Gobekli Tepe: A Redefining Glimpse into the Neolithic Past

In 1994, near Urfa, Turkey, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began unearthing an astonishing preserved piece of history that has redefined our previous understanding of human civilization. An especially groundbreaking excavation, Gobekli Tepe dates back to 9600-7300 B.C.E., 6,000 years older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids, or the era that many had presumed until now to be the start of civilized human evolution. The site holds secrets from the past that will forever change our perceptions about early Neolithic man. During the years of construction of Gobekli Tepe, Neolithic man’s main concern was day-to-day survival. Grouped into small tribal bands, people hunted, sought shelter, and survived off of the vegetation the land provided. Integral for the evolution of architecture, Neolithic man had yet to discover agriculture, hierarchy, or even pottery. So how did tribes of people collaborate together to erect such a sophisticated monumental temple used for religious sanctuary?

We do know some things about Gobekli Tepe: it is the earliest finding of an organized architectural construction; it was the first temple used for religious purposes; and both temples had been intentionally buried over the course of several years. Constructed in two phases, Gobekli Tepe’s first temple was built during the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period. The second temple, interestingly less detailed and smaller than the first, was built during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period. Over the course of several years, parts of the first temple were buried and the second temple built over the remains of the first.  The pillars that line the 25-acre site are 30 to 100 feet in diameter, stand 6 feet high and weigh 10 to 50 tons. Carved from limestone slabs, all of the pillars have the same common T-shaped design. It must have taken 500 men to carve the pillars at local quarries before hauling them over a quarter of a mile to the actual site of construction.

Figure 2: Images on the pillars at Gobekli Tepe.

The carvings on the pillars are quite elaborate for both time periods. Boars, foxes, ants, vultures, alligator-like creatures and variations of lions all adorn the massive monoliths. Archeologist Danielle Stordeur believes the vulture carvings are particularly telling, as some cultures have long thought the carrion birds carried the flesh of the dead up to the heavens. Found during excavations, animal bones littering the site further support the claim that religious ceremonies and possible animal sacrifices took place at the temple. The presence of so many bones also seems to support the belief that the people who built the temple had not yet domesticated animals or farmed.

Needless to say, we still don’t understand a number of things about Gobekli Tepe: why was it buried, who buried the temples, and how did Neolithic man, who had yet to evolve into farming, communal settings, and hierarchy (the previous birth order of architecture) erect and organize such an elaborate architectural feat?

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The discovery of Gobekli Tepe raises a lot of questions about the evolution of early man and his capabilities to construct such great temples of worship. How were hunter-gatherers able to mobilize and feed the amount of people it would have taken to build such a complex structure in a pre-sedentary society? Previously, historians assumed that temples were only constructed after early man began to settle into communities, but this new discovery flips that idea on its head. Schmidt and many others now believe that temples such as the one at Gobekli Tepe actually first served as a kind of blueprint for the development of communities and complex societies. Furthering speculation and questions about Gobekli Tepe, the first temple was buried, and years later, Neolithic man constructed and buried a second temple. Why did someone bury both temples years apart, and why was the second temple less detailed and advanced? It’s possible that we may never know the true answers to these questions.

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Even with all we think we do know about Gobekli Tepe, the discovery of this site has forced historians and archaeologists to rethink many of their long-held beliefs regarding human history. Maybe people did not need to evolve into farming communities or have dictators control them in order to create massive construction projects. Perhaps Neolithic people were far more capable than history has given them credit for. In all likelihood, even greater mysteries will arise in our quest to better understand the temple complex on “Potbelly Hill.” The site will no doubt be the source of intense speculation and study for many years to come.