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Göbekli Tepe
June 21, 2011 5:18 AM   Subscribe

"We come up with two new mysteries for every one that we solve," he [Schmidt] says. Still, he has already drawn some conclusions. "Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces," Schmidt says. "I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind." - Charles C. Mann writes about Göbekli Tepe for National Geographic.
posted by Slap*Happy (43 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
So it seems like the major point is that they found these pillars (that they believe represent human beings) without finding any evidence of habitation - meaning they were hunter gatherers.

I'm not really sure why this discovery means that agriculture wasn't the driving force behind developing our society.

The quote in the OP, for example, seems obvious to me. Agriculture didn't change anything in the human brain to cause us to develop religion or society, so one example of people building artifacts without settling doesn't first doesn't seem to mean much.
posted by Cloud King at 6:13 AM on June 21, 2011


This is fantastic.
posted by empath at 6:37 AM on June 21, 2011


Cloud King: "The quote in the OP, for example, seems obvious to me. Agriculture didn't change anything in the human brain to cause us to develop religion or society, so one example of people building artifacts without settling doesn't first doesn't seem to mean much"

Cloud King, no, nothing changed in our brain when agriculture came around, but at the same time if you're talking about all the evidence we have for everywhere around the world until about 4000 BC – except at Göbekli Tepe – the two things coincide: there's no monumental architecture without agriculture. And then at Göbelki Tepe, there they are (and, supposedly, with dates from well attested contexts).

To badly mix metaphors, it would be as if you went back to 1985 and found an (original) iPod hooked into an Apple ][c: it's not that, purely speaking, there's NO reason an iPod couldn't have been invented then, given the state of the state of the state of the art, but realistically, it's incredibly unlikely, to the point of impossible.

Thus the insane weirdness (and potential awesomeness) of this site.

But, to throw some second- and third-hand intrigue on the issue, from what I hear from friends and colleagues who do work in the region (e.g., nearby at Çatal Höyük) (disclaimer: I don't, nor have I ever worked at either place!) there's a lot of question about whether GT is too good to be true. It breaks our conceptions of history too much; it's too awesome; it's too without precedent (or antecedent!); and, it's too concentrated in the hands of a single researcher and research team. Until it gets much more scrutiny from other institutions and other people and other theoretical orientations, just tuck it away in memory as "potentially" awesome, because it needs a lot more light cast on it before its truth is – ack, bad pun – written in stone.
posted by barnacles at 6:44 AM on June 21, 2011 [14 favorites]


Those people apparently had quite a lot of free time and great imagination.
I mean with all the technology, we have no time to go and dance with some animals, like this image suggests.
Those were funny days I guess.
posted by victorclebens at 6:51 AM on June 21, 2011


I'm learning that NG photographers are so in love with artificial lighting that they'll jizz extraneous photons over some of the most beautiful scenery in the world just because they don't know how to shoot without it. (Okay, not all of the shots feature gratuitous strobe, but COME ON we don't live on a dual sun planet, quit strobing MEADOWS!)

The article itself is revelatory and sad at the same time. We're the exact same people today we were 20 millenium ago, just as afraid and cowering and falling back on the same absurdities. Rational thought rose a few hundred years ago and will probably fall again to alpha tribalism soon enough as we cycle through yet another collapse. Unless we blow up the entire planet, engineer the perfect virus or grind everything into a fine grey paste.

May be a little depressed this morning.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:52 AM on June 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


barnacles, what could be fabricated or distorted about this? Surely the stones themselves aren't forgeries? Is it the age of the site that might be exaggerated, or that evidence of contemporaneous agriculture might be getting suppressed?
posted by fleetmouse at 6:53 AM on June 21, 2011


I meant image number five under the link, did not let me to refer to it directly.
posted by victorclebens at 6:54 AM on June 21, 2011


Barnacles - There are nearby contemporaneous finds, including the t-shaped megaliths, and similar statuary from about the same period.

There's all kinds of head-scratching archaeology going on these days - underwater excavations in eastern Europe point to writing having evolved there 3000 years ahead of the Middle East, and is closer to the Phoenician alphabet than cuneiform. The medium of choice - soft tree bark, in temperate forests - means next to none of it survives, unlike cuneiform, which is baked clay that's littered everywhere in the arid climate of the Middle East.

Archaeologists are looking in new places, using modern techniques, and this has been pushing back the time horizon on civilization and upending the Mesopotamia narrative that everyone thought they had figured out mid-century. It's how science works, and will always put someone's nose out of joint.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:01 AM on June 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


fleetmouse: "barnacles, what could be fabricated or distorted about this? Surely the stones themselves aren't forgeries? Is it the age of the site that might be exaggerated, or that evidence of contemporaneous agriculture might be getting suppressed"

fleetmouse, to lay my cards on the table: I'm not trying to talk out of turn here! I'm simply relying doubts relayed to me by others I know. Personally, I hope it's all true, because of how awesomely up-ending it will be!

But regarding sites and dates: archaeologists are human. Even the Really Great Ones (heh). It's remarkably easy even for archaeologists striving to be super-objective to ignore dates that are way out-of-whack, or which come from problematic laboratories, or – especially! – that come from problematic stratigraphic contexts.

From a personal point of view, it's why I always tend to take a very skeptical look at any work that primarily comes from one person's lab or from a single institution without any sort of cooperation. It's too easy to get blinded to other possibilities and ignore the data that don't match your hoped-for conclusions.

But, again, and I want to emphasize: I personally hope this is all for real, because if true it is frikkin' awesome. And, although the search for the frikkin' awesome might not be the best theoretical perspective under which to operate, it seems to be mine ...!
posted by barnacles at 7:01 AM on June 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Slap*Happy: "Archaeologists are looking in new places, using modern techniques, and this has been pushing back the time horizon on civilization and upending the Mesopotamia narrative that everyone thought they had figured out mid-century. It's how science works, and will always put someone's nose out of joint"

Slap*Happy, I wasn't meaning to shit in your thread (as I hope my apologia have made clear in my previous comments)! I just happen to have gone through grad school with some people who've been heavily involved in Turkish archaeology who have raised some questions and comments about Göbekli Tepe during post-session conference beers.

Trust me, I know how amazing modern archaeology is and how people are upending current narratives! In fact, the upending of established truths and taken-for-granteds is probably the most fantastic – and awesome – thing that contemporary archaeology does.
posted by barnacles at 7:07 AM on June 21, 2011


This kind of discussion is the opposite of thread-shitting, IMO, it brings a new depth to the topic - the inside-baseball perspective of what's going on in academic archaeology has always been a breeding ground for interesting and sometimes enlightening controversy. I didn't mean to sound dismissive of it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:13 AM on June 21, 2011


Slap*Happy, I didn't mean to give the impression you were being dismissive! This is really really REALLY interesting stuff and I thank you for posting it. Likewise, I just didn't want to give the impression I was being dismissive in my response. I wish I knew more about the critiques, but I don't. And again: I personally believe (and, to be frank, want to believe!) that the data being put out by Schmidt now are all totally right. I want Göbelki Tepe to completely rewrite the story of human prehistory, because (again) it is frikkin' awesome!
posted by barnacles at 7:36 AM on June 21, 2011


The idea that people went from being hunter-gatherers and then suddenly to eating grains and then to grain-based agriculture is somewhat flawed. The vast majority of people that anthropology undergrads study as hunter-gatherers are not hunter-gatherers, but shifting horticulturalists who rely on primitive cultivation starchy roots with some foraged and hunted foods. The recent finding of starch grains on grinding stones and now on teeth of paleolithic people underscores that people were probably relying on other forms of starch before they started relying on grains. Were they practicing any form of cultivation of these starches? If we can discover a way to discern that, it will rewrite our perceptions of history.
posted by melissam at 7:36 AM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


"I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind."

Um. Ok. This is so far from the truth, I think I'll skip the rest.

Because, in the 1990s, anthropologists already pretty had this particular thesis well in the bag.

Make this 50 years ago, and /maybe/ you can argue there was no majority consensus on how much of civilization was "natural" vs. a continuing result of complex human interaction. But there is no way that it was a huge surprise that civilization wasn't just some natural outgrowth of natural process.

Really, sometimes I think these disciplines like reinventing the wheel. "Look," they say, "it's round, and it moves! No one has ever done this before!"
posted by clvrmnky at 7:36 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


seanmpuckett, I can assure you that Vince know's how to shoot without said photons of light - check out his site if you don't believe me.

(sorry, but I couldn't help but defend a friend and one of the more important Nat Geo photographers)
posted by photoslob at 7:43 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, this is going to cause a few changes in the Civ tech tree.
posted by vanar sena at 7:43 AM on June 21, 2011 [12 favorites]


The whole causality tone in the article is sort of annoying. It's pretty obvious that a hunter-gatherer society than never stays in the same place very long isn't going to build monuments. They simply aren't around long enough.

Their religious artifacts will be small, hand-carried, and scattered all over the place.

If you look at places like Chauvet cave, which dates thousands of years earlier, it seems very likely that it had religious/spiritual significance as well, and despite the protections offered by the cave, people didn't live there.

No question this is a great find, a site that will yield much of interest, but surely National Geographic can do a better job of presentation.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:46 AM on June 21, 2011


clvrmnky: "Because, in the 1990s, anthropologists already pretty had this particular thesis well in the bag."

Is it really that cut and dried? Jared Diamond sold a lot of books mostly claiming the opposite (I know Guns, Germs and Steel isn't science as such, but one assumes that it signifies a certain amount of scientific support).
posted by vanar sena at 7:52 AM on June 21, 2011


The chief message here seems to be that we simply don't have enough information about the past to draw any solid conclusions about the long-term history of civilisation. But that's a message no archaeologist is able to accept.
posted by Segundus at 8:04 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's pretty obvious that a hunter-gatherer society than never stays in the same place very long isn't going to build monuments.

The point of the article is that at least one of them did, and it predates other monument construction by a long, long way. It's a pretty big deal, and changes some assumptions about the rise of architecture, religion and large-scale organized societies.

The narrative of civilization is that humans developed agriculture because the environment killed off all the game and plants they were used to, and this necessitated a ruling class, who necessitated a religious class to organize, educate and unite the fractious citizens and legitimize the ruling class.

Now that narrative is out the window. Hunter-Gatherers were capable of complex, organized societies in the service of a larger, unifying goal apart from base survival - and here is the proof.

It's kind of like Easter Island - it must be the work of Atlantis/aliens/shipwrecked greeks - until they discovered Nan Madol, and that, too, is the work of Atlantis/aliens/shipwrecked greeks, and then they discover Lelu, and hey, maybe Polynesian culture was complex and organized enough to engage in major architectural projects, and we don't need to ascribe it to outside forces or some inevitable "march" to cvilization at all.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:05 AM on June 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


What I'd really like to see carved on one of these things is a police box.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:12 AM on June 21, 2011 [12 favorites]


>>Hunter-Gatherers were capable of complex, organized societies in the service of a larger, unifying goal apart from base survival - and here is the proof.

I guess I always took that as a given. As someone else mentioned, our brains didn't change due to agriculture.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:17 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Watching barnacles and Slap*happy trip over themselves to apologize to each other when neither did anything wrong was kind of precious.

I love that there's going to be new history to learn!
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:35 AM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


The narrative of civilization is that humans developed agriculture because the environment killed off all the game and plants they were used to, and this necessitated a ruling class, who necessitated a religious class to organize, educate and unite the fractious citizens and legitimize the ruling class.

Whose narrative is this? I'm genuinely curious, not just asking rhetorically. Because if academic archaeology is really that dogmatically simplistic, it's no wonder "what we know" has to be completely overturned every 20 years or so.
posted by newmoistness at 8:39 AM on June 21, 2011


It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places.


This seems to me to be the money quote here. You can see a similar dynamic with pretty much any of the great 'revolutions' of human history - key elements of the industrial revolution, for example, were around and being played with in various times and places before the big take-off in Europe began. The ancient Greeks played with the steam engine, the uses of coal were very well understood across the world - the Romans, the Aztecs, and the ancient Chinese all used it from very early on.

As Jared Diamond put it, ancient peoples didn't look at a new technology or idea and say, hey, how can this change human history, they thought about what it could do for them right now, and the answer to that could lead to all kinds of places that from our position, thousands of years on, seem odd or counterintuitive.

In 1491 Mann himself offers some truly fascinating examples from pre-Contact Native American cultures - things like the 'vertical agriculture' of Andean coastal settlements or the absence of the wheel from Mesoamerican civilization outside of childrens' toys. We look at things like this and say, wow, that's odd and counterintuitive, but look closer and they make a great deal of sense in terms of the internal development of those societies. For the people of Göbekli Tepe, monumental architecture and religion without agriculture worked (at least for a while), for other peoples elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, other combinations made more sense.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:42 AM on June 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


I had to put on my religion-filter glasses for some parts of the article. (You know you're going to need to watch out when you hit a sentence like "Şanlıurfa is incredibly old—the place where the Prophet Abraham supposedly was born.". Move the 'supposed' back by two words.).

But behind that mumbo-jumbo is an amazing claim, that Slap*Happy emphasized above. I realize that I had always assumed that the big three (agriculture, settlement, and monument) must have taken place simultaneously. This really drives home that they needn't. Heck, I think I always assumed hunter-gatherers were nomadic. Plus, I liked the backstory on the origin of the Neolithic Revolution hypothesis.

barnacles - I don't think you're being thread-shitty either. Popular science writing is often over-hyped. Those of us without friends in the discipline appreciate a bit of the harsh light of day. You did it very respectfully.

victorclebens - I meant image number five under the link, did not let me to refer to it directly.
Flash breaks the web, yet again.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:46 AM on June 21, 2011


Fair enough, photoslob, your friend is indeed a dab hand at natural light photography. Nice work on the portfolio site. Leaving me even more perplexed at the outrageous strobing in the article.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:09 AM on June 21, 2011


Given a high enough concentration of resources, hunting and gathering does not preclude a sedentary and materially complex society. The peoples of the northwest coast of N. America at the time of European contact are evidence enough of this. Might the Haida or the Kwakiutl have worked in stone, had more of it been available (and less monumental timber)? What efforts have been made to reconstruct the ecology of this region at the time the monuments were erected, other than examination of ungulate remains? Were these people pastoralists? Semi-pastoralists?

There is also the possibility that they came from elsewhere, perhaps even somewhere with dramatically different ecology, specifically for the purpose of placing the monuments. Were these people settled proto-agriculturalists in an area that has not yet been discovered? I'm reminded of work friends of mine are doing on the (admittedly much more recent) Edicts of Askhoka. Many of these were carved some distance from major population centers, trade hubs or temple complexes, and often in rather inaccessible locations. Yet, they were put there for a reason, although it has become obscure to us.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:26 AM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Not sure what this will end up meaning somewhere down the pike, but clearly as has been noted, a major change did take place when hunter gatherer tribes began to settle in a place and farm, with the many changes that Jay Diamond has noted. But if early man lived in a tribal setup of about 150 people, for sure they did not all at the same time go to Home Depot to buy seed to start farming. Much, then, as man and animals have evolved over countless years, so too, inklings of a change from one way of life to another must have been gradual and sporadic, with remnants of the change in various places, some of which we probably have yet to uncover.
posted by Postroad at 9:26 AM on June 21, 2011


seanmpuckett: "I'm learning that NG photographers are so in love with artificial lighting that they'll jizz extraneous photons over some of the most beautiful scenery in the world just because they don't know how to shoot without it. (Okay, not all of the shots feature gratuitous strobe, but COME ON we don't live on a dual sun planet, quit strobing MEADOWS!)."

Hmm Jizzing Strobes? You just gave me an idea for an awesome porno! (has there ever been a strobe-porn before?)
posted by symbioid at 9:33 AM on June 21, 2011


melissam: "... The recent finding of starch grains on grinding stones and now on teeth of paleolithic people... "

I know some hipsters that need new recipes now.
posted by idiopath at 10:53 AM on June 21, 2011


Like some others here, I don't think this example of monument-building among hunter-gatherer nomads is as unique as the article claims. TheWhiteSkull mentions the totem poles of the Haida and Kwakiutl -- which they could have been making before 4000 BC (but being wooden would not have survived.) The Turkish structures also remind me of the Inuit inukshuks. Like them, they may not have been used for religious veneration but for navigation, as a point of reference for travel routes, hunting grounds etc.
posted by binturong at 10:56 AM on June 21, 2011


I know some hipsters that need new recipes now.

Fun fact: I was in that article and later enrolled in an anth program. I also eat some grains and lots of starch now :P Mainly buckwheat because it makes freakin delicious pancakes.
posted by melissam at 10:59 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]



As an academic archaeologist some of the discussion in this thread makes me a little queasy. I like Charles Mann but this article and some of the comments in this thread far overstate or mis-state "what archaeologists know."

Let me start by addressing one misconception in some of the comments. First, to say some group was a hunter-and-gatherer (the term forager is mostly interchangeable) is to say they used wild, not domesticated resources. Although many foragers were mobile, not all were. There is an enormous spectrum of mobility and sedentism and as far as I can tell we simply don't know much about subsistence and residential practices of the people who made Gobekli Tepe. To the east some of their Natufian contemporaries were certainly becoming semi-sedentary while still depending on wild resources. This area of the world was a very good place to be a forager 10-15,000 years ago.

Also, although Gobeli Tepe is the earliest known example of monumental public architecture in the world, the fact that foragers made monumental public architecture is not that surprising anymore. In the US Southeast, with which I am most familiar, foragers made Watson Brake, Poverty Point, and dozens, (probably hundreds), of earthen and shell mounds millennia before agriculture. In the Andes region the first public architecture, like that found at Aspero, may have been built by foragers (this is debated and I am not an expert). There are other examples around the world.

Archaeologists have long known that the relationship between agriculture and "civilization" (a term most of my colleagues avoid because of its lack of rigor) is fuzzy and complex. Lots of ink has been spilled on this topic, but the story that agriculture is a necessary precursor to "civilization" has been out for a long time. Much of the debate in this thread and between professionals can be somewhat simplified (caricatured?) as an argument between those that see the environment and technology as the most important developments leading to "civilization" and those who see cultural and social change as the most important. (Most professionals I know incorporate both perspectives, but there are definitely those on each fringe.)

Among professional archaeologists many in the environment camp will point to Gobekli Tepe, Watson Brake, Poverty Point and all of the rest and say no big deal. What all of these had in common (or likely had) was a wild resource base that acted very much like agriculture. What is important about domesticated plants and animals is that they are fairly dependable, the yields grow linearly with the amount of effort invested, and they can be stored to buffer against risk and to become a form of wealth that has far reaching social implications. In all the cases in which foragers made monumental public architecture there is a fantastic availability of wild resources that can imitate many of these qualities of agriculture. Thus the environmentalists/materialists would the fact that these guys are technically foragers is no big deal because they had most of the benefits of agriculture anyway by virtue of where they lived. Many in this thread have mentioned the natives on the Northwest Coast of North America as complex hunters-and-gatherers and their salmon fishing offered the benefits of agriculture without actually being a domesticated resource.

Those in the social-change is most important camp will point out that foragers had lived in these Garden of Eden settings for a long time without the kinds of social changes seen at Gobekli Tepe, Watson Brake, the Northwest Coast, the coast of Peru, etc. We also have increased newish evidence that many plants were domesticated millennia earlier than we first suspected and certainly millennia before they become significant sources of food. It appears they were being domesticated and maintained by mostly-foragers who used them as boutique foods for a long time before their full potentials were realized. The social-change camp would say the critical change was a reordering of social relationships that occurred that upended older conservative practices and led to increased competition and investment in things like monumental architecture. Based on what we can reconstruct, each of the instances of this change was somewhat unique and probably involved many very small changes, none of which was intentionally engineered to get the kinds of ultimate end results that it did.

Finally, one other comment. In the US Southeast we had no idea about the scale of the monumental public architecture made by foragers until the mid-90s. Sure, we had a few strange sites like Poverty Point, but they were seen as anomalous. The reason is that mounds they built look superficially like mounds built later. So why did it take until the 90s to figure it out? The first things archaeologist do to date a site is to pick up some artifacts from the surface and when they would do so at the Archaic mounds they would get some old and some new artifacts (by later visitors), so they just assumed they were built later by agriculturalists. When they did dig a few holes they found very little in the way of artifacts and so they continued to assume they were recent. There was little evidence and although there were a few published speculations these could be very early the evidence was thin. Most held to the idea that "extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence." It took a concerted effort (and lots of money) starting in the mid-90s and the availability of modern dating techniques that can date miniscule amounts of carbon and exposed floors to satisfactorily to produce that extraordinary evidence. In Turkey there is now an incentive for archaeologists to reexamine other mounds which were just assumed to be Neolithic in age. Although Gobekli Tepe is currently seen as anomalous it would not surprise me in the least if similar sites are not found soon.

tl;dr: Gobekli Tepe is very cool but might not be so surprising after all.
posted by Tallguy at 11:26 AM on June 21, 2011 [24 favorites]


vanar sena: Well, this is going to cause a few changes in the Civ tech tree.

If you would excuse the semi-self-link, I actually wrote an overly long article about this, including about Gobekli Tepe, at Full Glass, Empty Clip (the public face of MeFightClub).
posted by Tallguy at 12:06 PM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think civilization began when the first con-man convinced some neanderthal rubes to buy land in exchange for some nice furs. They didn't want their wives to know they had been had so stuck with it and thus grew the first village.
posted by JJ86 at 12:17 PM on June 21, 2011


"I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind."

Um, yes?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:23 PM on June 21, 2011


This thread just won't stop delivering.
posted by vanar sena at 1:37 PM on June 21, 2011


Thanks, TallGuy. Great post.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:31 PM on June 21, 2011


Archaeology of the Hyborian Age
posted by homunculus at 3:20 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


The wikipedia article suggestively quotes that it was probably a memorial cemetery. Any graves would be small, only for the heads, but none have been located yet. The bodies of the dead were apparently fed to vultures, Parsi style. This might explain why the entire site was later filled in with dirt, in order to preserve it from an invading culture who might desecrate it, or upon moving on after depleting the countryside.
posted by Brian B. at 5:40 PM on June 21, 2011


Actual wikipedia article.
posted by Brian B. at 5:42 PM on June 21, 2011


The age of Gobekli is the first thing that boggled my mind when I first caught wind of it. Pre-dating the pyramids, even the Ziggurat of Ur by many thousands of years. Wow.

The other thing I don't see mentioned in OP's link ... usually mentioned in early stories (e.g.) ... is the claim that the site had been "deliberately and systematically buried in a feat of labour every bit as remarkable." Unusual... with what motive? (In modern times, what's covered up is very often evidence of some atrocity.)

At rate, since "the oldest stone temple anywhere in the world" is -so- sophisticated, it seems very likely that there are older ones (possibly right out in the open, but we can't see them yet.) And that, much as with the increase in number of earlier human species, we've only begun to unlock a story in which Gobekli is just one astonishing piece.
posted by Twang at 6:35 PM on June 21, 2011


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