• J. W. Barlament

The Oldest, Newest, and Most Important Find on Earth

The most important archaeological region in the world right now is not Greece, nor Egypt, nor India, nor China, nor any other place that might first come to mind.

In fact, it’s southern Turkey, long recognized as the northern tip of ancient Mesopotamia but never given the attention of the cities and ziggurats of Iraq and Syria. It’s here that the highly publicized “oldest temple on earth”, Göbekli Tepe, a mysterious monumental stone complex built all the way back around 10000 BC, was found. And now, in the neighboring fields and foothills, even more discoveries are being made that may completely reshape the history of the world.

Göbekli Tepe itself is a wonder on its own — a massive monument buried under a hill, found filled with zoomorphic carvings on gigantic T-shaped stone pillars — and new research on it even suggests there may have been a small permanent population living next to the site. It was thought this had been a site of occasional pilgrimage by nomadic bands, and that may still be true, but the settlements here and in full display at Karahan Tepe just 40 odd miles away. This site is less of a monument and more of a proto-town, complete with its oddities: houses filled with skulls and partial skeletons and carvings of humans and animals dancing together.

It, just like its sister site, is the oldest of its kind anywhere. And it is going to hit our understanding of human history like a tsunami.

The combination of public interest and modern technology will allow for groundbreakingly thorough investigation. Even now, you can even explore Karahan Tepe from home with a 3D online model of the site. Once more artifacts are uncovered to popularize the digs, that accessibility may increase dramatically. And let’s not underestimate what 10000 BC really means. These great decorated pillars and all these giant stone complexes were built over 5,000 years before the first Sumerians, 7,000 years before the first Egyptian pyramids, and 12,000 years before today.

And while we’re at it — let’s not underestimate the importance of this small part of the world as the first known site of agriculture. This is at the exact same historical moment as the end of the last glacial period and beginning of the Holocene (9700 BC), suggesting at least one group of humans developed agriculture almost immediately after climatic conditions allowed them to. David Graeber would’ve suggested further that this shows those people knew the technique of farming already and deliberately avoided enacting it until said conditions made it more favorable.

It’s these sorts of gigantic historical revisions possible here that made the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism say the newly discovered region could even rival the pyramids of Egypt in historical significance. Already, finds from Karahan Tepe are challenging our entire understanding of how humans emerged from prehistory into history. Far more human than animal figures have been found, suggesting an anthropocentric perspective stronger than that found at the 200-year older Göbekli Tepe. Maybe strangely to our ears, a massive “penis chamber” was even found, with a dozen erect carved phalluses standing in a chamber overlooked by a bearded man with a snake’s body. What such symbols exactly meant to the people making them may forever remain a mystery, but they do at least make one thing clear.

There is no “history of the world” or “history of civilization” complete today without mention of the Urfa region of Turkey.

the site of Karahan Tepe (photo by the Anadolu Agency)

These discoveries change absolutely everything. Where Göbekli Tepe once stood alone as an archaeological anomaly, dozens of sites now corroborate the story of what seems to be by far the oldest complex society on earth. These were hunter-gatherers in a world without alternatives, caught in the act of developing agriculture and making monumental architecture the likes of which wouldn’t be rivaled anywhere else for several thousand years.

And then, analysis shows, they deliberately buried their monuments and disappeared into the past. What should concern us isn’t any specifics of their culture; what these people believed and how they organized their society may be revealed by new material remains eventually, but for now stay mysterious. What should concern us is twofold; first, the total lack of any “long march of history” slowly taking humans out of their hunter-gatherer past into a monumental farming future, and second, the fact that local legends seem to corroborate the archaeology.

The nearby city of Urfa, often called the City of Prophets, has a mighty Biblical reputation; as the place where Adam and Eve fell to Earth after their expulsion from Eden, as the first of seven cities established by Noah after the Great Flood, as a temporary home of Abraham in between his homes in Ur and Canaan, and as a long-term home of his grandson Jacob. Inside the city, as well, sits Abraham’s Pool, the site where Nimrod reportedly pushed Abraham into a fire that, by an act of God, instantaneously turned instead into a pool.

A major tourist attraction today and site of worship for the local Jewish and Muslim populations, it was also once a Neolithic gathering place. A life-sized statue called the Urfa Man from about 8000 BC was discovered just a stone’s throw from the modern pool complex — one of, if not the, oldest of its kind in the world. The statue, though 2,000 years younger than the nearby archaeological sites, still comes from the same general culture of the pre-pottery upper Mesopotamian Neolithic, all traces of which would disappear around 6500 BC to be replaced by the pottery-using Halaf Culture.

This, along with the litany of recently discovered sites where it was once thought only Göbekli Tepe stood, seems to tell us that the Neolithic region now appearing from the fog of history was not the product of a single building spree or particularly ambitious generation. It was a large, long-lasting, settled and monument-building culture, a full 7,000 years before the earliest Mesopotamian cities of Uruk and Eridu grew into even mudbrick metropolises.

It should be obvious that the intentions of the builders of these sites will likely stay mysterious forever. Stonehenge was only built around 2500 BC — and we actually know a good deal about the people who built it, too — but despite that and the wealth of artifacts found in and around the site, we still don’t have anything but guesses as to what the site was originally built for.

And yet, as I’ve said, archaeology isn’t in the same place now as it was when sites like Stonehenge developed their enigmatic reputations. We should be able to glean a paradigm-shattering amount of info from the Urfa region in these next several years. Keep an eye on a study in September detailing all the first significant finds from the (11, as of yet mostly unnamed and unknown) newly discovered sites; a study that may very possibly send shockwaves through history.

the “penis chamber” of Karahan Tepe (photo by Esber Ayaydin)

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