How did the first civilization develop

The birth of civilization

In southern Turkey you can travel to the cradle of civilization. In white, air-conditioned buses it goes over bumpy serpentines to a stone gate. The tourists - mostly Turks, sometimes Western Europeans - finger their MP3 players and water bottles and don't care much about the instructions and explanations of the tour guides. Your destination is the top of the hill. Once at the top of the Göbekli Tepe, they suddenly stand there like comic characters, their mouths open in a row of amazed O's. As if spellbound, they look at dozen of huge stone pillars, arranged in several rings, one leaning against the other. The site is somewhat reminiscent of Stonehenge. But the system on Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier. And it does not consist of roughly hewn stone blocks like the cult site in southern England, but of carefully worked limestone pillars. They are richly decorated with animal figures: with gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions and terrifying boars. The ensemble was built about 11600 years ago, 7000 years before Stonehenge and the construction of the pyramids at Giza.

The oldest known temple complex in the world stands on Göbekli Tepe - yes, the oldest known monumental architecture at all. The first structure larger and more complex than a hut. When these pillars were erected, as far as we know, there was nothing like it in the world. After a moment of stunned silence, the tourists on the mythical hill pull out their cameras and cell phones. Of course, no one had such devices eleven millennia ago. Still, things have changed less than one might think. Large religious centers have always been pilgrimage destinations for spiritual travelers, who often travel long distances to see unique things, to be touched or healed. The Göbekli Tepe could have been the first of these pilgrimage sites.

For the archaeologists who work here, the case is pretty clear: The human sense for the sacred and, last but not least, our preference for grandiose productions created the basis for civilization. At the time when the Gobekli Tepe came into being, most of the people lived in small nomadic groups looking for wild plants and hunting animals. But in order to build such a temple complex, more people had to come together in one place than probably ever before. And, even more surprising: These people managed to break boulders weighing up to 16 tons, work them and transport them a few hundred meters - but they had neither bikes nor beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Göbekli Tepe also knew no script, no metal, no ceramics. The pillars must have looked like mighty giants on anyone approaching this temple area. And the animal figures, trembling in the firelight, like messengers from a world of spirits - which man was only just beginning to imagine.

The excavations at Göbekli Tepe are still in full swing, and archaeologists continue to debate its importance. What you already know: The site is the most significant in a series of unexpected finds that turn earlier ideas about cultural development upside down. Only 20 years ago, most researchers believed they knew the time, place and approximate course of the Neolithic Revolution - the transition in which agriculture developed and hunters and gatherers of the species Homo sapiens settled down. At that time the development began towards societies with great buildings and rulers who directed the work of their subjects and recorded these achievements in writing.

But for some years now, archaeologists have been forced to rethink these ideas. The excavations on Göbekli Tepe play a central role in this. Initially, the researchers viewed the Neolithic Revolution as a one-off event - a kind of sudden flash of inspiration from our early ancestors in Mesopotamia, today's southern Iraq. From here it made its way to India, Europe and beyond. Most archaeologists were convinced that this sudden flourishing of civilization was largely due to environmental changes: namely, the warm phase after the end of the Ice Age. This would have made it possible for the first time to grow plants and keep large herds of animals. The new research now suggests that not only were many more people involved in this "revolution," but that it spanned a vast area and spanned thousands of years. And it may not have been new environmental conditions that caused this upheaval.

But what was it then? When Klaus Schmidt, an archaeologist who has been familiar with the region for decades, came to Göbekli Tepe in 1994, he knew immediately that he would be spending a long time here. Born in Franconia, he had been researching other excavation sites in southern Turkey for a number of years and was looking for a new site. The largest city in the area is Sanl & # x131; urfa. According to legend, the progenitor Abraham was born here. To the north are the first heights of the mountains in which the Euphrates and Tigris arise. Only 14 kilometers outside the city runs a long range of hills with a rounded peak, which the locals call Göbekli Tepe: "bulbous mountain".

Archaeologists from the University of Chicago looked around here in the 1960s but found the Gobekli Tepe not particularly interesting. On the hill they could see that something had been changed there, and they attributed the many flint cuts to the Stone Age. But the monumental architecture was still hidden from them. Schmidt, intrigued by the brief notes of his American colleagues, decided to get to the bottom of the matter. The first thing he noticed was the huge amount of flint fragments. "After a few minutes it was clear to me," the researcher tells me, "that dozens, if not hundreds, of people must have worked here in the past millennia."

Schmidt set to work in 1995 in collaboration with the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), to which he now belongs, and the Museum of Sanl & # x131; urfa. His team comes across an artistically designed stone just centimeters below the surface. Then others emerge: a circle of upright pillars. Over the years, the archaeologists and their local helpers find a second stone circle, then a third. Using geomagnetic measurements, they identified at least 20 such systems in 2003 alone. The largest pillars are five and a half meters high and weigh 16 tons. They are decorated with animal figures in the form of bas-reliefs, made in different styles, some only roughly indicated, others finely worked out like Byzantine works of art. At other points on the hill is the largest collection of Neolithic flint tools Schmidt has ever come across: knives, ax blades, arrowheads. "There are more flints here in one or two square meters than many archaeologists find in entire excavation sites," he says.

The stone circles are all set up according to the same pattern. They were put together from limestone pillars that support a kind of crossbeam at the top and are thus shaped like a T. Five times as wide as they are deep, they are two arm lengths or more apart. They are connected by low stone benches. In the middle of each circle there are two larger pillars with their narrow ends embedded in furrows in the rock. The Rothenburg architect and civil engineer Eduard Knoll, who is working with Schmidt on the preservation of the site, suspects that the pillars were once supported, possibly with wooden posts.

For Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars represent stylized human-shaped beings. This assumption is supported above all by the carved “arms” that lead down from the “shoulders” of some pillars and whose “hands” stretch to the belly draped with loincloths. The stones are aligned to the center of the circle - "like at a meeting or a dance," says the archaeologist. Are they a cult act? The prancing, jumping animals show mostly life-threatening beings: scorpions, boars, lions. Should you protect the human figures here? Or should the "humans" appease the animals? Could these be considered totems by humans?

In the course of the excavations, puzzle comes puzzle. For reasons that are still unknown, the stone circles from Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power or at least their magic. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new ones: a second, smaller ring within the first, and sometimes a third. Then everything was covered with rubble and a completely new circle was built nearby. The site could have been built, filled in and rebuilt over centuries.

To the astonishment of the archaeologists, the quality of the temples deteriorated more and more. The first circles are the largest and the most technically and artistically demanding. Over time, the pillars became smaller, simpler and less meticulous. Around 8200 BC The story of Göbekli Tepe ends. The site disappears from the scene and does not rise again.

Just as important as what scientists find is what they fail to find. Hundreds of people must have worked here to work and erect the pillars - but there was no water; the nearest river was about three miles away. The workers needed a roof over their heads - but the archaeologists found neither walls nor houses nor fireplaces. The people had to eat - but Schmidt couldn't find a single hotplate. The Göbekli Tepe was evidently a pure cult center.

If people lived here at all, then they weren't residents, but rather helpers and servants. Thousands of gazelle and aurochs bones suggest that the workers were probably constantly supplied with game from distant hunting grounds. All of these complex processes must have been organized and monitored - but so far there is no solid evidence of a social hierarchy. Also, no living areas for the wealthy, no rich graves, and no evidence that some people ate better than others.

"These people were hunters and gatherers," says Schmidt. “Up to now we always thought of small, flexible groups, maybe a few dozen people. We thought of people who couldn't build permanent homes because they had to follow their resources. We thought there couldn't be a class of priests and artisans because people couldn't take the extra supplies with them to feed this elite. And what do we have to find out now? That they did exactly what we didn't trust them to do. "

The realization that the Göbekli Tepe was built by hunters and gatherers seems as unlikely to us as if someone had built an Airbus with a paper knife. “We couldn't grasp all of this ourselves at the beginning,” says Schmidt. To the astonishment of the researchers, the Göbekli Tepe seems to have been both: a harbinger of the future civilized world and at the same time the last and greatest creation of a nomadic past. The achievement of building this site is astonishing, but how was it accomplished and what did it mean? “In ten or 15 years”, predicts Schmidt, “the Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for a good reason."

(NG, issue 06/2011, page (s) 38)