ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In southeastern Turkey, not far from where the war rages in Syria, ancient history is being uncovered. Turkey's Urfa plain is one of the most fought-over landscapes on the planet since Sumerian and Assyrian kings ruled Mesopotamia. NPR's Peter Kenyon takes us to a place known as Potbelly Hill, which may contain the ruins of one of the first human places of worship.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A short drive from the Syrian border, where fanatics from the so-called Islamic State wheeled modern weapons of war in the name of a primitive version of their faith, archaeologists are working on a site that makes even the original Islamic caliphs look like newcomers. In the mid-1990s, a German named Klaus Schmidt began digging at this mound called Gobekli Tepe, or Potbelly Hill, with its panoramic view of the Biblical plain of Harran and northern Syria.
Schmidt unearthed circular enclosures featuring Stonehenge-like limestone T-pillars, except Stonehenge wouldn't exist for another several thousand years. These pillars, decorated with animal reliefs, have been dated as far back as 9,500 B.C., the early years of what archaeologist call the Pre-Pottery Neolithic age here in the Fertile Crescent. After Schmidt's untimely death from a heart attack earlier this year, Dr. Lee Clare became team leader. He says there are still more questions than answers. For instance, how were these stone pillars moved up the hill from the quarry below?
LEE CLARE: Big ones would have been, you know, 30, 40, 50 tons, so yeah, quite large. They may have been using rollers like using wooden logs, but we honestly don't know how they were doing it.
KENYON: Finding no evidence of human habitation, Schmidt settled on a radical hypothesis; that these enclosures - at least 20 of them are buried in the hill - were created for ritual purposes long before organized religion arrived on the scene. Until now, the accepted theory has been that hunter-gatherers first came together in settlements and agriculture, domestication of animals and the precursors to organized religion followed. Clare says this site poses an intriguing question; what if the rituals came first?
CLARE: People coming together, communal structures were being built. People were erecting these wonderful pillars, carving them. That was a specialist job. And these specialists had to be fed. And one way of doing that and feeding these people was actually domesticating things. Based on the evidence we have from this site, we tend to think that domestication of animals, of crops actually occurred as a byproduct of what was going on here.
KENYON: This theory has its critics. A few years ago, a Canadian anthropologist argued that Gobekli Tepe could have been built by settlers, not hunter-gatherers. Clare says he's willing to be convinced, but so far, there's no sign of cooking hearths or other evidence of domestic life at the site. One of the pleasures Clare has out here on the cutting edge of archaeology is the freedom to speculate about the hunter-gatherers just before their transition to settlements. A people so focused on daily survival that would there was no time, let alone a reason, to wage war. Clare says this period is notable for the lack of evidence pointing to conflict.
CLARE: Which is surprising, perhaps. But at the same time, you know, other scholars have said that for the Neolithic to spread as it did, for this knowledge to spread, it would have needed people cooperating and not fighting. And I think that's a nice thought.
KENYON: An almost utopian thought, considering the millennia of carnage that followed. And as Clare points out, even here there are signs of emerging hierarchies, hints of human impulses that foreshadow the blood still being shed in the 21st century just across the Syrian border, a mere 20 miles away. Peter Kenyon, NPR News.
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