How Göbekli Tepe Changed History

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Podcast Transcript

In 1994, a German archeologist named Klaus Schmidt was investigating a site in southeastern Turkey which had been know to be a source of ancient stone tools. 

What he found was far greater.  His discovery totally upended the world of archeology and has changed everything we thought we knew about early human civilization.

Learn more about Göbekli Tepe and how it changed our views of early human civilization on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


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When Klaus Schmidt began his excavation of Göbekli Tepe in 1994 he had no idea what he was going to find. The name means Potbelly Hill in Turkish. 

The spot was a hill that had been previously noted in an archeological survey conducted by the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago in 1963. They noted the presence of stone tools as well as some stones sticking out of the ground, which they thought were gravestones. 

Based on work at previous sites, Schmidt realized that the stones sticking out of the ground might not be headstones, but could be ancient monoliths. 

As he began his dig, he realized that his hunch was correct. The stones weren’t gravestones but were in fact carved monoliths. 

As the dig progressed over the years, they discovered a much larger complex. There were multiple monoliths with elaborate carvings on them. Some of them had animals and some had people. 

The large megaliths stood about 15 feet or 5 meters tall. These were surrounded by circular walls and there were at least 20 of these circular enclosures which have been discovered so far. 

The largest megalith which has been discovered is 7 meters or 23 feet tall and is estimated to weigh 50 tons. 

The entire complex is located on the top of a hill which has a great view of the surrounding countryside, and it isn’t near any source of water. There were cisterns found on the site to collect rainwater.

Whoever built this clearly had some form of societal organization and the ability to move large stones in addition to doing artistic carvings. 

If this was all there was to Gobekli Tepe, this would still be an incredibly significant find. 

However, there was more. Much more. 

They found embers from cooking fires on the site and did radiocarbon dating on them. They also were able to date many of the tools found at the site. What they discovered was astounding. 

They were dated as being 11,000 years old. 

This made Gobekli Tepe the oldest known stone structure ever made by humans.  6,000 years older than Stonehenge. Older than the pyramids. Older than everything. The only older known human structures which have been found are earthen mounds. 

It is believed that the site was some sort of temple or religious site. Klaus Schmidt  called it the world’s first cathedral on a hill.

There was even more to the story, however. Gobekli Tepe appears to be some sort of temple complex. What has been excavated so far doesn’t include any dwellings. Gobekli Tepe isn’t a city. 

Moreover, there is no evidence of any agriculture. There are no agricultural tools that have been found, nor has there been any evidence of cultivated grain.

Moreover, the animal bones which have been found on the site are not from domesticated species of animals. They are animals like deer, gazelle, wild pigs, and geese. 

Today the area around Gobekli Tepe is very arid bordering on a desert. 11,000 years ago, it would have been a lush grassland.

The implication of all of this is that Gobekli Tepe was built by hunter-gatherers. 

This is the fact that has upended everything we know about early civilization. 

Prior to the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, the oldest evidence of human civilization came from the Middle East, particularly in Mesopotamia. These were both the first cities as well as some of the first agricultural settlements. 

The theory up until now had been that agriculture allowed for the creation of cities. 

Humans took up farming which allowed for a surplus of food. That surplus of food freed up other people to do things that didn’t involve the production of food, which pretty much took up all the time everyone before agriculture. 

It was agriculture that allowed for kings, priests, and standing armies. It also made it possible to feed workers to create monumental structures. 

The flip side to this argument is that it wasn’t possible for hunter-gathers to build such massive structures. They weren’t in one place long enough to build anything substantial. They couldn’t afford to feed the people required to create such monuments.

There was also the assumption that early hunter-gatherers just didn’t have the social complexity to create something so elaborate. 

There was always some doubt in this story, however. It was a chicken and egg type problem. Did people settle because of agriculture, or did agriculture develop because people became settled? 

What Gobekli Tepe suggests is that the creation of structures and the development of rituals predated the rise of agriculture. 

But wait, there’s more!

An analysis of the site has indicated that there was more to the site than just being a temple. It might have been used for astronomical observations. Given what we know of other extremely old structures like Stonehenge, this isn’t surprising. But this sets the date at which we known humans were observing the stars back by thousands of years.

Moreover, researchers at the University of Edinburgh think that the engravings on the megaliths might tell the story of a comet impacting the Earth, which could be an allusion to one of the greatest disasters in human history. 

I’m going to do a future episode on the comet impact theory and how it might have caused a massive, rapid rise in sea levels at the end of the last ice age, and it could have been the basis of the flood myths which exist all over the world. 

In addition to the use of the site as an observatory, a team of Israelis believes that the three main excavated circles at Gobekli Tepe form an equilateral triangle. This indicates that they were planned rather than created haphazardly over time. In fact, they might have been created, or at least outlined, at the same time. 

Also, it indicates that they had a basic understanding of geometry.

There are a dozen other sites around Turkey with stones sticking out of the ground which might be similar to Gobekli Tepe. If and when these sites are excavated, and when more of Gobekli Tepe is excavated, we will know even more about this period of history. As of right now, only 5% of Gobekli Tepe has been excavated.

Not everything about Gobekli Tempe is cut and dry. There are still debates about if people lived on the site and what the site was exactly for. 

Today Gobekli Tempe is a tourist attraction. A giant roof has been constructed over the excavation to protect it from the elements. A nearby museum has many artifacts on display from the site. It was finally, and deservingly, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018. 

As we learn more about Gobekli Tempe and similar sites in the region, we will learn even more about our early ancestors and the rise of civilization.

The interesting thing is as we find more artifacts and ruins, our understanding always goes backward. The time when humans built things or had an understanding of things always gets older. 

Thanks to Gobekli Tempe, our knowledge of early human civilization has gone back several thousand years and based on what we might find in the future, it could yet go back even farther.