When people think of ancient temples, they often think of Stonehenge, which most archaeologists agree was built about 5,000 years ago. But Stonehenge is actually trumped handily by a little-known site in modern-day Turkey called Göbekli Tepe, which is 11,500 years old. The site is composed of circular rings and T-shaped monoliths, many with carvings of animals on them.
Although Göbekli Tepe (which means “potbelly hill”) got a bit of press in 2008 when The Guardian and Smithsonian Magazine ran articles about its newly realized importance, it didn’t really receive the wider public acclaim and notice that it deserved. According to many archaeologists, this is one of the most exciting finds ever unearthed, a real game-changer in terms of our understanding of civilization, settlement, agriculture, and religion.
Previously, it was generally believed that humans settled, started farming, and built residential buildings before they built temples. That assumption is now being turned on its head, as it appears that Göbekli Tepe was built by hunter-gatherers as a place of worship, the world’s first temple. The Smithsonian article states:
"Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But [excavation leader] Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies."
Ian Hodder, Stanford University professor of anthropology, elaborates:
"Everybody used to think only complex, hierarchical civilisations could build such monumental sites, and that they only came about with the invention of agriculture. Gobekli changes everything. It's elaborate, it's complex and it is pre-agricultural. That alone makes the site one of the most important archaeological finds in a very long time."
To put it in context, Göbekli Tepe “predates pottery, metallurgy, and the invention of writing or the wheel,” as well as the Pyramids, the walls of Jericho, and just about every other ancient building found so far. Hodder continues, "Many people think that it changes everything … It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong."
The exact function of the megalithic complex remains under investigation, as the excavation is ongoing and could take many more years. Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist leading the effort, believes that Göbekli Tepe was used by a death cult. Others suggest that it represents the beginning of cultivation of plants, especially grains.
Why did ancient pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherers (who didn’t generally live in one place) build such a large structure? What did they use it for? Why was it intentionally buried by hundreds of cubic meters of soil in 8,000 BC? What does this discovery mean for our understanding of the timelines of agriculture and religion? Are the animal carvings, as Schmidt puts it, "the earliest representation of gods?"