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Last Stand of the Hunter-Gatherers?

The 11,000-year-old stone circles of Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey may have been monuments to a vanishing way of life

May/June 2021

Gobekli Tepe OpenerMore than 20 light-colored limestone structures climb the hill of Göbekli Tepe, a 45-foot-high rise on a rolling plateau in southeastern Turkey. Some of these structures are round or oval spaces enclosed by sturdy walls. Many of them have large T-shaped pillars standing just off-center in the middle and around the edges, incorporated into the walls or into raised stone benches. On a clear, sunny day, the stones are a uniform, dusty brown. At night, when not artificially lit, they disappear into the landscape.


The smallest of the buildings is 20 feet across, with pillars rising to about 10 feet high, while the largest circle, which archaeologists call simply Building D, measures no less than 65 feet across. Building D is punctuated by two 18-foot-tall freestanding limestone central pillars, each weighing an estimated eight tons. The pedestals they rest on are carved directly from the bedrock, as if rising out of the earth. From a distance, the pillars have an abstract appearance, a combination of straight lines and gentle curves. But, moving closer to them, it soon becomes clear that the pillars aren’t simply geometric shapes, but stylized depictions of people. Standing inside the circles, it’s possible to make out finely carved reliefs decorating the massive stones—arms and folded hands, along with fox pelts hung from simple belts to form loincloths.


Gobekli Tepe MapEleven smaller T-pillars form a circle around the central standing figures in Building D. They too are decorated, with carvings featuring a menagerie of crawling, flying, and running wild beasts. Snakes, birds, and foxes dominate the array, but the predators among them are accompanied by gazelles, ducks, and aurochs. Right next to this circular structure is another, with smaller T-pillars at its center and carvings dominated by depictions of snakes. Foxes slink across the pillars of yet another circle just a few feet away. Other motifs mix with the animals—circles, mesh nets, phalluses, and what appear to be disembodied human heads.


When archaeologists first began excavating on this Turkish hilltop 25 years ago, Building D and the other structures they discovered struck them as unusual, perhaps even unique. By comparing the tools found scattered amid the site’s rubble to similar artifacts known from other sites, researchers determined that the largest circles were at least 11,000 years old—and perhaps even older. This made them the earliest known monumental structures built by human hands.


In 2006, after a decade of work at Göbekli Tepe, a team led by German Archaeological Institute (DAI) archaeologist Klaus Schmidt reached a stunning conclusion: The buildings and their multiton pillars, along with smaller, rectangular structures higher on the slope of the hill, were monumental communal buildings erected by people at a time before they had established permanent settlements, engaged in agriculture, or bred domesticated animals. Schmidt did not believe that anyone had ever lived at the site. He suggested that, in the Neolithic period between 9500 and 8200 B.C., bands of nomads had come together regularly to set up stone circles and carve pillars, and then deliberately covered them up with the rocks, gravel, and other rubble he found filling in the various enclosures. Schmidt posited that both the construction and abandonment of what he called “special enclosures” had been accompanied by great feasts of local game washed down with beer brewed from wild grasses and grains. Those who gathered for these periodic monumental building projects scattered before coming back decades or centuries later to do it all again. He called Göbekli Tepe “a cathedral on a hill,” and imagined it might have been a place where hunter-gatherers bid farewell to their dead or staged ceremonies to emphasize their shared identity.

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