What Came First: The Village Or The Temple? Or, The Mystery Of Göbekli Tepe

For many years archaeologists believed that human society generally developed along these lines:

  • A long time ago our hunter-gatherer ancestors discovered that farming gave them a larger, more reliable supply of food.
  • Eventually, they shifted into a completely sedentary lifestyle, living out their lives from a single location and farming the surrounding lands. The population increased, thanks to the increased food supply, and villages formed.
  • The food surplus became so great that some villagers had enough free time to pursue activities other than farming, such as building temples to thank the gods for their prosperity.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that this chain of events may be backwards. In other words, the temple may have come first, and then the agriculture. The evidence he provides for this theory is a fascinating1 archeological site in southeastern Turkey called Göbekli Tepe (GT).

Edit: Framing Göbekli Tepe as a “temple” was an oversight on my part. Harari doesn’t suggest that it’s a “temple” specifically. I accidentally assigned my own meaning to it. Just replace “temple” with “cultural center” throughout this article and we should be good.

GT dates back to 9500 BC. In terms of human history that’s old. For comparison, Stonehenge “only” dates back to 2500 BC.

When the archeologists got down to the bottom of GT, they found something weird. They didn’t find houses or other signs of daily activities. They found colossal stone structures.

The prettiest image of GT that I could find (Photo by Teomancimit)

These weren’t utilitarian structures. There’s no evidence that they were used for anything ordinary, like shelter or slaughter. What’s more, they demanded a colossal amount of effort. Each stone pillar alone weighed 7 tons and was 16 feet tall. To top it all off, they put engravings everywhere.

Engravings at Göbekli Tepe (Photos by Klaus-Peter Simon, Cobija, and Zhengan)

To understand why this is so strange, you’ve got to remember the significance of finding this at the bottom of an archaeological dig. As you probably learned in school, the farther down you go at a dig site, the farther back you’re reaching into time. The fact that this structure was at the bottom of GT means that it was the first thing our ancestors built.

So why did they build it? To me, the answer is obvious. They didn’t build it at all. It was put there.

The real purpose of the structures at GT, as alluded to in the documentary 2001: A Space Odyssey

Just kidding. Archaeologists suspect that GT was a cultural center. Which is only slightly less sensational than my Monolith Theory. Keep in mind that GT dates back to 9500 BC. That’s around the time of the First Agricultural Revolution, when our ancestors discovered the whole “farming” thing. GT suggests that our ancestors first decided to build a temple, and then set up the village and the farm in order to sustain the temple enterprise. Agriculture was the means, and the temple was the end. This also suggests that the societies of our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have been way more sophisticated and complex than previously imagined.

1 Looking up the etymology of words is usually rewarding. In this case I just learned that “fascinating” comes from “fascinum” which is the Latin word for spell or witchcraft. So to be “fascinated” is to be entranced as if a witch cast a spell on you.