Since its discovery 20 years ago, the archaeological site Gobekli Tepe (Belly Hill) in southern Turkey has turned traditional theories on the origins of civilization on their heads. Traditionally it was supposed that the development of farming (the Neolithic Revolution) and animal husbandry created food surpluses that could be appropriated by armed chieftains to pay for the (non-food-producing) craftsmen and scholars who made cities and temples possible. The elaborate and massive megalithic complex at Gobekli Tepe (stones are over 6 meters tall and weigh more than 20 tons) was built 12,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers. The last Ice Age hadn’t yet wheezed its last chilly breaths. It was thousands of years before Stonehenge.
Klaus Schmidt, lead archaeologist at the site, speculates that the requirements of building the site and others like it demanded more food for all the craftsmen, artists, quarry workers, and other laborers than could be provided by hunting local game and picking berries. He suggests that the construction of the site pushed the development of farming and husbandry in order to provide the necessary surplus rather than the other way around. Yet there are no signs at all of permanent settlement – no villages or urbanism anywhere nearby in space or time – so nomadic hunting and gathering was still the general rule for social organization. The temple came first, not second. Nonetheless it still might have sparked the Neolithic Revolution.
Exactly how the original denizens of the site actually used it is unknowable. This was 7000 years before the Sumerians invented writing so they left no records. The sculpted artwork at the site tells us little. Mostly the images are of predators and dangerous creatures: snakes, lions, spiders, scorpions, and such. This is unlike the cave paintings of Europe which feature prey animals like gazelles and bison. What this means is anyone’s guess, but the prevalence of bringers of death in the imagery might be evidence of religious significance. Presumably it is a temple of some kind. What is almost certain is that this was a site at which large numbers of people(s) festivated regularly. Such get-togethers are a common feature of hunter-gatherer life everywhere (including in historical times among Native American tribes) and it must have happened here: a kind of “if you build it they will come.”
I’d be willing to bet gold coin that the meetings at Gobekli Tepe took place on an equinox or solstice. Prehistorical people were amazingly good observers of the sun and the moon, and the cycles of both parallel certain realities of human existence. It is hard not to see an analogy to a human life in the progression of a year from spring to winter. This is what led Robert Graves to argue in The White Goddess (still an indispensable tract to understanding the origins of Western mythology) that “All true poetry is about love, death, or the changing of the seasons.” You can write verses about other things, he said, but they don’t really amount to poetry.
I can understand this. On this past Saturday I had an equinox party at my house. I’m not a neo-pagan or someone with an astronomical fetish, yet I often host solstice and equinox parties. I usually say that this is to avoid conflict with the celebrations of others (such as Memorial Day and Labor Day), but I also am acutely aware of the seasons and of the passage of life. A couple of dozen people of different tribes (political, national, and class) with very little in common attended. Yet we all found a way to get along. I recommend giving such a mixed event a try. When you are feeling sour about your fellow human beings – which is very easy to do – it helps remind one that we are a single species after all.
On a personal level, it also happens to remind me that autumn is my time of life, though I'm figuring (perhaps self-delusionally) September.
Eric Clapton – Autumn Leaves