Göbekli Tepe, the Origins of Religion, and Early Societies

Randall Stephens

An amazing archeological find is changing what we think of ancient societies and human development. Göbekli Tepe is the first human site of worship--at 11,500 years old--a startling neolithic temple. The site, not attached to a village or settlement, also challenges what archeologists and anthropologists make of the roots of religious belief. Did civilization produce religion? Did religion produce civilization?

Newsweek's Patrick Symmes reports on the find and its chief archeologist, Klaus Schmidt. (Patrick Symmes, "History in the Remaking: A Temple Complex in Turkey that Predates Even the Pyramids is Rewriting the Story of Human Evolution," Newsweek, February 19, 2010.) "The site isn't just old," writes Symmes:
it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization.
See also:
Andrew Curry, "Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?" Smithsonian Magazine, November 2008.
Gobekli Tepe was first examined—and dismissed—by University of Chicago and Istanbul University anthropologists in the 1960s. As part of a sweeping survey of the region, they visited the hill, saw some broken slabs of limestone and assumed the mound was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery.
Sandra Scham , The World's First Temple," Archeology (November/December 2008).
Before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, archaeologists believed that societies in the early Neolithic were organized into small bands of hunter-gatherers and that the first complex religious practices were developed by groups that had already mastered agriculture.
Nicholas Birch, "7,000 Years Older than Stonehenge: The Site that Stunned Archaeologists," The Guardian, April 23, 2008.
Never mind wheels or writing, the people who erected them did not even have pottery or domesticated wheat. They lived in villages. But they were hunters, not farmers.