Pre-History: 10,000 BC, Gobekli Tepe

The Gobekli Tepe temple complex is one of the greatest enigmas in the world, upending the traditionally held views of human intellectual development, and human history in general. Gobekli Tepe, or “Pot-bellied Hill” in Turkish, lies in Southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border, not far from the modern Turkish city of Sanliurfa (also known simply as Urfa, the Hellenistic city of Edessa).

This is the region where human beings first domesticated a number of wild plants and animals, lying a moderate distance
Gobekli Tepe, Turkey
away from the Turkish Euphrates and just beyond the Northern bend of the Fertile Crescent. The hill itself is entirely artificial, the result of the intentional burial of the Gobekli Tepe complex around 9000 BCE. The scale and organization of these structures demonstrates an impressively high level of intellectual and organizational sophistication in a time where people were still thought to wander in scattered bands and eke out a meager living using stone tools. It bends the mind to imagine a less practical use of a hunter-gatherer’s time than collaboratively moving and carving massive stones and arranging them in massive pits. In this paradox lies the most compelling quality of the Gobekli Tepe complex. What inspired these people to exert so much energy in creating this colossal monument?

The likely answer is confronting the mystery of death through spiritual and religious devotion.

Gobekli Tepe is, by far, the oldest dated structural complex of this size and sophistication. The monumental structures contained within it date back up to 12,000 years. As far as anyone today knows, at this time human beings did not have the capability of producing pottery, creating metal tools or domesticating animals or plants. They were, however, indisputably capable of fixing massive stone obelisks into bedrock slots for presumably ritualistic purposes. They had the capability of making abstract representations of animals, people and possibly gods using the tools available in the neolithic era. Gobekli Tepe features imaginative carvings of supernatural animals that exhibit certain human characteristics. Some of the carved representations of animals are surprisingly realistic for being the products of a culture that had supposedly no formal, written technical institutions regarding stone-carving. However, the creators of Gobekli Tepe were clearly more artistically and mechanically sophisticated than modern people are likely to assume about societies who did not even access to basic technologies such as pottery.

The massive complex, which to date is only partially excavated, covers an area of roughly nine hectares of large circular pits decorated with the aforementioned images of humans and animals. Each enclosure contains between 10 and 12 large stone pillars, arranged in a circular orientation. Among the stone monuments are the enigmatic “T-shaped” pillars, each of which is over 5 meters tall and weighs several tons, which are carved to have human limbs on either side but show no distinct facial features. The presence of other anthropomorphic sculptures featuring accurate human facial features have led archaeologists to believe that these monuments represent something non-human and divine. Smaller, life-sized anthropomorphic figures depicting both male and female bodies are all identifiably human, in contrast with the enormous, impersonal representations of the T-shaped pillars. The people of this area, at this time, saw spiritual and religious matters to be of such immense importance that they organized themselves around this colossal project which gave them no survival benefits whatsoever, but which appeared to form the basis of a unified metaphysical culture and vision of the supernatural cosmos. Because these ancient people predated writing by millennia, scholars are left to make assumptions about their reasoning by means of comparison with cultures that succeeded Gobekli Tepe by thousands of years. This, coupled with the fact that the large majority of the site remains unexcavated, leaves Gobekli Tepe as singularly enigmatic a location as any on the planet.

Gobekli Tepe shows no signs of human habitation whatsoever, leading to the conclusion that the site served a purely ceremonial purpose. It is located many miles from any major river that would have supported a large population of settled people, and other neolithic inhabited sites are located some distance away. It appears that several distinct groups would have needed to deliberately travel to Gobekli Tepe in order to take part in communal worship or ritual. The wholly impractical location of Gobekli Tepe further gives evidence for a purely ritual purpose. Besides the dump sites of animal bones (featuring diverse creatures such as gazelles and game birds but also animals such as cows, donkeys and pigs which would later be domesticated by human beings), the human residents of this area left no trace that they lived on the site for the long term. Surprisingly, the complex lacks any evidence even of the use of fire. The only signs of human presence besides the monuments themselves are the discarded shards of human bones cast among the animal refuse of the site, either the result of ritual human sacrifice or gruesome burial ceremonies.

The lack of agricultural capabilities among the builders of Gobekli Tepe is evidenced by these large dump sites of animal bones, all of which belong to wild game. In addition, there are none of the typical relics that would show evidence of typical neolithic era human habitation. Interestingly, the nearby mountain of Karaca Dag is considered by many geneticists to be the original location for the domestication of wheat, an event which believed to have occurred some time after the construction of Gobekli Tepe. Clearly, the creators of Gobekli Tepe had significant relationships with animals and had already applied mystical and spiritual meaning to these relationships, and the same could possibly said about the use of the region’s plants. Many of these animal representations appear to have apotropaic qualities, likely to protect the sacred site from interference from diabolical forces. In this fertile and abundant region, the hunter gatherers of this time would have had a much easier time making a living than other groups in more harsh climates. In addition, returning frequently to the site for worship may have led these people to notice patterns in the growth of local plant life, which may have led to the idea for domestication of flora. It may also be possible that this afforded them the leisure to mentally ponder the cosmos on a level that was otherwise unheard of among people at the time, leading to more advanced analysis of their lived universe.

One of most bizarre attributes of the Gobekli Tepe complex, and the primary reason why it was discovered in such pristine and unmolested condition, is the fact that it was intentionally buried after the neolithic period. In many ways, this demonstrates an even more inexplicable level of reasoning than what led them to build it in the first place. Again, there is no practical reason for backfilling what may have been the most impressive man-made site in the world that will bring any level of peace or comfort to the lives of neolithic hunter gatherers. However, it would have required dramatically more physical effort than any other activity these people might find necessary in their daily lives. Perhaps a feeling of cosmological terror gripped the society of the region and inspired a massive cooperative process of burying a formerly sacred site that had, in their minds, gone bad. This scenario evokes thoughts of Lovecraftian horrors from the far corners of the unknown cosmos, but it is hard to imagine another reason that could unite people to intentionally bury a massive temple complex in this way. In any case, it is a clear sign that neolithic humanity was more organized and sophisticated than is widely believed.

It is entirely possible that Gobekli Tepe stood near the epicenter of a massive leap forward in the capacity for human though in the ancient world. Sitting in the darkness and staring every night at the vastness of the night sky may have planted in these early humans the seeds of the intellectual revolution that would one day blot out the stars with artificial light. It is also possible that it was the product of an advanced civilization that predates the discovery of agriculture or even practical crafts such as pottery. Feeding and organizing a group of workers large enough to create such a complex requires not only high-level reasoning and an understanding of math and astronomy but also a strong guiding purpose shared among the people themselves. Keeping in mind these were what we modern people would call cavemen, it is not intuitive for us to assume this level of intellectual sophistication among this population. However, the arrogance of our place in technological modernity helps us to forget that these people had brains every bit as sophisticated and capable as ours. However, these brains had little to occupy their time besides procuring the basic necessities of survival, conversing with their fellows and, presumably, pondering the nature of their situation in the universe.

Gobekli Tepe’s mystery is both frustrating and fascinating, and at this point essentially nothing is known about the people who built it. It is widely regarded as the oldest religious structure known to modern science, but the nature of the belief system of these people in entirely unknown. Speculation about their origins runs the gamut from outlandish claims of extraterrestrial assistance to simple disregard for the possibility of such an ancient structure. It is testimony to the inertia of modern academia that the entire official history of human society has not yet been altered in light of the decades since the discovery of this site. Neolithic humanity was clearly capable of a much greater level of social organization than previously believed and we can see even from this ancient time the depth and sophistication of the human capacity to ponder the cosmos.


Schmidt, Klaus. "Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New Results of Ongoing Excavations with a Special Focus on Sculptures and High Reliefs." Documenta Praehistorica 37.0 (2010): 239. Print.

Scham, Sandra. "The World's First Temple." Archaeology 61, no. 6 (November 2008): 22-27. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost(accessed October 27, 2016).

Schmidt, Klauss. “Stone Age Sanctuaries in Southeastern Anatolia.” Discovering Digital Dimensions, Computers and Writing Conference, 15 June 2014, Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Gallery, Washington DC,

"The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion." Bible History Daily, 24 Aug. 2015,


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