Who had the power to order the building of Stonehenge? That was 4,000 years ago in Neolithic Britain. The same astonishing question arises in relation to Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey – 8,000 years earlier.
Older than Egypt, Sumeria and Stonehenge, the first structures at Göbekli Tepe were built as early as 10,000 BCE. Forty standing T-shaped columns have so far been uncovered in four circles 30 meters in diameter, together with limestone columns weighing from 7 to 15 tons or more. Ground-penetrating radar indicates there are 250 more pillars in circles extending over another 25 acres of the ancient site. Many of the Göbekli Tepe’s columns pillars are carved with elaborate reliefs of animals. In addition to bulls, foxes, and cranes, representations of lions, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, and snakes appear on the pillars. Freestanding sculptures depicting the animals have also been found within the circles. Recently, archaeologists uncovered a statue of a human and sculptures of a vulture’s head and a boar.
Excavations have revealed that Göbekli Tepe was constructed in two stages. The oldest structures belong to what archaeologists call the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period, which ended around 9000 BCE. The earliest levels contain most of the T-shaped pillars and animal sculptures and the later remains, which date to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period, or about 8000 BCE, are less elaborate.
Göbekli Tepe in Turkish (meaning “potbelly hill”) was first studied in 1964 by scientists from Istanbul University and the University of Chicago, who concluded that the hill could not be an entirely natural feature. But it was only in 1994 that German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began excavating layer-by-layer, carefully dating and studying the surrounding soil as he dug. It must have been as exciting – and as daunting – as when Heinrich Schliemann dug at Troy.
Schmidt believes that the people who built the massive, enigmatic structures came from great distances. On reaching Göbekli Tepe, they made animal sacrifices. Schmidt and his team have found the bones of wild animals, including gazelles, red deer, boars, goats, sheep, and oxen, plus a dozen different bird species, such as vultures and ducks. Most of these animals are depicted in the sculptures and reliefs at the site.
Schmidt does not believe that Göbekli Tepe is the Biblical Garden of Eden. But he does agree that it was a sanctuary of profound significance in the Neolithic world. He sees it as a key site in understanding the transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural pastoralist, and from tribal to more organised religion.
Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe, which leads him to suspect that the pillars represent human beings and that cult practices may have focused on some sort of ancestor worship. But who were these people? And who had such standing – king or priest – that he (or perhaps she) could command the building of Göbekli Tepe?