Thursday, February 25, 2010

A hill far away (Sunday Reflections for February 28, 2009)

Gobekli Tepe is in remote southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border. The name means “potbelly hill” and on it an archeological team led by German Klaus Schmidt has been slowly uncovering and studying one of the most startling discoveries of recent times. It’s been called a temple, or “temple complex,” but archeologists aren’t exactly sure what it is. What they do know is that it is old—really old. Older, in fact, than previous theories of human development said was even possible. Gobekli Tepe is, as a recent Newsweek article says,

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.

Schmidt’s team has unearthed circular floors of polished stone, benches, and T-shaped stone pillars weighing 7-10 tons and up to 17 feet tall. About half of the pillars are blank but on many are carved clearly identifiable animals native to the region. They feature larger animals like wild boar, cattle, lions, and leopards but also birds of prey like vultures as well as scorpions and spiders. There are few abstract images or human ones, yet one of the largest pictures has a headless human with a vulture poised over it. Schmidt’s theory is that this represents what is still known in Tibet as a “sky burial,” in which a corpse is exposed on a hilltop to be eaten by birds.

Gobekli Tepe is called a temple because we don’t know what else to call it. Archeologists have found no evidence anyone ever lived there. There are “no traces of daily life.” So people visited it and left. Yet clearly this was something very important, for as Schmidt says, “you don't move 10-ton stones for no reason,” especially in this very primitive period of human development.

The people of this time were hunter-gatherers. They had not domesticated animals, they did not practice agriculture, they did not write, they had no metal tools, they did not live in settlements but instead moved about as nomads. Gobekli Tepe is literally from the Stone Age. Yet many of these developments were not far off. Domestication of plants and animals occurred within 500-1000 years (writing, though, was still 6,000 years away).

That proximity has led to one new theory: that religion, or the organization of some kind of spiritual ritual, is what led to these other hallmarks of early civilization. Schmidt speculates that at its height, building Gobekli Tepe would have required hundreds of workers who would have needed to be fed and housed. Thus, at least a temporary village would have to have been established. Did that then become the seed for later permanent settlements in the region, as well as the social organization which they require? Gobekli Tepe is at the northern edge of what is known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of civilization. Was this its epicenter?

Did religion beget civilization? Perhaps, but if it did it wasn’t religion that many of us would recognize. For one thing, it likely had nothing to do with God, or gods. Consistent with other ancient shrines, like the French cave paintings at Lascaux, the concern seemed to be to create a transcendent connection with the natural world. To better accomplish their task, for example, hunters wanted to enter into the “mind” of gazelles, to experience “gazelleness,” to become one with the “spirit” of gazelle. Rituals to accomplish this then became the prelude to the hunt.

It’s not hard to see how concern with the “spirit of gazelle” evolved later into belief in a Gazelle Spirit, and a Bear Spirit, a Rain Spirit, and even a Human Spirit. And the concept of “Spirit,” of course, eventually becomes interchangeable with “god.” Still, our understanding of this early period of human development is very limited. It always will be, to some degree, because these early ancestors of ours experienced the world very differently than we do. It’s hard to get inside their heads, as one Smithsonian journalist visiting Gobekli Tepe found.

The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe's builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn't speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend.

The over 11,000 year distance between Gobekli Tepe and us seems enormous—likely the span of human civilization itself. Yet it is a drop in the bucket compared to the existence of life on earth (3.5 billion years), the age of the planet itself (4.5 billion years), or of the universe (13.5 billion years). To jump in such a relatively short time from these mysterious hand-carved stone pillars to the half-mile high Burj Khalifa in Dubai is truly amazing, especially when we realize how much of that development has happened in the past few centuries.

Yes, we’ve come a long way in a short time. And we seem to be moving ever faster, leaving us all feeling more than a little dizzy. Some would say we need to slow down. As primitive as they are to us, the stone monoliths of Gobekli Tepe took great effort to create and obviously meant a great deal to many people. The site seems to have been in use for centuries. The Burj Khalifa, on the other hand, was a huge project on a completely different scale yet the most common reaction has been, “Yes, but why?”

It is easy to take human civilization for granted. We shouldn’t. In reality it exists as a thin, fragile veneer on our world. God and the universe have taken a lot of time and effort to get us to this point. It is a wonderful achievement and a wonderful gift but also a great responsibility. We are stewards of our ancestors’ accomplishments.

The people of Gobekli Tepe took precious time out from the often overwhelming task of just staying alive to engage in a project of exploration and celebration. “Who are we and what is this world we live in?” they asked. Those questions never go away and answering them deserves the same level of commitment from us as these ancestors of ours gave millennia ago. As we go about our lives and as society wrestles with its challenges, we might ask: What projects of ours will leave future generations looking back at us with the same awe and wonder?

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