Tag Archives: Neolithic Revolution

Göbekli Tepe: Publications & Reports

In 1994 Klaus Schmidt discovered Göbekli Tepe and in 1995 he began the ongoing excavations. In 1998 Schmidt published his first site report. To date, Schmidt has published close to 20 articles or reports (about half of which are in German) and others working with Schmidt have published more. For this Schmidt deserves considerable praise. His openness allows others to evaluate Göbekli and the claims that have been made.

The first report — “Beyond Daily Bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic Ritual” — appeared in 1998. After noting that his views are preliminary, Schmidt contrasts Göbekli with similar sites whose location can be explained because they have water access, agricultural land, and hunting grounds. Göbekli seemingly lacked these things, a fact which makes its location puzzling. For Schmidt, this suggests Göbekli was sited for “non-profane” or sacred reasons.

Here Schmidt deploys Emile Durkheim’s problematic sacred-profane dichotomy that is closely related to (and probably derives from) the Enlightenment construct of secular-religious. A corollary of this dichotomy is a distinction between ritual and non-ritual activities, which Schmidt applies to Göbekli:

[R]itual activity, aside from burials, is not normally an archaeologically predictable phenomenon, and evidence for such special events is certainly rare in the earlier prehistoric archaeological record. Göbekli Tepe, on the other hand, apparently was a special location devoted to very important specific rituals, at least for a certain time. The archaeological evidence is overwhelming, as the function of two partially excavated pillar buildings irrefutably prove.

After only a few years of excavation, Schmidt was clearly impressed by the size and scale of the megalithics and their seemingly anomalous placement on the landscape. Already, Schmidt had concluded that Göbekli was a ritual or religious site and the evidence was not only “overwhelming” but also “irrefutable.” With perhaps 1-2% of the total site having been excavated at that time (based on estimates that 5% has been excavated through 2011), these are interesting assertions.

In 2001, Schmidt published “Göbekli Tepe: A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations.” In this report Schmidt affirms and extends his previous conclusions:

The function of these buildings can only be characterized as associated with ritual purposes, and no serious claim for domestic use is tenable. It is clear that Gobekli Tepe was not an early Neolithic settlement with some ritual buildings, but that the whole site served a mainly ritual function. It was a mountain sanctuary.

Whatever Göbekli represents, it is even more astonishing given Schmidt’s assertion — based on the ostensible fact that only “wild” or non-domesticated plant remains and animal bones had been found — that it was constructed by hunter-gatherers who must have periodically come together for ritual reasons. Schmidt then suggests that ritual or religion spurred the domestication of plant-animals and caused the Neolithic Revolution:

Cauvin’s connection between the profane and the sacred, is a perfect guide to understand the change of the hunter-gatherer societies to the Neolithic way of life, not only through economic or ecological reasons, but by the impact of a transcendental sphere….Gordon Childe’s Neolithic Revolution is getting a new facet, the religious one.

Here Schmidt references French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin, who controversially argues in The Birth of the Gods and Origins of Agriculture (2000) that hunter-gatherers developed more complex religious ideas before they domesticated plants-animals, and that the Neolithic Revolution was the result rather than a cause. Schmidt obviously agrees and interprets Göbekli as proof.

In “Göbekli Tepe — The Stone Age Sanctuaries” (2010), Schmidt details recent finds and interprets them in light of his earlier conclusions:

Göbekli Tepe was not used for habitation; it consists of several sanctuaries in the form of round megalithic enclosures. [N]o residential buildings have been discovered. However, at least two phases of monumental religious architecture have been uncovered.

[T]here is no question that the site of Göbekli Tepe was not a mundane settlement of the period, but a site belonging to the religious sphere, a sacred area, since the excavation has revealed no residential buildings. Göbekli Tepe seems to have been a regional centre where communities met to engage in complex rites.

So the general function of the enclosures remains mysterious; but it is clear that the pillar statues in the centre of these enclosures represented very powerful beings. If gods existed in the minds of Early Neolithic people, there is an overwhelming probability that the T-shape is the first know monumental depiction of gods.

Schmidt then asserts, dubiously, that a religious revolution caused the Neolithic Revolution:

There are no domesticated animals or plants. The enclosures date to the period of transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer societies during the 10th and 9th millennia in the Near East. The evolution of modern humanity involved a fundamental change from small-scale, mobile hunter-gatherer bands to large, permanently co-resident communities.

Jacques Cauvin’s suggestions were correct: the factor that allowed the formation of large, permanent communities was the facility to use symbolic culture, a kind of pre-literate capacity for producing and ‘reading’ symbolic material culture, that enabled communities to formulate their shared identities, and their cosmos.

Although Schmidt offers several possibilities for interpreting Göbekli’s rich symbolism, he does not explain (in either this article or others) what might have caused this religious revolution. If radically different ideas led the way to domestication and “civilization,” how do we account for the development of these ideas?

This seminal question aside, there are others. In the next post we will look at E.B. Banning’s recent article in Current Anthropology which challenges Schmidt’s interpretation of Göbekli.


Schmidt, Klaus (1998). Beyond Daily Bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic Rituals from Gobekli Tepe Neo-Lithics, 2, 1-5

Schmidt, Klaus (2001). Gobekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey: A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations Paleorient, 26 (1), 45-54

Schmidt, Klaus (2010). Göbekli Tepe – The Stone Age Sanctuaries: New Results of Ongoing Excavations with a Special Focus on Sculptures and High Reliefs Documenta Praehistorica, XXXVII, 239-256


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Göbekli Tepe: The Claims

Göbekli Tepe has received more press coverage in recent years than perhaps any other archaeological site, including Stonehenge. Some of this coverage is due to the simple fact that Göbekli is the oldest megalithic site in the world. For this reason alone, it deserves our attention. It seems, however, that much of this attention has been due to claims that have been made about the site by its excavator, Klaus Schmidt.

I wouldn’t normally look to popular press coverage to determine what an archaeologist is thinking or saying, but in this case it seems warranted, primarily because Schmidt has been interviewed for many of the articles and makes similar claims in his professional publications (which will be the subject of the next post). So let’s look at some of this coverage, which has garnered worldwide attention.

The most recent is National Geographic’sThe Birth of Religion” (June 2011) which comes with this byline: “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” Discussing the people who built and used the site, Schmidt stated:

These people were foragers, people who gathered plants and hunted wild animals. Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources. They can’t maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can’t carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then here is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that.

The author then contextualizes Schmidt’s claims:

Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies….Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization.

In 2008, the Smithsonian covered Göbekli in “The World’s First Temple?” Interviewed for the piece, Schmidt asserts that Göbekli is “the first human-built holy place” and humanity’s first “cathedral on a hill.” When it was constructed and in use, Göbekli was like “paradise” and much different from what it is today (after 10,000 years of settlement and farming):

Prehistoric people would have gazed upon herds of gazelle and other wild animals; gently flowing rivers, which attracted migrating geese and ducks; fruit and nut trees; and rippling fields of wild barley and wild wheat varieties such as emmer and einkorn…From here the dead are looking out at the ideal view. They’re looking out over a hunter’s dream.”

Visions like these were the apparent impetus for Spiegel’s cover story suggesting that Göbekli may have been the mythical “Garden of Eden.” Perhaps most surprising were Ian Hodder’s comments on Göbekli’s significance: “This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later. You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.” Hodder is the Stanford based archaeologist who is excavating Çatalhöyük, another famously important Neolithic site in Turkey.

Also in 2008, Science covered Göbekli in “Seeking The Roots of Ritual.” This article best sums up the claims being made by Schmidt:

Schmidt insists this was no settlement. He’s convinced that the circles were designed to be open to the sky, like Stonehenge. Telltale signs of settlement—such as hearths, trash pits, and small fertility figurines—are conspicuously absent. And the hilltop is a long hike from any water sources.

“We know what settlements from these times look like,” Schmidt says. “This isn’t one of them.” Instead, Schmidt argues that hunter-gatherers from across the region gathered here periodically, pooled their resources temporarily to build the monuments for some ritual purpose, and then left.

Schmidt argues that the site’s antiquity and the lack of domesticated animal and plant remains is strong circumstantial evidence that symbolism and religion led to agriculture and domestication, not the other way around.

“Developing from hunter-gatherers to farmers happened here and spread south,” Schmidt says. “Not just architecture and monumental architecture, but turning wild animals into domestic livestock happened here. This is the starting point for a whole front of innovation.”

Ian Hodder appears to agree and comments that elaborated symbols and ideas came first, and the domestication of plants-animals followed. Religion, in other words, supposedly spurred the Neolithic Revolution and “civilization.”

These are extraordinary claims that have been challenged. In coming posts, we will look at Schmidt’s professional publications and recent reactions to them.

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Göbekli Tepe: Series Introduction

The 11,000 year old archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey is undoubtedly one of the most important in the world.  German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began the ongoing excavations at Göbekli in 1994. Besides being a huge undertaking (less than 5% of the site has been uncovered), the finds — and claims associated with them — have been extraordinary. In a nutshell, these claims are:

  • Göbekli was built and used by nomadic hunter-gatherers rather than sedentary agriculturalists.
  • It was a religious or ritual pilgrimage center that attracted people from far and wide.
  • The massive stone structures or megaliths were “temples” or world’s earliest “churches.”
  • It shows that complex organized religion preceded the domestication of plants and animals or Neolithic Revolution.

Why are these extraordinary claims? Because hunter-gatherers aren’t supposed to be doing these things and the order is wrong.

Before Göbekli, the consensus was that the domestication of plants and animals was a condition precedent to the construction of megaliths and organized worship. After Göbekli, the causal arrows were supposedly reversed. If correct, this is heady stuff: it would mean that ideas and symbols led to or caused the single most important change in the history of humanity. There is no “civilization” without agriculture or food production.

Under the Göbekli scenario proposed by Schmidt and others, religion is not mere superstructure: it is base.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which Göbekli supposedly provides. But does it? In the October 2011 issue of Current Anthropology, University of Toronto archaeologist Edward Banning challenges the Göbekli claims. Banning’s article raises important questions about what has been found and how it has been interpreted.

Because the Göbekli claims and counterclaims are foundational, I will be covering them in a series of posts. In the first, we will look at the site itself and the extensive (sometimes sensational) press coverage, including interviews with Klaus Schmidt. In the second, we will examine Schmidt’s professional publications and site reports for Göbekli. In the third, we will look at the questions raised by Banning in “So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East.” Finally, we will assess the whole to determine whether the extraordinary Göbekli claims are supported by sufficient evidence. The complete series listing with links can be found here.

Although Göbekli surely is not (as Spiegel suggested in a 2006 cover story) the lost Garden of Eden, its archaeological and historical importance is undeniable. By the end of the series, we should have a better fix on Göbekli and the claims surrounding it. Is Göbekli an archaeological or metaphorical Stairway to Heaven? I kid but watch the video anyway.


Banning, E.B. (2011). So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East Current Anthropology, 52 (5), 619-660 DOI: 10.1086/661207


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Open Access Articles on Neolithic Transition

As regular readers of the blog know, there are profound differences in supernatural beliefs and practices before and after the Neolithic transition. This cleavage is so substantial that I do not use the term “religion” to describe pre-Neolithic or Paleolithic beliefs and practices. Instead, I use the word “supernaturalism” to indicate that Paleolithic peoples were shamanic.

While shamanic beliefs and practices may constitute “religions,” I prefer to reserve that term for the more organized and systematic forms of supernaturalism that emerge in conjunction with the Neolithic transition. My preferences in this regard are driven by the need for definitional and descriptive clarity, and do not constitute a normative judgment about whether a particular constellation of beliefs-practices deserves to be called a “religion.”

With this in mind, we can conceptualize the Paleolithic-Neolithic cleavage as follows:

Paleolithic Supernaturalism (50,000-10,000 years ago):

Hunter-Gatherers; Nomadic Foragers; Shamanic Supernaturalism; Individualized and Fluid Beliefs

Neolithic Religions (~10,000-2,500 years ago):

Agriculturalists; Sedentary Food Producers; Organized Religions; Communal and Systematic Beliefs

These are basic divisions and finer-grained distinctions can be made but this is a fundamental divide in the history of religions. It also constitutes a fundamental divide in human history.

At the heart of this divide is the shift from foraging to food producing, known as the process of Neolithicization. It occurred at different times in different places in different ways. It was a mosaic, uneven, and variable process that occurred over thousands of years. Although our understanding of this process is getting better all the time, there is no single convincing explanation and the debates are robust.

I mention all this because Current Anthropology has graciously posted about 20 recent open access articles on the Neolithic transition, including articles on the origins of agriculture in the Near East, Levant, Anatolia, Asia, China, India, Korea, Japan, Oceania, and America. This is a treasure trove of information on Neolithicization and a blessing for those who do not have institutional access to these kinds of articles. I don’t know how long these will remain open access, so download before the paywall goes back up!

Credit: David Steinlicht

Neolithic Revolution Cartoon

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Robert Bellah on Religious Evolution

In less than a month, we will be able to lay our hands on Robert Bellah’s much anticipated Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.

It will be the latest in a string of books over the last decade which purport to explain the origins and development of what we today call “religion.” These books can be roughly divided into two types.

The first usually revolves around a particular author’s research specialty and generalizes from this focused research to religion as a whole. While these books contribute something of importance to evolutionary religious studies, religion is not going to be explained monocausally. The second type is an adaptive design metanarrative, in which religion holds the (magical) key to human evolutionary success. These books usually amount to mere storytelling.

If Bellah’s 1964 article on “Religious Evolution” is any indication, his forthcoming book may transcend this tired typology. While my hopes are high, I am not sure what to expect. I know that the Templeton Foundation gave Bellah a large grant for the book and Templeton grants are not disinterested.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Bellah confesses he is a practicing Episcopalian and metaphysical idealist (i.e., “Kantian-Hegelian”). This is the sort of sophisticated belief much beloved by Templeton grantors. It remains to be seen how Bellah’s a priori commitments affect his evolutionary account of religion.

Aside from Bellah’s grudging admiration for Nietzsche’s genius, this part of the interview caught my attention:

But dealing with a complex band of people you don’t know if you can trust or not, and you love some of them and you hate some of them—that’s a pretty high demand on your cognitive growth. I think the brain grows fast when groups get larger and more complicated and maneuvering yourself in a social world starts to be at the heart of what your life is all about.

This suggests there is a correlation between bigger brains and bigger groups. While there is some support for this idea, we have little or no evidence to suggest that hominin group size increased during the course of the Paleolithic in conjunction with increases in brain size.

Hunter-gatherer group sizes seem to be fairly consistent across time and space (varying primarily in accord with local environments and ecology). Group sizes increase only when people settle down and become agriculturalists. This began to occur about 12,000 years ago during the Neolithic Transition and was an uneven process. One thing is certain: this increase in group size was not triggered by an increase in brain size. In fact, human brains appear to have been getting smaller over the past 15,000 years.

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Interrogating Richard Dawkins

Over at Spiegel, Markus Becker and Frank Patalong have posted an interview with Richard Dawkins, whose latest book — The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution — has just been published in German and given an awful title: “The Creation Lie: Why Darwin is Right.” Two things come immediately to mind.

First, it is extremely discouraging that 150 years after Darwin there appears to be a need to continue publishing books explaining evolution and debunking creationism. As Ronald Numbers’ shows in his masterful history The Creationists, wishful thinking has incredible staying power. Second, did Dawkins really need to publish another book of this kind? It seems as if you have read any of Dawkins’ recent books (excepting his three best, The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Ancestor’s Tale), you have read them all. Given Dawkins’ considerable scientific skills and abilities as a writer, I wish he would cover some different ground.

I am not sure what it is about Spiegel reporters, but they are some of the best in the business. They seem always to know much about their topic and ask great questions. The interview with Dawkins is no exception. It touches on some key issues that deserve further comment.

Spiegel: The American geneticist Dean Hamer postulated the God Gene hypothesis, proposing that humans are genetically hardwired for religious faith.

Dawkins: I’d prefer to say that we have a lot of genetic predispositions for a lot of psychological attributes, which can under the right circumstances add up to religion. But I’m also thinking of things like a predisposition to be obedient towards authority, which might even be useful under certain circumstances. Or a predisposition to be afraid of death or, when frightened, to run to a parental figure. These are all separate psychological predispositions which under the right cultural circumstances end up pushing one into a religion, whichever the religion of one’s cultural upbringing. I wouldn’t call it a God Gene.

Dawkins is spot on with this answer. There are numerous attributes of the human brain-mind that, when combined in consciousness, inevitably give rise to belief in the supernatural. These attributes include, but are not limited to: causal attribution, pattern imposition, agency detection, theory of mind, and commonsense dualism. We have evolved a brain-mind that naturally and spontaneously constructs experience using these attributes, with the result being belief in the supernatural. When you add emotions such as fear, attachment, attraction, and sorrow to the mix, you have an organism that is perfectly primed and highly receptive to certain kinds of cultural patterning or inputs. All religions are built on this biological-neurological substrate.

The next question and answer are less auspicious:

Spiegel: Has religion not been very successful in an evolutionary sense?

Dawkins: The thought that human societies gained strength from religious memes in their competition with others is true to a certain extent. But it is more like an ecological struggle: It reminds me of the replacement of the red by the gray squirrel in Britain. That is not a natural selection process at all, it is an ecological succession. So when a tribe has a war-like god, when the young men are brought up with the thought that their destiny is to go out and fight as warriors and that a martyr’s death brings you straight to heaven, you see a set of powerful, mutually reinforcing memes at work. If the rival tribe has a peaceful god who believes in turning the other cheek, that might not prevail.

Dawkins loses his bearings with this answer. Societies and cultures are not organisms; thus, biological evolutionary processes cannot be used to explain their origins and development or histories — fundamentally different processes are at work. The whole meme thing needs to be junked; it was a bad analogy to begin with and has not gotten any better over time. Ideas are not the same as genes. Dawkins is not getting any closer to the mark by arguing that cultural history is akin to ecological succession.

It is this category mistake — conflating biological evolution with cultural history — that afflicts the large and growing literature purporting to explain the “evolution of religion” by appealing to group level selection. Because societies are not organisms, the transitive property does not apply and we should stop talking about “cultural evolution.” There is no such thing.

Because Dawkins erroneously conflates biological evolution with cultural history, the interviewers are justifiably skeptical:

Spiegel: But following a religion that does not promote the chances for survival seems to contradict evolutionary logic.

Dawkins: Oh yes, clearly there is a conflict between meme and gene survival. We are familiar with such conflicts. They sometimes work out one way, sometimes the other.

Terrible. Humans follow what we today call “religions” for reasons having little or nothing to do with ongoing biological evolution. There are more powerful processes at work and much simpler explanations. These processes and explanations are grounded in economy and politics, not in biology. Modern “religions” — i.e., those which appeared in conjunction with the Neolithic Revolution — have a logic all their own and this logic is not evolutionary.

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Early Complex Societies & Early Organized Religions

Historians have long known that the shelf life of complex societies throughout human history has been rather limited. Archaeologists are aware of this also. But how to explain it?

In a recent (open access) paper, “Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies,” Sergey Gavrilets and colleagues mathematically modeled early complex societies using a number of variables that could affect the rise, fall, and duration of such societies. They predicted relatively rapid and “continuous stochastic cycling,” which is a polite way of saying there was much tumultuous (and bloody) change as early complex societies warred with one another for dominance. The model confirmed their predictions and identified two variables that were especially important: (1) the wealth/power of a given society, and (2) the chief’s expected time in power. From this, the authors concluded:

Our results demonstrate that the stability of large and complex polities is strongly promoted if the outcomes of the conflicts are mostly determined by the polities’ wealth/power, if there exist well-defined and accepted means of succession, and if control mechanisms are internally specialized.

The importance of succession and internal control mechanisms are of special interest because religion can be used to legitimate both succession and control. In fact, this is precisely what happened in early complex societies and was perhaps the raison d’etre for the earliest forms of organized religions. Before the rise of complex societies (i.e., before the Neolithic Revolution or agricultural transition), the primary form of supernaturalism was shamanic — individualized, fluid, and largely without rite or doctrine. As such, shamanic forms of supernaturalism do not lend themselves to the maintenance of power by elites. To justify stratification and dominance, something more systematic was needed.

The earliest forms of organized religion provided these justifications. Rulers and their kin were associated with deities or were themselves deities. The emergence of complex societies was accompanied by the emergence of a priestly class, usually comprised of the rulers and their kin or closely allied with them. Social complexity and religious complexity were tightly linked, one being essential for the other.

We know for a fact that the earliest complex societies  or city-states in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica developed in precisely this way. The newly emerged elite claimed supernatural sanction, and monopolized supernaturalism by developing the earliest organized religions. These were, of course, state religions that attempted to manage the critical issues of ruler succession and internal control. As Gavrilets and colleagues observe in their paper:

Creating and maintaining complex polities thus requires effective mechanisms to deal with both internal and external threats. In both cases, leaders (paramount chiefs) must solve collective action problems to overcome challenges.

What better way to solve collective action problems than to develop, organize, and promote a religion that serves the leaders’ and elites’ interests? The chief either has exclusive access to the gods or is a god; as such, the chief is the provider and protector. The chief’s children are successors and similar: their divine access or status supposedly guarantees future provisioning and protection.

It is a tidy arrangement for so long as it lasts. The problem apparently is that rarely lasts very long — it seems that lots of people and competing polities had the same ideas!


Gavrilets, Sergey, Anderson, David G., & Turchin, Peter (2010). Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 1 (1), 59-80 : http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5536t55r


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