Day By Day

Monday, March 08, 2010

Potbelly Hill

I missed this when it first came out, mostly because I don't pay much attention to the weekly mags these days, but Newsweek has an interesting piece on Gobekli Tepe, an extremely important archaeological site in Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. The site is not new -- it was first described way back in 1994 -- but recent investigations have shown it to be of immense significance.

Let the experts explain why:

The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. Göbekli Tepe is "unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date," according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford's archeology program. Enthusing over the "huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art" at Göbekli, Hodder—who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sites—says: "Many people think that it changes everythingIt overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong."

[Klaus] Schmidt's thesis is simple and bold: 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. The temple begat the city.

This theory reverses a standard chronology of human origins, in which primitive man went through a "Neolithic revolution" 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the old model, shepherds and farmers appeared first, and then created pottery, villages, cities, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, and—somewhere on the way to the airplane—organized religion. As far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thinkers have argued that the social compact of cities came first, and only then the "high" religions with their great temples, a paradigm still taught in American high schools.

Religion now appears so early in civilized life—earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct—that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that "the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture," and Göbekli may prove his case.

Read the whole thing here.

As with most stuff you read in the newsweeklies this account is somewhat sensationalized, but not by much. Professor Schmidt's thesis is more provocative than proven, but at the very least the existence of such a place as Gobekli Tepe seriously undermines the Marxist interpretation of the origins of complex cultures that has been the standard academic account for three quarters of a century.

I suspect that when this is all sorted out what will emerge is a serious re-evaluation of the hunting-gathering way of life, our understanding of which has been biased by the fact that the only hunter-gatherers available for study these days live in marginal environments. In resource-rich environments, as Gobekli Tepe seems to have been, population densities and internal differentiation might well have approached those characteristic of early agricultural communities. In other words, the "Neolithic Revolution" might not have been all that revolutionary.

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