Making ancient mysteries like Gobekli Tepe go away – with science!

I am always intrigued by the way ‘ancient mysteries’ go away with new science discoveries. All without recourse to secret ancient civilisations or helpful aliens.

Gobelkili Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.
Gobelkli Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Take Gobekli Tepe. This construction in southeastern Turkey is made of 7-10 ton upright stones, elaborately carved, and was recognised for what it was in the early 1990s by archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. Current theory suggests it was a gathering place for worship from a wide area.

There’s no mystery about how it was built; it’s within the capability of classic late paleolithic tech, providing they had an organised labour force and surplus food. That’s the point. Archaeologists have given the technology available to ice-age humans many names and classifications, often based on where variants were found – all of which is rather academic because in the broadest sense the people who invented this technology were as smart as we are, and it was smart tech, making best use of available materials; not just stone but also fire, wood, animal products, plant products, minerals and resins.

The only problem with Gobekli Tepe is when it went up – around 11,000 years before present, before villages and agriculture. That’s the mystery. Hunter-gatherer bands were typically a close-related kin group of around 150. We know this because that lifestyle is still followed in places today, such as the Kalahari. This, it seems, is the maximum scale of community that hunter-gathering can reasonably feed (humans today are apparently hard-wired to personally know groups of about 150 – something anthropologist Robin Dunbar puts down to that hunter-gatherer ancestry).

The thing is that hunter-gatherers, theoretically, didn’t have surplus production (food) for luxuries like temple building. The conventional view is this. Between about 11,000 and 8000 years before the present, einkorn wheat opened up agriculture in the northern reaches of the Middle East. Animal domestication followed. All this opened the gates to larger communities, notably Jericho and Catal Huyuk. The latter was a curious ‘one building’ city that flourished from around 9000 years before the present in what is now central Turkey, supporting a population estimated at anywhere from 6000 to 10,000. These agricultural centres could support specialists and feed a labour force that didn’t contribute, itself, to food growing – making larger-scale constructions possible.

Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.
Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

So what about Gobekli Tepe? Humans at the end of the ice age were still hunter-gatherers. No agriculture. But – clearly – there was surplus food and organised labour. What gives? Explanations have included assertions about alien originated civilisations, unknown to conventional archaeology but obvious in ‘clues’ that only enthusiasts are able to detect. Or it has been called the Garden of Eden.

How can I put this? Folks – it’s bullshit. Even in conventional terms there’s no mystery to Gobleki Tepe once we understand how agriculture rose after the ice ages. It turns out that neither flour, nor domestication of animals, nor villages were new. All had been invented before, largely by the Gravettian culture that flourished from Bulgaria to the Crimea, around 30,000 years ago.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From
The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. Public domain,

These people were well on the way to an agricultural revolution nearly twenty millennia before ‘our’ one. They had semi-permanent habitations and had learned to make bread from wild wheat. They had grain stores. They had horticulture. They fished – indeed, analysis of nitrogen isotope ratios has shown that a lot of their protein came from fish. There is evidence of semi-domesticated animals, certainly domesticated dogs. But that came to an abrupt end when the world plunged into new glaciation some 26,500 years ago, culminating in the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago. The cause, possibly, was the Taupo super-volcano in New Zealand, which erupted with world-shattering effect and may have triggered a catastrophic climatic downturn.

World climates oscillated for a while, but began decisively warming with the end of the Younger Dryas glaciation some 11,500 years ago. Humans began moving into what is now eastern Europe. And it seems their version of hunter-gathering was supplemented with wild wheat. Grinding stones have been found as an accompaniment to their camps across a wide region, implying that flour was being ground from wheat before it was domesticated.

Mix that potential with determination and intellect – remembering these people were just as smart as we are and just as capable of doing stuff – and that, I think, is all we need to explain Gobekli Tepe. No secret ancient super-civilisation or alien woo required. Sure, later discoveries make other things possible – but that doesn’t reduce the intellect or humanity of those who achieved things with the technologies on which later developments rest.

Lest there be any doubt, New Zealand Maori, up until the point of contact with Britain, had a similar mix of technology to those who built Gobleki Tepe, and in many ways fewer opportunities. The Maori economy was a composite of hunter-gathering, with significant fishing, supplemented with horticulture north of the ‘kumara line’, but they had no wheat, corn, or metals, and no domestic animals other than the Polynesian dog (a type that went extinct in colonial times). Clay was available, but pottery – though known in the ancestral Polynesian islands from which Maori came – was not used.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.
Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

What happened? Maori developed a complex, sophisticated, vibrant and organised society able to build over six thousand pa (fortified places) across New Zealand between about 1500 and 1800 CE, all demanding surplus production and a social scale of organisation that often ran way beyond the 150-ish figure of the main Maori social structure, the hapu. Some of these, such as the horticulture on Mount Eden or the pa at Otatara, far outstrip Gobleki Tepe in scale. When the British arrived, mainly after 1800 CE, they had to invent a whole new classification (the ‘noble savage’, in settler period terms) to explain a people who, to British thinking of the nineteenth century, ran outside what was ‘supposed’ to happen by what the British knew at the time. But Maori had done it anyway, by their own capabilities. The problem, of course, was with how nineteenth century British thinkers saw the world.

Now go figure about those late ice-age folks and Gobleki Tepe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


3 thoughts on “Making ancient mysteries like Gobekli Tepe go away – with science!

    1. I hadn’t either until recently. Apparently everybody missed it – the site was known but mistaken for a Medieval cemetery and not identified as a 11ky old temple until the 1990s. I can’t imagine how the oversight happened.

  1. Your discussion is excellent! Few and far between. Now, consider:
    The Flagarian Field Volcanoes of Italy blew in 40,000 bc. The largest explosion ever in Europe. The Neanders had been there since 200,000. They had art. The volcano aftermath cleared out central east Europe and much further. The people had to cope with reduced meat, harsh weather, possibly bacteria and viral and fungal increased load. They had to forgo sunlight for the skies were gray. They were reduced to living in caves.
    Possibly the Gravettian culture was a stronghold far enough away to have survived the fall out. That would explain why there were two Gravettian starts so far apart. The existing nomads were forced to avoid central Europe. Possibly this wiped out the Denisovians also.
    Science says that our culture developed from close socialization and this event would have forced close socialization as the existing people would collect into survivable regions. This would produce interchange of ideas, Viola, society!
    The early Venus idols are not idols per se. They are depictions of glandular dysfunctions. Fertile women who could bear children were few and far between. This must have been a world wide catastrophe. Perhaps natural radioactivity like radon was released.
    The new glaciation perhaps from Taupo again set society back. Bear in mind that Doggerland may have had a strong close society and lived on the fringes of the ice. Fragments of society must have become isolated. Large groups could no longer be sustained and fell apart. Perhaps a remembrance of past greatness precipitated the building of Gobekli Tepe.

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