Göbekli Tepe is an early monumental site in modern Turkey. It dates back almost twelve thousand years. By any standard, Göbekli Tepe is a stunning place, built by a well-organized community full of highly skilled people who were doing things that probably had never been done before in the history of humanity. The were inventing a new post-glacial world in which we still live today. For better or for worse, they were laying the foundations of what we are now.
When the site was first noticed by archaeologists in the 1960s, it was common in archaeology to assume that humans had moved in our history through a fairly set sequence of stages, sometimes misnamed evolutionary stages, that went from technologically and socially simple mobile hunter-gatherer bands, to sedentary agricultural villages and tribes, and finally to great civilizations.
It was assumed that the driving force behind this development was agriculture: the domestication of plants and animals that produced a food surplus. That food surplus allowed people to stay in one place, to build large settlements and even massive monuments, and to specialize as artisans, religious practitioners, and administrators, among others.
It was thought that this sedentarization of humans had led to increases in population and in density, and eventually in organized armed conflict over geographically constrained resources, leading to the emergence of larger and larger political units, like the great empires of antiquity.
The discovery of sites like Göbekli Tepe called that scenario into question. They had clearly been built by sedentary people who were inventive and creative. They showed monumentalism that suggested a high degree of social complexity and technological sophistication, and crucially, they clearly predated agriculture, and even pottery.
In response to these kinds of unexpected finds, archaeologists have spent the past seventy years doing what we always do: We revised our models in the light of new evidence, we produced new hypotheses that could explain new observations, and we tested them on the available data.
In parallel, we discarded the unilinear model of social evolution from band to civilisation, as we realized that the story was not quite so simple and tidy. Nothing ever is, when it comes to humans.
At one point in the episode on Göbekli Tepe, Hancock complains that archaeologists too readily accept “our prejudices about our hunter gatherer ancestors.: He claims that “based on everything we’ve been taught about prehistory, Göbekli Tepe shouldn’t exist.” That the people who were around when it was built were “supposedly unsophisticated hunter-gatherers, living in mud huts.”
From this he concludes that the builders of Göbekli Tepe must have had the help of sophisticated teachers, survivors from a prior advanced civilisation from the ice age. In fact, it sounds to me like Hancock is the one with prejudices about our post-glacial hunter-gatherer ancestors. He’s the one who assumes that they couldn’t and shouldn’t have built the site.
According to ideas that were dominant in archaeology seventy or eighty years ago, Göbekli Tepe indeed should not exist. We’ve learned a lot since then, however, partly thanks to discoveries like Göbekli Tepe.
We’ve learned that most likely, people settled down before they started the kind of systematic, intensive agriculture that characterizes later populations. They settled down and became sedentary first in places like modern southern Turkey, where the moisture recently released into the atmosphere by the vanishing glaciers of the ice age fostered dense wild populations of the grain plants that our ancestors would later domesticate, but which they initially simply harvested and learned to preserve, without having to move around much.
They used their newfound sendentism to invest their time and energy into building permanent settlements, impressive monuments, and stunning artwork. They also built intricate social networks arbitrated by complex symbolic systems expressed in carvings, in dress, and in ritual.
And contrary to what Hancock would have us believe, this did not happen overnight. At an archaeological scale, the construction and elaboration of Göbekli Tepe was quick, perhaps a few centuries.
At a human scale, it covers generations. It covers generations of teachers, of learners, of apprentices, of mistakes, and of solutions. I am not surprised that the ancestors of the people who went to the moon around the time Göbekli Tepe was discovered, would have learned to build the site, in all its glory, over a few hundred years, without help from the kind of great teacher that Hancock thinks is necessary to explain it.
And why, after people had lived there for centuries, working on it, elaborating it, investing in it, was it buried, to be forgotten by scholars until the 1960s? That’s an excellent question to which we don’t have a good answer, and to which, in my current state of ignorance of possibilities, I suspect we never will. In our long history, humans have done plenty of things that make sense only when you can know their thoughts.
Unfortunately for us, thoughts don’t fossilize well. It is hard to find them in the archaeological record. The fact that we can’t read the minds of past people doesn’t mean that there was a lost ice age civilisation. The fact that we don’t know why Göbekli Tepe was buried means that we don’t know, and it means nothing else.
Who knows, perhaps some day we will, and I hope we eventually do. But for now, I am glad that we have pretty much figured out that people settled down before they developed agriculture. That’s one big question answered. Let’s see what the next seventy years of research bring. I am a teacher now, and I won’t be there to see it, but some of today’s learners will.