As it stands today

Göbekli Tepe Redefines the Paths to Civilization in the Origin of Society and Religion


When looking upon an ancient remnant of humanity, it’s almost impossible to imagine yourself in the shoes of those who once walked this same Earth and undertook the seemingly Sisyphean task of creating something as grand as the Pyramids Of Giza (2600 BC), Stonehenge (3000 BC), or Newgrange (3200 BC).

4-5 thousand years is a truly incomprehensible amount of time. To think of the strides humanity has made in the past century alone and to then extrapolate that 50 fold. The practice of agriculture was developed around 10,000 years ago, so it seems to make sense that humans would need a considerable adjustment period before they came out of the shadow of the Ice Age and developed civilizations, let alone buildings and monuments.

Not being steeped in academia myself, this was what I, and many others, took to be true until June 2011, when National Geographic published this:

Photo of a National Geographic cover

An Ancient Discovery

Located in the Urfa province of Turkey, Göbekli Tepe (which translates directly as Potbelly Hill) was first recognized as an archeological site in 1963. The Universities of Istanbul and Chicago conducted a joint survey of the area, led by Peter Benedict.

Map of Middle East

Peter Benedict described the titular Potbelly Hill as a cluster of mounds of reddish soil separated by depressions. The slopes were clustered with flint, and from this, along with several broken slabs of limestone found, he described what he thought were two small Islamic cemeteries.

Photo of Gobekli Tepe pre-excavation
Göbekli Tepe pre-excavation

Further excavations seemed unlikely given the presumed sacred nature of this gravesite. That was until, in 1994, when Klaus Schmidt, after finding similarities between Göbekli Tepe and another Turkish excavation site, figured that the ‘tombstones’ might in fact be remnants of some Neolithic structure.

Photo of Göbekli Tepe after being uncovered
Göbekli Tepe post-excavation

On looking back at the re-discovery, Klaus Schmidt said this: “Within a minute of first seeing it, I knew I had two choices. Go away and tell nobody, or spend the rest of my life working here.”

Paths to Civilization

Diagram of Paths to Civilization
The Possible Paths To Civilization

Which Came First: Society or Religion?

Before Gobeklie Tepe, it was presumed that humans hadn’t started to build structures until we had developed agriculture, around 10,000 years ago. The assumption was that, after the Ice Age ended, humans began developing not only agriculture but permanent settlements.

Before this, humans lived in incredibly small-scale communities of a few dozen people, and these close-knit communities were under the banner of ‘tribes’ (ethnolinguistic groups comprised of a few hundred people, who spoke the same language and shared certain customs).

Map of Fertile Crescent
The Fertile Crescent: the cradle of civilization

This began changing around 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture. Humans began actually producing food, which allowed them to sustain greater populations and remain in one location for generations at a time. This sedentary way of life then led to villages, then cities, societies, religion, writing, etc. Effectively, civilization.

This model suggests that the surplus of resources in these ancient societies is what led to the support structure that allowed for the development of spirituality, and ultimately, organized religion. Gobelin Tepe completely contradicts this chain of events.

The Anatomy of Ancient Worship

Gobeklie Tepe lies in what was known as the Fertile Crescent (the region in which the first agricultural communities of the Middle East and the Mediterranean originated by around 9,000 BC).

Over the past 30 years, only 5-7% of Gobeklie Tepe has been uncovered. According to the estimates, it may take another 50 years before the entire ancient complex has been explored.

Diagram of Göbekli Tepe

Top down shot of Göbekli Tepe

These two images show Gobeklie Tepe, as it stands today. The complex is broken up into these 6 enclosures, denoted by the letters A-F. The lines denote the dozens of T-shaped pillars, the larger of which measures around 5.5 meters and weigh between 8 and 10 metric tons. The smaller,  surrounding pillars still reach around 4 meters.

Pillar diagram

Pillars of Civilization

Each pillar is adorned with several markings, many of which appear to be abstractions of human features. The ‘T’ shape as well, while theorized to have been chosen for ease of transportation, may also have a ritual meaning as well, such as representing the faceless head of a human-like figure.

How pillars were transported

First image of pillar

Second image of pillar

These pillars are also shown to have meticulous carvings which seem to depict various animals but could also be representative again of some form of an ancient deity. Some pillars have depictions of lions of greater predators attached to them, which could be placed there to ward off danger and protect the site.

Pillar statue
Lion figure. Tasked with protecting the temple

One thing to note is that, in the excavation of Göbekli Tepe, there have been no discoveries to indicate that anyone had ever lived in the complex. This entire, labyrinthian structure was built solely for worship.

The Cold Hard Artefacts

We can run in circles all day discussing the implications of the layout and pillars, but what else was actually found on-site?


Although there have been no signs of human burial, several fragmented human bones have been found at Göbekli Tepe. The most noteworthy of which are several, partially preserved, human skulls, many of which have been artificially modified.

Ceremonial Incisions?
Ceremonial Incisions?

The skulls which have been found exhibit signs of deliberate puncture marks. Marks that archaeologists believe could not have been made by any animal. From this, researchers have inferred that the markings must be man-made.

But so what? Surely these skulls could have just belonged to encroaching marauders or the remnants of a rival tribe. However, upon further inspection, these markings appear to be purposeful incisions. This has led to speculation that Göbekli Tepe could have been a veritable hotspot for bizarre rituals, or even the stomping grounds of an upper paleo/neolithic skull cult.

Red Ochre

The skull bones that have been found also show evidence of being de-fleshed after death, as if to retrieve not the head, but the skull itself. One such skull had a hole in it that was previously filled with red ochre (a natural clay). This, coupled with the vague and interpretable carvings that adorn the aforementioned pillars, has led many to believe that the people of Göbekli Tepe had some sort of predilection for heads, and by extension, headlessness.

As well as human remains, thousands of animal bones and hundreds of bone fragments were found at the site. After all, if you’re slaving away, building some grand monument that, in the future, will be considered to be beyond your comparatively primitive understanding, you need something to eat.

Tools of the Trade

Though no tools which were used for the construction of the pillars or the structure have ever been found on site, archaeologists have found several grindstones which were used in processing cereals. The fact that these were found on-site leads many to believe that perhaps food preparation, such as it was at the time, was done very close to, or within Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe predates both the invention of the wheel and writing, so it’s safe to assume that they also had no bowls or pots for cooking. Still, there could only be so much wild game to go around. The workers would then also have to rely on the gathering of cereals. Nothing as lavish as today, just some wheat, barley, oats, and maize.

Grinding Tools
Göbekli Tepe grinding tools

One of the most significant finds at Göbekli Tepe were these grinding tools. The grinding stones (A-D) were used to process cereals in the grinding bowls (E&F). Think of it as a far more primitive version of a standard mortar and pestle. The process of, well, processing cereals is to make the grain more digestible. What good is free, self-creating food if you can’t stomach it? This is one of the earliest examples of food processing in the world.

The Point Of Contention 

An undertaking this large would have required hundreds of workers and artisans laboring in tandem. From this, we can infer that for this number of workers to be present and efficient, their supporting society (i.e. those that actually gathered all of the food) must have numbered in the thousands. Possibly tens of thousands.

Hunter-Gatherer Revision

The capacity for such a society to gather a surplus of food had to be limited as, while the earliest complex at Göbekli Tepe was built around 9,600 BC, the very first evidence of agriculture in the area was dated to 1,000 years later.

From this, we can then figure that all of the food was either gathered plant foods or wild game. This series of events is the exact opposite of what experts have taken for granted. A large-scale society develops, first with sophisticated ritual customs and the means/ ability to build structures, THEN they develop some form of agriculture.

Depiction of hunter-gatherers

This completely inverses the cause and effect of how complex civilizations came about. An article in the aforementioned National Geographic issue on Göbekli Tepe suggests an alternate theory:

“Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Gobeklie Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in Southern Turkey, well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe, at exactly the time the temple was at its height.”

The Ever-Persistent Question

As is shown in the ‘Path To Civilisation’ diagram, there are ultimately two conclusions to be drawn:

1.The abundance of food led to definitive settlements and allowed for the birth of ideas such as organized religion.


2. Religion was the catalyst by which early humans came together in larger numbers and stuck together to develop what we now call civilization.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Up until this discovery, the evolution of human culture seemed much more immediate. It was as though we came out of the Ice Age bewildered, confused, and merely looking to survive. We must have had to learn to cultivate the land before we could begin to look inward and seek any form of spiritual enlightenment.

Before Göbekli Tepe, the earliest proofs of religious structures were dated to around 2/3 thousand BC. These monuments, such as the Pyramids of Giza (2600 BC), were built by what, for the time at least, were considered civilizations. At some 7 thousand years older than that, Göbekli Tepe is a testament to the fact that early man was, while often cautious and mistrusting of one another,  perfectly content with gathering amongst thousands of like-minded individuals to build such a seemingly unachievable monument.

To be a part of a tribe means to belong to a tight-knit, cohesive unit. One which you seek to protect, and would even die for. This model can be extrapolated to explain the concepts of cities, nations, and empires, but before Göbekli Tepe was discovered, the idea of hunter-gatherers banding together in similar numbers was unthinkable.

After all, why would they do such a thing if they didn’t seek to settle down? It appears as though worship was no less present then than it is today. Wonder and worship tore these people from the cold maw of oblivion and unified them in a single goal. Many of the mysteries and nagging questions which still surround Göbekli Tepe may never be answered, but, despite this, the site is no less marvelous in its design and artistry, and its builders no less extraordinary in their bravery and determination.


Whatever side of the debate you may find yourself on, be content with the fact that there is an incalculable amount that we don’t yet know about Göbekli Tepe, let alone the birth of complex societies.

Boncuklu Tarla
Boncuklu Tarla: A fitting usurper?

In 2012, in the Eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, archaeologists discovered a place called Boncuklu Tarla, 300 km East of Göbekli Tepe. It is believed to be more than 1,000 years older than Göbekli Tepe, and to hold the first known examples of temples and other religious structures.

Just as the gaps of history seem to be filled in, we find new gaps in-between. Who knows if we’ll ever be able to determine the absolute beginning of certain human customs like religion? One thing we know for sure is that humankind has an indelible sense of wonder, and that will certainly never end.

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