The Mystery of Göbekli Tepe and Its Message to Us
By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.
What were our ancestors like 10,000 or more years ago? The most common image is one of small nomadic bands endlessly in pursuit of the next meal. Men hunted game while women and children gathered fruits, seeds, roots, shoots, insects, and other edibles.
The height of technology was a finely worked stone knife blade or spear point; nets, baskets, and cordage were also put to good use. Permanent structures were superfluous, for the group never stayed in one place very long. Material goods were sparse as possessions had to be limited to those easily carried. Jewellery (perhaps beads, animal teeth, or shells strung on a cord) and personal decoration (body paint, tattoos) were prized. In colder climates appropriate clothing was fashioned from animal skins. Social institutions were minimal. Not until the Neolithic Revolution, beginning about 10,000 years ago, did agriculture and domestication appear. This in turn allowed permanent settlement, leading to specialisation of labour, the development of crafts (including pottery and metalworking), the building of substantial structures, long-distance trade, and the slow and gradual evolution of complex societies.
None of this happened overnight. It took thousands of years, and it was not until around 4000 to 3000 BCE that true signs of high culture first appeared, such as fine artistry in decorative crafts, written records, scientific observations of the heavens, complex political organisations, and megalithic building projects. This level of achievement was reached in Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley, and the Indus Valley by the beginning of the third millennium BCE. A well-known example is the rise of dynastic Egypt about 3200 to 3100 BCE and the building of the Djoser pyramid circa 2630 BCE. Stonehenge in England dates from the same period. Although accepted as dogma by many, this nice neat scenario may be completely wrong.
Questioning Accepted History
Back in 1991, I had the temerity to announce that the Great Sphinx of Egypt, conventionally dated to 2500 BCE (the reign of Pharaoh Khafre), actually has its origins in the 7000 to 5000 BCE range, or possibly earlier. My announcement was done via a presentation at the October 1991 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (this was allowed only after a formal abstract, submitted with my colleague John Anthony West, was accepted based on positive professional peer review I made my case utilising scientific analyses, comparing erosion and weathering profiles around the Sphinx to the ancient climatic history of Egypt. In brief, the Sphinx sits on the edge of the Sahara Desert, a hyper-arid region for the past 5,000 years; yet the statue shows substantial rain-induced erosion. The original structure must date back thousands of years prior to 3000 BCE (the head was re-carved in dynastic times).
I had pushed the Great Sphinx, arguably the grandest and most recognisable statue in the world, back into a period when humanity was supposedly just transitioning from a hunter-gatherer economy to a sedentary life. People 7,000 or more years ago were still brutish and unsavoury, at least by modern civilised standards. Certainly they were not carving giant statues (the Sphinx is about 20 meters tall by over 70 meters long) out of solid limestone bedrock. Immediately after my announcement of an older Sphinx, I was under attack. Archaeologist Carol Redmount (University of California, Berkeley) was quoted in the media, “There’s just no way that could be true.” The article continued, “The people of that region would not have had the technology, the governing institutions or even the will to build such a structure thousands of years before Khafre’s reign, she said.”
The initial hoopla peaked in February 1992 at a “debate” on the age of the Great Sphinx held at the Chicago meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As the New York Times put it, “The exchange was to last an hour, but it spilled over to a news conference and then a hallway confrontation in which voices were raised and words skated on the icy edge of scientific politeness.” Egyptologist Mark Lehner could not accept the notion of an older Sphinx, personally attacking me by labelling my research “pseudoscience.” Lehner argued, “If the Sphinx was built by an earlier culture, where is the evidence of that civilisation? Where are the pottery shards? People during that age were hunters and gatherers. They didn’t build cities.”
At the time I lacked any pottery shards. But I was sure of my science, and I persisted. Two decades later, we have something better than pottery shards, and even earlier than my conservative Sphinx date of circa 5000 BCE to 7000 BCE (I now currently favour the older end of this range, or an even earlier date for the original Sphinx). Göbekli Tepe dates from over 10,000 years ago.
A short drive from Urfa (alternatively Sanlıurfa), southeastern Turkey, atop a mountain north of the Harran Plain, sits Göbekli Tepe. Since 1995 Prof. Dr. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute has been excavating the site. Recently I visited it for myself. I was amazed.
At Göbekli Tepe immense finely carved and decorated T-shaped limestone pillars, many in the range of two to five and a half meters tall and weighing up to an estimated 10 to 15 tons, stand in Stonehenge-like circles. The workmanship is extraordinary, with clear sharp edges that would do any modern mason proud. It may be a cliché, but I cannot help but think of the opening scene of the classic 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. A group of ape-like proto-humans discovers a giant monolith; influenced by it, they learn to use tools, leading to civilisation
Various pillars at Göbekli Tepe are decorated with bas-reliefs of animals, including foxes, boars, snakes, aurochs (wild cattle), Asiatic wild asses, wild sheep, birds (cranes, a vulture), a gazelle, and arthropods (scorpion, ants). The carvings are refined, sophisticated, and beautifully executed. Not only are there bas-reliefs, but also carvings in the round, including a carnivorous beast, possibly a lion or other feline, working its way down a column, apparently in pursuit of a boar carved in relief below. In the round, carvings of lions and boars have been uncovered, now housed in the Museum of Sanlıurfa, as is a life-sized statue of a man, which, though from Urfa, apparently dates to the Göbekli Tepe era.
Also from Göbekli Tepe are perfectly drilled stone beads. And, according to Prof. Schmidt, while some of the stone pillars were set in the local bedrock, others were set into a concrete- or terrazzo-like floor. Looking only at style and quality of workmanship, one might easily suggest that Göbekli Tepe dates between 3000 and 1000 BCE. How wrong one would be. Based on radiocarbon analyses, the site goes back to the period of 9000 to 10,000 BCE, and was intentionally buried circa 8000 BCE That is, the site dates back an astounding 10,000 to 12,000 years ago!
This was supposedly the time of the brutish, nomadic, hunters and gatherers who, according to many academics, did not have the technology, governing institutions, or will to build structures such as those found at Göbekli Tepe. Clearly there is a disconnect between what conventional historians and archaeologists have been teaching all these years and the clear evidence on the ground.
As Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder commented, Göbekli Tepe is “unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date… huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art… Many people think that it changes everything… It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong.” Like my redating of the Great Sphinx, Göbekli Tepe forces us to reconsider our antiquity.
And like my work on the Sphinx, the specialists are perplexed by Göbekli Tepe. Patrick Symmes wrote in Newsweek, “But the real reason the ruins at Göbekli remain almost unknown, not yet incorporated in textbooks, is that the evidence is too strong, not too weak. ‘The problem with this discovery’, as [Glenn] Schwartz of Johns Hopkins puts it, ‘is that it is unique’. No other monumental sites from the era have been found. Before Göbekli, humans drew stick figures on cave walls, shaped clay into tiny dolls, and perhaps piled up small stones for shelter or worship. Even after Göbekli, there is little evidence of sophisticated building.”
In a nutshell, we have evidence of high culture and civilisation circa 10,000 to 8000 BCE, but then an apparent decline or hiatus for thousands of years, until the “rise” of civilisation once again in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and elsewhere. What happened?
A hallmark of civilisation is precise scientific observation. Astronomy is often considered the earliest yet most sophisticated of the sciences. A particularly subtle astronomical phenomenon, the discovery of which is generally credited to Hipparchus of Rhodes in the second century BCE, is the slow movement of the stars relative to the equatorial coordinate system. This is commonly referred to as the precession of the equinoxes. The entire cycle, with stars returning to their “starting points,” takes somewhat under 26,000 years. Some researchers suggest that precession was known to the ancient Egyptians and other early civilisations, and is reflected in myths worldwide. Others dispute such assertions. I found evidence of precession at Göbekli Tepe, adding another layer of sophistication to this remarkable site.
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