Did the Urge to Worship Lead to Civilization?
Technological advances are revolutionizing the field of archaeology
In 01963, anthropologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Istanbul surveyed ruins atop of a hill in Southern Turkey that the locals called Göbekli Tepe (“potbelly hill” in Turkish). Examining the broken limestone slabs dotting the site, the anthropologists concluded that the mound was nothing more than a Byzantine cemetery — a dime a dozen in the ruin-rich Levant region.
Three decades later, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt made a surprising claim: Göbekli Tepe was the site of the world’s oldest temple. Geomagnetic surveys of the site revealed circles of limestone megaliths dating back 11,600 years — seven millennia before the construction of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, six millennia before the invention of writing, and five centuries before the development of agriculture.
The implications of Schmidt’s discoveries were profound, and called into question previous archaeological and scientific understandings about the Neolithic Revolution, the key event in human development pointed to as the birth of human civilization.
“We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later, to civilization,” journalist Charles C. Mann wrote in a 02011 National Geographic cover story on the site. “[Göbekli Tepe] suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” As Andrew Curry of The Smithsonian put it after a visit to Göbekli Tepe with Schmidt:
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 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.
Schmidt believed that humans made pilgrimages to Göbekli Tepe from as far away as 90 miles. But then there’s the question of what, exactly, these pilgrims were worshipping. Here, again, is Curry:
What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Göbekli Tepe’s builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn’t speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean.
In a March 02017 article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis proposed a bold theory: the pillars are telling the story of a comet hitting the earth and triggering an ice age some 13,000 years ago. The comet strike, known as the Younger Dryas Impact Event, is hypothesized to have set off a global cooling period that depleted hunter-gatherer resources and forced humans to settle into areas where they could cultivate crops.
Combining the approaches of astronomy and archaeology, Sweatman and Tsikritsis claim that the animals carved on the pillars depict constellations, with the famous vulture stone indicating a time stamp of the night sky at the time of the catastrophe. Using computer software, Sweatman and Tsikritsis matched the animal carving to patterns of the stars, yielding three possibilities that synced up to their astronomical interpretations, plus or minus 250 years: 02000, 4350 BCE, 10,950 BCE, and 18,000 BCE.
The date of 10,950 BCE aligns with the latest hypotheses as to when the Younger Dryas Impact Event occurred, lending credence to Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ interpretation that the Vulture Stone depicts what Sweatman calls “probably the worst day in history since the end of the Ice Age.”
But, as Becky Ferreira of Motherboard reports, there’s reason to regard Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ claims with skepticism. For one, many scholars do not accept the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis that a comet strike served as the catalyst for the Ice Age that followed. Some have also criticized Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ study for omitting crucial information to make their case. Archaeologist Jens Notroff, a researcher at the Göbekli Tepe site, takes Sweatman and Tsikritsis to task for failing to mention that the headless man on the vulture stone, which they claim symbolizes the devastating loss of human life after the comet, also possesses an erect phallus — hardly a robust indicator of loss of life.
“There’s more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 B.C.] than from Sumer to today,” says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility.”
Perhaps. But if the recent archaeological discoveries are any indication, we are often mistaken in our assumptions about the complexity and historic trajectory of ancient civilizations. Time will tell. And technology will help.
Sweatman and Tsikritsis have issued a rebuttal to critiques of their paper.
Read Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ article in full.
Read Charles C. Mann’s National Geographic story in full. Mann spoke at Long Now in January 02018 about the history of techno-optimist and environmental impulses in the American imagination. He also spoke at Long Now in April 02012 about the biological impact of Columbus’ journey to the Americas.