Digging Religion


Archeologists are excavating a site that could prove what we think we know about the development of human civilization to be wrong. In school we're taught that the development of civilization happened in a period of time called the Neolithic Revolution. First came farming and herding, then pottery, villages, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, and, well into the process, organized religion. Göbekli Tepe ("Hill With a Potbelly" in Turkish), the provocative dig site near the border of Turkey and Syria, offers fascinating evidence that we may not have the whole story after all.

Estimated to be built somewhere around 11,500 years ago by carbon dating, the site is an anomaly. It is one of only two sites found in the world that strongly suggest that religion was the foundation for the process of the development of civilization that followed over the last 10,ooo years.

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human-made place of worship to be discovered. The site, who's excavation is currently overseen by German archeologist Klaus Schmidt, contains very little evidence of daily life. There are no toilets, dump grounds, and very few human remains, suggesting that the site's exclusive purpose was to serve as a place for worship.

The temple consists of large 10-ton stones stacked in t-shapes with carvings of totem animals which predate pottery and the invention of writing. Archeologists believe theses could be representations of mythic beings, such as ancestors. Schmidt speculates the site was used for early shamanic practices. Ritual bones of local game have been found in large amounts suggesting ritual feasts. Carved into the rocks are geometric shapes and patterns. It is clear that the site was used for cultic rather than domestic purposes.

The early people who utilized the site were also some of the earliest farmers and cultivators of wheat, suggesting that these people formed civilization and 'sedentism' around the needs of the worship site, much opposed to the current hypothesis that worship was a much later development in the human experience.

By around 8,000 years ago, the site was buried purposefully, marking the sudden end of its use as a worship site. Why the people buried it still remains a mystery, though possibly its fate was determined by the very same process that it had a hand in evidently creating; the development of civilization.

Though there are many fascinating aspects to the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, more questions remain than answers as only 5% of the site has been excavated so far. Schmidt estimates another 50 years of excavation before we have a comprehensive understanding of the purpose of this site and the people involved in its creation.