New Discoveries in the Cradle of Civilisation

One shimmering Anatolian afternoon in early October 2011, I succumbed to an attack of obsessive and persisting curiosity. Travelling in a twelve-seater bus in the company of a small, motley group of individual globetrotters, I heard an American fellow traveller, who described himself as a history buff, speak of sensational recent finds of nearby stone temples built 12,000 years ago. I was incredulous. No stone monuments were built that far back! As we were passing near the site, he urged us to take a detour for a brief visit. So, not far from the town of Sanliurfa, we turned off the highway onto a pot-holed dirt road, following a handwritten sign to “Göbekli Tepe”.

Imagine my surprise when we had climbed a small hill: in a shallow pit some 300 metres across we saw monumental, precisely carved stone pillars, surrounded by circles of more pillars and low stone walls. The site crawled with German archaeology students and local Kurdish workers. A studious young scholar told me that these structures had indeed been reliably dated as nearly 12,000 years old, predating Stonehenge by 6000 years and the Egyptian pyramids by 5000. He said that Neolithic hunter-gatherers, who had not yet even learnt to make pottery, used flint-stone and obsidian tools to carve pillars and reliefs from the local limestone. Up to 500 people would have worked here at times to build these “temples”. But no one lived permanently on this site.

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We were soon joined by another visitor, Karl Luckert, a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago. I tried out a pet hypothesis of mine, namely that agriculture depended on respect for separate (several) property rights and probably their enforcement by some sort of authority. Early humans would have objected to the exclusion of anyone from the enjoyment of food and other goods as selfish and illegitimate. The transition from Palaeolithic exploitation of nature to Neolithic wealth creation by agriculture would only be possible, I said, if those who sowed could be confident of harvesting the fruit of their labour. This involved major mental changes from automatically sharing everything in a small group to the conscious separation of “ours” from “theirs” and the exclusion of “them” from access to “our” land and other assets.

I opined that a lack of rudimentary several property rights was probably one of the reasons why northern Australian Aborigines had not been able to imitate the horticultural practices of their Torres Strait Islander neighbours, with whom they trucked and bartered. I also mentioned that I had visited early Neolithic sites in north-eastern Thailand, where wild local swamp grasses had a close genetic resemblance to modern rice and where I saw archaeological indications of exclusive private property, such as storage jars, fences and lockable store-houses. And I spoke of a visit to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, where a Belgian priest had spent a lifetime documenting how local agriculture and llama-herding began and where clear pointers to several property rights can be found. Was there anything even remotely similar at Göbekli Tepe?

The answer was not only a firm “no”, but a complete rejection of any economic motives for developing early agriculture. I was told that the motivation for people who lived in a lush green landscape offering plentiful gazelle meat and nutritious wild grass seeds during the early Holocene was purely religious.

Soon, a stocky, bearded man joined our impromptu seminar under a shade sail. He was the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (pictured at the site, below), who had discovered the site in 1994 and who now directed the excavation work. He was rather impatient with my economic theorising about the motives for growing food. He told me firmly that agriculture was a by-product of religious gatherings when assemblies of pilgrims and monument builders had to be fed. He grew friendlier when the three of us switched to German, our shared mother tongue. He spoke of proto-agriculturalists, people who collected wild, locally occurring grains, pulses and nuts. They slowly learnt how to facilitate the growth of desirable wild plants.

It was an all too brief exchange of fascinating ideas. My fellow travellers wanted to move on to Sanliurfa, one of the places that claim to be the birthplace of Avram/Abraham/Ibrahim—depending on whether you speak Hebrew, Indo-European or Arabic—and the dusty hamlet of Harran near the Syrian border, a place repeatedly mentioned in the Book of Genesis. We were on history-saturated ground.

It took me some time to comprehend what the Göbekli discoveries really meant. Palaeolithic humans had roamed the Old World for 200,000 years. Modern Homo sapiens had begun to spread out of Africa some 70,000 years ago, and modern humans have been well established in Australia and Europe for at least 40,000 years. During most of that time, cultural change was extremely slow, almost imperceptible for the layman. Then, about 12,000 years ago—suddenly, if seen from the long-term perspective of human history—some people began to build stone monuments at Göbekli Tepe. Soon thereafter, the inhabitants of Upper Mesopotamia domesticated plants and animals, developing the rudiments of agriculture and animal husbandry. The early agrarian economy allowed the descendants of the Göbekli pioneers thousands of years later to invent pottery, bronze and writing, develop specialised crafts, and create an ordered urban lifestyle under tribute-taking, elite-controlled governments in Mesopotamia. By 4500 BC, Sumerian civilisation manifested itself in Lower Mesopotamia, now the Basra region of Iraq. And now, a mere 6500 years later still, we are reaching into space. Did mankind’s cumulative dynamic of knowledge and innovation really take off from Göbekli Tepe?

Since my visit in 2011, Göbekli Tepe has become more widely known, not only among specialists, but also to the wider public through popular articles, for example in the National Geographic, television programs, and recent popular publications about the rapidly evolving field of early human development and the beginnings of civilisation in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Republic of Turkey has issued a special coin and stamps showing Göbekli Tepe. Ankara’s fabulous Museum of Early Anatolian Civilisations has installed a full-size replica of one of the Göbekli “temples”.

When I left the site in 2011, Klaus Schmidt said half in jest that he ought to stop writing about Göbekli Tepe, because whatever he said would soon be overturned by new discoveries. Nonetheless, he gave me some references to do my own research. Following these hints, I was soon drawn into the unfolding knowledge explosion about early human history. Over the past thirty years, the interaction of anthropology, climate science, archaeology, paleo-linguistics, archaeo-botany, genetics and neuroscience has contributed new insights and weeded out many misconceptions.

Klaus Schmidt also suggested I might call on him at his university institute when next in Germany. This was not to be. In 2014, on a brief holiday from digging, writing, attending conferences and fund-raising, Schmidt took his Turkish wife, also an archaeologist, to the Baltic coast. When he jumped into the waves, he suffered a massive heart attack and died aged only sixty-three.

His death seemed to herald a setback for the work at Göbekli Tepe, as did the eruption of the nearby Syrian conflict (the ISIL hell-hole of ar-Raqqa is a mere 150 kilometres south of Göbekli hill). But by now the project had caught world attention and attracted substantial funding, mainly from American donors. A specialised museum and visitors’ centre has been built at the site to handle rapidly rising tourist numbers, which became a boon for the local economy before Covid struck.

In 2012, a first symposium about the importance of the discoveries was held in nearby Sanliurfa, at which Schmidt summarised his tentative conclusions and outlined plans for further work. He had written a book manuscript (in German) but held back publication since new discoveries and interpretations came about after every digging season. Posthumously in 2016, Schmidt’s extended and updated write-up about the Göbekli discoveries was published (in German, under the title Sie bauten die ersten Tempel—“They Built the First Temples”). The book not only describes the finds, but also vividly conveys the excitement of the discoveries and of relating the new evidence to a growing body of knowledge about the emergence of civilisation. What follows draws heavily on this richly illustrated book. A book about the religious angle of the research was written jointly by Karl Luckert and Klaus Schmidt, with whom I had had that memorable high-speed seminar back in 2011. Since then, I have kept a watching brief on the rapidly unfolding discussion about the gradual emergence of agriculture and civilisation in the Fertile Crescent. I even read a book by someone who concluded that only extra-terrestrials in flying machines could have marshalled the massive resources and advanced knowledge to construct these megalithic monuments.


What we know so far

Where exactly is Göbekli Tepe? The site is in the northern bend of the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from the Nile Delta via Palestine and Lebanon into south-eastern Turkey and then south again through Mesopotamia to the Gulf.

The site is not far from where the Euphrates River leaves the hills of Anatolia and flows into the Syrian plain, now a desert. This is relevant, because here below the Taurus and Zagros mountains the rainfall is relatively high and reliable and early humans found an unequalled treasure trove of plants and animals that could be domesticated (sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, donkeys, all candidates for future domestication). The proximity of the river and the lush environment at the beginning of the Holocene offered rich hunting, in particular migrating herds of gazelles, but also the above-mentioned animals and water birds. And there were many edible wild plant foods: grass seeds, lentils, chickpeas, pistachios, olives, grapes, other nuts and swamp greens. The major vegetarian food during the early phase of Göbekli Tepe was wild grass seeds, which unfortunately fall easily to the ground when ripe. Stone Age food gatherers would have struggled when they cut the stems of these “brittle grains” with their flint-faced sickles. The abundance of food resources allowed Stone Age people to decide whether to abandon nomadism and become settled for a part of the year, or even year-round, which more and more did from the eighth millennium BC onwards.

Who were the pioneers on Göbekli hill? They were the descendants of the earlier Natufians, who had survived the punishing cold and dry millennium of the Younger Dryas by abandoning their partially sedentary ways and reverting to a nomadic lifestyle. Around 9600 BC, when the climate warmed suddenly by as much as seven degrees Celsius and the atmosphere was enriched with more carbon dioxide, many in the Middle East were able to become sedentary again. In physical appearance, they were modern homines sapientes. If dressed in today’s fashion and given the right haircut, they would not stand out from a crowd on the streets of Sydney. Whether a Göbekli baby, adopted by an Australian couple in 2020, would develop the same cognitive and behavioural characteristics as our own children is one of the controversies that neuroscientists hotly debate.

What exactly has been unearthed? A dozen stone circles with megalithic pillars have so far been excavated or partly uncovered, but ground-piercing geomagnetic soundings have identified several more, comprising around 200 giant pillars. The builders placed two big T-shaped monolithic pillars, three to six metres high and weighing up to twenty tonnes, at the centre of a circle between ten to thirty metres in diameter. The circles were formed by smaller but still massive pillars and stone benches. Some circles had finely worked terrazzo floors. Schmidt comments that the early Göbekli Tepe architecture shares the characteristics of all representative building—“big, fat, monumental”. 

Because the pillars often show human arms and hands running down the sides, they have been interpreted as representing human beings or mystical humans. The pillars and bas-reliefs depict a skilfully carved and varied menagerie of animals—big felines, foxes, cranes, vultures and other birds, snakes, scorpions, spiders, boars in threatening postures—as well as recurring abstract symbols. There are also some headless human figures and birds that carry human skulls aloft in their claws. All these images look threatening.

The stonework is testimony to the amazing craftsmanship and work effort of specialised Stone Age artisans. The sustained work effort of many must have required powerful motivations. Were the voluntary gatherings for joint work motivated by quasi-religious yearnings or fears? Were more mundane motives at work as well, for example with feasting the main attraction? The planning and organisation of the major effort to cut out and move the monoliths must have required considerable management talent. Schmidt writes:

The “Göbekli Tepe Construction Project” required building logistics, which directly suggests that there must have been in the 10th and 9th millennium BC an agreement between several, otherwise independently acting groups to cooperate.

A curious feature of the Göbekli site is that, after decades of use, the circles were then covered with rubble, a huge undertaking for people who had no metal, no wheels, no draught animals. Did they imagine that each stone circle lost its magic power after some time, so that a new one had to be constructed? Whatever the reason, the decommissioning of each building explains the excellent preservation of the stonework.

When did the construction activity occur? Researchers have dated the oldest and most monumental circles to the centuries after 9600 BC during what archaeologists call the “Pre-Pottery Neolithic” (PPN), and geologists call the “early Holocene”. This makes Göbekli the oldest stone monument with a quasi-religious character yet known. As no traces of permanent habitation, houses or even fire pits have been unearthed in the older strata of the site, the researchers concluded that this was a place of pilgrimage for rituals shared among the inhabitants of the wider region. Klaus Schmidt called the Göbekli complex a “cathedral on the hill”, a stage for complex ritual events connected with a cult of the dead, though no burial sites have been uncovered nearby. He imagined shamanic dances among those pillars, the symbols of otherworldly beings. There are indications that shamans were at work, who morphed into dancing demons, an often drug-inspired practice common in primitive societies.

Some of the stone circles are of a more recent vintage, when agriculture and animal husbandry were widely practised in Upper Mesopotamia and most inhabitants had chosen to settle in hamlets or villages. The younger structures are less monumental, but still impressive.

The Göbekli pioneers, who built the oldest monuments, were either nomads or lived in low circular buildings in small hamlets scattered through northern Mesopotamia. They formed small bands—probably kinship groups—and were evidently egalitarian, sharing all food. It seems that Göbekli hill was the centre of a constellation of such more or less permanent settlements, which gradually became proper villages. It has been estimated that several hundred people must have congregated periodically to carve these monumental columns out of the local limestone and build the structures on Göbekli hill. Some may have come from as far as 200 kilometres away and must have considered Göbekli Tepe as a place of particular spiritual importance. Having to rely on wild plant foods and hunting would have limited the size of communities that could stay and work at any time. Only when the season offered rich pickings, and big herds of game could be hunted, would such big assemblies have been possible, to feast and socialise, similar to what hunter-gatherers elsewhere in the world used to do more recently.

From 7600 BC (or even later), the local lifestyle in Upper Mesopotamia changed fundamentally. The material culture of PPNA hunters morphed gradually into a new, distinct form, PPNB, which lasted till about 5500 BC in Upper Mesopotamia. People now became farmers, relying on domesticated plants and increasingly also on the domesticated descendants of locally occurring wild animals, most notably sheep and goats, later also pigs and bovines. The PPNA fashion repertoire—fur, leather or starkers—was now supplemented by garments made from woven flax. Rectangular houses were built, often with terrazzo floors and two storeys high. Between them, there were public assembly spaces. The houses were inhabited by family groups, who appear to have pursued their lives in private spaces. They engaged in economic activities in separate households. Granaries were moved from public areas to inside individual houses. Apparently, people no longer shared their food resources with everyone in the wider community, but only with their kin. First indications of social hierarchy appear, as closed stores of grains and lentils gave the guardians of these possessions some power. Around Göbekli Tepe, PPNB farmers persisted in the region for 600 years. The constructions of stone monuments on Göbekli hill were now smaller, maybe because people now faced higher opportunity costs—having to hoe their fields and tend to livestock.

All special uses of Göbekli hill ended before 7000 BC, after altogether 2500 years. This means that some eighty generations laboured to erect, then obliterate, what are now called “the world’s oldest temples”. Once proper agriculture and settled lifeways had become common, ritual activities on the hill ended because:

the hunter had lost his relevance. With that, his urges and rituals waned, so that the places of ritual performance also disappeared … As the economic foundations changed, his conceptual and mental world view crumbled as well.

How exactly is Göbekli Tepe associated with the beginnings of agriculture and—subsequently—civilisation? Plant domestication must have happened gradually after the onset of the Holocene. Men—or more probably women—who, like all foragers, had good knowledge of flora and fauna, must have identified and selected plants that did not easily shed their seeds. Gene modification was thus a core element in what triggered the synergies, which led to steady, adaptive cultural change and, ultimately, civilisation. From 8000 BC onwards, humans began to spread selected useful seeds—and rudimentary agriculture—further afield.

It is noteworthy that the closest wild-grass relative of modern wheat and the locus where wild einkorn cereals were first domesticated have been genetically identified as within walking distance of Göbekli hill. The wild ancestors not only of wheat (emmer and einkorn), but also barley and rye can still be found in northern Mesopotamia. Klaus Schmidt argued convincingly that farming around Göbekli hill evolved gradually from “the needs of human crowds, who came together for a time. Religious activities—and not new survival strategies that had been imposed by Nature—obviously led to the development.”

Substantial groups of people, who came periodically together on Göbekli hill to build stone monuments and gather for rituals, left behind copious refuse from the gazelle, aurochs, wild sheep, boar and deer on which they feasted. Feeding such congregations and work gangs required the production of large amounts of food, in particular the collection of large quantities of grass seeds. Over time, the hunter-gatherers must have protected nearby useful stands of grass from wild animals. This demanded the co-operation of many. Quite possibly, they not only selected big, non-shedding seeds, but also put some of these selected seeds into the ground. Quite possibly, the domestication of grain was the “accidental by-product of the ideology that drove hunter-gatherers to carve and erect massive pillars”. Over many generations of activity on Göbekli Tepe, the culture in the Middle East region became the first in human history to morph completely from exploiting nature to wealth creation.

Why would people congregate periodically on a hill above the limestone plains, where there was no water? As mentioned, Klaus Schmidt speculated that this was a place of periodic pilgrimage, during which rituals were performed by shamans or priests. The site and the decorations on the monumental stone columns and associated slabs have given rise to much speculation about what beliefs, ideas and practices were behind it all. Most animals depicted are not prey, but animals that threaten human safety. Were these fierce animals meant to protect the site? Were they guides to the spirit world? Do the depictions of headless human bodies and birds of prey that carry human heads aloft relate to the prehistoric “skull cult” in the early Near and Middle East? Skulls of the dead were frequently exhumed, decorated and exhibited in family homes.

One recent find points to a possible reason why ordinary mortals were attracted to Göbekli Tepe. Six large limestone vessels with a capacity of up to 160 litres each have been excavated. The archaeological team, being mostly from Bavaria, naturally remembered what American archaeologist-anthropologist Robert J. Braidwood concluded half a century earlier, namely that wild, later domesticated grass seeds were first used to brew beer, not to bake bread. Fermentation enhances the nutritional yield of wild seeds. Evidence has now indeed been found at Göbekli Tepe—as well as elsewhere in the Middle East—that those early humans made alcoholic drinks. Microbiologists from the Beer Research Centre of the Munich Technical University promptly uncovered traces of fermentation in those limestone vats. I can well imagine alcohol attracting Stone Age people from afar to collective feasts. Ethnographers who have studied more recent hunter-gatherers speak of wild feasts with copious food, alcohol and sex playing a key role in their social life. Did beer festivals drive the effort to collect seeds and improve the quality of grains? Was a primitive Oktoberfest the embryo of civilisation?

Another, more serious explication for the beginnings of cult centres such as Göbekli Tepe is based on new insights from field research. The French field archaeologist and polymath Jacques Cauvin was inspired by his work in West Asia to argue in a widely recognised publication that the cognitive capacity of humans changed before they shifted from mere nature exploitation to the conscious improvement of flora (and later fauna), from the late Palaeolithic to the early Neolithic. The collective mindset needed to change to make people more assertive and self-aware, to make them realise that they could master their environment, rather than passively accepting what they found. Their ideas and ways of thinking must have changed before they changed their material conditions. The research by Schmidt and his associates has added much solid evidence to Chauvin’s conclusions.


The history books need to be rewritten

What is being discovered on Göbekli hill contributes to a fundamental rethinking of the Neolithic era and the emergence of the first civilisations. As the American archaeologist Ian Hodder concluded: “Göbekli Tepe changes everything.” Until recently, we knew little about what happened between 10,000 and 4000 BC. In Upper Mesopotamia—we now know—a fascinating and crucial turning point in mankind’s trajectory occurred from the earliest, tentative beginnings of growing food around 9600 BC to the bronze-age Sumerian cities in southern Mesopotamia that reached their cultural apogee around 2600 BC.

Klaus Schmidt and his associates have pushed back the beginnings of plant cultivation and animal husbandry by some five millennia and convincingly attributed this to quasi-religious motivations. Two and a half millennia of ceremonial and construction activity on Göbekli hill initiated this important beginning. Slowly, an increasingly agrarian economy replaced scavenging—a first in mankind’s history. In the process, population growth and the change to permanent settlements in family homes advanced mental changes from the sharing instincts of the hunter-gatherers to widely respected private property rights of farmers and herders. In turn, this eventually paved the way for the emergence of, first, Sumerian civilisation and, two millennia later, an agrarian civilisation in the Nile delta, where the first pyramids were built thanks to a created food surplus around 2600 BC. However, most schoolbooks and popular television programs still cling to the notion that civilisation emerged rather suddenly as a cultural package in a great, revolutionary leap forward, when a loose confederation of rival urban communities in today’s southern Iraq developed cities, priests, rulers, coercive legislation, tribute-taking, writing, specialised craftsmen, monuments, social classes and organised warfare. We now know that the run-up to Sumeria was a drawn-out process—from 9600 to about 4600 BC. We should therefore drop the term “Neolithic revolution”. It was evolution.

The transition from nomadic to settled life was gradual, and it was not a one-way street. As far back as the thirteenth to the ninth millennia BC, the Natufian people had harvested wild grains and hunted in Palestine, and some of them lived in permanent settlements. But they reverted to nomadism when the cold, dry Younger Dryas (10,900 to 9700 BC) took hold. It was only when global warming in the Holocene favoured human existence and when the descendants of the Natufians began to congregate on Göbekli Tepe that a sustained, gradual dynamic towards genuine civilisation was set in motion.

Left-leaning anthropologists and the popular press often wrongly depict the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry as a regrettable mishap. Geographer, copious author and WWF activist Jared Diamond called the shift to agriculture the “worst mistake in the history of the human race” and our “greatest blunder”. Yuval Harari recently called the move to agriculture and settlement “history’s biggest fraud”. Even Klaus Schmidt reveals a touch of romantic melancholy about the swamping of the great, heroic age of the hunters by humdrum farming life when he writes: “The hunters of Göbekli Tepe do not climb the steps towards a brilliant future; they stand before an abyss, the end of their great epoch.”

To my mind, it is wrong to assume that the switch from nomadism to sedentary life diminished people’s happiness. Prehistoric people in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere acted rationally when some of them began to settle in permanent houses from around 8000 BC. With the change from PPNA to PPNB, the young and the old enjoyed greater comforts as they did not have to be on the move time and again. There was greater food security, even though the variety of food declined. Once belongings and toddlers did not have to be carried from place to place, mothers could allow more babies to survive. Many would also have welcomed the greater safety of a settled life, since hunters suffered many injuries and deaths. With agriculture came population growth. The small bands of the early PPNA era in northern Mesopotamia rarely counted more than a few dozen individuals. But in the benign conditions of the global warming of the Holocene and with the spreading creation of food, communities increased into the thousands. We therefore ought to respect the cost-benefit assessments that caused our distant forebears to abandon their nomadic existence.

When I read about the changes from the egalitarian, communal lifestyle of small bands and kinship groups of PPNA hunter-gatherers to the lifeways of bigger populations, who separated themselves into more private family units during PPNB, I felt that these changes after all confirmed my assertions about the institutions (rules) necessary to enable farming and animal husbandry, which my interlocutors at Göbekli Tepe had rejected out of hand. In PPNB culture, distinctions were made between insiders and outsiders. Separate stores of grain and other foodstuffs were kept in private compounds. This indicates that rudimentary property rights had emerged; outsiders were excluded from sharing the assets that some people owned. In other words, we find clear indications that the institutional “software”—basic rules to respect and protect individual property—was developed (as in other places when agriculture began). Without these rules and respect for them, the tangible “hardware” of farming would not have been upheld! Why till the soil and grow a crop if everyone can harvest the crop or if the costs of fending off outsiders are prohibitive?

As long as small bands of hunter-gatherers roamed the landscape, they shared what they found in nature. Even during large temporary congregations at places such as Göbekli hill, exclusive property rights were not required. Feasts have always been about sharing and the temporary suspension of petty, selfish ownership considerations. However, these periodic large gatherings made people aware that there was a larger community than just the band or clan. When people became aware of a larger community, group identity and mutual control needed to be reinforced by abstract and concrete props: artificial symbols, shared activities, rituals and feasting. The Göbekli digs have yielded numerous such symbols which point to an emerging “social brain”, an ideology that began to imagine a wider community.

Jacques Cauvin concluded thirty years ago from the archaeological evidence that a new mentality, a new ideology and a capacity to think with new conceptual symbols emerged in the Middle East. He reached his conclusions by looking at the material evidence during successive stages of Neolithic evolution. He guessed that a new consciousness came before material changes in production to proper agriculture became possible. He wrote in 1994 that history evolved “from cognitive transformations on the one hand, to socio-economic changes on the other”. These cultural changes took considerable time, as cultural changes normally do.

Cauvin’s psychological speculations and the work of Klaus Schmidt, which extended the timespan between first food-growing and the Sumerian civilisation by four to five millennia, overturn the previously popular notion of a sudden “Neolithic revolution”. The term was coined by the Australian-born Marxist historian Gordon Childe, who relied on Marx and Engels, whose blinkered impressions of nineteenth-century England had led them to conclude that the “material forces of production” determine people’s ideas and ideology. Changing material conditions, Marx and Engels alleged, made existing social organisations inefficient and led to revolutions. Childe applied the historic theory of materialistic determinism to the study of early Middle Eastern civilisations. Once a community had adopted agrarian production, he said, its population would grow and thereafter develop structured urban centres. “It was only after the revolution—but immediately thereafter—that our species really began to multiply at all fast,” Childe wrote. Ordinary people would then be forced into conformity with a social class structure dominated by religious and political elites. Childe’s views became influential, notwithstanding the fact that philosophers such as Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek, together with numerous economic historians familiar with the evidence, demolished Marx’s historic determinism. History is not determined by some mechanistic destiny beyond human control, but rather by people’s rational choices.

Jacques Cauvin observed that the facts that he had discovered “run counter to today’s preference (among Marxists, for example) for the reverse sequence, from economy to ideology”. Over recent decades, the insight has spread that the preconditions for civilisation indeed began with new modes of thinking—the opposite of Childe’s account. The new discoveries in Upper Mesopotamia add weighty evidence which shows that Childe was wrong and Cauvin right. Edinburgh-based pre-historian Trevor Watkins is now bringing Cauvin’s and Schmidt’s discoveries to wider attention by casting light on the Neolithic turning point in the history of mankind.

The work at Göbekli Tepe deserves wider attention, for it is rare in the history of archaeology that the work of one researcher in one location has added so much to our knowledge not only of history, but also the dynamics of psychological, anthropological and economic change.

Professor emeritus Wolfgang Kasper lives on the South Coast of New South Wales when not travelling the world. He wrote “The Power of Knowledge and the Forces of Ignorance” in the September issue

12 thoughts on “New Discoveries in the Cradle of Civilisation

  • rosross says:

    Thankyou for a fascinating article and the insights it contains. History, like all things, needs constantly to be rewritten because mere humans never know it all, even if they think that they do, and much that is deemed fact is just theory, or at least a theory which holds until new facts come along.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    It is perhaps unsurprising that pre-pottery Neolithic constructions should be found first in Turkey. No doubt more will be found eventually elsewhere, but few countries can boast of such archaeological riches. After Göbekli Tepe (9,500 to 8,000BC) there are:
    Çatalhöyük, a late Neolithic to early Bronze age proto-city from 7,500 to 6,400BC
    Troy, a Bronze age city from 3,500 to 1,000BC
    Hattusa, the late Bronze age Hittite capital from 1,700 to 1,200BC
    Greco-Roman sites such as Pergamum, Patara, Priene, Miletus and Ephesus
    Byzantine sites especially at Constantinople and Cappodoccia
    Ottoman sites, especially at Istanbul, but also with reference to Australia at Gallipoli
    There are also amazing museums at Istanbul and Ankara.
    These sites were all open to the public pre-pandemic, and are well worth a visit once they open up again

  • lbloveday says:

    “…the atmosphere was enriched with more carbon dioxide”.
    Love it!

  • Adam J says:

    We should never forget that our knowledge of the past is based entirely on how well preserved it has been by nature. If the landscape were different or swallowed by ocean such things may never be discovered.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Apparently the earliest known evidence of metallurgical activity also occurred in this locality. Copper artefacts dated from 8200 BC – 7500 BC have been found at nearby Çayönü Terepisi.

    Thanks, Wolfgang, for a fascinating essay.

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    Was the ending of the last 80,000 year ice age sudden and the starting of the next one also sudden, with this 12000 year warming period in-between ?

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Altered states of consciousness play a huge part in ancient religions, achieved by intoxicants of various kinds as well as activities producing heightened mental and emotional states.
    Beer is one of the ‘social’ intoxicants. There may indeed have been enjoyment of an Octoberfest sort of joi de vivre in our early history. It could have been this infused conviviality that changed perceptions of others, suggested new possibilities of social interaction and heralded a readiness to try some new ways of living.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    In other words, beer makes you talkative and interesting to others.

    The idea of having beer-goggles on is nothing new. 🙂

  • cbattle1 says:

    Interestingly, I have just finished reading the book “Before The Flood” by Ian Wilson, published in 2001, which dealt with the “antedeluvian” world. The book commences with the excavation of Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, and suggests that more is to be discovered in the huyuks or mounds near Urfa, which at that time was off limits politically. Wilson suggests that Urfa is likely to be the “Ur of the Chaldees” where the Bible says that Abraham originated.

  • F. Cooper says:

    Yes, we need history re written when facts come to light. But not ‘created facts’ like Professor Pascoe and woke friends are dreaming up or SBS and First Peoples sympathizers rewriting of the talented James Cook.

  • lhackett01 says:

    There is much we do not know and may never know. From about 120,000 years ago, many of the Palaeolithic peoples, and the Homo sapiens who left Africa about 70,000 years ago, would have roamed areas close to coast lines where molluscs and fishes would have been ready sources of food.

    However, sea-levels declined from the end of the last inter-glacial period that ended about 100,000 years ago, in an undulating fashion, to reach a level of about 140 metres below the present sea-level by about 18,000 years ago (the last Ice age). At the time when hominoids were well established in Australia and Europe at about 40,000 years ago, the sea-level would have been about 40 metres below the present level. During this whole period of about 100,000 years, many structures made by hominoids would likely be close to what were then coastlines, as indeed are most large settlements made by mankind today.

    Since the end of the last ice age, the sea-levels have risen about 140 metres and have covered everything below that level. Perhaps what we are finding today, like at Göbekli Tepe, is but a microcosm of what really exists and possibly not actually representative. What might lie beneath the waves?

  • whitelaughter says:

    Interesting. The oldest city I was aware of was Tell Brak, so this pushes things back a long way.

    I will say that from a hunter’s perspective, agriculture isn’t ‘growing food’ but ‘setting bait’. Eating the grain means you’ve failed! But with climbing populations, that could quickly become the norm.

    I recall reading a long list of the various medical complaints that came from adopting agriculture; was grim reading. And historically, efforts to persuade hunter societies to adopt agriculture have been futile. So *something* must have changed. Booze makes sense, religion makes sense.

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