The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion

Is Turkey’s “Stonehenge” evidence of the oldest religion in the world?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in December 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.


 

The massive stone enclosures of the Gobekli Tepe ruins (known to many as Turkey’s “Stonehenge”) may be the earliest examples of Neolithic religion. What do the enclosures and the fascinating reliefs that adorn their pillars reveal about the oldest religion in the world? (Photo: Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic Stock)

On a hill known as Göbekli Tepe (“Potbelly Hill”) in southeastern Turkey, excavations led by Klaus Schmidt have uncovered several large megalithic enclosures that date between 10,000 and 8000 B.C.E., the dawn of civilization and the Neolithic age. Each of these circular enclosures, which many have described as Turkey’s “Stonehenge,” consists of ten to twelve massive stone pillars surrounding two larger monoliths positioned in the middle of the structure. There are no village remains at or near the Göbekli Tepe ruins, suggesting that the unique site was a ceremonial center exclusively used for the practice of the Neolithic religion of local hunter-gatherer groups.

Given the early age of the site, equally surprising are the varied and often highly elaborate carvings that adorn the pillars of the Göbekli Tepe ruins. Among the pillars are detailed and often very realistic depictions of animal figures, including vultures and scorpions, lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes, and other birds and reptiles. In addition, some of the massive monoliths are carved with stylized anthropomorphic details—including arms, legs and clothing—that give the impression of large super-human beings watching over the enclosures.

The Göbekli Tepe ruins and enclosures—the earliest monumental ritual sites of Neolithic religion and possibly the oldest religion in the world—are causing experts to rethink the origins of religion and human civilization. Until recently, scholars agreed that agriculture and human settlement in villages gave rise to religious practices. The discoveries at the Göbekli Tepe ruins, however, indicate that earlier hunter-gatherer groups that had not yet settled down had already developed complex religious ideas, together with monumental ceremonial sites to practice the sacred communal rituals of Neolithic religion.
 


 
In his article “In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization,” Biblical scholar Ben Witherington III presents Göbekli Tepe. With his article “The Search for the Holy Grail: Misguided from the Start” in Mysteries of the Bible: From the Garden of Eden to the Shroud of Turin, Witherington joins an international team of experts presenting the Bible’s greatest enigmas.
 

 

Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins have uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, indicating that many different species—including those depicted on the pillars—were slaughtered, sacrificed and presumably eaten at the site. While it is uncertain to whom these sacrifices were made, it’s possible they were offered to the enclosures’ stylized human pillars that, as some have suggested, may represent priests, deities or revered ancestors in Neolithic religion. Given that human bones have also been found, others believe the Göbekli Tepe ruins may have been a Neolithic burial ground where funerary rituals and perhaps even excarnations were practiced.*

To learn more about the Göbekli Tepe ruins and Neolithic religion, read Ben Witherington III’s article “In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization” as it appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Notes

*For excarnation in the later Chalcolithic period, see Rami Arav, “Excarnation: Food For Vultures,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.
 


 

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22 Responses

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  1. Levent says

    Göbeklitepe de yazılı bir anıt yok,Semavi Dinlerin Tanrısı değil “pagan” tanrıları var.Hayal kurmayalım.

  2. Diana says

    We need to seriously rethink ancient sites as the theory of hunter gathers does not jive with this site. We need to look at these sites without any preconceived notions.

  3. ROBERT says

    It is a fascinating discovery, perhaps constructed during Noah’s family’s migration from Ararat back to Shinar. Somewhere along the way the religious rituals began to shift away from God. Perhaps these stones represent a midpoint shift from Noah’s altar and God’s covenant with the survivors to Nimrod’s building of the Tower of Babel?

  4. JAllan says

    Actually, archeologists have traditionally thought that building of religious monuments began AFTER hunter-gatherers settled down in villages, but sites such as this suggest that it began BEFORE agriculture, and may have been the CAUSE of settled village life. Claiming that h-g cultures do not have the ABILITY to carve stones to set up a “temple” ignores that fact that these cultures are just as “smart” in some ways as agricultural peoples.

    I can imagine how, once a sacred site has been established to be visited at festival times, a few times a year, the stones and other features could well have been constructed over hundreds of such visits. However, the tribe that built them would have wanted them protected BETWEEN visits, requiring priests and soldiers to stay there year round, and eventually this would lead to village life. This particular site may have been an interim arrangement, after establishing the custom of regular returns to the site for festivals, but before enough people were staying there permanently to leave extensive residential remains. It is even possible that they considered the site too sacred to leave the “garbage” of their daily lives there, so those artifacts may be waiting for discovery some distance away (a day’s walk, perhaps).

    After all, a nomadic existence is not incompatible with considering some locations as tribal “property” even though the tribe as a unit spends their time between festivals somewhere else. The men (and possibly women and children) assigned to stay there would have had plenty of spare time between religious duties to experiment with growing plants on purpose, as opposed to gathering wild ones, thus living off the land until the next batch of supplies arrived.

  5. Bud says

    This evidence forces us to question Bishop Usher’s date of 4004 BC for the creation of Adam. Usher’s methodology was flawed. Scripture is accurate; the science of archaeology is increasingly dependable. If we can bypass the traditions of men, we may be able to learn “what really happened” (the truth).

  6. Joseph says

    It would be more impressive if you guys came up with a “NAME” older than Adam – still the oldest recorded name at 5773 years.Dating the mud and rocks don’t prove the markings and designs are equally old.
    ustralia tried this trick, dating the caves as 60K years and assuming the cave markings were just as old: if this were true the Aboriginal population would be in the trillions!

  7. Tim says

    It just sounds more detailed and intricate, than the Lascaux and Altamira caves, which both depicted animal drawings. Something like this shows the supernatural beliefs hunters-gatherers had, because their survival depending on a good hunt. Which obviously shows what their religious beliefs were based upon.

  8. JAllan says

    Joseph: since early people had not yet invented writing, it hardly seems possible that they would inscribe personal names, UNLESS they used pictures to represent people (e.g. one of the big oxen in a cave painting MIGHT mean that “Big Ox” was the artist, or the tribal chief perhaps).

    The statement that the aboriginal population of Australia would be in the trillions if the cave markings were 60K years old ignores the fact that not all children survive to have children. If that were true then the WORLD population would be in the trillions! And as you might have guessed, I do not believe that the Bible was intended to be read literally as a science textbook; if you believe such, you will ignore the facts on (in) the ground anyway if they do not support your conclusions.

    And don’t forget, the scientific tests available include those that can date the PIGMENT (paint or ink) as well as the media. The media, in the case of cave paintings or petroglyphs, would be much older than 60K, more like millions or billions of years old, so the published dates of the caves probably refer to the pigments, cross referenced to the age of whatever fossils of the animals depicted in the paintings.

  9. Andirion says

    There’s a roof missing above that rocks.
    And a second floor and an ‘altar’ or something like it.
    And in the drowning they painted the people taller than 1,50m, what is not possible in that time.

  10. Ayşen says

    Andirion, the scientists think that our hunter gatherer ancestors were possbily taller than us. Please check http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/12/19/111219fa_fact_batuman where some answers are provided.

  11. Joseph says

    Hard to imagine that the skills required to make the stone pillars, carve fairly well-detailed animal figures on them, erect many of them in circular formations dotted across the landscape (most of Gobekli Tepe remains un excavated) could exist before there was a settled village life, a division of labor etc. I mean who had the time given that hunting and gathering were a constant need? Who were the people available (and there had to be a lot of them) needed to fashion each pillar, transport each pillar, position and erect each pillar, create the carvings. All this seems to suggest groups within the society with specific skills, an organization with a hierarchy, some level of education in the skills needed to do the work. If this was done by a pre-settlement, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer society, it must have been a pretty amazing group of people.

  12. Chris says

    This was not erected by a hunter-gatherer society.

  13. Paul says

    Human creation in Bible apparently different from other animals. Others was done by ordering nature and the earth grew out these species (scientific description -evolution). “Bara” was used 3 times (Gen. 1:27) in human creation. Breath was given to integrate spiritual function into the brain function – a new software package adding into the operating system.
    God likely use Homo sapiens’ DNA plus the breath created human (the new creation not only went through spiritual “fall” But also intermarried with exiting homo sapiens (Cain’s wife for example). When human exited garden they created the Neolithic evolution (through their new ability of trans-time and space – a result of the new software package -Ecc 3:11). If you don’t count burial rituals as religious behavior only worship counts, we shall be able ti pin down when and where the new creation (animal with spiritual function), exited garden and entered the world.
    The theory may sound crazy. Let’s see more new finding in coming years…

  14. Aingeal says

    Anatolian culture is believed to be a matriarchy with worship centred on the Great Mother.

  15. Richard says

    One can argue, as has already been done, that Bishop Usher’s chronology is off, which everyone now agrees with…But there is NOTHING at the Göbekli Tepe site that contradicts the Old Testament in any way…There were “giants” on the earth after the flood as well as before the flood, and this site could very well belong to one of the groups of Nephilim/Rephilim…That the world already possessed civilization[s] – by any definition of the word – by 10,000 B.C., as this site clearly shows, is exactly what the Old Testament implies…

  16. Joseph says

    It looks like Gobekli Tepe was built around 12k years ago based on Carbon 14 dating. If true, it may have been built after the end of the last ice age. It is beautiful and shows both artistic as well as engineering talent. And much of it is still uncovered. Anything else right now is just speculation, a fancy synonym for guessing. I look forward to hearing more about GT as more is learned. I hope that neither archaeologists whose world views might be upset by GT nor those who earn a living writing speculative works of “science” will try to do anything to hinder the ongoing exploration of this fabulous discovery.

  17. Carl says

    Excuse me for pointing out this would be around the same time as Plato’s “Atlantis.”

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