Gobekli Tepe: a view of the southern excavation field
In Turkey over 11,000 years ago, people created a massive structure at a hilltop site called Gobekli Tepe. After carving limestone pillars with all sorts of animal images, they hauled the 16-ton stones into multiple huge rings — without the help of wheeled vehicles or domesticated animals.
I have been fascinated by this site for years. For one thing, Gobekli Tepe (the accepted story goes) was constructed by hunter-gatherers. When announced, this was major news. Ancient hunter-gatherers, who neither farmed nor lived in settled villages, had long been thought to be too simply organized to pull off anything on the scale of Gobekli Tepe.
For another thing, the site is billed by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt as the world's first temple. This provocative claim led to a National Geographic cover story last June. To pinpoint the dawn of religious ritual would, of course, be a fantastic accomplishment for anthropology.
Both of these major points are now contested by a Canadian anthropologist.
Writing in the October issue of the journal Current Anthropology, E.B. Banning suggests that the builders of Gobekli Tepe may have been settlers (not hunter-gatherers) at the site, living in spaces best understood as both sacred and domestic. In other words, there was no temple, but symbolic rituals of a sacred nature probably did take place within people's ordinary houses.
Banning charges that anthropologists too often make a cardinal error. They superimpose the modern Western concept of sacred versus profane (some buildings are reserved for religious activities and others for everyday living) incorrectly onto the Near Eastern past.
But let's start at the beginning. Why does Schmidt conclude that Gobekli Tepe was a temple? Excavating, Schmidt found no convincing signs of human occupation there: no ovens, fireplaces or other hints of residential dwellings. The huge T-shaped pillars seemed to him to represent stylized human shapes, and their carved images — scorpion-like animals, snakes and wild boar — he saw as religious totems. Again and again, the existing pillars had been buried and new ones constructed, as if to renew their power. For Schmidt, all this adds up to a temple.
By contrast, Banning finds it more likely that these ancient people made no sharp distinction been sacred and profane. Their cosmology, he writes, "infused everyday life — including its residential or domestic buildings, activities and spaces — with meaning and spirituality."
Among Banning's key points (winnowed from a long, dense paper) are these:
*Analogy from modern society tells us that house spaces do involve the sacred as well as the profane. (I note here that Banning apparently only approves of importing a modern comparison when it helps his case!) In West Africa, for instance, the Batammaliba people construct their houses in metaphorical keeping with their cosmology. The upper part is the sky, the terrace is the earth, and the lower rooms are the underworld.
*At other sites near Gobekli Tepe and built at around the same time, the dead were buried beneath the floors of houses, and skulls adorned the houses' interiors. In other words, sacred rituals and images infused the domestic areas.
* The buildings' size and style of construction (again taken within temporal context) in no way rule them out as houses. Further, portable mortars and stone bowls from Gobekli Tepe indicate that people did indeed reside there.
*Sickles, found on site, suggest that Gobekli Tepe people may well have been cultivating plants like emmer, einkorn and barley, even if they were not full-time farmers.
In sum, Banning thinks that Gobekli Tepe is a collection of houses where villagers carried out symbolic and sacred activities. There's no reason to invoke a specialized temple.
So what are we to think? I'm not yet ready to cast out the hunter-gatherers from the Gobekli Tepe scenario — no one knows for sure how these people made a living — but a fresh perspective on the use of ancient domestic space as also sacred space is welcome.
One conclusion holds firm. The Gobekli Tepe people carried out symbolic and sacred activities on a hilltop they adorned with massive architecture — 5,000 years before Stonehenge. Temple or no temple, that fact fascinates me still.
Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the writer of non-fiction science books, most recently Being With Animals, a contributor to 13.7 and a Twitter addict.