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Prehistoric Near East

A Temple 10,000 BC

by Claus-Peter Wirth, 30 December 2006. Updated 18 May 2017

Information on Gobekli Tepe seemed mostly to be in German, but that's because it was the German Dr Klaus Schmidt who realised the importance of the place and who led the digging between 1995 and his untimely death in 2014.

However, by 2006 there were still plenty of questions to be answered there.

It was not clear whether the temples really were temples (ie. with roofs) or just temenoi (ie. holy places without a roof but with huge stone pillars, similar to Stonehenge which was built many millennia later). The pillars were being found in situ with nothing left on top.

Gobekli Tepe is situated on top of a high, stony, man-made mountain without any water supply, in a location in modern Turkey which is close to the Syrian boarder and the Euphrates. Its period of activity was between 10,000 to 8000 BC.

Finds revealed forty pillars which were unearthed there, each with a weight of between five to fifty tons. A single fifty ton pillar lies in the nearby quarry, unfinished and broken like the obelisk at Aswan. But, unlike Aswan, this stonework is lighter by a factor of ten and the quarry is on site and not hundreds of kilometres off.

Some of the pillars bear carvings of faces, stola, arms, and hands. Others carry what Schmidt called hieroglyphs. They seem to be a symbolic holy language but without additional phonetic usage, besides the pictures. The symbols shown are of a snake, a spider, a scorpion, a millipede, a fox, a donkey, Taurus (the bull), a duck, a lizard, a leopard, a lion, cranes with human legs, snake nets, an 'H' with a small hole in the centre, and the same 'H' rotated by pi/2 (ninety degrees).

Of interest is the erasure of some of the engravings in a manner which is similar in principle to the same process which was carried out in ancient Egypt (this comparison was not drawn by Klaus Schmidt himself).

Suddenly, at around 8000 BC, the entire site was deliberately buried, so it seems they knew that their time was over. However, in its time, Gobekli Tepe seems to have been the major sanctuary for the peoples of ancient Asia Minor (the Greek name for Anatolia).

Who built it?

The general theory is that only agricultural societies have some time in the year where there is nothing to do, due to winter flooding. Sanctuaries of this enormous constructional effort should not, in theory, exist with hunting societies. So the question is who organised the workers? Who organised the food supply?

As hunters have to continue hunting, the most likely suggestion is that the hunters came to some kind of an arrangement with the farmers of still-undomesticated grain. The farmers provided grain, as indicated by primitive milling equipment found on the site - grinding plates made from from volcanic stone - and construction manpower (there were no domesticated large animals at that time).

As compensation, the hunters could have kept any grain-eating animals away from the farming area.

The area between Palestine and Mesopotamia in which Gobekli Tepe is situated is also the most probable place for the first domestication of grain and animals in later millennia. It is the only place in which all the later domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and grain (except for American corn) existed naturally (dogs had already been domesticated by the hunters).

So Gobekli Tepe may really be the place at which the farmers and hunters began a joint venture.


There is some evidence to back up this theory. In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A culture (PPN A - around 10,000 BC) there are no remnants of domesticated animals found at Gobekli Tepe, only wild animals such as wild oxen (aurochs), gazelle, wild boar, fox, and onanger (Asian wild donkey).

PPN A also has no domesticated grain attributed to it.

The PPN B phase at Gobekli Tepe, around 9000 to 8000 BC (with T pillar construction which is only half the size of those of PPN A), still has no domesticated grain, but it does have early domesticated animals. Other PPN B locations close to Gobekli Tepe have domesticated grain. So, it does indeed seem that the hunters and farmers got together and started the domestication of animals and grain, respectively.

Schmidt suggested that after successful domestication, the hunters were superfluous and the temple was buried. Instead of living close to the central holy town at Gobekli Tepe, people started to live in small villages all over the country with a more primitive standard of living in the 'Dark Ages of Neolithic Pottery' which followed this Neolithic revolution, according to Gordon Childe.

This is also interesting because in 2006 a German archaeologist informed the author of this article that in Central Europe during the Neolithic period two separate societies existed - farmers and hunters. Genetically the hunters seem to have survived, but archaeology was hardly able to document them. The farmhouses and graves were built by the farmers.

Klaus Schmidt roughly said that, regarding the archaeological impact of Gobekli Tepe, there is hardly anything comparable it apart from ancient Egypt. There are some similarities, as the Gobekli Tepe culture has sculptures which mix human bodies with animal heads, but Klaus Schmidt was drawing no conclusions.



Text copyright © Claus-Peter Wirth.