Revisiting Göbekli Tepe

For reasons not entirely clear, The New Yorker recently resurrected a 2011 story on Göbekli Tepe. This story, like so much popular press coverage of Göbekli Tepe, repeats the excavator’s speculative claims for the site and its significance. In “The Sanctuary” we are told (by way of subtitle) that Göbekli is the “world’s oldest temple” from the “dawn of civilization.” I can’t really fault the reporter, Elif Batuman, for simply repeating Klaus Schmidt’s unproven, untested, and unaccepted conclusions:

The site has yielded no traces of habitation—no trash pits, no water source, no houses, no hearths, no roofs, no domestic plant or animal remains—and is therefore believed to have been built by hunter-gatherers, who used it as a religious sanctuary. The idea of a religious monument built by hunter-gatherers contradicts most of what we thought we knew about religious monuments and about hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers are traditionally believed to have lacked complex symbolic systems, social hierarchies, and the division of labor, three things you probably need before you can build a twenty-two-acre megalithic temple.

Formal religion, meanwhile, is supposed to have appeared only after agriculture produced such hierarchical social relations as required a cosmic backstory to keep them going and supplied a template for the power relationship between gods and mortals. The findings at Göbekli Tepe suggest that we have the story backward—that it was actually the need to build a sacred site that first obliged hunter-gatherers to organize themselves as a workforce, to spend long periods of time in one place, to secure a stable food supply, and eventually to invent agriculture.

This is the standard popular narrative, promoted by the excavator, about Göbekli. These claims are not generally accepted by the professional archaeological community and are almost surely wrong. Because this story is repeated so often and garners so many headlines, I critically examined Göbekli in this series:

Because this series was done before The New Yorker story appeared, I did not address these fresh speculations:

Schmidt characterizes the people of Göbekli Tepe as “the victims of their own success.” Their way of life had been so successful that it found material expression in the form of a gigantic stone edifice, a reification of a spiritual world view. The very process of construction changed the world view, making the monument obsolete. Schmidt believes that’s why Göbekli Tepe was abandoned: “They did not need it anymore. Now they are farmers and they find new expressions of their religious beliefs.”

“They were trained killers, nothing else,” he says of the hunter-gatherers. He believes that Göbekli Tepe was built by a laboring class, maybe even by slaves. In his view, the reason that agriculture stuck, even though it meant more work and worse food, was that an élite caste had a vested interest in the new system: “Ninety per cent had to work, and ten per cent lived by wealth. The élite wanted to keep their advantage, and they had the power to do it.” If Schmidt is right, [then] and a form of social exploitation was already observable before farming.”

I am not aware of any new or more recent peer-reviewed publications which present evidence that could support these fantastic assertions. It’s hard to imagine what such evidence might even look like. This is one of the major problems with Göbekli (aside from the lack of hypothesis testing and credible publication): it’s become a Neolithic tabula rasa onto which all kinds of idealist fantasies are being inscribed.

Near the end of the story, the reporter observes that part of Schmidt’s job is to “resist metaphors and speculation.” Schmidt’s affirmative response: “You’re a scientist, you’re professional. What we’re looking at—it’s material culture. We aren’t imagining things we can’t see.”

Oh the irony.




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