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The oldest temple of humanity from the beginning of the Neolithic era

The oldest temple of humanity from the beginning of the Neolithic era

Until now, the complexes in Turkey have been interpreted as the oldest temples known to humanity, created during the transition to sedentary agriculture. Excavation director LeClair says the new discoveries challenge old theories.

At Gobekli Tepe in what is now southeastern Turkey, people 11,000 years ago built circular structures made of T-shaped columns with relief images of animals.

Erdem Sahin/EPA

11 thousand years ago, a radical change occurred in the eastern Mediterranean: the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic became sedentary farmers of the Neolithic. During this transitional period, people built numerous circular structures up to 30 meters in diameter at a site in what is now southeastern Turkey, where T-shaped stelae with images of animals stand. Gobekli Tepe, which means “bulging hill,” is the name of this place not far from the city of Sanliurfa, and it is considered the oldest archaeological complex in the world. The purpose it served has not been finally clarified, even sixty years after its discovery and after nearly thirty years of excavation. LeClair has been leading the German Archaeological Institute’s research at Gobekli Tepe since 2015 – and he has a new theory.

Mr. Clare, until now it was assumed that the stone circles at Gobekli Tepe served exclusively devotional purposes. Their predecessor, Klaus Schmidt, described them as the first “temples” of humanity. However, residential buildings were found during recent excavations. How were these houses discovered? And what does it look like?

As part of installing the new protective surfaces, we found remains of walls from the first layers during excavations at great depths. We have dated it from the second half of the 10th millennium BC. They are round buildings with a diameter of two to three meters and are typical of this period.

LeClair is a consultant on prehistoric archaeology at the German Archaeological Institute, Istanbul Department.

LeClair is a consultant on prehistoric archaeology at the German Archaeological Institute, Istanbul Department.


How did you know these were residential buildings?

There we discovered fireplaces and garbage pits, evidence of domestic life. We were also able to identify exposed rectangular buildings dating back to the early ninth millennium, which were previously intended for the cult area, as residential buildings. Among other things, stones for grinding wild grains were found in it, as well as flint tools, a typical residential stock of that time. We also discovered burials between these houses.

Burying the dead under houses was common at this time and in this region. What is said about graves and those in them?

We found two graves with four skeletons in them. Only one person was buried in one grave. In the other grave there were the remains of three people. We were able to identify two skeletons as female. The gender of the other two is unknown. I hope that in the future we will find more burials with well-preserved bones among residential buildings.

In light of these new discoveries: Is Gobekli Tepe ultimately just a typical settlement from the time when people became sedentary farmers – with only a few monumental buildings?

You can’t say it like that. We don’t know yet if people lived there permanently in the early days. What we do know is that nationalism increased over the 1,500 years of occupation of the settlement. In addition, we have not yet found any evidence of domesticated animals and plants. It appears that the population has not yet transitioned to an agricultural lifestyle.

Klaus Schmidt saw Gobekli Tepe not only as a temple, but as a cause of fundamental social change. The people of the area settled and began farming and raising livestock in order to provide food for those who built the facility in Gobekli Tepe. Is this thesis still tenable in light of the new findings?

We must now review much of what we knew or believed before. In general, we must abandon the idea that Stone Age people were primarily concerned with survival. There was no shortage of supplies in Gobekli Tepe, on the contrary. The landscape was wetter than it is today. There was more rain, and there were pastures, forests and rivers. This means that foragers had plenty of food. No additional grain cultivation or animal domestication was necessary for construction. Therefore, the hypothesis that the Neolithic began from Gobekli Tepe is also wrong.

So what motivated people to become sedentary farmers?

Fundamentally, it can be said that this was not a uniform development. I looked at all the radiocarbon dates for settlements in the area from the time of Gobekli Tepe’s construction, which is the earliest Neolithic. At the same time, there were villages where animals had already been domesticated, while in others this was not the case. The question is why?

How do you explain that?

I think that was intentional. Settlement was accompanied by an increase in population and with it an increased need for resources. This raises the question: who has access to resources and who does not? Social hierarchies may have formed for the first time. This certainly led to conflicts. There were settlements where people decided not to introduce agriculture and cattle breeding and wanted to maintain their usual way of life. I think Gobekli Tepe was one of these settlements. Monumental buildings played an important role. The reliefs on the stelae were intended to remind us of the ancient myths of hunter-gatherers and thus to fortify the group against innovations. However, for now, this is just a working hypothesis that I still have to work on.

One assumption about Gobekli Tepe is that hunter-gatherer groups in the area celebrated lavish festivals there as a reward for their participation in building the monument. Enormous amounts of animal bones have been found in the T-pillar complex as evidence. This thesis is also being called into question by new research findings.

Until now, it was assumed that stone circles were ritually buried by their users. It was assumed that animal bones were buried on this occasion. We have now analyzed radiocarbon dates for organic remains in area complexes. It turns out they come from very different times. It is difficult to reconcile this with the fact that the stone circles were said to have been covered with earth in a one-time ritual. We now assume that the earthquakes, accompanied by torrential rains, caused the high-rise residential buildings to slide down the slopes. This covered the T-pillar circles. Bone remains from waste pits likely slid in.

The Gobekli Tepe excavation site in an aerial photo from 2018. One of the exposed circular structures can be seen on the right.

The Gobekli Tepe excavation site in an aerial photo from 2018. One of the exposed circular structures can be seen on the right.

Gobekli Tepe Project Bulletin/UNESCO EPA

So no celebrations? What about the evidence of beer consumption that has also been discovered? Do we also have to say goodbye to the idea that humanity’s first beer feast was held in Gobekli Tepe?

No, beer may have played a role in the gatherings on “Bulging Hill.” In contrast to animal bones, they were stored in containers firmly fixed in the ground. At least that’s what laboratory samples indicate.

Finally, a look to the future: Do you expect to find more residential buildings?

I’m sure of that. So far we have only excavated a small part of the area. In general, no matter where you dig a hole on a site, something remarkable usually comes out of it.