Last week on the Myth & Magic podcast (Episode 97) I spoke about an ancient ceremonial landscape in the Wye Valley, England, and said it may have been one of the most important prehistoric sites in all Europe.
But my report discounted Göbekli Tepe and new archaeology published last month about the Turkish site suggests the stone circles found there are not only older than the monument of Arthur’s Stone, but they pre-date all similar stone monuments… and that means all monuments everywhere, and by a long way!
Göbekli Tepe is located in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, not far from the border with Syria, and these recent studies suggest the megaliths found at this “belly” shaped mound are much older than previously assumed and are among the oldest man-made stone structures on earth.
The amazing thing is that it now seems evident these gigantic structures were built before elemental agriculture had began. The people who built these mystical megaliths were original Indo-European hunter-gatherers at the dawn of time! This thinking contradicts the conventional wisdom that suggests the people of a region must settle down into a productive agricultural community before they begin constructing monuments, or establishing a formal religion! I’ll go more deeply into both those assumptions in a moment.
It seems the Göbekli Tepe structures, discovered in the mid-1990s, probably date back to 10,000 years B.C. ( but potentially older still!) It’s important to take stock of what this means: we must understand that the people who erected these massive stone pillars and carved shapes into them never domesticated animals (except perhaps dogs), and they never planted seeds (I’ll touch on that element in a moment.) If these people lived in semi-permanent villages, they must have been small tribal or extended family communities that were sustained, largely, by foraging for food. For at least some part of the year, these people followed herds of migrating cattle, and these herds provided most of what they needed in terms of clothing, shelter materials, bedding, food, and tools. It might be convenient to picture these people to be similar in appearance and habit to our “Hollywood understanding” of how Native Americans probably lived before Europeans arrived in America, although we now know that even prehistoric Native Americans grew beans, dried maize and kept some livestock.
The first people to populate what we now call the “Fertile Crescent” (that’s the crescent-shaped region of the Middle East where civilization began) had no agriculture. Don’t forget these people existed before the invention of the potter’s wheel and before the invention of wheeled movement of any kind. This was a time before bronze and before iron. The people who crafted at Göbekli Tepe had just flint or bone tools to work with, no iron, no bronze, It was a period where sabre-toothed tigers (Smilodon ) and mammoths still roved in small numbers and 5,000 years before the earliest known civilization, Sumer, (now Southern Iraq) was established.
The Göbekli Tepe structures were crafted when stone-age people still lived in Egypt. A calendar circle was built in Southern Egypt that dates to about 7,500 B.C. The first Egyptian tombs were built between 3,500 to 3,200 B.C. The Pyramid of Djoser (Zoser) which is considered to be the oldest pyramid in the world, was constructed in 2,700 B.C. Stonehenge was started at around this same time. All these things happened long after Göbekli Tepe!
One of the most extraordinary things to come to terms with is that the master crafters and monumental builders at Göbekli Tepe were about to witness an awe-inspiring cosmic event of great significance: Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky (Canis Majoris) aka the “Dog Star” and a celestial object very that is familiar to us that was worshiped by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as a deity, only became visible to humans (at this latitude) in around 9,300 B.C. i.e. at the time of building. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjecture that an astronomical manifestation of such enormous meaning could easily have been the precursor to a new religion. Does this imply that the animal carvings found on many of the stones at Göbekli Tepe represent constellations seen in the night-sky? (After all, the bright star, Sirius, represents a “dog” to us, so it isn’t a completely wild claim…is it?)
To support the idea that Göbekli Tepe was built to be used as some kind of vast inventory of astronomical locators, the extraordinary pillar 43 (the Vulture Stone, shown below) seems to recognize a cataclysmic impact event where an asteroid/comet crashed into earth (probably into Greenland) and caused a temporary return to glacial conditions (we now call it the Younger Dryas period). This sudden return to coldness and darkness presumably lead to the disappearance of exotic wild prey while other herds, perhaps the herds of giant aurochs these people relied upon, became ‘magically’ more abundant.
Work at Göbekli Tepe is believed to date back to 12,000 BC. Although the main architecture began around 10,000 B.C. when stone block circles were erected (some weighed 16 tons!) This meant that planners/project managers needed to recruit a sizeable workforce. Assuming these workers stayed on site and only worked when they were not following the herds, it seems probable they must have been fed and sheltered at the site, perhaps for months, during the long periods they toiled. This tips our preconceived notions about how civilization begins! We had always taken for granted the notion that a settled existence, farming, learning, hierarchical structures and consequent early society, leads to the building of grand monuments. But Göbekli Tepe turns this notion on its head.
What we learn from the Turkish site is that the construction of a large, impressive and significant structure was compelling reason enough to attract large crowds, and all the workers had to be fed, watered and sheltered, so, it seems, stone blocks came before civilized society, and not the other way around! To support this argument further, archaeologists discovered signs of very ancient cultivation of wild cereals near the site. All this happened over a very long period of time and the project must have attracted large numbers of people, so it’s reasonable to speculate these people, over many centuries, also learned to grow, conserve and distribute food, which would have required records-people, intermediaries, deals-men and probably an over-seeing “priestly” class to plan the works and logistics. Surveys suggest there are at least twenty stone circles at the site, built at different times during pre-history, so this ongoing on/off work was an enormous undertaking that occurred over a hundred generations. We might conjecture, then, that grand on this grand scale might have jump-started civilization!
By the way, to Göbekli Tepe put into historical context, the oldest (and only known) Mesolithic site in England is Star Carr in North Yorkshire, south of Scarborough, where stone tools and other artifacts have been found preserved in peat. Evidence of post holes have also been found there, indicating wooden “teepee” like structures, and since remains have been found of hunted animals, it is safe to assume the people of Starr Carr followed herds of red deer and roe deer, elk, aurochs, and wild boars. They lived in this area of England between 9335-9275 B.C. so also, very probably, witnessed the spectacular emergence of Sirius, the dog star, in the night sky.
Would you dare write a fantasy set in 10,000 BC? Let me know!
Words: @neilmach September 2021 ©
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Myth & Magic Episode 99 – Myth and Magic