Civilization Didn’t Evolve to Agriculture The Way You Think

“For of all gainful professions, nothing is better, nothing more pleasing, nothing more delightful, nothing better becomes a well-bred man than agriculture.” —Cicero, De Oficiis

In A Nutshell

Originally found and dismissed in the 1960s, Gobekli Tepe is rewriting how we think of the evolution of modern society. Approximately 11,600 years old, the ancient temple was the center of a civilization that gave rise to some of the oldest known strains of crops and marked the change between hunter-gatherers and a farm-based society—and it might not have happened how we think. The temple construction pre-dates the strains of domestic crops, suggesting that agriculture didn’t come first after all.

The Whole Bushel

Gobekli Tepe stands on a hill 304 meters (1,000 ft) above a valley, surrounded by lower plateaus on the Turkish countryside. Part of the hill has been excavated, revealing pits that contain elaborately decorated standing stones. The largest of the stones is almost 5 meters (16 ft) tall and weighs somewhere between 7 and 16 tons. There are four such excavated stone circles, with the largest 19 meters (65 ft) across.

And that’s not all there is to the site. Archaeologists have used ground-penetrating radar to find at least 20 more such stone circles spread out over 22 acres.

First scouted by researchers from the University of Chicago and Istanbul University, it was originally dismissed as uninteresting. Until the German Archaeological Institute decided to pick up where they left off and found what might be the place where early hunter-gatherer society became the first agricultural society.

And theories about what came first are being turned on their heads.

Gobekli Tepe is more than old: It’s ancient. It’s been estimated to be about 11,000 years old, give or take a handful of centuries. That’s mind-blowing. To put it in perspective, more time separates this civilization from ancient Sumer than separates Sumer from us. The idea of writing wouldn’t be invented for another 6,000 years. There was no such concept as the wheel. Beasts of burden hadn’t been considered yet, either.

The general consensus is that the very earliest human civilizations were made up of hunter-gatherers. Once mankind figured out how to domesticate animals and farm for food, it allowed him to settle down and concentrate on other pursuits like art, literature, and more traditionally modern ideas. But that’s not what the evidence here suggests.

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Archaeologists have found thousands of animal bones, many of which were from wild animals. This is in line with the theory that the temple’s builders would have been hunter-gatherers. But they’ve also found a prehistoric village about 32 kilometers (20 mi) away from the excavated site. There, they’ve found the world’s oldest domesticated strains of wheat, which have been radiocarbon dated to 10,500 years ago.

That’s generations after the massive undertaking that was responsible for the building of the stone circles.

This finding has led many scholars to believe that the evolution of society actually happened exactly the opposite of how we’ve always thought. The construction of the stone circles of Gobekli Tepe would have taken countless laborers centuries to complete. They would have brought families with them, and they would have needed stationary homes, along with a way to find their own food.

Originally, people would have hunted on the vast, fertile plains around the construction site. But somewhere around 10,800 B.C. there was a miniature ice age that meant animals were dying out and the blossoming civilization needed another way to sustain itself. That meant turning to crops that were already growing in the area and domesticating them.

The location, high on a hilltop overlooking miles and miles of Turkish land, would have been ideal for a temple. It provided a symbolic connection between the Earth and the heavens. Clearly, it was chosen first, and the development of agriculture now speaks to the ingenuity of these early humans.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image photo credit: Teomancimit
Smithsonian: Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?
National Geographic: Gobekli Tepe

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