In the mountains of Turkey lies a series of buried monoliths going back nearly a dozen millennia. It’s an archeological site known as Göbekli Tepe, and it’s changed everything we knew about the rise of human civilizations.
This is a piece of a brick from a 2,000 year old Roman fort that I visited in England maybe 20 years ago or so. I just saw it laying there on the ground and… took it.
I know, it was wrong, if everybody took one there wouldn’t be anything left, but it was my first time overseas and I’d just never seen anything that old… and it blew my mind.
Some actual human being who was walking around at the same time as Jesus picked up this brick and placed it on wall and smeared it with mortar and created a dwelling for someone else to live in.
Before that, a different person transported it there on a horse and cart probably, and before that, another person sold the brick to that guy, and before that a different guy altogether formed the brick and put it in a kiln.
Because that’s how a civilization works, lots of different people doing lots of different specialized jobs, working together in a system that provides for everyone.
It took a long time for human beings to advance to this point, to go from bands of hunter-gatherers – generalists, basically – to specialists. And the conventional wisdom has always been that it had to do with agriculture.
It took the agricultural revolution to not only provide a more stable food source but also it forced humanity to specialize and congregate and create systems to produce it and distribute it and trade with it. And it was out of that necessity that the first cities sprang up.
Most of these early cities were centered around the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The city-state of Uruk has always been considered the first city going back to 6000 years ago.
This is how civilization began as we understand it. It works. It makes sense. The pieces all fit together perfectly…
And then we found Göbekli Tepe.
For hundreds of years, the locals of the Anatolia region of Turkey knew of a unique hill in the Germuş mountains that rose slowly over the surrounding landscape to a moderate height of about 50 meters.
They called this hill “Potbelly Hill” and used it for sheep pasturing and agriculture.
Göbekli Tepe means “potbelly hill” in Turkish.
And that’s just what it was, a random hill with sheep on it until the 1960s, when it was first examined by a team of anthropologists from the University of Chicago and Istanbul University.
They found limestone and flint artifacts and assumed it was an abandoned medieval cemetery.
And that theory held until 1994 when German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt got ahold of the researchers’ reports, and he saw something different.
He had been was working on a survey of prehistoric sites in that region and something about the reports just didn’t read right to him. So he went to check it out for himself.
When he got there, he immediately knew he found something special, saying,
“In one minute – in one second – it was clear.”
What was clear to him was that this was no mere cemetery, and certainly nothing as recent as the middle ages. This was something much bigger, that probably went back to the stone ages.
He returned the next year with five colleagues, and that’s when they they discovered a series of megaliths, buried just below the ground.
Some were buried so close to the surface that plows scarred them.
These megaliths would become Schmidt’s life work for the next 20 years. But at the time, his team didn’t find any signs of a settlement. Things like houses, trash pits, or cooking hearths.
They did discover evidence of tool use, like blades and stone hammers, which actually matched artifacts in nearby sites that had been dated to around 9000 BCE. So they assumed this site was roughly that age as well.
Carbon dating on the structures later on would confirm that assumption. Making Göbekli Tepe twice as old as Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.
Like Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe’s structure includes circles of T-shaped limestone pillars, many of them featuring etchings of animals on them, like birds, foxes, lions, and scorpions.
The site’s pillars are arranged in circles of up to 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter.
And since there’s no evidence that it was used for animal domestication or farming, archaeologists believe hunter-gathers may have built it.
Thing is, the site features some architectural complexity that could’ve been too advanced for hunter-gathers.
A study published in the Cambridge Archeological Journal in 2020 explored the question of whether the site’s round enclosures were a cohesive scheme or built without reference to each other.
As study co-author and archaeologist Gil Haklay told Haaretz at the time:
“There is a lot of speculation that the structures were built successively, possibly by different groups of people, and that one was covered up while the next one was being built. But there is no evidence that they are not contemporaneous.”
The researchers used a computer algorithm based on standard deviation mapping to analyze the underlying architecture.
What they found was that three of the enclosures look like they were designed together in a triangular, geometric pattern.
So, the site comprises two, main layers.
Layer III is the oldest, made up of large, curvilinear enclosures, and it’s from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period around 8300 to 7500 BCE.
Layer II is from the early and middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B periods around 7500-6000 BCE.
It features smaller, rectangular structures with lime-plaster floors all crowded together with shared walls.
Layer III’s enclosures experienced a series of backfilling events indicating like they were intentionally buried. This is has been a major component of the study’s theories around the history of Göbekli Tepe.
Because the structure’s center points formed an almost-perfect triangle with sides measuring 19 meters (63 feet) in length.
So the question becomes, did the original builders build one enclosure first and then planned the other two based on it to create a triangle? Or did different groups build them over time?
According to archaeologist Anna Belfer-Cohen, who, full disclosure, was not a part of the study, quote:
“[I]t is more likely that there were many different groups that considered this entire area sacred and converged on it to erect the enclosures, rather than a single group that went crazy and just constructed these complexes day and night.”
So, who were these people? And what were they doing there?
Was it a settlement or a city of some kind? Schmidt didn’t think so, mostly because there’s so few residential buildings and not much evidence of cultivation in the surrounding land.
Instead, he believed the site was a sanctuary and regional pilgrimage center where people gathered to perform religious rites.
The site does contain a lot of butchered animal bones, which may be evidence of feeding large numbers of people or for sacrifices.
But recent evidence shows that Schmidt may have been wrong about that. In fact, the site may have supported a semi-sedentary population from the beginning.
And it was kinda found by accident.
After Schmidt died in 2014 the site became a bit of a tourist attraction, so they decided to put up a giant fabric canopy to provide shade.
To do so they had to dig deep into the earth to build a foundation for the canopy, way deeper than they’d ever dug before down to the bedrock.
And it was way down there that they found evidence of houses and a year-round settlement. So, it may have been a thriving village with large buildings at its center for special events.
They also found a large cistern, channels for collecting rainwater, and thousands of grinding tools for processing grain.
As Schmidt’s successor Lee Clare told BBC in August 2021:
“Göbekli Tepe is still a unique, special site, but the new insights fit better with what we know from other sites. It was a fully-fledged settlement with permanent occupation. It’s changed our whole understanding of the site.”
So, cool, Göbekli Tepe was a fully-fledged civilization. Except not cool. Because that kinda breaks history.
As I said before, our understanding has always been that places like this were only possible after the advent of farming. Stonehenge, the pyramids, even the astronomical site of Nabta Playa that goes back 7,000 years, all of these coincide with the earliest use of agriculture.
Göbekli Tepe may even go back as far as 15,000 years ago. Not only way earlier than agriculture, but way before there were domesticated pack animals or metal tools. This whole thing was done by human hands.
This required massive amounts of effort and coordination. Which leads to maybe the biggest mystery of all – why? Why was it built in the first place?
A pair of chemical engineers made headlines in 2017 when they suggested that the animal carvings on the site’s pillars lined up with the positions of stars thousands of years ago.
They argued in a paper published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry that the vulture stone carved on Pillar 43 is a “date stamp” for a comet strike 13,000 years ago.
As the study’s lead author Martin Sweatman said in a press release:
“It appears Göbekli Tepe was, among other things, an observatory for monitoring the night sky. One of its pillars seems to have served as a memorial to this devastating event — probably the worst day in history since the end of the Ice Age.”
This idea… isn’t shared by everyone. The archaeologists on the ground weren’t buying it, saying quote:
“It is highly unlikely that early Neolithic hunters in Upper Mesopotamia recognized the exact same celestial constellations as described by ancient Egyptian, Arabian, and Greek scholars, which still populate our imagination today.”
To be clear, I don’t think they’re suggesting that the positions of the stars would have changed in that time, just that when they looked at those stars, it’s unlikely they would have seen the same symbols that future civilizations would have seen.
Keep in mind, the Greeks thought this was a bear. So, you know… interpretations change.
Maybe even more mind-blowing is that Göbekli Tepe was just the beginning. Turkish archaeologists working in the countryside around the site have found dozens of similar hilltop sites, all of them with T-shaped pillars and dating from around the same time period.
And in fact, some of these other sites show evidence that people were experimenting with domesticated animals and plants. So some believe the Göbekli Tepe site may have been a last-ditch effort by a hunter-gatherer society to hang on to their vanishing lifestyle as the world was transitioning to farming.
A society struggling to adapt as a new technology takes hold? What must that be like?
One piece of evidence supporting that theory is that Göbekli Tepe’s stone carvings feature animals that you wouldn’t have seen every day in that area.
As Clare said:
“They’re more than just pictures, they’re narratives, which are very important in keeping groups together and creating a shared identity.”
So we know that Göbekli Tepe wasn’t alone. But now we know that it may not have even been the oldest.
Boncuklu Tarla in southeastern Turkey resembles the discoveries found at Göbekli Tepe but could be 1,000 years older than Göbekli.
Located 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of Göbekli, Boncuklu Tarla’s excavations have unearthed houses, private and public buildings, 130 skeletons, and more than 100,000 beads.
Karahan Tepe is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Göbekli Tepe and is considered its sister site.
Findings suggest it was active during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, and has a lot of similarities with Göbekli’s Layer II.
These include 266 T-shaped pillars and animal reliefs depicting birds, gazelles, insects, rabbits, and snakes.
The site also includes circular homes and ceremonial structures, like one chamber that contains 11 giant phalluses watched over by a bearded head with a serpent’s body.
Like you do.
Unlike Göbekli Tepe, there are more depictions of humans at Karahan Tepe. This could mean people then began to see themselves as distinct from the animal world.
The site was intentionally buried and abandoned over time. Which seems to be the fate for most of these Turkish sites. For reasons that we may never know.
But before I close this thing out, I feel like if we’re going to talk about ancient cities, we probably should talk about Jericho.
Göbekli Tepe gets a lot of attention because it’s sexy and mysterious, but Jericho is almost as old, and it’s been continuously inhabited this whole time.
Jericho is, in fact, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.
The famous Tower of Jericho is one of the first indications that hunter-gathers stayed and built a community in the area, and it was built around 12,000 years ago.
The exact purpose of the tower has long been debated. It was built to be seen, and it could have been a gathering place for the community.
Jericho likely transitioned completely to farming around 7,000 years ago.
There’s evidence that people there grew barley, chickpeas, lentils, and wheat. They also domesticated goats and sheep.
The city was also located next to a huge spring, making it an ideal place to live for many years.
So Jericho was able to adapt with the times and transition to new technologies, new societies, new religions even… But they are the exception to the rule. Most ancient cities eventually fall and crumble under the weight of time.
And I’m sure there are many other ancient cities to be found. Fully-fledged civilizations confidently sure of their superiority and place at the center of a universe that was created just for them. People who couldn’t possibly imagine their great cities and ceremonial places could ever be forgotten to history. And yet, here we are.
I guess you could say, feeling timeless is timeless.