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Göbekli Tepe: the Rise of Agriculture, the Fall of the Nomad

Gobekli Tepe carvings on a monolith
Gobekli Tepe carvings on a monolith
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The human was born a traveling animal. For over 100,000 years we walked across the great Savannas, made way through the jungles, camped in Arctic tundra, and hunted and foraged in the forests of this planet. Then, a little over 10,000 years ago — a blip in our species’ timeline — we started laying down our satchels, building our shelters with a sense of permanence, and began cultivating the grains and animals in our surroundings. This great event, perhaps the largest shift in human cultural evolution, happened around a great temple now called Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey.

In search of humanity’s lost nomadic past

It may seem ironic for a trave ler to be drawn to the site of humanity’s first incidences of sedentarization, but I saw in this story something leading to the roots of my own restlessness, my own undeniable wanderlust.

The Gobekli Tepe archaeology site

I have been interested in the deeply ingrained nomadic urges that still seem to lay dormant inside the building blocks of the human genome since my early days of travel. What made me want to travel? What was this urge that made me grow restless in a place after a couple of months? Why did I want to follow the geese and run with the seasons? What was the anatomy of this incessant drive to migrate over the earth? After nearly twelve years of traveling I am still not any closer to answering these questions, but I feel that the transitioning point from when humans were primarily migratory hunter-gatherers to when they became sedentary farmers is a big lead towards unraveling this riddle of the ages.

I went in search of my species’ lost nomadic roots to the very area of the world where they were first laid to rest: the Fertile Crescent. There was an intermediary span of geography that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea almost all the way to the Persian Gulf, from the highlands of Anatolia to the Syrian desert that was once so flush with wildlife, various ecosystems, and rich soils that it became the cradle of human civilization — the place where wanderers became city builders. It was here that Homo sapiens first developed the cultural and technological mechanisms that allowed them to build great temples and later to farm, become sedentary village dwellers, and, eventually, to construct great cities.

It was in this region that the conflict between Cain and Abel arose. The story goes that Cain the farmer became jealous that his nomadic brother, Abel the shepherd, was receiving preferential treatment from God, so he killed him off. This is often seen as a periscope of an older Sumarian story which represents the rise of sedentarization over nomadism. Certainly, this shift in human living strategies — the claiming of permanent land rights over migration — did not come without conflict. So I went to the land where Abel once roamed and Cain once toiled in the earth to try to piece together the story of human restlessness for myself.

To the world’s first temple

Monolith at Gobekli Tepe

“First came the temple, then the city,” spoke Dr. Klaus Schimidt, the German archaeologist who leads the research at Göbekli Tepe, the world’s earliest known temple. My search for humanity’s hunter-gather past found me riding in a little grey car to the base of the hill upon which this great archaeology site sits, 15km outside of Sanliurfa, Turkey.

Göbekli Tepe is truly one of the most groundbreaking archaeology sites currently being investigated on the planet, and the findings that have been uncovered over the past 17 years are literally rewriting the book on how civilization first arose, as well as providing a window through which the initial sedentarization phases of humanity can be viewed.

“It is the idea that the sanctuary may be earlier than the settlements, or at least at the same time,” Schmidt continued as we turned onto a highway outside of Sanliurfa, “but we don’t have the cities, the cities are developing much later than the temple. In the Near Eastern archaeology often you can read about how the cities had first developed and then within the cities the first temples [were made], but that is not true: the temple and the city are very separate. The temples are very, very early, they started in the Paleolithic era with the painted caves, for example. Now at Göbekli Tepe we have the proof that these man made structures were used for rituals and used for religion. So the temple is much earlier than the city.”

“So the temple was the adhesive, the focus point, which brought people together?” I asked Professor Schmidt.

“Yes, focus point,” he replied, “A platform for the people to meet and to communicate and to share knowledge and stories and to talk. They were very important social places.”

Klaus continued to provide a picture of how Paleolithic hunter-gatherers would converge upon Göbekli Tepe for festivities as we turned off the highway and made way along a narrow dirt and gravel road towards a protruding hill in the distance. Klaus soon halted the forward progress of the vehicle so that I could fully take in the scene before me. “You can recognize the limestone plateau, and on top of the limestone plateau there is this mound of earth, a hill. Everything is artificial, it is not nature. It is a settlement mound.”

It was Göbekli Tepe.

I looked out at the place whose name means “Pot-belly Hill,” and the little dirt road that snaked up its side. It looked like a giant buxom flopped out upon the Anatolian plain. Just as the effect took, Klaus revved up the engine once again and we slowly crawled up to the apex of the giant boob. My excitement level rose: I was there,at ground zero for human sedentarizaion, at the place where nomadic hunter-gatherers grew to become civilized farmers.

Göbekli Tepe is the temporal door that crosses the divide between the free roaming days of Abel and the agricultural toil of Cain. This was the stage upon which the wandering hunting and gathering act of humanity first began its great close. The times surrounding Göbekli Tepe are still vaguely remembered in the collective folklore of humanity’s deep past. In ancient Sumarian tradition there are stories about a mythical mountain dwelling in the north called Du-Ku, where grain was first sowed, animals domesticated, and weaving was invented: the rise of farming and the fall of human migration. There is a good chance that the colossal events which surrounded this place were passed down through the ages to be remembered as folklore, with each subsequent culture manipulating the stories to fit their own paradigm of history. I grasped each story as handholds and climbed back through time to the beginning of civilization, to the place where it may have all began: Göbekli Tepe.

I asked Klaus about the rumors that the site he is excavating very well could be the actual place the Garden of Eden story was rooted. He huffed quickly, and replied that he was misquoted by an unscrupulous journalist. “It is a picture [Göbekli Tepe being the Garden of Eden], it was used as a picture and later there was a misuse of this picture. The climatic conditions here were like paradise for hunters and gatherers. They were living in a situation like paradise, but there is no connection to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had been thrown out of this garden, but it is not describing a natural condition. There is no connection between Eden in the Old Testament and Göbekli Tepe.”

Neolithic Life at Göbekli Tepe

Location of Gobekli Tepe

The first incarnati on of Göbekli Tepe broke ground roughly 12,000 years ago, and for the next three thousand years people used it for great ceremonies and feasts. “It is a little bit surprising because we expected for this period that the people had been living in very simple social conditions, but now it is looking very different,” Schmidt explained how a high level of social organization must have been needed to build such a massive site. Schmidt estimates that it must have taken work teams of hundreds of people to construct Göbekli Tepe throughout each of its various stages, and the organization needed to feed, house, and assign tasks to this large of a work crew hints that early Neolithic society was vastly more complex than archaeologists previously assumed.

As I walked around the site I could hear the crunching sound of flaked flint coming from beneath my feet. On the ground were thousands of pieces of flint discarded thousands of years ago in the manufacture of stone tools, along with some of the tools themselves. Trained as an archaeologist, I began instinctively focusing my eyes on the array of artifacts that were passing beneath my feet, identifying blades, choppers, utilized flakes, among other primitive stone implements.

“Millions, millions,” Klaus spoke when I mentioned the profusion of artifacts that laid all over the mound. “Of all the archaeologists visiting this site everyone says ‘I never saw such a mound of flint.’“ In the USA, finding such a cache of artifacts alone could have made an archaeologist’s career, but here at Göbekli Tepe there was bigger competition for the researcher’s attention, and the little stone tools that momentarily held my intrigue all of a sudden fell towards insignificance when I saw the site’s main attractions.

Down in a ten foot excavation pit, giant T-shaped monoliths arranged in circle formations broke through the ages and into the present. Twelve great T-shaped monoliths stood in a circle around two even larger T-shaped monoliths. Each giant pillar was carved from a single piece of stone, stood up to ten feet high, and weighed between seven and ten tons (2). The excavation teams have now uncovered four such rings of megaliths, spanning between 30 and 100 feet in diameter. Geomagetic surveys show that there are at least 16 other such rings still buried beneath Göbekli Tepe, which itself is around 1,000 feet from end to end and rises over 50 from the plateau. Around these rings were once walls, and there may have even been some ceilings. These rings of stone giants obviously mark the site of major events in prehistory.

What was most striking about these giant monoliths is that they are intricately carved with predatory animals and birds — lions, foxes, vultures, ducks, and mystical beasts. What is even more interesting is that in addition to the animals reliefs which don the pillars, the very pillars themselves have human forms. “You see in the front,” Klaus pointed towards a particularly tall pillar, “there are fingers. So we know that this T-shape is an anthropomorphic shape. They are all anthropomorphic beings made of stone. It is strange that there are no eyes, no nose, no mouth.”

I looked at the giants and could see the human forms clearly: hands stretched out at the sides of most of the pillars, representing a vital element of the ceremonial site. “Now one can understand the layout,” Klaus continued, “They [the giants] are meeting here in a circle, and two very important ones are in the center of the meeting. Like people sitting in a tent or around a fire.”

Animal carvings on monoliths at Gobekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe was beginning to take on a new light before me. This was not an archaeological site made for utilitarian purposes, but one that was made for mystical, spiritual, and religious practices and celebrations. This site represents not only lost ways of living, but also lost ways of seeing and approaching the world. The carved reliefs of predatory animals along with the giant anthropomorphic pillars show that the hunting and gathering bands that once walked through this part of the world had highly complex social and spiritual systems, a finely worked worldview that extended beyond the basic hunt for survival and into the realm of the spiritual.

“Göbekli Tepe is the oldest site, but it is clearly not a settlement site. It is a site for sanctuary,” Klaus clarified to make sure that I did not harbor notions that people were actually living here. “They [hunter-gatherers] would come back to the site, meet at the site, then go back to their settlements,” he continued. For 3,000 years people would converge upon Göbekli Tepe and feast, party, make tools, carve predators, birds, and mythological beast into giant megaliths, and worship. These were people who had not yet invented pottery nor did they use any form of metallurgy. Rather, they would laboriously shape their huge stone pillars and make their intricate carvings using the simplest of stone tools, remnants of which I was stepping upon as I walked on the mound.

Ultimately, Schmidt believes that there are burials to be found beneath Göbekli Tepe. He hypothesizes that it was a holy site for ancestor worship or for ceremonies surrounding a death cult. “Monumentality in prehistoric and historic times is always associated with graves,” he stated. The vultures that are depicted in the megaliths are indications of the site’s role as a place associated with the dead, and, perhaps, excarnation — where the deceased are offered to birds of prey to be eaten in a form of sky burial. Klaus makes assumptions that the dead of the hunter gatherer communities would be taken up the mound to the temple at Göbekli Tepe to be laid to rest. Although only flecks of human bone have been found to date, Schmidt predicts that there are complete burials beneath the limestone floors, at the feet of the stone giants.

“What was the environment like then, was it the same as today?” I asked Klaus while looking out into a grey sky as my feet sank a little into ground.

“The climate was like today, but the landscape was looking very different,” he responded. “Now there are too many sheep and goat and people.” Klaus then told me that this area — the northern reaches of the Fertile Crescent — was an intermediary span of geography in between seas and deserts, plateaus, plains, and mountains. By traveling relatively short distances you could find yourself in very different landscapes that had very different flora and fauna. “There were forests here in the plains, and savanna like landscapes in the plateaus,” the archaeologist continued. “The animal bones at Göbekli Tepe show wild cattle, wild pig, deer, as well as gazelles and wild ass who like savanna.” The remains of animals from various climatic settings found their ways to Göbekli Tepe where they became meals for Neolithic huntergatherers. “For hunter gatherers, it was a very perfect surrounding. Good for hunting,” Klaus continue.

In this place that had a perfect ecosystem for their lifestyle, Neolithic hunter-gatherers began experimenting with other living strategies. Perhaps out of a need to continue fueling societies that were ever growing more complex and the massive public works projects that gave life to Göbekli Tepe, the hunter-gatherers began reeling in the reigns of control they held at their fingertips, and they eventually began cultivating grain and beast. Göbekli Tepe shows that the early Neolithic peoples were vastly more organized and their societies more structured that anybody could have predicted, and my free wandering nomad visions were quickly giving way to a reality.

The Advent of Agriculture

Gobekli Tepe under excavation

“Here in the north, it’s the heart of the Fertile Crescent,” Klaus spoke as he pointed out across the hills of the Karacadag range off in the distance from the summit of Göbekli Tepe. “The origins of domesticated wheat can be traced to exactly here in this region.”

I looked out across the great plains and hills that dotted the landscape. “Here,” I repeated softly to myself, “it all ended here.” I thought of my now extinct nomadic brethren, real life Prometheus who knew not where their innovations would lead 10,000 years after their creation. Nevalý Çori, 64km northwest of Göbekli Tepe, is currently known as the first place in the world where wheat was cultivated on a large scale. Nestled in the Karacadag Mountains, Neolithic people began manipulating strands of wild wheat as their lifestyle began to change.

The area around Göbekli Tepe eventually became the heart of the Neolithic Revolution, the place where humans first shifted from hunting and gathering to farming. “The origins of domesticated wheat,” Schmidt spoke, “can be traced exactly here to this region. All the cultivated wheat has some fingerprints which match the fingerprint that the wild forms of wheat have in this region. Now it is
getting quite clear that the same people who were building Göbekli Tepe were the same people who were domesticating the wheat,” Klaus continued. “There is lots of equipment for grinding here, so they processed the wild cereals here, it is clear.”

“Why do you think people started domesticating crops?” I asked Klaus.

“Why? It’s a big question,” he replied as we walked around to another area of the excavation. “Why? Why? I don’t know why, but now we have the idea that maybe Göbekli Tepe had some part in this event, that it played an important role. It is still a hypothesis, but [with so many] people gathering at Göbekli Tepe they now had other needs for their food supply, and maybe they are managing and manipulating the natural strands of grasses for cereals and animals like cattle and pig, sheep and goat, and starting this domestication to have more influence on their food supply. . . There had been big feasting at the site during the construction, so the hunter gatherers were coming here for a big feast, a big party, and this party provided the manpower to do all this work, but, of course, for this feasting you need a lot of food . . .”

Grain grinding slab at Gobekli Tepe

“So the people who built Göbekli Tepe came here and partied while building?” I wanted to confirm.

“Domestication had originally been in connection with feasting,” Klaus clarified. “So the feasting and the need for a good food supply were influencing the domestication. So now we need very good food, we need the cereals, we need a lot of the cereals and so on.”

Certainly, Göbekli Tepe and the cultivation of wheat in the region were contemporaneous and the evidence suggests that they were parts of the same cycle: one impacting the other, and, perhaps, vice versa. Klaus went on to describe how he hypothesizes that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was a “full scale revolution,” where large bands of people worked together to protect their newly cultivated wheat from intruding animals, such as gazelles and wild donkeys. Eventually, Göbekli Tepe was not just being used by hunter-gatherers, but by farmers, and Klaus feels that the site had a large role in the transition.

Agriculture Possibly Arose for Beer, Not Food

Vat that was possibly used for beer production

Klaus then paused for a moment, looking out from our perch on Göbekli Tepe far of into the distance. I stood beside him sharing the view. Klaus then shared with me a new hypothesis for the impetus behind the advent of agriculture:

“You can use it [grain] for food, and you can also use it for beer,” he explained. “There are now ideas that the beginning of cereal domestication was not so much in connection with bread and with food, but with beer making, for brewing. It is easy to do it, it is not like our beer, all you need is water and if let to stand in some container it will start to produce alcohol. So maybe it was beer making at the beginning.”

I had to laugh. Neolithic hunter-gatherers climbing up to the temple to party, build giant monoliths, knap ornate flint tools, feasting on a variety of meats, all while getting rip roaring drunk seemed a little too perfect.

“Now it is fitting better with the picture of the party,” Klaus joined me in laughter, “for the big party at the mound you need some drinks.”

The Effects of Agriculture, The Fall of Göbekli Tepe

“Do you feel as if agriculture is an inherently destructive act?” I asked the German archaeologist.

“The people around 8,000 years ago, I think maybe they liked agriculture very much because they had a good food supply,” Klaus replied and then paused for a moment. “But if you look at today you see all the destruction of the earth, it started with the invention of agriculture.”

After the Neolithic Revolution, when the people surrounding Göbekli Tepe became full time farmers, the new pillars at Göbekli Tepe began to shrink in size, and then, eventually, the site fizzled away into obscurity. “In this period of the 9th millennium everything is reduced,” Klaus confirmed. “In 8,000 BC, everything is abandoned. The people had become farmers. I suppose there is a clear connection between the end of Göbekli Tepe and the people who became
farmers. The complete society had been changed and the belief system had been changed, and a site for hunter-gathers was no longer very important for the people who abandoned it, but it was not a destruction, it was just an end.”

The 10,000 Year Explosion

In the interplay of human evolution, 10,000 years is but a bat of the eye, but in the past 10,000 years the cultural and biological patterns of Homo Sapiens greatly increased their rates of change and adaption (1). In the past 10,000 years the human genome began mutating at a 10 to 100 times faster rate than in all times that preceded this era1. There was no such thing as blue eyes ten millennia ago, neither were there white people, lactose tolerance, resistance to many communicable diseases, nor even many of these diseases themselves. As far as archaeology is concerned, 10,000 years ago contains almost everything: there were no civilizations before then, neither were there even cities, and the pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge were not even thought of until six thousand years later. A lot happened in the past 10,000 years, not just in human culture but also biology, and much of this was sparked directly by the advent of agriculture, which, not surprisingly, was first practiced on a large scale roughly 10,000 years ago.

Sedentarization and agriculture did not initially prove to humanity’s biological benefit either, as the archaeological record shows a stark change in human stature during its initial phases. The early farmers — probably depleted of iron and not yet able to digest milk — became shorter and their brains slightly atrophied. Average height for men dropped from 5’ 10” to 5’ 6” and women likewise lost a couple inches. Humans from farming societies did not regain their Neolithic heights until the twentieth century (3). It was as if many of the beneficial evolutionary adaptations that humans acquired through tens of thousands of years of migration, hunting and gathering were being lost as they moved towards the living strategies and diets of farming. The human cultural paradigm had shifted quickly, and biology had to play
catch up.

Many of the traits that lead to humans to being able to tramp all over the earth and dominate the food chain became less pertinent in the climate of the walled in settler, and many of these attributes began being weeded out of the gene pool as a demand for new traits grew to suit the change in living strategy. Aggression began to wane and long term planning skills began to rise, muscle tone decreased and disease resistance grew, physical endurance decreased a couple notches as humans became physically as well as culturally civilized (4). The creation of a genetic sequence known as LCT soon allowed a select group of humans between the Baltic and Caspian seas to digest milk, and people thus found a new source of portable nutrition (1). To contradict a depletion in vitamin D, it is thought that lighter skin tones were selected to better enable the synthesis of this vitamin in the skin (5). Many new diseases were introduced and spread through humans living in closer quarters and permanent dwellings, and thus new resistance to these diseases were passed through the human genetic code of the farming cultures. New findings by scientists such as Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending show that agriculture and sedentarization rapidly sped up the rate upon which the human genome successfully mutated as humanity biologically adapted to meet the demands of their new living and dietary strategies.

Conclusion

The archaeologist, Klaus Schmidt

The people who built and worshiped at Göbekli Tepe were initially nomadic hunters who knew neither grain nor how to sow it, but they began to change the world around them, and eventually set the stage for the infectious spread of civilization over the planet. In a period spanning roughly a thousand years, the mechanisms where put in place through which the plains and plateaus that surround Göbekli Tepe were transformed from forest to field. I went to Göbekli Tepe, stood on the mound and looked out across an expanse that was once a lush forest full of game, herbs, shrubs, and sustenance for hunter-gatherers. That same expanse is now looks beat, having been set upon for thousands of years by goat, sheep, and plow. A lone tree sits on top of Göbekli Tepe, seemingly reminding us of a lost era in human history, a lost sense of innocence before man moved on to control the ebbs and flows of nature, of a time before my species laid down their satchels and spears and picked up hoes and plows.

The modern human is not completely the same animal as was our migratory hunter-gatherer ancestors, and I soon realized that my search for my species’ lost nomadic roots just lead me into a study of people who had a physical and mental makeup that was slightly different than my own. I am the product of 10,000 years of super charged genetic adaption which was suppose to equip me to be a part of a sedentary, agricultural, civilized society. My biology is that of Cain the farmer not Abel the nomad, but I know that the restlessness of the nomad still lives inside of the modern human, as the wolf still lives inside of every dog.

Sources

1) Biello, David. “Culture Speeds Up Human Evolution.” Scientific American. Web. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=culture-speeds-up-human-evolution>.
2 ) Cochran, Gregory, and Henry Harpending. The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.
3) Curry, Andrew. “Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple.” Smithsonian Magazine. Web. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/gobekli-tepe.html>.
4) “European Skin Turned Pale Only Recently, Gene Suggest.” Science Magazine 20 Apr. 2007. Web. <http://galsatia.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/blanche_paleur.pdf>.
5) Shermer, Michael. The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

*Photos by the author and from Wiki Commons

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About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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