What do we know about Göbekli Tepe, the oldest city in the world?

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Deep in the hills of Turkey lie the ruins of the oldest known city on Earth. It is so ancient, it predates domesticated food and plants. Woolly Mammoths were still roaming the arctic and Native Americans had not crossed the Bering Straight yet, according to mainstream archaeology. What do we really know about Göbekli Tepe and what does it say about us?

A Settlement of Hills

The Sumerians, the oldest known civilization, believed that an ancient set of deities, a set of deities known only as the Annunaki, came to humanity on the sacred mountain of Ekur and brought them the domestication of animals, agriculture and weaving. Göbekli Tepe may have been the origin of this myth.

Göbekli Tepe is in the Anatolia region of Turkey, which is between the Tigris and Euphrates, situating it in the general area where the Garden of Eden supposedly existed. The site consists of about 20 ‘tells’ which are hills. Each tell has a circular structure dug into the hill with massive pillars. On average, each pillar is about 20 tons and 6m or 20ft high. The pillars were set directly into pre-carved slots in the bedrock. These pillars presumably upheld a roof over each structure and most of them feature elaborate carvings in relief, the oldest such carvings on Earth. The earliest layers discovered so far date to around 10,000 BC.

Example of a column carved with a detailed lizard in relief.
Detail of lizard carving.

The Younger Dryas

During this time, there was a major cooling event known as the Younger Dryas. Details about this event are hotly debated. Some people believe it happened due to changes in the solar cycle and others believe that it was caused by a cataclysmic comet strike which would have destroyed much of humanity. The latter is building consensus among geologists.

A tell at Göbekli Tepe. Image by Teomancimit – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

We are currently in the Holocene epoch, according to geologists. Prior to this was the Pleistocene. The Younger Dryas event is the boundary between the two. It is precisely during this time the mark of the Neolithic age (New Stone Age). Geologists used to believe that the cooling, which resulted in the last ice age, was somewhat gradual, occurring over a few hundred years. Pollen samples suggest that this happened much more quickly than we previously thought. There have also been small glass beads found on layers across the Earth, from this time, suggesting there may have been a major impact of a comet or asteroid, causing vitrification of sediment.

Such an event would have been catastrophic for humanity. If the impact occurred in the ocean, there would have been massive tidal waves around the world. If it hit in the ice of Canada, which some are suggesting, it would have caused global wildfires and something like a nuclear winter, which would have killed a significant portion of humanity in weeks. Recent evidence suggests that it was a comet, around 100km in diameter, which broke apart into large chunks, striking different parts of the Northern Hemisphere. This event may be the key to understanding Göbekli Tepe.

Agriculture and Civilization

It is a well known fact that civilizations did not arise until the discovery of agriculture. Every ancient civilization that we know of today was built on a major crop or crops. Egypt had vast stores of grain, as did Sumeria. Göbekli Tepe predates all known agriculture except the most primitive version of wheat, known now as Einkorn wheat, which was discovered within 20 miles of Göbekli Tepe at roughly the same time as people were building the first layers.

Closeup of Einkorn Wheat.

Some anthropologists believe that Göbekli Tepe served as a refuge from the ice age following the Younger Dryas event. It was in a fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates and would have been suitable for the start of agriculture. Many people fleeing the frozen North and arid South would have found it the perfect refuge. They may also have found ways of dealing with the catastrophic loss of their cultures.

In the region, wild wheat was growing plentifully and would have been a suitable first crop since it would have been through slight interventions that the concept of agriculture would develop. These early attempts at growing wheat would have presumably been to mitigate unpredictability of access to food and to increase the yield per acre, which is the only thing that could sustain a dense community anywhere. Much like Cahokia, in Missouri, it would have been a largely ceremonial settlement until the advent of increased agricultural output.

Cults of the Dead

Before humanity believed in gods and goddesses, ancient religion was shamanistic, much like in parts of the world today. Rather than worship different deities, these peoples venerated their ancestors and sought to contact them through various rituals. The rituals are different from culture to culture but, in some cultures, this was done by making carvings into skulls and leaving them in sacred places or leaving the corpse outside to be eaten by vultures, a form of burial known as Sky Burial. Interestingly, the myth of Prometheus may be a reference to that ancient practice.

Skull cults have been found throughout the region near Göbekli Tepe. They are often found deposited in “skull depots” or ceremonial locations where ancient Neolithic people would place them. Typically, they were placed near a monument or megalithic structure. They are sometimes found with deep incisions along skull lines or with holes drilled through them. This is the variety found at Göbekli Tepe.

Totem found at Göbekli Tepe showing the skilled artistry of the people at that time. Image By Cobija – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

During this time, Göbekli Tepe would have been surrounded by lush areas inhabited by deer, gazelles, pigs and waterfowl. Indeed, the bones of all of these animals are found throughout Göbekli Tepe. However, the animals carved into the columns of each circular structure are other wild animals in the area. It is believed that these served as totems where local hunter gatherers would offer game as sacrifices, marking the beginning both of a veneration of the dead and a sense of religion.

Putting it All Together

Considering the growing consensus that a large collision of some kind preceded the last major cooling event, we can reasonably conclude that the damage was profound and any budding communities on susceptible shorelines or in forested areas burning due to wildfires were probably obliterated. Such a trauma would be on a massive scale and humanity would seek warmer climates and protection. Indeed, in mythology around the world, flood myths and myths of great fires are probably ancestral memories passed down through untold generations of these events. They would have found that oasis in Anatolia at the time, making it a natural spot for them to congregate.

Flow of agriculture with Göbekli Tepe being at the center of the oldest origin, dating back to 10,000 BC. Image by Joe Roe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

With so many people hunting the lands at the same time, the community was probably never a major city in the way we think of them today. The amount of game per acre would not have been enough to sustain a large population and lacking any form of domesticated plant or animal, the early structures probably served as shrines for those grieving the dead.

Imagine being a primitive person in a world that changed overnight and everyone near you is fleeing South to warmer climates. You come across a lush landscape and hundreds of people who have suffered the same loss of family and friends you did. You must grieve your loss and emotionally process the vast pain around you. At Göbekli Tepe, you find that spiritual catharsis that you need. Over time, more and more people come and there is less and less game. People start turning to the land, to the abundant wild wheat in the area and learn to harness it because being together and farming is better than braving the wild wilderness of uncertainty again.

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest city on Earth and quite possibly the oldest city which could have even existed. While the first layers were probably mostly ceremonial, the region supported a large population which interacted more, perhaps, than any other population previously. Before we had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, religion, numbers, courts, schools, writing, prisons, laws, fruits and vegetables of any kind, we had Göbekli Tepe and it was so valuable that we figured out a way to stay there and be together and giving the world a roadmap for the future of humanity.

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