Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

March 3, 2010

The temple that time forget

Filed under: Archaeology,Göbekli Tepe,History,Religion — Razib @ 2:51 pm

Aziz points me to a Newsweek article, History in the Remaking, on the Göbekli Tepe temple complex. The piece is a bit breathless:

Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember—the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.

A trivial point is that it was a spark at most, not the spark, as there are at least two independent sequences of the origination of agriculture leading to cities and the complex of cultural traits which we label “civilization.” A larger point is that I suspect it is incredible to us that hunter-gatherers could engage in such coordination because our model of what hunter-gatherers are capable of is constrained to Arctic peoples, the Bushmen and the Pygmies, and these populations are selection biased toward marginal lands which agriculturists were unable to exploit. In contrast, hunter-gatherers before agriculture were resident in much richer territory, and probably had more complex societies than we’re used to imagining. Probably something closer to the native populations of the North American Pacific Northwest.

On another issue, a friend who is like me a religious unbeliever wondered via email if Aziz’s jump to suggesting that Göbekli Tepe might be a glimpse into the first revelation was going a bit too far. I think the issue here is that Aziz, and many followers of the Abrahamic religions, simply start with different premises and so interpret these data through their own lens. His comment is open about his own perspective and how it colors his interpretation:

The relevance of this to faith is immense. If (as a believer, particularly of an Abrahamic faith) you accept the view that religion is a revelation from God to mankind, then the tempe at Göbekli Tepe really has potential to provide a meaningful narrative for that relationship. But the temple complex offers deep insights into human prehistory far beyond theological insights – it is a outlier in that a similar complex structure would not be built for five millenia later, in Iraq. It is such a mystery that the first archaeologist to discover it in the 60s was simply unable to process what he saw and walked away!

The bottom line is that with these temples, we see a glimpse of humanity at the cusp, not of civilization, but of understanding that there is more to existence than merely existing. The idea of the existence of the divine -the awakening from mere survival (post Ice Age) into a broader philosophical curiosity about why we are here and Who put us here – must have been like an ideological nuke to our forebears. It was literally Revelation, and perhaps it occurred there, at Göbekli Tepe , for the first time.

The idea that humanity began with a primal monotheism is not exclusive to Islam. Many conservative Christians, and I presume many Jews as well, accept this as a factual aspect of our species’ history. Adam and Noah were monotheists, and the panoply of religious traditions which were extant when Abrahamic monotheism began its meteoric rise is viewed from this perspective as degeneration from the original religion. The influence of initial framework is particularly stark when it comes to interpreting Mesopotamiam antiquities, conservative Christian friends of mine in high school saw in references to a flood in Sumerian mythology as validation of the Biblical story. That is, independent sources of confirmation of truths which they knew from revelation. In contrast, I inferred that these were in fact likely to be the source documents of the myths recorded in the Hebrew Bible.

But the second paragraph I have more issues with. I do not see in the existence of complex temples as any indication of philosophical theism. The Aztecs had complex temples, but they were manifestly barbaric, and arguably inhumane. If, for example, the excavators discovered human remains whose condition implied violent death and likely their sacrifice I assume Aziz would revise his assessment about the Göbekli Tepe complex. Or perhaps become a gnostic!

The full flower of philosophical reflection, and its synthesis with ethics and religion, is clear in the historical record, and goes by the term the Axial Age. It occurred on the order of 2,500 years ago. If it occurred at Göbekli Tepe it was lost to us in the interregnum. But I do not believe this is what happened, I suspect that the glimmers of such reflection, or at least the psychological atoms necessary to construct introspective philosophy and exploration of transcendence, has roots in behavioral modernity, on the order of 50,000 years ago (though I admit that my confidence in this is modest, and not high). In other words, I would bet that some humans were aware of their own mortality, and pondered their relation to the order of things, as they were leaving Africa. But only with the rise of complex societies which were open to sustainable rent-seeking could these humans transform their own personal reflections into the framework around which humanity ostensibly operated.

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