Certainly, the oldest yet discovered. Predating Stonehenge by some 6,000 years Gobekli Tepe, is the first known temple to be built by stone age hunter-gatherers. Smithsonian Magazine, this month, profiles the recently discovered archaeological find, which once again, turns our conception of history on its ear.
Gobekli Tepe was first examined—and dismissed—by University of Chicago and Istanbul University anthropologists in the 1960s. As part of a sweeping survey of the region, they visited the hill, saw some broken slabs of limestone and assumed the mound was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery. In 1994, Schmidt was working on his own survey of prehistoric sites in the region. After reading a brief mention of the stone-littered hilltop in the University of Chicago researchers' report, he decided to go there himself. From the moment he first saw it, he knew the place was extraordinary.
. . .
Schmidt returned a year later with five colleagues and they uncovered the first megaliths, a few buried so close to the surface they were scarred by plows. As the archaeologists dug deeper, they unearthed pillars arranged in circles. Schmidt's team, however, found none of the telltale signs of a settlement: no cooking hearths, houses or trash pits, and none of the clay fertility figurines that litter nearby sites of about the same age. The archaeologists did find evidence of tool use, including stone hammers and blades. And because those artifacts closely resemble others from nearby sites previously carbon-dated to about 9000 B.C., Schmidt and co-workers estimate that Gobekli Tepe's stone structures are the same age. Limited carbon dating undertaken by Schmidt at the site confirms this assessment.
What is truly striking about the dating of this site, is that it places its initial construction before the Neolithic Revolution; that is to say, the advent of agriculture. The Wikipedia entry on the site explains:
Göbekli Tepe can be seen as an archaeological discovery of the greatest possible importance, since it profoundly changes our understanding of a vital point in the development of human societies. Apparently, the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been assumed hitherto. In other words, as Klaus Schmidt put it: "First came the temple, then the city". This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research.What does it say about the role of religion in ancient cultures, that such incredibly elaborate masterpieces were painstakingly carved from stone tools, and were the very hub of their evolving community? Could this actually be a peek into the spiritual beliefs our pre-historic ancestors?
What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli 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. Schmidt agrees. "We're 6,000 years before the invention of writing here," he says.
"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, who is familiar with Schmidt's work. "Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility."
That doesn't stop Schmidt from speculating, however.
The excavator, Klaus Schmidt, has engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumes shamanic practices and suggests that the T-shaped pillars may represent mythical creatures, perhaps ancestors, whereas he sees a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with the Sumerian tradition of an old belief that agriculture, animal husbandry and weaving had been brought to humankind from the sacred mountain Du-Ku, which was inhabited by Annuna-deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Klaus Schmidt identifies this story as an oriental primeval myth that preserves a partial memory of the Neolithic. It is also apparent that the animal and other images are peaceful in character and give no indications of organised violence.
The intricate animal carvings catch the eye immediately, of course, and suggest shamanic practices. In Supernatural, Graham Hancock makes the case that shamanic experiences led to the sudden development of art, symbolic thinking, and early civilization (pp. 29-31).
Whether we find its traces in Australia, Asia Africa, or Europe, it is simply impossible to overstate the uniqueness and peculiarity of the evolutionary event by which we were drawn into fully modern consciousness and the fully modern capacity for symbolism and culture, religion, and art. No ancestor in the human lineage had ever made use of any form of symbolism before, and needless to say, no other animal species had ever done so either. But the switching-on of humanity's symbol-making capacity between approximately 100,000 and 40,000 years ago was the change that changed everything.
. . .
What adds to the mystery of this amazing stepping-up for our effectiveness and competitiveness is that it was not accompanied or immediately preceded by any obvious anatomical change. There was, for example, no increase in human brain size between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. On the contrary, the fossil record shows that today's average of around 1,350 cubic centimeters had already been attained by our ancestors in Africa as early as half a million years ago -- even before full anatomical modernity was reached -- and has since remained relatively stable. We are therefore obliged to ask why it was that humans with identical brains, looks, and genes to ours nevertheless behaved so very differently from us for the first 100,000 years of their existence (i.e. from roughly 200,000 to roughly 100,ooo years ago) -- so differently, in fact, that they seem almost like another species. And why did they then embark on an immense behavior metamorphosis -- that would not hit critical mass until around 40,000 years ago -- to become innovative and artistic, symbolic and cultured, religious and self-aware? What caused the momentous change of direction and destiny, hitherto unparalleled in the history of life on earth, that gave birth to modern human culture?
. . .
For Ian Tattershall of the American Museum of Natural History, the problem posed by this gap -- and what happened to our ancestors during it -- is the "question of questions in paleoanthropology. His collegue, Professor David Lewis-Williams of the Rock Art Research Institute at South Africa's Witwatersrand University, describes the same problem as "the greatest riddle of archaeology -- how we became human and in the process began to make art and practice what we call religion.
(There is more on this theory of ancient shamanism and images of paleolithic art here.)
Further insight into the spiritual underpinnings manifested here, could be hinted at by the name. Gobekli Tepe translates into "belly hill" or "hill with a belly," depending on whom you read. What immediately sprung to my mind was the possibility that the reference is to the navel. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry also refers to Gobekli Tepe as "Navel Mountain." If so, the reference puts it in line with numerous sacred sites around the world. Hancock explains in Heaven's Mirror (p. 250).
Easter Island was called 'Eyes Looking at Heaven ', but it was also called Te-Pto-O-Te-Henua, 'The Navel of the World', a name that was supposedly bestowed on it by the god-king Hotu Matua himself. What is strange, as we shall see in Part V, is that it shares his name with Cuzco -- meaning 'Navel' -- the incredible megalithic capital of the Inca empire high up in the Pervuian Andes. Moreover, the same name, or idea, was applied in ancient times to many other ritual and sacred 'places of honour in the middle'. In all cases where there is sufficient evidence to make a judgement, these turn out to have been revered as centres of geodesy and geometry and of the related art of geomancy -- a word that means literally, 'earth divination'.
Frequently such 'Navels of the Earth' also prove to have associations with meteorites -- stones fallen from heaven. Many will have their own 'navel stone', or 'sunstone', or 'foundation stone', which wil sometimes be accompanied by a tradition of a rod or pillar sunk into the earth or of an obelisk raised up. Each will additionally be depicted as a primordial centre of creation, from which all esle grows: 'The Holy One created the world like an embryo. As the embryo proceeds from the navel outwards, so God began to create the world from its navel onwards, and from there it was spread out in different directions.'
For some unknown reason, Gobekli Tepe was not gradually abandoned as the civilization evolved. It was abruptly and, apparently, deliberately covered with soil around 8000 BC. While this kept it hidden for thousands of years, it has provided for a remarkably well-preserved site to be unearthed all these years later by Klaus Schmidt and his team.