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Göbekli Tepe: The Temple That Hints at What Humans Were Up to 11,000 Years Ago

Gobekli Tepe
A view of Göbekli Tepe, considered to be the world's oldest temple, a structure with a nearly 11,000-year-old history, in Turkey's southeastern Sanliurfa province on Dec. 26, 2018. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Eleven thousand years ago, the world looked different.

Not only did lush forests exist where there are now deserts, grasslands where there are now coral reefs, humans hadn't yet begun building many things. Of course, we can't ever really know exactly what our ancestors were up to tens of thousands of years ago, but one place — the archaeological site Göbekli Tepe — can give us a few clues.

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Göbekli Tepe, a monument along the lines of Stonehenge situated in the Germuş mountain range of southeastern Turkey, was discovered by a team of American and Turkish surveyors in the 1960s, but their discovery of limestone slabs and flint artifacts wasn't recognized for what it was until 1994, when a German archaeologist named Klaus Schmidt stepped in and realized its significance. It is a mysterious site to this day, partly because we can make so few assumptions about the people who built it.

"Monuments, generally speaking, are a particular example of architecture standing out due to their size and/or the effort necessary to create them," says Jens Notroff, an archaeologist who has worked on the Göbekli Tepe Project since 2006, in an email. "Göbekli Tepe is a noteworthy example in this context since the monuments there mark the first yet known example of monumental architecture, and that they were constructed in a cultural context of still highly mobile hunter-gatherers."

Gobekli Tepe
Visitors can easily inspect the Neolithic temple remains and obelisks, decorated with wild animal figures, at Göbekli Tepe.
Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Image

A Mobile Hunter-gatherer Society

From what archaeologists have been able to surmise from the Göbekli Tepe site itself, the people who built it were highly mobile hunter-gatherers — there's no evidence that they kept livestock, planted their own food or made metal tools. This jives with what we know of the people in the early Neolithic:

"Göbekli Tepe is from a period called 'Pre-Pottery Neolithic,' which means before the invention of ceramic vessels," says Notroff. "We know settlement sites and their architecture from the period and region which were inhabited for a longer time. Apparently, the buildings unearthed at Göbekli Tepe do not really resemble this 'typical' settlement architecture, but rather a peculiar type of building interpreted as 'special purpose' communal buildings."

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Gobekli Tepe
The Balikligol statue, found at Göbekli Tepe, proved that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were involved in fairly sophisticated artistic activities.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

"Special purpose" refers to a type of structure that wasn't regularly inhabited: a temple, a sanctuary or a place for dispersed groups to gather at appointed times. According to Notroff, the current interpretation of Göbekli Tepe as a monument rather than a home does not rule out inhabitation of the site at some point or the existence of other architecture nearby that has yet to be uncovered. However, Göbekli Tepe was built at the very top of an exposed hill, 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the nearest spring, which makes its prospects as a homestead poor — plus, the site hasn't yet yielded cooking hearths, trash pits or any of the usual signs that ancient people conducted their daily business there.

It seems Göbekli Tepe was a work in progress for at least a couple thousand years, but from what archaeologists have concluded, the majority of it was built during three main periods. The site itself comprises around 200 limestone pillars, situated in 20 circles, not all of which have yet been excavated. The rings are laid out similarly, with two larger T-shaped pillars in the middle, surrounded by a bench studded with shorter, smaller pillars facing the two stones in the middle. The tallest pillars are 16 feet (4.8 meters) tall, and they weigh between seven and 10 tons (6 and 9 metric tons) each.

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The pillars themselves are covered with all manner of engravings, most of which depict animals — but not always the animals you'd necessarily expect. In addition to game animals like gazelles and boars, the pillars of Göbekli Tepe depict foxes, snakes, lions, birds like cranes and vultures, as well as spiders and scorpions — in fact, the pictographs seem to be dominated by animals that wouldn't have been particularly good to eat. Some of the pillars themselves seem to represent larger-than-life anthropomorphic sculptures: They each have a faceless head, arms, a belt and a loincloth.

"While the early monumentality of the site is definitely impressive, to me it's the social implications at the doorstep of one of the crucial points in the history of our species is what makes this research so fascinating," says Notroff.

Gobekli Tepe
An avian artifact found at the Göbekli site.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Around 10 millennium B.C.E. when Göbekli Tepe was first constructed, humans were already starting to build semi-permanent settlements, although they didn't begin transitioning from hunting and gathering to agriculture and keeping livestock for another couple thousand years. But Göbekli Tepe shows what might be a bridge between two ways of life. Some of the enclosures provide evidence of huge meals, which might mean ritualized feasting took place there.

Although we may never know what really went on at Göbekli Tepe — some people believe it was a human skull cult! — it's likely that it was a place built and maintained by a hunter-gatherer society to meet up, trade information, exchange goods, find marriage partners, share life hacks and make friends who could help out later in a pinch.

And if they were performing skull cult ceremonies, what better way to build community?

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