Thursday, May 19, 2011

Göbekli Tepe

National Geographic has an excellent article on the fascinating site of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, the oldest known temple, along with a wonderful photo essay by Vincent J. Musi. The site is highly complex and includes at least 20 rings of monumental stones, some of them elaborately carved, built one on top of the other over the period between 9600 and 8200 BC. Klaus Schmidt, who directs the excavations, argues that they show the first human settlements owed more to religious feeling than economic change:

Archaeologists are still excavating Göbekli Tepe and debating its meaning. What they do know is that the site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species' deep past. Just 20 years ago most researchers believed they knew the time, place, and rough sequence of the Neolithic Revolution—the critical transition that resulted in the birth of agriculture, taking Homo sapiens from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to farming villages and from there to technologically sophisticated societies with great temples and towers and kings and priests who directed the labor of their subjects and recorded their feats in written form. But in recent years multiple new discoveries, Göbekli Tepe preeminent among them, have begun forcing archaeologists to reconsider.

At first the Neolithic Revolution was viewed as a single event—a sudden flash of genius—that occurred in a single location, Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq, then spread to India, Europe, and beyond. Most archaeologists believed this sudden blossoming of civilization was driven largely by environmental changes: a gradual warming as the Ice Age ended that allowed some people to begin cultivating plants and herding animals in abundance. The new research suggests that the "revolution" was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.

Before Klaus Schmidt, the idea that religion, not economics, drove the formation of the first towns was associated mainly with Ian Hodder, currently directing excavations at the famous site of Çatalhöyük. Hodder has long argued that rather than inventing agriculture and then settling down, humans settled down and then invented agriculture to feed their newly stable communities. To Hodder, we came together first to worship and only later to trade. This new archaeology shifts the focus away from charred seeds and goat bones to the interpretation of art. Fortunately there is much wonderful neolithic art to think about, things like the stone human head from Nevalı Çori (above), which sports a snake on top, and the vultures of Çatalhöyük.

I personally think the debate over what came first is a bit overblown. What the archaeology tells us is that human life always has a powerful symbolic and spiritual dimension, and that we have long been very creative about the kinds of settlements we live in and the ways we find to keep ourselves alive.

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