Monday, May 31, 2010
the deeper we go
Yesterday a friend wrote to me about a place called Gobekli Tepe, an extraordinary archeological site in the southeast of Turkey that is considered to be the oldest temple complex ever found. Maybe you've heard about it but the story was new to me. Carbon dating of artifacts found there have proven it to be 13,000 years old and Dr. Klaus Schmidt, the German archeologist in charge of the excavations has said the region is most likely the place described as the Garden of Eden. Turkey is just a part of an area long known as the Fertile Crescent but what is now mostly barren desert was once ecologically very rich. There were dozens of mammal species, green meadows and woods. The climate was wetter and lusher, but still warm and the herds of game were enormous.
The sophistication of the stone carving indicates to me that the people who built the place already had a long history of complex stone work that included realistic renditions of animals and human forms. We already know that the earliest human art on the planet began to appear in sacred caves more than 40,000 years ago so what, I wonder, were we doing during the intervening 27,000 years still unaccounted for. According to geologists and shown in the inundation maps presented by Graham Hancock in his book 'Underworld' there could be a strong case made that humanity was almost obliterated several times by ocean level rises in the aftermath of heavy glaciation. At the end of the Ice Age, over a 10,000 year period between 17,000 and 7,000 years ago - just before the accepted beginning of civilization - 17,000,000 square miles of what may have been the most habitable lands on earth were flooded as the ice caps melted. To have an idea of how much land that would have been you only have to imagine an area much larger than China and Europe combined.
What has this to do with southeastern Turkey you may wonder? Beside the Fertile Crescent, the Persian Gulf was dry land until about 12,000 years ago with a vast river running through it formed by the combined streams of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The gulf itself wasn't fully flooded until about 8,000 years ago. It's very likely there were higher cultures that included small cities and trading ports for ships long before any currently accepted by formal archeology and I see Gobekli Tepe as another example of a much deeper history than what we've been taught. There would have been many small bands of people who were still foragers and it seems likely someone showed these Neolithic hunters and gatherers how to carve stone and how to align their temples with the north pole. The people who did so may well have been among the survivors of a lost maritime culture.
An interesting thing about Gobekli Tepe is that it appears to have been a temple without a town which puts art and religion squarely at the start of our journey to modern culture. In this place where hunter-gatherers met to build a complex religious community Schmidt has found carved and polished circles of stone, with terrazzo flooring and double benches. All the circles feature massive T-shaped pillars, many with beautiful carvings of totemic animals, made in a time when people still used flint tools. His summation is that it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life.
These hunters who had learned some horticulture in their wanderings by planting fruit trees and edible grains in small patches discovered they couldn't feed the many who congregated for celebrations at Gobelki Tepe. So they began cultivating the grasses on the hills and domesticating animals. When people first started to farm their skeletons changed, growing smaller as their bodies adapted to a diet with less protein. By 8000 BC the landscape itself had changed partly because of the farming practices as well as the massive climate changes at the end of the Ice Age. Forests had been chopped down and topsoil leached away making what had been a garden of natural productivity into fields of hardship. For some unknown reason it was then that people went back to Gobelki Tepe and filled in the entire site with soil. That's why it has only recently been rediscovered in its original state.
The generally understood view of our history has been that shepherds and farmers appeared first from our Neolithic ancestral stock and then went on to create pottery, villages, towns, cities, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, and somewhere along the way to building the first airplane, developed religion. Now it would appear our need for spiritual expression in company with others of our species began the whole process that continues to lead us toward a mysterious future.
I wonder what we'll discover next.
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