14 Mar 2014

“Potbelly Hill” gives birth to new theories of civilization

By Judy Wearing

Tall, flat stones arranged in circles stand straight, their limestone edges sharply sculpted. Some are six metres in height, and decorated with a menagerie of carvings: lions, gazelles, foxes, donkeys, bulls, reptiles, insects, and birds. The pillars are enclosed inside circular walls. There are four such enclosures, back to back, each surrounding up to eight pillars each. Sixteen more enclosures remain out of sight, under the earth. These 'rooms,' with their rings of standing stones, were buried at Gobekli Tepe (potbelly hill), a man-made mound 15 metres high, located in Southern Turkey. These awesome monuments were made without metal. They were sculpted with stone tools, and transported hundreds of feet from a quarry without beasts of burden or wheels. At the time they were built, writing had not yet been invented. Neither had pottery. Their discovery has changed the way archaeologists think about human civilization.

Gobekli Tepe rivals Stonehenge in its complexity, but predates it by some six thousand years, hailing to 9600 - 8800 BC. It is older than the pyramids and the ancient cities of Ur and Catalhӧyuk. It is the oldest known building project on Earth. But it is not its age per se, its engineering, or even its artistry that make Gobekli Tepe so special. It is that the people who created and used it were nomadic hunter-gatherers living before the invention of agriculture. There is no local source of water, no traces of housing, cemeteries, domesticated animals or plants. The people who built this 'temple' did not live here, nor anywhere else permanently.

The existence of Gobekli Tepe turns the common understanding of the development of human civilization on its head. The old way of thinking has humans in Mesopotamia discovering that wild grains can be saved and planted, and wild animals captured and contained. This ‘Neolithic revolution’ encouraged people to settle in one place, growing and keeping food instead of hunting and gathering it. Then, as a consequence of the new stability, came increased food supply, growth of community, cooperation, division of labour, extra time to devote to art and architecture, religion, organized cemeteries, public buildings, etc. Gobekli Tepe, however, was built by a number of people over a significant amount of time, organized, cooperating, and practicing a common  religion -- all without the existence of stable, permanent settlements.

Besides demonstrating that long-held beliefs can be wrong, and that early human societies were more complex than previously thought, Gobekli Tepe is a spectacular site in its own right. What people were doing here is still a mystery, and the lack of writing means there is no voice from the past to tell us what these structures meant to their culture. There are some intriguing clues, however. For one, some of the T-shaped stones have belts and arms carved on them, suggesting they are stylized representations of people. For another, what look like benches are built into the walls – for visitors to rest awhile, dead or alive, in the company of the stone statues.

Some believe that Gobekli Tepe’s stone circles were sanctuaries to link the world of the living with the world of the dead. Today, they still function as a link to the world of the dead, the only connection we have to the culture that lived and died in that part of Turkey more than 11,000 years ago. The stones still tell stories of their builders, whispering secrets of our distant relatives.

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