Gobekli Tepe

Lately, I've come across a number of stories in the news about very ancient archeological sites, which pre-date the Egyptian Pyramids by a fair bit. Although some very ancient sites are known (for example, the oldest remains in Jericho have been dated to about 9000 BC), I was under the impression that these were very fragmentary (perhaps known only by a hearth fire or a few stone structures), and little detailed information exists.

Gobekli Tepe is located in southern Turkey, just north of the Syrian border.

I've seen several other intriguing reports about very ancient sites in the Gulf of Cambay in India, Syria, etc. But the site at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey seems to be the most ancient and also relatively well studied, so I decided to collect what information I could find about it.

The antecedents to civilization in this region of the middle east were the Kebaran culture (a nomadic late paleolithic people who lived in the Levant and Sinai around 18,000 to 10,000 BC), and the Natufian culture (a mesolithic hunter-gatherer culture from about 12,500 to 9,500 BC who were unusual in that they built permanent settlements even before the dawn of agriculture). The oldest settlement of Jericho is in fact Natufian. So this region of the middle east was quite advanced for its time, perhaps due to an abundance of natural resources.

Göbekli Tepe is a site in Turkey, just north of the Syrian border, a bit south of the Euphrates river, and about 15 km northeast of the town Sanilurfa in Turkey. The site is on top of a small hill (Göbekli Tepe means "hill with a navel" or "hill with a belly" in Turkish). The site was examined in the early 1960's by archeologists from the University of Chicago, and the University of Istanbul. It was part of a larger survey of the region, and at the time, it was dismissed as the remains of a medieval monastery. Three decades later, a local shepherd noticed some oddly shaped stones on the ground. The news reached the curators of the local museum in Sanilurfa, about 50 km away, and eventually to the government ministry in charge of antiquities. They contacted the German Archeological Institute in Istanbul. As a consequence, Klaus Schmidt re-examined the site in 1994, and noted that various artifacts found at the site were similar to those found at nearby sites which had been carbon dated to as early as 9,000 B.C. Excavation began the next year, with a German-Turkish team.

The mound at Göbekli Tepe

The Göbekli site is spread over an area of about 22 acres on a sort of plateau among the hills. There is a gently rounded mound, about 300 meters in diameter and 15 meters high, on the plateau. From the site there is an almost uninterrupted view of the horizon on all sides. To the north is the Taurus range, to the east the Karadağ. In the south, the Harran plain stretches away to Syria. To the west is a series of ridges over which the road from Orencik traverses, to reach the site.

Barely an acre of the site has been excavated so far. The site consists of a number of stone buildings and walls which date to the period between 9,000 BC and 8,000 BC, although the beginning of the earliest construction appears to be as old as 11,000 BC or 12,000 BC. This is certainly before the beginning of agriculture anywhere in the world, before the invention of the wheel, the creation of pottery. Göbekli Tepe was built by a hunting/gathering society. Twelve thousand years ago, the region was ecologically richer than it is today, and probably supported large numbers of animals. Klaus Schmidt, the chief archeologist of Göbekli Tepe speculates that hunter/gatherer bands or tribes met during part of the year, lived near the site in animal skin tents, hunted local game, and built the complex over several decades. A large number of flint arrowheads found near the site support this idea. Bones of wild animals are found in great profusion, many of them bearing marks indicating that the animals were butchered. All the bones are from wild animals, mostly gazelles, but also boar, red deer, wild sheep, as well as several species of birds.

Showing the T-Stones at one of the "huts".

Many of the stone pillars found at the site weigh between 15-20 tons (some up to 50 tons), and archeologists have estimated that it took a work force of at least 500 people to cut them from quarries up to a kilometer away, and bring them to the site.

The structures are primarily round or oval megalithic buildings. There are at least 7 such circular stone buildings, ranging from about 10-30 meters in size, of which 4 have been excavated. Geomagnetic data suggests that at least 16 more buildings are still buried in the hill, along with 200+ more T-shaped standing stones. The buildings consist of walls of unworked rough stone, about 6 feet high. Along the walls are T-shaped stones, about 9-10 feet tall, many of them covered with carvings of animals. It's speculated that these T-stones may have once supported a roof. In the middle of the buildings are a pair of larger T-shaped stones. Nearby quarries have even more pillars which were still in the process of being cut. The largest was found in a quarry about a kilometer from the Göbekli site, and was almost 30 feet tall. It was cracked, which was probably why it had never been moved.

Many reliefs were carved on the pillars, such as foxes, lions, cattle, wild boars, herons, ducks, scorpions, ants and snakes. There were also a number of free-standing sculptures, which probably also represent animals, though it is hard to tell because they are heavily encrusted with lime. There are also a number of carvings cut into the walls, which have not been properly dated so far. It's notable that most of the carvings are of dangerous animals, such as lions, snakes, scorpions and spiders, and relatively few of useful or harmless animals. Various stone tools such as hammers and blades have been found, which resemble similar stone tools found at other nearby sites which have also been dated to roughly 9,000 B.C.

Detail of a T-stone, showing carved lizard.

The floors are made of burnt lime (terrazzo), similar to floors in ancient Roman buildings of a much later period. There is a low bench running around the inside of the outer walls.

No evidence of habitation has been found at the site, so there is nothing to suggest that people actually lived there. There are no remains of cooking hearths or garbage pits. For this reason, it has been suggested that the site was used for religious or ceremonial purposes. No tombs or graves have been found, although it has been suggested that the site served as a center for a cult of the dead. This is because human remains have been found outside the perimeter of the site, suggesting that humans may have been buried or left in open burial niches outside, to be eaten by animals. This was a common burial practice in many ancient societies.

Construction of Göbekli Tepe is divided into two phases. The older structures belong to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period, and were probably constructed between 12,000-9,000 years ago. These structures are more elaborate, and include most of the T-stones and the animal carvings. The second phase was about 9,000-8,000 years ago, during a period known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. Construction from this period generally appears to be less elaborate.

Around 8000-7500 BC, Göbekli Tepe was deliberately covered with about 300-500 cubic meters of soil, and abandoned. The reason for the abandonment is not known, but Klaus Schmidt has speculated that the culture outgrew the need for the site.

No other site of comparable antiquity or sophistication has been found so far. A similar site was discovered at Nevali Çori, a few miles away, near Sanilurfa. Nevali Çori is about 500 years younger than Göbekli Tepe, and much smaller and more primitive in terms of construction than Göbekli Tepe. T-shaped pillars similar to those at Göbekli Tepe were found, as well as carvings and statues of animals and humans. Several hundred clay figurines (about 2 inches in size), mostly of humans, were also found. These are made of fired clay, but pre-date the development of pottery, indicating that people knew about fire hardening of clay before they started shaping it into pottery. Human remains in the form of skulls and incomplete skeletons were also found. It appears that unlike Göbekli Tepe, the site at Nevali Çori was used for human habitation. Nevali Çori is now inaccessible, having been buried under the waters of the Atatürk Dam. While the oldest parts of Jericho may be as old as Göbekli Tepe, it has no large scale sculpture or carvings, and is much more primitive.

Another critter of some sort.

Agriculture originated in the hills around Göbekli Tepe around 10,000 years ago, not long before the time Göbekli Tepe was covered with earth and abandoned. Einkorn wheat, a precursor of modern wheat grows wild in this region. DNA analysis of modern wheat shows that it's closest to a variety of wild wheat that is currently found in Karadağ, about 20 miles from Göbekli Tepe. Several lines of archeological evidence indicate that this region was where agriculture and the domestication of farm animals first began (dogs had been domesticated earlier, also in this region -- the oldest evidence of domestication is a Natufian grave about 12,000 years old in which an old man was buried with a puppy, near Ein Mallaha in Israel). Other sites in the region show that within 1,000 years of building Göbekli, people in the area had started to corral sheep, cattle and pigs.

The oldest full-size human statue was found in Balikli Gol near Sanilurfa. - a figure of a man carved from limestone, with obsidian eyes, also about 12,000 years old. Note that this is not the oldest representation of humans. Figurines that are much older have been found, such as the famous "Venus of Willendorf" which is about 25,000 years old, or the "Lion Man" found in the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm in Germany, which may be up to 30,000 years old. But these were only a few inches in size, suitable for nomadic people to carry around with them. Full-sized statues were not meant to be carried around; they were likely placed in permanent structures.

It may be that agriculture spelled the end for Göbekli Tepe. Early agriculture was primitive and not very productive. People may have not recognized the need to rotate crops, fertilize fields, and prevent the erosion of topsoil. It's been speculated that early agriculture led to deforestation of this region, with the loss of game animals. The fields may have turned fallow eventually, and with the lack of proper management the whole area turned into a dustbowl. With no game animals left, there was no way to support a large population, and the site may have been abandoned for this reason. At any rate, Göbekli Tepe was deliberately abandoned about 8,000 - 7,500 BC, soon after the development of agriculture in the region. The entire site was deliberately covered with earth before it was abandoned, which is why it is so well preserved today.

Oldest full-sized human statue, currently at the museum at Sanilurfa. It was found at Balikli Gol, a fishpond near Sanilurfa, and is about 12,000 - 11,000 years old.

Göbekli Tepe may play a part in some early myths. Sumerian tradition holds that the knowledge of agriculture, animal husbandry and weaving were brought to mankind from the holy mound "Du-Ku", which was inhabited by the Anunna gods. These are very ancient gods, many without individual names. Some which have been identified are Ashnan (cereal grain god), Lahar (cattle god), Ishkur (wind god), Uttu (goddess of weaving), Enkimdu and Enbilulu (gods of the rivers and canals). Klaus Schmidt argues that Göbekli Tepe may be the origin of these myths. It was obviously a religious or ceremonial site. The many carvings and statues may well represent mythic figures. It is hard to associate any extensive or well developed belief in gods with Göbekli Tepe - this appears much later in Sumerian culture with the evidence from temples, palaces and shrines. But it is possible that the Sumerians remembered Göbekli and the areas around it as the source of their knowledge and paid homage to the ancient gods. If so, this is pretty amazing, since the earliest Sumerian culture from the Ubaid or Eridu period dates to at least 3,000 years after Göbekli Tepe was abandoned. No doubt much of this area was continuously inhabited, as shown by various archeological sites in the region and the layers of walls in Jericho, but to hold an idea across a span of 3,000 years in the absence of writing is still remarkable.

Various Biblical scholars have also associated Göbekli Tepe with the myth of Eden. According to this interpretation, the myth refers to the transition from a hunter/gatherer society to one based on agriculture. The thinking is that the hunting/gathering lifestyle was easy and pleasant, at least in areas that were rich in resources. Agriculture, by contrast, involved a lot of work and was probably not very productive to begin with. The loss of Eden was the transition to agriculture, and may be a memory of what happened at Göbekli Tepe. God says to Adam: "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life."

The location of Göbekli Tepe in the fertile crescent matches some people's ideas of where Eden should be located according to the description in the Bible. There is a lot of speculation in this regard, and literally hundreds of web sites with all sorts of kooky theories about how this was either literally the Garden of Eden, or else some sort of folk memory of this place trickled down through 6000 years of pre-history, and led to the myths about Eden, or an Eden-like place in the Sumerian culture, which was later appropriated by the writers of the Old Testament.

The interior of one of the huts, with walls intact.

A few videos of Göbekli Tepe can be found at YouTube here and here and here. Apparently, they are taken from German TV. Here is the Wikipedia entry on Göbekli Tepe. Here's another interesting article by Sean Thomas, with more photographs of the site. Because of its extreme age, Göbekli Tepe is a favorite topic for a lot of kooky theories about ancient civilizations and visitations from aliens and stuff like that. There are a huge number of sites devoted to such theories, which I won't link here, but which often contain useful factoids and more photographs. Google will find them. Note that Göbekli Tepe is also spelled Göbekli Tepe (without the "l"). This is apparently not the correct spelling, but exists on Google anyway.

Here's a recent article that appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine. It doesn't seem to have a lot of new facts, but there's a good collection of pictures (direct link here).

Some other recent (from 2010) articles on Göbekli Tepe include this one from Newsweek, a blurb with lots of stupid speculation, but some good pictures from the Daily Mail, a sort of a Q&A format writeup by Andrew Collins, and another short article from the Examiner. Other mentions include the Huffington Post and Disclose TV. There are a lot of recent news stories about Göbekli Tepe, but unfortunately, most are in Turkish. If you speak Turkish or would like Google to translate them for you, you can find them here.

The Wikimedia Commons page has some more pictures, as well as Sean Kelley's photoset on Flickr.

Here are some other maps and images of Göbekli Tepe and the surrounding areas, which I've put on a separate page.