Decoding Gobekli Tepe
This archaeological site in Turkey is said to change everything... but what does that really mean?
On a high ridge among the dry, rocky hills of southern Turkey is a mound, a long gradual mound of stones and debris that you might not even notice. In the 1960s an American archaeologist came upon it, noted what he took for neolithic gravestones and broken bits of Byzantine sculptures, sent in a survey and moved along. But since then others have take a closer look, teams of scientists have descended and dug, and uncovered what many have described as the most astounding and out-of-place find in the history of archaeology — indeed, in the history of humanity. In Turkish it's called Göbekli Tepe, potbelly hill, an ignominious name for such a stupendous find. Today we're going to turn a shovelful of rubble of our own, gaze upon the wonders, and ponder how some say the site cannot be reconciled with human history.
The neat thing about Göbekli Tepe is that if you go there, or even just look at pictures of it, there's something immediately weird about it that stands out, and you don't even have to know anything about archaeology to see it. Most of the site looks just the way you'd expect any ancient ruins to appear: the remains of low stone walls showing the outlines of where structures once stood; excavation trenches where archaeologists have exposed these walls; wooden catwalks allowing people to walk around without disturbing the ruins. But scattered everywhere throughout the site is something you've never seen anywhere else: great white monoliths of limestone, most rising higher than the battered old walls, many in excellent condition. They seem desperately out of place, and far too precisely cut to have been associated with the surrounding rubble. They're roughly the dimensions of giant dominos, but slightly T-shaped, with tall stubby arms at the top. Called the T-pillars by archaeologists, they range from under 2m to over 5m in height, and weigh up to 10 metric tons apiece.
The T-pillars are exquisitely decorated, all in relief — where the image projects outward from the flat surface. Most are depictions of local animals of every variety. A few are even wonderfully rendered three-dimensional sculptures of boars crawling down the side of the T-pillar. The pillars are arranged in circles up to 10 meters in diameter, and inside each circle are the two tallest pillars. Four of these circles have so far been excavated at the site, but the indications are that the site includes at least twenty. This uncertainty is due to what is archaeologically the most surprising thing about Göbekli Tepe, and it's not the pillars: it's that the entire site was deliberately buried with rubble, very soon after completion, and new circles of pillars were built on top of the rubble of previous ones. Thus, when it was first discovered, the site was one giant low mound almost 20 acres in size and some 15m high. Only about 5% of it has been excavated so far.
The site was first discovered and described in 1963, but little serious work was done until 1994 when it was taken over by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, who remained the principal investigator until his death in 2014. Schmidt's most historically significant discovery was one of the earliest: the site's age, determined by radiocarbon dating of wood, charcoal, and animal bones to be 11,500 years ago. Göbekli Tepe was built slightly earlier than 9500 BCE, with an error range of a few centuries. This was at least 6,500 years before the first earthworks at Stonehenge. Until this date was established, previous thinking had been that neolithic populations who subsisted on hunting and gathering would not come together to build great monumental works. Yet the construction of Göbekli Tepe clearly required a lot of workers for a long time, which would require a change in our understanding of the development of human cultures.
Now, when there's a paradigm shift like this in any science, there are two basic ways you can react to it. First, you can do what anthropologists and archaeologists did: they peer reviewed it to verify the data was correct, then when it passed muster, they threw parties and celebrated a rare significant shift in our understanding, and got to work updating the textbooks. The other basic type of reaction is to do what crackpots from outside the world of science did: to gloat that new information like this proves that the scientific method is fatally flawed and hopelessly unreliable, and therefore any alternate models are valid. This was the path chosen by many in the alternative science community, including ancient alien theorists and others.
Two of these alternative theorists were Graham Hancock and Andrew Collins. In his 2015 book Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth's Lost Civilisation, Hancock asserted that neolithic people of the day did not know either stonemasonry or farming, thus they had to have had help to create Göbekli Tepe. He described his belief to the show London Real:
Although their respective beliefs about Göbekli Tepe are so different as to be irreconcilable, Hancock and Collins both hinge their notions upon a single event: a highly controversial idea called the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis. The Younger Dryas period was a 1,200-year interruption to the gradual climatic warming ever since the gradual recession of ice from the most recent ice age began, around 20,000 years ago. The period began about 12,900 years ago and lasted until 11,700 years ago, by which time temperatures had returned to near normal — and that's just a few centuries before the construction of Göbekli Tepe. A return to normal after an ice age is a very complex climatic event, filled with oscillations and causes and effects, and the Younger Dryas was only one of at least three such interruptions. There are four main hypotheses for its cause. The overwhelming favorite is a shutdown of the North Atlantic Conveyor, an important current that moves warmer waters farther north. This explanation fits best with what we know of the climate. However there are at least three competing hypotheses, all of which have much less academic support and all have significant problems. They are a barrage of comet impacts, the eruption of the Laacher See volcano in Germany, and a supernova in the constellation Vela that may have depleted the ozone layer.
Hancock and Collins both adopted the comet impact, hypothesizing that it caused nonspecific worldwide cataclysms that lasted centuries. While neither author offers a compelling explanation for the 1,400-year gap between when the supposed barrage would have taken place and when construction began, both rely on it as the crucial element that explains Göbekli Tepe. Hancock believes this alleged cataclysm was what destroyed his ancient advanced civilization, which Göbekli Tepe was an attempt by a few survivors to "restart" by training the primitive local population; while Collins believes that the comets so terrorized the people that they felt they needed a megalithic structure, and pilgrimaged here from all over the continent. As he explained to the program Megalithomania:
Hancock and Collins — as well as pretty much all the other Göbekli Tepe alternative theorists — also point out various astronomical alignments with the structure, plus inscriptions that they interpret as advanced written language. Neither claim is accepted by archaeologists. Beyond that, they simply exaggerate nearly everything: adding a few feet to the heights of the T-pillars, adding anywhere from a few to several tens of tons to their weight, always rounding up the structure's age a thousand years or so; and so on. It's not the style of a careful researcher seeking to accurately characterize a discovery; it's the style of a showman trying to sell books and sound sensational.
Was Göbekli Tepe truly so incompatible with what we thought we knew that barrages of comets and ancient advanced civilizations must be introduced into our theories to explain it? When Stanford archaeologist Ian Hodder told Newsweek in 2010 that "It changes everything... All our theories were wrong," he didn't mean that we must throw the door so wide open as to admit any and all hypotheses no matter how outlandish. He was speaking within a narrow scope of uncertainty, about when and how megalithic structures that brought many people together fit into the lives of neolithic people, and nothing more.
Klaus Schmidt — Göbekli Tepe's longtime lead archaeologist — always believed the site was a religious temple. Other researchers have not agreed that the evidence supports such an identification. Moreover, we've since found at least eight other sites in the region with similar T-pillars that date from the same time period. Their purpose remains, to us removed so many millennia, essentially unknowable. The people had no written language to tell us anything. We can see from the spearheads and bones left behind that they ate wild animals there and did not domesticate any. We can see from the lack of trash piles that nobody lived at the site. We see the tools they left behind and the quarries to see how they did the work. And we can see what they built and when, and very little else.
As to the speculations by the alternative theorists that hunter-gatherers would not have built such structures without clear direction or instruction or purpose, archaeologist and author Dr. Ken Feder finds that this was not necessary after all. From his Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology:
So, in short, give our ancestors some credit. Credit them for what they did and what they left us. When someone tells you humans weren't smart enough or ambitious enough done something, and therefore must have had help from aliens or Atlanteans or whoever — look instead to the evidence. You'll probably find that humanity — whether that of your ancestors or even your own — is a powerful force indeed.
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