Eleven thousand years ago, men with no modern tools or other help set to work building a set of megaliths in Southeastern Turkey. Six thousand years before Stonehenge was built, these massive stones were carved into shapes with elaborate designs. Carved with sweat, rock and imagination, it is believed to be the world’s first temple by archaeologist Klaus Schmidt.
The layout of stones, known as Gobekli Tepe, consists of rings with two tall pillars in the center. These aren’t small pillars; they stand 16 feet tall, with a ring of smaller pillars pointing inwards around the two center ones. They are carved with images of a variety of animals, including foxes, scorpions, vultures and lions – animals that likely made their home in the green valley that existed below the hillside at the time. The location is at the tip of the Fertile Crescent, an area the prehistoric people of the era came to from Africa.
The discovery of the rings of megaliths has brought about a whole new theory on how civilization developed. In the original theory, civilization as we know it is thought to have come about when hunter-gatherer societies turned to farming and and living in settled communities with domesticated stock; they then began to build temples for the dead or for worship. In the new theory – according to Schmidt – the work needed to build the megaliths and rings themselves suggests that people began to settle in one area because of the time and effort involved. Carving, erecting and burying 7-ton pillars into the earth and then building more on top was not a job to be completed by a small band of hunter-gatherers before they moved on.
The work alone would have meant that many people came together and then had the time for learning to domesticate livestock, grow wheat and survive in one area. “This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later,” says archaeologist Ian Hodder, of Stanford University, who excavated a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. “You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.”
Scientists have, over the years, found fragments of human remains, and test pits have shown the floors of the rings are hardened limestone. Is it the world’s first temple? Schmidt is confident that he will find it was a place our ancestors used for worship and to lay their loved ones to rest. “From here the dead are looking out at the ideal view,” Schmidt says. “They’re looking out over a hunter’s dream.”