Does “the world’s first temple” change history?

In the old saying, “First comes love, then comes marriage; then comes baby in a baby carriage.” The order of events was important, in those days. Now, in many places, the saying’s elements come in any order, without dire social consequences.

But the  event sequence for civilization’s rise is still important to many scholars, and the generally accepted order is being challenged by current digs like the one at Göbekli Tepe.

Dubbed “the world’s first temple” by both Archaeology and Smithsonian magazines in 2008, Göbekli Tepe, constructed over 11,000 years ago, continues to stir both academic and public interest, prominently with the publication of a major article in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic. And it’s not surprising that a quick web search leads to claims that Göbekli Tepe is the site of the Garden of Eden or is yet another proof that in our neolithic past we were visited by aliens (who apparently went back home for 7,000 years before returning to build the pyramids of Egypt and, after another long break, draw the Nazca lines).

The central issue with the Göbekli Tepe excavation is that it appears to show large-scale, cooperative monument building while the local inhabitants were still hunter-gatherers with no permanent cities and  no agriculture. If this is true, the evidence contradicts the accepted sequence, in which agriculture and herding were the first steps in a process which developed a complex social structure next, and only after that anything like a state religion. At Göbekli Tepe, the temple comes too early, and this anomaly raises a number of key questions about the history of the development of human culture.

As Sandra Scham wrote in Archaeology:

Before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, archaeologists believed that societies in the early Neolithic were organized into small bands of hunter-gatherers and that the first complex religious practices were developed by groups that had already mastered agriculture. Scholars thought that the earliest monumental architecture was possible only after agriculture provided Neolithic people with food surpluses, freeing them from a constant focus on day-to-day survival. A site of unbelievable artistry and intricate detail, Göbekli Tepe has turned this theory on its head.

The excavation at Göbekli Tepe is unearthing not just any old roughly-carved pieces of broken stone. The site has an elaborate layout, and its decoration is striking, as described by Andrew Curry in Smithsonian:

We follow a knot of workmen up the hill to rectangular pits shaded by a corrugated steel roof—the main excavation site. In the pits, standing stones, or pillars, are arranged in circles. Beyond, on the hillside, are four other rings of partially excavated pillars. Each ring has a roughly similar layout: in the center are two large stone T-shaped pillars encircled by slightly smaller stones facing inward. The tallest pillars tower 16 feet and, Schmidt says, weigh between seven and ten tons. As we walk among them, I see that some are blank, while others are elaborately carved: foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures abound, twisting and crawling on the pillars’ broad sides.

Led by German Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologists digging at Göbekli Tepe believe that the complexity of the site and the fact that its multiple layers of stone circles were built over a period of several hundred years point to an existing social structure, with a noble or priestly class likely supervising and guiding the construction. Since the site is littered with auroch and deer bones, but not with the remains of house foundations or cooking hearths, Schmidt believes that the people who built Göbekli Tepe and who participated in the rituals performed there were hunter-gatherers who did not live there permanently but who came from farther afield, drawn by the spiritual significance of the structures into a group with shared religious experiences.

In Schmidt’s view, the idea that large-scale religion was an outcome of an existing social society is backward. As he sees it, the evidence at Göbekli Tepe suggests that it was a shared spiritual experience that bonded the group, which only later turned to agriculture and herding to support its more highly concentrated population. If this is true, then local or clan animism gave rise to a regional religion, which then supported the later development of larger, more complex social systems, which turned to agriculture for sustenance.

Archaeologists also speculate about the purpose of the temple monuments. Some note the paucity of depictions of typical hunter-gatherer prey animals and the prevalence of representations of more threatening animals. There are many representations of vultures, for example, an animal which has long been associated with death. Perhaps the temple’s hilltop site is an elaborate totem, or despite the current absence of evidence for it a hunter’s graveyard. As Schmidt says, “From here the dead are looking out at the ideal view. They’re looking out over a hunter’s dream.” Deep probes show hardened limestone floors at the bottoms of the pits, and Schmidt thinks that the graves that would support his “hunter’s graveyard” speculation may lie under these.

One puzzling fact is that the site was never considered finished. Instead, every so often it was covered over and rebuilt. And each rebuild was coarser and less skilled than the one before it. As Charles C. Mann reports in National Geographic:

Puzzle piled upon puzzle as the excavation continued. For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power, or at least their charm. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones—a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries.

Bewilderingly, the people at Göbekli Tepe got steadily worse at temple building. The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.

This observation is a favourite of fans of the alien visitor theory. They have no trouble explaining the apparent decline as the natural effect of attempts by later humans to copy the engineering and artistic skills of the space visitors who long before had helped them build the original monument.

Silly as it may seem to you, and it certainly does seem so to me, the alien visitor theory is not much more of a stretch than any of the other interpretations. This is one of those places where science runs headlong into belief, where the facts on the ground (or, as here, in the ground) can be viewed in any number of ways, depending on what you’re looking for. Postmodernists love this kind of ambiguity, which is always rich in postdoc fellowship opportunities and fresh topics for doctoral dissertations.

It’s not too farfetched to imagine an archaeological conference on the subject at which one of the papers delivered is how Göbekli Tepe shows the inevitable oppression of a neolithic hunter underclass by a parasitic religious elite, while another expert delivering another paper across the hall argues that the dig is evidence of the necessity of religion for the development of civilization and morality. Sigh.

One “soft” interpretation which has some appeal for me is the idea, presented in National Geographic, that “increasingly, archaeologists studying the origins of civilization in the Fertile Crescent are suspicious of any attempt to find a one-size-fits-all scenario, to single out one primary trigger.” After reviewing some of the counter-indicating findings at other Middle Eastern sites, Mann explains:

It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places.

In this scenario, we are social animals, and we will find a way to be social.

Perhaps it isn’t that civilization rises because of some combination of agriculture, complex social organization, and religion. Perhaps it’s all the other way around. Perhaps adopting agriculture, forming complex social organizations, and creating common religious beliefs are all expressions of a common human nature, of the unavoidable and universal fact of our being social animals.

Looked at that way, civilization didn’t make us; we made it.