Revolutionary Ideas from Göbekli Tepe

(via Wikipedia)

National Geographic has an article (HT Vipul) on Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey where people constructed a huge temple complex much before the invention of agriculture. This site is now prompting historians to rethink the theories on the origins of complex societies. How were foragers, who usually follow the resources like the Nanook, able to stay at one place and move 16 ton stones without wheels or animals? Why did they even bother constructing such a massive structure? Did pilgrimage pre-date the Neolithic revolution?

Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. “I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?” Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. “In 10 or 15 years,” Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”[Göbekli Tepe]

There is a new explanation for the origin of agriculture

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world. The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, “If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area.” Agriculture followed.[Göbekli Tepe]

and it is connected to religion

Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.
Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height. Today the closest known wild ancestors of modern einkorn wheat are found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. In other words, the turn to agriculture celebrated by V. Gordon Childe may have been the result of a need that runs deep in the human psyche, a hunger that still moves people today to travel the globe in search of awe-inspiring sights.[Göbekli Tepe]

See Also: Photos from Göbekli Tepe | Video of a clay model

The First Buildings

We know that agriculture was invented about 12,000 years back in various places around the world, starting with the Fertile Cresent. Many models have been proposed to explain why humans left a foraging for farming. With the discovery of the 11,500 year old temple at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, we also know that religion played an important role quite early in the settled life.
Now we have new evidence of how people lived during that transitory period. The earliest permanent buildings found during this period were not individual homes, but places for communal living or gathering.

Finlayson, Mithen, and their colleagues conclude that the evidence from WF16, combined with evidence from other sites, suggests that the earliest villages were not made up of houses, but rather communal structures where people came together to process their wild harvests and possibly also to engage in community performances. “These settlements appear to be all about community and not about emerging households,” the team writes, adding that this “ritualized community activity” might have helped to bring together the work force necessary to harvest the wild crops.
The authors don’t speculate on where the farmers lived, and there is no way to be sure. Researchers working at similar sites have surmised that they lived in small camps near the central site, but such open air habitations are very difficult to find and often leave little or no archaeological traces.
Archaeologist Trevor Watkins, emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, says he “agrees strongly” with the authors’ conclusion that the social changes that took place during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming were at least as important as the later economic changes that led to full-blown domestication of plants and animals. But he thinks that it’s still possible that some of the other buildings at WF16 were used as domestic dwellings. Nevertheless, Watkins says, the communal activities at WF16 and other Neolithic sites probably created “powerful bonds of collective identity” in the earliest farmers that kept them together in stable societies “over many generations.”[First Buildings May Have Been Community Centers]

First farmers of South India

Pick any book on ancient India and you will find pages and pages on the origins  and decline of the Harappan civilization. You will also find details on the Aryan-Dravidian controversy. But when it comes to South India during the same period, there is nothing that exciting. There are no big cities or controversies. There is no Sarasvati or Rg Veda. South Indians were not among the first to domesticate crops and animals;this technology came from the North. On the whole the place looks jaw-droppingly jejune.
Now we know a lot more: on what developed indigenously and what was imported, on rituals  unique to the region and on how Neolithic globalization influenced the social structure.
First, not all crops were domesticated in Gujarat, Indus and Gangetic plains. Moong dal, urad dal, horse gram, browntop millet and hooked bristlegrass were domesticated in the south. Winter crops like wheat and barley were domesticated elsewhere and imported. Animal domestication too, it seems, was introduced from outside.
Second, cattle and cow dung had some significance. The zebu, for instance, is prominent in rock art and terracotta figurines. Also prominent were ash mounds, created by burning heaps of cow dung. Some of these ash mounds — unique to South India — were located outside the primary settlement and may have been used a place of gathering for some ritual and the burning of dung was symbolic. It probably had something to do with their belief system. In this gathering there was feasting and people exchanged beads, copper objects, cattle or the valuable Hiregudda axe. Maybe marriage alliances, which helped during times of need, were also made. You know what they say – marriages are made near the cow dung heap.
Finally, changes start affecting this idyllic community. Following the decline of the Harappan civilization, wheat and barley appear in the region. We also see crops from Africa and Indonesia, possibly through contact with seafaring traders. Remember that the Polynesians were doing sea cruises during this time and ships from Meluhha were reaching Mesopotamia. This trade, along the Indian Ocean rim, affected the Neolithic belief system and social structure.  Hilltop settlements were abandoned and people moved to the plains. There were burials with grave goods which look elitist. Hierarchies started forming.

  1. Boivin, Nicole, D. Q. Fuller, R. Korisettar, & M. Petraglia (2008) First farmers in South India: the role of internal processes and external influences in the emergence and transformation of south India’s earliest settled societies. Pragdhara 18: 179-200
  2. K.A Nilakanta Sastri (the late), R.C. Champakalakshmi, and P.M. Rajan Gurukkal,The Illustrated History of South India, First Edition. (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009).
  3. Moong Dal picture via Wikipedia