is “20 rings piled together, higgledy-piggledy, under the earth.”

Although no one knows why the complex was built, Dr. Schmidt believes it was a religious temple, and perhaps even a burial site. Many experts agree. One has noted that, in particular, the prominent depictions of vultures indicates that the site may have served as the religious home of a death cult; in ancient times in the region, it was widely believed that the carrion-eaters transported the flesh of the dead up to heaven.

Others, like Whitman College’s Gary Rollefson, think that the vast distance in time and lack of any writing makes deciphering the builders’ motivations a vain task: “There’s more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 BC] than from Sumer to today. Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility.”

Importance of Gobekli Tepe

Of the many discoveries made at the site, perhaps the most intriguing is that the builders likely did not live in settlements, but rather were hunters and gatherers. This is remarkable because, heretofore, most experts espoused the Neolithic Revolution; this theory held that in order to build monumental structures, a society needed to have the organization and resources that only comes about through agriculture and settlement. The evidence found at Gobekli Tepe, however, appears to be strong enough to overcome what had, until quite recently, been conventional archaeological wisdom.

First, unlike its arid landscape today, 11,000 years ago, the Sanliurfa region was a “paradise” that teemed with game, fruit, nut trees and wild grains, all readily available to collect without the need for farming. Second, archaeologists, who have been digging at the site for nearly 20 years, have yet to find any evidence of the hearths, cooking, houses and garbage dumps found in the typical Neolithic settlement. Third, rather, they found 100,000 bits of the bones of wild game animals like boar, gazelle, sheep and deer, as well as a variety of bird species; as one expert said: “It was pretty clear we were dealing with a hunter-gatherer site.”

Building on this evidence, the new theory turns the Neolithic revolution on its head: rather than monument building as a consequence of agriculture and settlement, it became the impetus for it. Proponents theorize that the enormous number of people required to build the complex, and who chose to remain near after it was completed, required more food than could reliably be collected with hunting and gathering. As one expert opined, “I think they began cultivating wild grasses on the hills” in order to feed the masses. Recent findings from other disciplines seem to back this theory up.

In the same way anthropologists have used DNA and other evidence to trace our common heritage to a lady who lived in Africa approximately 140,000 years ago, geneticists have traced the migration of plants as well. In particular, the earliest strains of domesticated wheat have been traced back to an ancient village that was only 20 miles from Potbelly Hill. In addition, the first pigs were domesticated in a village only 60 miles away, and the region also saw the first domestic sheep, goats and cattle. Other research has revealed that the practice of agriculture began in the region about 10,500 years ago, only a few centuries after construction at Gobekli Tepe began.

In the final analysis, proponents of the new theory conclude the interesting notion that, based on the evidence at hand at the Gobekli Tepe dig,  “religion motivated people to take up farming.”

If you liked this article, and the timeline below, you might also enjoy:

A Brief History of Building Big

Across the world and across time, man has enjoyed building large monuments. To give you an idea of just how old Gobekli Tepe is, consider the following timeline:

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9 Comments »

  1. Arthur July 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    “At the lowest level, its most significant construction dates back to the 10th century BC, a period that predates the introduction of writing, metal tools and the wheel in the region by 6,000 years”

    WTF?

    10 centuries = 10×100 years = 1000 years

    2013 = 2013

    10th century BCE to 2013 CE = ~ 3,000 years.

    So are you saying Turkey and the surrounding region aren’t due to get metal tools, writing, and the wheel for another 3,000 years?

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey July 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      @Arthur: Not at all, just a simple typo. Thanks for catching it. Fixed! :-)

  2. Len Robertson August 8, 2013 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    One could surmise that the odd looking people drawn by those at Gobekli Tespe were aliens wearing space suits with helmets.

    The unofficial conclusion of the American military and intelligence communities is that “UFO’s are real.” The bankers and money men who meet at Davos Switzerland in late January and early February have said that discovery of another Earth is the most likely singular event to turn the economy on its ear in the next ten years. I suspect one of our first questions will be “did you have anything to do with Gobekli Tepe?”

  3. Rob November 12, 2013 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    In the article, you state that the site was originally built between 10,000 BC and 11,000 BC as do most writers on the subject. Then in the timeline you state that “9130-8800 BC – The first 20 round structures at Gobekli Tepe were built.”
    That seems like a difference of several thousand years. Please explain.
    BtW, I found your article to be the best description of Gobleki and it’s import yet!
    Thank you.

  4. DJEsq December 7, 2013 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Still sounds like a chicken-egg thing going on here, domestication/harvesting of wheat vs. desire for hunter-gatherers to stay in one place long enough to collectively build a neat place, a ‘temple’.

    Assuming there was a normal plant mutation in the wild wheat fields surrounding Gobekli Tepe as the hunter-gatherers were passing through that might have allowed them to actually stick around and cultivate the grains to make some form of bread to sustain the large population of temple workers. So, hunter-gatherers, for a while at least, remained in the area long enough to build the structures.

    Chicken-Egg

  5. Buddy April 18, 2014 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    Just a thought!
    Could Gobekli Tepe be in fact the lost site of the Tower of Babel as described in the Bible; Genesis: 11?
    I believe, as a Carpenter, these people were building towers and that the stones are arranged specifically to support structure and load bearing down from above; notwithstanding out. As a Christian – Moses and the Biblical narrative – Nimrod – Babel – and that the tower itself is indeed physically tangible.
    Obviously a lot of human beings got together and built these structures, a civilization, a cult, a semi-sustainable system and probably spoke the same language and then decidedly filled in the site and walked. They then just went their separate ways and wandered back into the stone age for a few thousand years.
    My question about this society is – “went back or was sent back” (to the stone age)?
    These people are clearly far more intelligent and advanced than any popular scientific hypothesis would have supported prior to it’s discovery. This technology was either lost or taken – you be the Judge!
    Anyone going there might perhaps look for fire baked brick and/or slime mortar. I’d like to!
    Just a Thought. Buddy

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