“First came the temple, then the city.”

“Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.”
~Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place

Sense of place. This place I live in is my home, where I spent much of my childhood. No matter how far I stray, I’ve always returned here. It’s the place I know. In fact, I know it so well that I can conjure images in my mind of buildings, fountains, and streets that no longer exist and, in some cases, disappeared long before I was born (via the magic of old photographs I’ve come across). The human world is built out of memory, personal and shared.

This is easy to forget, at least for many of us in modern society. We are constantly on the move. I lived in four states before I even made it to high school and this is not unusual for an American. It was all the leaving and returning that more fully imprinted this place onto my brain matter, seeping deep down into my sense of self. That is what makes me different than so many others. I daily see the haunts of my childhood and regularly visit with my childhood friend, a rare experience in an era when few people live in the communities in which they grew up.

For all of that, my sense of place is superficial. Many indigenous societies have a profound grounding in and knowledge of the world around them. In some cases, this communal experience goes back millennia. There are indigenous people who are still telling stories that accurately describe what their immediate environment looked like during the Ice Age. Now that is a sense of place, a collective memory more ancient than even the most faint traces of Western Civilization.

Lynne Kelly, maybe more than any other author I’ve recently read, has provoked my intellect and imagination. I first came across her in reading Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. It’s about mnemonic traditions in indigenous cultures, which she initially explored through her study of Australian Aborigines. I’ve yet to finish it, as it is one of those books that is so interesting that I keep going back to it, sampling passages as they catch my fancy. She has a more recent book on the topic, The Memory Code, where she gives more detail about how these mnemonic systems work and she further delves into their significance.

It is fascinating, to say the least. What is shown in those two books explains so much about what it means to be human in the world, not just what it means to live in an indigenous tribe. And various aspects resonate far and wide, not just landscape and sense of place but: the city as social construction, temples as mnemonic devices, songlines as symbolic conflation, state-dependent and context-dependent memory, revolution of mind preceding revolution of social order, radical imagination and moral imagination, embodied experience and extended mind, etc. It speaks to the interconnection of natural resources and hunting techniques, tool-making and structure-building, relations and culture, mythology and rituals, language and symbolism, song and dance, space and accoustics, knowledge and history, astronomical observation and astrotheology, calendars and and natural cycles, and much else.

Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.

This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.

Let me explain the quote used in the title of this post: “First came the temple, then the city.” It comes from Klaus Schmidt who led the excavation of Göbekli Tepe. The discovery of this archaeological site has overturned prior assumptions about the archaic human societies. It’s the earliest known example of permanent structures and they were built before the development of agriculture. That requires some explaining. The only domesticated animal these people had was the dog and so they had no beasts of burden to help haul the large stones. They hadn’t even yet developed the making of pottery. Their tool use and technical skills were limited with no prior stone masonry and probably not much specialization. These structures seem to have come out of nowhere.

Most perplexing is that there is a telling lack of evidence that this was a human settlement. It appears to have been a meeting place. Schmidt theorized that it was for communal rituals and so would have been the first temple complex. Julian Jaynes made similar arguments about early societies, in speculating that the first houses were built for the gods. This would have meant a place to store the mummified corpse or skull of a once revered leader, either having been considered divine during his life or having become deified in death, the worship of the leader maintained through visceral memory of his voice, at least until that memory faded. Only later did humans settle down to build their own houses and from this formed a priestly class. That then required the development of farming to support the population.

In whatever variation of this theory, civilization as settled lifestyle began from ancestral worship and a cult of the dead. This interpretation is supported by the dead buried under floor/benches in Jericho and Catal Hayak and cremated human remains at Stonehenge. Further excavation needs to be done at Göbekli Tepe, but some evidence already points in this direction. The temple complex has prominent vulture images and headless human figures, both associated with death in early cultures. For example, there was the archaic practice of removing skull for veneration and so the relevance of portrayals of the headless. Humans have long been obsessed with death. Elders were those who carried and passed on cultural knowledge, those who embodied and gave voice to gods, spirits, and ancestors. They were accordingly revered. In shared memory, their knowledge and voice lived on.

That is how authority operated long ago, by what an individual embodied and represented. Both Jaynes and Kelly see ancient authority as having originally been less hierarchical or else based on different forms of power, such as voices and knowledge. What makes knowledge into power isn’t just that it is information controlled by the few but because it is knowledge given form and voice through the force of personal presence. Ancient knowledge systems were visceral, not abstract, although incipient forms of abstraction had emerged, such as how physical mnemonics once learned could be accessed in the mind without the external triggers.

In these societies, the individual is so fully enmeshed within the world that the world is exists within the individual. These aren’t just systems of memory and knowledge. They are entire lived and embodied worldviews. The person is inseparble from the place. Everything would be integrated in such a community: tradition, knowledge, language, culture, ritual, religion, worldview, environment, etc.

It’s hard to know what that would have meant. The still existing societies with this kind of system have been in contact with modern societies for generations or centuries. In some cases such as the Australian Aborigines, they’ve taken the lessons learned in dealing with white Westerners and incorporated them as songs into their cultural knowledge. We have no way of being able to observe a society prior to contact and contact inevitably brings changes. Sometimes changes come far in advance of direct contact by way of intermediary tribes and environmental alterations. We can only guess at what is indicated from limited evidence.

I become aware of this difficulty sometimes while reading books like that written by Lynne Kelly. There is often the assumption that people in other societies are basically like us with the differences being mostly superficial. So, for example, behaviors and motivations are interpreted according to modern Western experience. But we know from research, that WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) subjects are among the least representative populations in the world, which is problematic as they are the most commonly used in scientific studies.

Related to this is when Lynne Kelly discusses the power held by those who control knowledge in indigenous societies, It occurs to me that this is very much a WEIRD way of understanding human nature. That is projecting an intention onto others that she cannot possibly know. She is arguing, so it seems, that they lack sincerity in performing their ritual. But maybe sincerity and insincerity is not a standard framework for the oral cultures of indigenous tribes.

John Beebe defines sincerity as the aspiration toward integrity, by which he means that you can only aspire toward what you lack. In that case, sincerity and hence insincerity can only exist among those who have lost the ancient inheritance of an integrated worldview (i.e., integrity). This would make sense, if indigenous mnemonics actually is an inseparable structure to a cultural experience of reality, rather than being a mere memory technique. That is what the Australian Aborigines appear to be claiming when they state that they sing the world into existence.

This is not to romanticize tribal people, but it is a serious consideration of the possibility that we modern Westerners would not recognize full integrity if we saw it. If anything, this is to counter the romanticized ideal of integrity that sincerity evokes, as differentiated from the lived experience of integrity. A number of thinkers have seen an opposition between cultures of ritual and cultures of sincerity, sometimes used to contrast Catholicism and Protestantism but maybe it goes much deeper when considering societies where ritual is entirely dominant. It’s just something to keep in mind as a possible point of misunderstanding.

This leads to a stumbling block for many in imagining the bicameral mind that Julian Jaynes describes. From the modern Western experience, such a mindset seems absurd or impossible. But it might be more plausible within a worldview of ritual and integrity.

If songlines originally were an expression of bicameralism or else something similar, each song would be a distinct voice (or set of voices). These songs would express the voices of gods, spirits, and ancestors as passed down by the song teachers across the generations. The songs would invoke not just landscapes but also narratized worlds with specific worldviews, mindsets, personalities, and histories. This internalized public space would be the precursor for the post-bicameral interiorizing of private space, both being metaphorical but the former connecting the individual to the concrete and the latter freeing the individual through increasing abstraction.

In building structures in the world, what if early humans were building structures in their minds? Creating a radically different mindset might have offered greater survival value than even building a permanent house to live in. An entire world would have been formed where new possibilities were made available. Maybe humans had to change their way of thinking before they could imagine civilization into existence.

* * * *

Making Gods, Making Individuals
Building and Battling in Ancient Europe
Music and Dance on the Mind
Choral Singing and Self-Identity
Development of Language and Music
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 441-464

Knowledge is power

Or so it used to be. Australian Aboriginal cultures in their traditional state, American Indian cultures resisting the influence of the colonisers and African cultures still practising their ancient knowledge systems all provide ample examples of the way in which those who controlled the knowledge also controlled society. The role of knowledge in the exercise of power is underrepresented in archaeological interpretation of prehistoric social structures.

Mike Parker Pearson, the British Neolithic archaeologist, and Ramilisonina wrote:

We employ cross-cultural generalizations as a means of assessing the likelihood of certain aspects of social organization being shared between different cultural contexts. We may define these generalisations as probability analogies since they work on the principle that, if a certain relationship is found amongst most traditional societies today, then there is a probability that this relationship probably obtained in most societies in the past (1998a, p. 309).

Archaeologists describe monument building eras, such as the British Neolithic, the Archaic of the American Southeast and the Ancestral Puebloan era of the American Southwest, as showing no signs of a wealthy elite, no physical signs of a hierarchy. Yet, to build such monuments as Stonehenge, Poverty Point and Chaco Canyon there must have been an organising hierarchy. It is this feature which leads to the first, and the most definitive, of the ten indicators of a mnemonic monument described below. I propose that, as in contemporary Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures and Pueblo sedentary societies, the power granted to elders in these cultures was based on their access to knowledge.

I acknowledge that, as Renfrew says, ‘Modern hunter-gatherer societies are the product of forty centuries of sapient evolution, just as much as urban ones. They should not be regarded as living representatives of the Palaeolithic past’ (1998, p. 4). Methods found in contemporary Australian Aboriginal knowledge systems can be traced back for over 40,000 years (Haynes 2000, p. 53). Hence, it is considered justified to propose that the generalisations about oral knowledge systems can be translated into prehistory, as archaeologists currently transfer generalisations about human physical attributes and needs. It would be highly speculative to transfer the beliefs of any contemporary culture into the prehistoric era. However, it is logical to consider that the technologies by which they formally taught and painstakingly memorised their knowledge might have analogies in the more distant past. A deeper appreciation of the demands of knowledge retention and transmission in oral cultures opens up possibilities for radical reinterpretation of archaeological sites and artefacts globally.

Kindle Locations 4906-4927

The organisation of labour, degree of planning, structuring of space and caches of exotic materials all point to a complex Chacoan political authority over a large region over a long span of time (Lekson 1999, p. 48; Sebastian 1992, p. 57). It is generally agreed that the time of great house construction in Chaco Canyon itself was a time of low violence; coercive force was not an integral part of Chacoan society (Frazier 2005, pp. 2, 74– 82; Mahoney 2000, p. 16). Pueblo Bonito has disproportionately few infants in the burial sample (Saitta 1997, p. 15), as would be expected if the privilege of burial at Chaco was awarded to members of the knowledge elite.

Social inequalities increased between ritual leaders in the great houses of Chaco Canyon and the other Ancestral Puebloans over the course of the tenth century (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 98– 101). During the latter half of the eleventh century, some elite burials occurred at Pueblo Bonito, in rooms that were nearly 200 years old at the time (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 121– 2). In Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito, two males were interred with thousands of turquoise pieces (Saitta 1997, p. 15). However, the number of burials in great houses is so small that some researchers question that much can be concluded from their context (Saitta 1997, p. 5; Sebastian 1992, p. 51). Nevertheless, analysis of those interred in the great houses indicated that they had a better level of nourishment than those in the villages (Saitta 1997, pp. 14– 15; Van Dyke 2007, p. 3).

It can therefore be stated fairly reliably that there was an elite with power in Chaco Canyon during the Classic Bonito phase, but that there is minimal, if any, sign of individual wealth or coercion. This chapter argues that power was due to control of knowledge, and the centre of the knowledge was Chaco Canyon. Knowledge specialists from the outliers would have come regularly to the canyon to maintain existing, or gain new, knowledge from the elite in the great houses. The implementation of knowledge spaces was also localised in each outlier. Control of esoteric knowledge is so integral to the power structure in contemporary Pueblo society that Sebastian argues that ‘it would be surprising if such control were not a component of ancestral Puebloan societies as well’ (2004, p. 95).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

I wasn’t far into my research when I began to understand that songlines were key to the way Indigenous Australians organised this vast store of information so that it would not be forgotten. Songlines are sung narratives of the landscape, singing tracks that weave across the country and enable every significant place to be known. At each location, rituals are performed that enact the knowledge associated with that specific place. In this context, rituals are repeated acts and no more should be implied by that word. The degree to which they are religious ceremonies depends entirely on the specific ritual. One elder explained to me how singing the names of the sacred sites along the songlines created a set of subheadings to the entire knowledge base, a place for knowing about every animal, plant and person. The songlines could be sung when moving through the space in reality or in imagination.

By repeating the stories of the mythological beings through songs and dances at sacred landscape sites, information could be memorised, even if it was not used for tens, hundreds or thousands of years. Songs are far more memorable than prose. Dances can depict animal behaviour and tactics for the hunt in a way no words can do. Mythological characters can act out a vivid set of stories that are unforgettable.

Kindle Locations 231-241

In oral traditions, dance acts as a complementary memory cue to the sung narratives. Not only do the dances entertain but information can also be encoded in dance that defies clear expression in words. As a natural history writer, I doubt I could accurately describe details of the movement of a kangaroo—the flick of an ear, the subtle change in stance as it detects an approaching human—despite having observed them for most of my life. Australian Aboriginal dancers can represent this behaviour in a matter of moments.

Rituals performed before a hunt are often referred to as ‘hunting magic’, the word ‘magic’ implying that they are simply superstitious acts performed in the belief that they increase the fortune of the hunt through a call to supernatural beings. A little more investigation shows otherwise. Many of the songs reinforce details of animal behaviour, such as indicators that the animal may be aware of the hunters, or the way in which a mob of animals may disperse in fleeing. These rituals confirm planned hunting strategies and so, exactly as claimed, enhance the likely success of the hunt. When I discussed ‘hunting magic’ informally with Australian Aboriginals and Native Americans, they indicated that they were well aware of this rational link. The songs, for them, combine practical and magical aspects.

Kindle Locations 376-390

I found the concept of singing the road map, with paintings and sand drawings to help visualise it, mightily impressive, but I had yet to glimpse the power of the songlines. They were so much more than navigational tools. At each sacred place along the route, songs were sung and rituals performed. Rituals, by definition, are simply acts that are repeatedly performed. Those performances include the songs and dances that encode knowledge of a wide range of the practical subjects I was exploring, not just the navigational routes. What intrigued me was the way the songlines acted as an organiser, a table of contents to so much of the knowledge.

Each location acted as a subheading for the knowledge encoded in the ritual performed at that location. Vivid stories at each of these sacred sites told of the mythological ancestors who created the landscape, the animals, plants and everything in Country. Everything was linked. Everything had a place and was named and known. The traditional Aboriginal landscape is a memory space on a grand scale.

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of placenames, a seemingly unemotional task. Within the singer’s mind are all the associated stories. I have set up a series of ‘songlines’, a few kilometres of locations to which I have encoded information such as countries of the world, history and families of birds. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extraordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embedded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense.

Kindle Locations 484-495

Mythology certainly reflects spiritual beliefs, but what is pertinent to the story being told in this book is that it also encodes a vast store of practical information and rational knowledge of the world. Mythology, in this context, is an incredibly effective memory aid.

If the story carries knowledge about a particular plant, for example, then the plant will often be cast as an animated character. The plant-character will have human-style adventures and experiences, setbacks, difficulties and successes, acting as a metaphor for the events of a normal life. The character or personality of a medicinal plant, say, will be easily remembered while often telling a moral tale as well. If a plant is poisonous, then the story will involve its deathly quality. Realising that mythological stories are memory aids is not a revelation from Western researchers. Non-literate people are well aware of the role of story. […] Traditional peoples would not have survived had they been, as so often portrayed, living in a fog of superstition and irrational thinking.

Kindle Locations 515-522

One problem with trying to understand something as critical as the wangarr is that we have no equivalent in Western culture and no appropriate words to describe the concept. A viewer who watches the three long films, a number of short films and listens to the narrative about the Djungguwan learns that there is nothing in the wangarr that can be called a god. The mythological ancestors are not worshipped nor are they the objects of prayers. Their stories are told and through those stories cultural knowledge is imparted and cultural values sustained. It is simplest to accept the term and describe, granted in simplistic terms, that the wangarr are those who travelled through the land, creating the landscape, plants, animals and people. The wangarr gave the Yolngu languages, ceremonies, sacred designs and laws and, critically, the songs, dances and stories that encode all the knowledge and beliefs of the culture.

Kindle Locations 1355-1365

Unfortunately, Göbekli Tepe was labelled a temple by Schmidt and everyone discussing it since has used the term, leading to the assumption that it was primarily a religious building.2 With no sign of habitation, it was not domestic. Situated on what was a forested plateau, but is now desert, there was no nearby water. There are no burials and no sign of a wealthy hierarchy. However, there are signs of feasting, public and restricted performance spaces, and stone pillars in clear sequences. Göbekli Tepe has all the indicators of a memory space.

Göbekli Tepe was built by non-farming people. It has long been assumed that to build monuments, people needed to be farming to free the time for such labour-intensive activities. I believe that in order to settle, it was essential that indigenous peoples found some way to create a local memory space. This would gradually replace the knowledge system embedded in the broader landscape. Any strongly sequenced set of objects, such as standing stones or posts, could be used to replicate the locations along the songline or pilgrimage trail. The fact that many of these monuments are circular is indicative of the way time is cyclic for indigenous cultures when they talk of resource management and agriculture. The monuments need to represent the landscape locations while also providing both public and restricted performance spaces.

Kindle Locations 1812-1815

All these theories are consistent with the concept that Stonehenge was primarily a knowledge space, and that death rites, astronomical observations, timekeeping and healing were all part of the complexity that is seen in historical indigenous knowledge systems.

Kindle Locations 3398-3403

This monument was built by hunter-gatherers, as was the far more sophisticated Louisiana site of Poverty Point, which emerged nearly 2000 years later. Poverty Point was the centre of a hunter-gatherer culture spreading over nearly 2000 square kilometres. It demonstrated that a large complex monument could be created by hunter-gatherers.4 The fact that these sites were built without any sign of agriculture challenges accepted wisdom that communities needed to settle and farm in order to free up the time required to build monuments. I believe that the reverse is true: people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle.

Kindle Locations 3488-3491

The archaeology of the Poverty Point monuments demonstrates that essentially egalitarian hunter-gatherers attained levels of organisation and integration once only attributed to advanced farming cultures. Hunter-gatherer people may be less complex in terms of their hierarchies, cities and politics; it should never be assumed that they are less complex intellectually.

A Million Years of Music
by Gary Tomlinson
Kindle Locations 4252-4272

From the recent end of the timescale also there are indications that the institutionalization of ritual power may extend back into the Paleolithic, even in monumentally structured ways. The excavations since the 1990s of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey have uncovered a project of staggering scope of stone quarrying, carving, and building that resulted in a long-lasting center of activity starting about 11,000 years ago. With little sign of on-site habitation yet found, Klaus Schmidt, the lead archaeologist, and others posit this as a sacred locale for groups of foragers in the surrounding areas, periodically gathering to celebrate essential rituals. It is, to say the least, not the kind of project hunter-gatherers have usually been thought to mount. For Schmidt it points to a new, ideological stimulus for the beginnings of the transition to sedentism: religious ritual and institution. In this view it is metaphysics that drove settlement patterns and eventually brought about farming, not the reverse.

A recent revisionist account has taken issue with this interpretation, seeing in it an anachronistic distinction of shrine from house and envisioning Göbekli Tepe as a sacred settlement, along the lines archaeologists have now and then perceived elsewhere. 7 (Inca Cuzco is a much more recent example.) This new interpretation suggests that the real message of Göbekli Tepe might instead be that what counted most for early Neolithic humans was life integrated with incipient ritual, not separated from it. It is hard not to imagine this as a repeating of earlier, Paleolithic lifeways.

Whatever our interpretation of the site, however, we are left with the construction of a special center, built and used across centuries and involving daunting technological challenges— all some seven millennia before Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza. We must contemplate that arresting date in prospect, so to speak, from the vantage of Paleolithic developments, not merely in retrospect. It places the earliest monumental construction at Göbekli Tepe closer in time to the painting of Lascaux than to the building of the pyramids. The famous decorated caves from the end of the Paleolithic propose themselves to us as ritual spaces just as eloquently as Göbekli Tepe does; this similarity is inescapable. To entertain it is, however, to locate Göbekli Tepe in a history of the making and use of such sites reaching far back into the Paleolithic period, if on smaller scales. This history includes not only Lascaux, Altamira, and many other sites from after the Last Glacial Maximum but Chauvet also, painted much earlier, in Gravettian or even Aurignacian times; and it includes many open-air and enclosed sites of rock painting and sculpture from Africa, the immense antiquity of which has only recently begun to be appreciated.

Inside the Neolithic Mind
by David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce
Kindle Locations 544-587

Most sensationally, Schmidt found that the pillars had images carved on them (Pls 2, 3, 4; Fig. 6). They include wild boar, gazelles, wild cattle, foxes, snakes and birds – no domesticated animals. Nor is there sign of any domesticated plants or animals in the deposits. These people were hunters and gatherers, albeit socially and economically complex.38 One pillar appears to have a human arm carved on it, and this feature, seen in association with the armed pillar at Nevali Çori, seems to confirm the impression that the stone columns are all somewhat anthropomorphic. Here was an early Neolithic, pre-farming community that, like their Upper Palaeolithic predecessors in Europe, most definitely had image-making as a practice that went beyond practical matters of making a daily living – though such a distinction is probably ours rather than one made by the people themselves.

The pillars came from a quarry about 91 m (300 ft) away. There, the limestone bedrock was cut and the pillars shaped, at least to some extent. One pillar still in place in the quarry would, had it been removed, have been as much as 6 m (20 ft) long and would have weighed 50 tons. What drove the people of Göbekli Tepe to make these pillars, to drag them to the rock-cut structures, to embellish them with images and to raise them up?

Schmidt has found no traces of early Neolithic houses nearby. He therefore concludes that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre to which Neolithic people came for religious purposes. It may have been a site of intense religious experiences that reinforced beliefs and social networks. Perhaps ‘pilgrims’ came regularly from as much as 100 km (62 miles) away, from a site known as Jerf el Ahmar, where there are comparable round structures with benches and also images of animals, but no rock-cut structures with stone pillars.

While contemplating Göbekli Tepe, the English archaeologist Steven Mithen had an idea that supports what one of us had previously advanced for the domestication of cattle at Çatalhöyük and which, in general terms, followed in Cauvin’s footsteps.39 Mithen concluded that the religious beliefs embodied in the massive stone structures and associated carvings came before and eventually led to agriculture. How could this inversion of the sort of scenario that Childe would have recognized have happened?

Schmidt pointed out to Mithen some hills about 30 km (18.6 miles) to the south. These are known as Karacadag (‘Black Mountains’). Phylogenetic DNA studies had shown that this area was the origin of domesticated einkorn wheat. To put the matter more forcefully, Karacadag was the place of origin of domesticated grain and therefore the origin of the Neolithic.40 Mithen suggests that the switch to domestication came about as a result of frequent ritual and construction activities that took place at Göbekli Tepe, in our terms, religious practice. Large numbers of people, possibly measured in hundreds, would have been needed to make the Göbekli Tepe structures and pillars, and this would have necessitated the gathering and processing of much wild grain to sustain the workers. This activity would, in time, have resulted in fallen grain springing up, being gathered again and thus becoming domesticated. Mithen concludes that a drier climatic spell may not have been the trigger that set off Neolithic agriculture, as many researchers believe: ‘It may have been a by-product of the ideology that drove hunter-gatherers to carve and erect massive pillars of stone on a hilltop in southern Turkey.’41

The good quality of Karacadag grain may have led workers returning home to take some with them to sow in their own gardens at Jerf el Ahmar and other settlements, eventually step-by-step even as far as Jericho itself. In addition to seashells and shiny obsidian that we know Neolithic people traded, the first domesticated strains of grain may also have spread across the Near East. Indeed, there is more obsidian at Jericho than one would expect for a town of that size; it may therefore have been a trading centre and one of its commodities may have been the Neolithic itself.

More than environment: preternatural seeing

The rock-cut structures and carvings at Göbekli Tepe and the highlighted eyes of the Jericho skulls point to an unavoidable part of human life, one that Childe, as a Marxist, and more recent environmentalist archaeologists have tended to ignore, or, at any rate, to deprive of any causal influence. We suggest that ‘conversion’ from one belief system to another means accepting new understandings of the functioning of the human brain and the mental states that it produces (though, of course, the people themselves do not see it that way). What were once regarded as aberrant, meaningless mental states may, with a change in religious perspective, become central divine intimations. In short, we need to examine human consciousness, not just in the alert, problem-solving state that we cultivate today, but also in the more mysterious states that, in some circumstances, become the essence of religion.

Kindle Locations 2948-2951

we note the significance of stones as oracles: they link the initiate to supernaturally vouchsafed information about cosmology. One of the stones is like a mouth and has a hollow in it. We recall the standing stones at Göbekli Tepe, ‘Ain Ghazal and other sites. Working in west European Neolithic tombs, Aaron Watson, an archaeologist at Reading University, found that ritually produced sounds can ‘induce enormous stones to appear to shake and become alive’.41

Places of the Heart
by Colin Ellard
pp. 14-15

The business of designing environments that affect human feeling and action is so ancient that it actually predates any other aspect of human civilization, including written communication, the design of cities and settlements, and even the birth of agriculture, which is traditionally considered to be the seminal event that set into play most of the other forces that shaped modern humanity. The roots of such endeavors lie in southern Turkey, near the city of Urfa, at the ancient ruins of Göbekli Tepe. This structure, more than eleven thousand years old, consists of a series of walls and pillars constructed of stone slabs, some weighing more than ten tons.1 As architecture, the site represents the oldest building, other than simple dwellings, that we know to have been built by human beings. Indeed, the construction of Göbekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by about as much time as separates the origin of the Stonehenge from the present day. As artifact, Göbekli Tepe is even more important than this. It turns on their heads long-held truths about the origins of architecture. Before Göbekli Tepe, the conventional wisdom was that it was domestication, settlement, and agriculture that spurred the development of architectural practices, and eventually cities. Now it’s clear that this story drives the cart before the horse. These stones must have been laid down by hunter–gatherers who lived by killing and eating prey animals rather than by farmers living in settled groups. The walls that have been unearthed here may well be the first ever constructed for a purpose other than to shield the contents of one’s possessions and one’s family from enemies, the elements, and the prying eyes of neighbors.

Over such a long reach of human history, it is almost impossible to know what purpose the massive columns and walls of Göbekli Tepe might have served for their builders, but the scant evidence of human activity found at the site—the bones of animals and the remains of fireplaces along with the iconography of human figures and large birds, snakes, and carnivorous mammals carved into the columns—suggests that the place served as a kind of religious sanctuary, and most likely, a site of pilgrimage that was visited, modified, built, and rebuilt over a span of hundreds of years. What is clear is that nobody actually lived at Göbekli Tepe. It was a place to visit, perhaps to encourage thought and worship. Possibly, the carvings of the fearsome creatures found there were meant as totems to help manage the fears of the terrible dangers that their designers faced in their day-to-day lives as hunters. It’s also possible that, like Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe was built as a healing place—an indication that one of the earliest human drives that led to building was a response to our awareness of our own finitude and that these early structures represent a nascent struggle against mortality. In some ways, much of the history of architecture, but especially religious architecture, can be seen as a concerted effort to find a way to cheat death—prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of the built structure to influence feelings.

Regardless of what can be known about the thinking that lay behind the careful construction of Göbekli Tepe, six thousand years before the invention of the written word, one thing is clear—what happened there may represent the very beginning of what has now become a defining characteristic, perhaps the defining characteristic of humanity: we build to change perceptions, and to influence thoughts and feelings; by these means, we attempt to organize human activity, exert power, and in many cases, to make money. We see examples of this everywhere, scattered through the length and breadth of human history.

Big Gods
by Ara Norenzayan
pp. 118-121

Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest known religious structure. It’s made of massive, humanlike, T-shaped stone pillars, arranged into a set of rings, and carved with images of various animals such as gazelles and scorpions (see figure 7.1). Long mistaken for a medieval cemetery, this ancient monumental architecture in present-day southeastern Turkey dates back to about 11,500 years, which makes it at least twice as old as Stonehenge (4,000 to 5,000 years old), the Great Pyramid of Giza (4,500 years old), and a few thousands of years older than Armenia’s Karahunj, another ancient megalithic structure with religious significance. Göbekli Tepe’s importance is magnified by the fact that no evidence of settled agriculture has been found so far. This could be explained by the fact that Göbekli Tepe is old enough to have been one of the world’s earliest temples built by hunter-gatherers. If true, it may hold clues to one of the deepest puzzles of our time, the question of how the Neolithic Revolution got off the ground, and gave rise to the origins of human civilization itself.2

Who built these structures, and how did they do it? The sheer scale of the operation must have been unprecedented—the stones in the Göbekli site weigh between 7 and 10 tons each, located on a site far away from any other known settlements, at a time when sedentary life, and its benefits, was still nonexistent—there were as yet no writing, masonry, metal tools, and domesticated animals to carry loads. And for what purpose would these hunter-gatherers—if indeed they were that—have built these monuments, which must have incurred spectacular costs in calories, time, and effort?

There are many puzzles and unanswered questions about this ancient site that will wait for more evidence and will be debated for a long time. The current picture that this site paints is incomplete, and open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps these were agricultural peoples, and it will take time to find evidence of domesticated plants and animals in Göbekli. To add to the mystery, the reasons behind the transition from hunting game and gathering wild foods to domestication of grains and animals remain somewhat puzzling and are hotly debated by archeologists. Unlike the more reliable supply of daily calories from hunting and gathering, domestication is a long-term affair fraught with risk. The diet of early agricultural peoples was poorer in protein content than the diet of hunter-gatherers. Evidence from prehistoric human remains suggests that early farmers were less healthy and less well fed than were hunter-gatherers.3 Despite negative effects on health and diet, early agriculture had one advantage over hunting and gathering: in the long run it could feed more mouths and sustain larger populations.

What we do know, with some confidence, is that in the cradle of agriculture that is the Middle East, not far from Göbekli Tepe, clear evidence of this transition is found to be about 11,000 years old. We also know that this transition coincided with population explosions. However, in more than 15 years of careful excavation, archeologist Klaus Schmidt, who first discovered these stone structures on top of a mound buried in earth, and others who have worked there since then, have not found any in Göbekli. If the builders and early worshippers of Göbekli Tepe were indeed hunter-gatherers, then we face the intriguing possibility that early forms of organized religious activity predated the agricultural revolution and the massive cultural transformations it ushered. This scenario, if confirmed, would turn on its head the conventional wisdom that organized religion, with priesthood classes, elaborate rituals, and sacrifices to powerful Big Gods, was a mere consequence of the transition to agricultural societies.

Göbekli Tepe suggests the idea that early stirrings to worship Big Gods motivated people to take up early forms of farming, and not the other way around.4 An analysis of the blades made of volcanic ash found on the site suggests that it attracted pilgrims from a wide range of locations. This raises the possibility that the temple was an early cosmopolitan center.5 Schmidt argues that the initial religious impulse to periodically congregate and worship among at least some hunter-gatherer groups in the Middle East might have led to semipermanent settlements around the sacred area. People likely continued to lead a hunter-gatherer existence, possibly for a long time. Eventually, however, settlements swelled. Hunting and gathering cannot feed large populations. This might have created the impetus for experimentation with an agricultural lifestyle in addition to hunting. Animal and plant domestication, in turn, would have led to food surpluses, and larger population sizes. In turn, this demographic growth, along with conquest or absorption of smaller groups, would have facilitated the cultural spread of these peculiar religious beliefs.

This hypothesis, which sees prosocial religions with Big Gods as a contributing factor (rather than merely as a side-effect of settled agriculture), fits better with the other observations discussed in this book. It is consistent with the psychological evidence that supernatural monitoring, and credible displays of faith to watchful deities, encourage cooperation, contribute to trust, and enable collective action among groups of strangers. It is also consistent with the historical evidence from the written record pointing to the role that these belief-ritual religious complexes played in the establishment of long-distance trade. This hypothesis accounts for the cultural spread of prosocial religions at the dawn of the agricultural revolution by assuming that, at the very least, Big Gods were one critical causal factor that contributed to the rise of large groups unleashed by agriculture. It would also explain the glaring absence of evidence for domesticated grains and animals in Göbekli Tepe.

The Well-Tempered City
by Jonathan F. P. Rose
Kindle Locations 974-984

These early settlements also required a new degree of large-scale cooperative behavior. Although they were built by hunter-gatherers, there was something different in their culture that brought them to work together at a scale never before achieved in human history. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia proposed that the transformation came with the emergence of a new belief system, one he called “big gods.” Prior to that time, humans believed in gods who created the universe, or local spirits, who had little interest in people’s behavior. In small-scale societies, cooperative behaviors were monitored by the group. Free riders were expelled from the community. But larger groups are harder to monitor, and to get to cooperate. Norenzayan believes that the belief in judgmental deities, or “big gods,” provided the cooperative glue necessary to build places such as Göbekli Tepe. A watchful, punishing god or gods proved to be a very good monitor of behavior, particularly if the god had authority over your after- or future life. “Big gods” tempered human behavior.

Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver, observed that all-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.”

Birth of the moralizing gods
by Lizzie Wade

Norenzayan thinks this connection between moralizing deities and “prosocial” behavior—curbing self-interest for the good of others—could help explain how religion evolved. In small-scale societies, prosocial behavior does not depend on religion. The Hadza, a group of African hunter-gatherers, do not believe in an afterlife, for example, and their gods of the sun and moon are indifferent to the paltry actions of people. Yet the Hadza are very cooperative when it comes to hunting and daily life. They don’t need a supernatural force to encourage this, because everyone knows everyone else in their small bands. If you steal or lie, everyone will find out—and they might not want to cooperate with you anymore, Norenzayan says. The danger of a damaged reputation keeps people living up to the community’s standards.

As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?

In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. As he wrote in Big Gods, “Watched people are nice people.” Belief in karma—which Norenzayan calls “supernatural punishment in action”—could have had a similar psychological effect in the absence of actual gods, a proposition his colleagues are investigating in Asia.

History and archaeology offer hints that religion really did shape the earliest complex societies. Conventional wisdom says that the key to settling down in big groups was agriculture. But “agriculture itself is a wildly improbable cooperative activity,” notes Slingerland, who studies ancient China. “Especially in places where you can’t get agriculture off the ground without largescale irrigation or water control projects, the cooperation problem has to get solved before you can even get the agriculture ramped up.” That’s where religion came in, he and Norenzayan think.

A case in point, they say, is Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in southeastern Turkey. Huge stone obelisks carved with evocative half-human, half-animal figures dot the 11,500-year-old site, which the late Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, who excavated there, called “the first manmade holy place” (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). Moving and decorating the great obelisks must have required a huge community effort. But signs of agriculture don’t appear nearby until 500 years later, meaning that the builders of Göbekli Tepe were likely hunter-gatherers who had come together to practice shared religious beliefs, Slingerland says. As Schmidt has said, “First came the temple, then the city.”

by Peter Turchin
pp. 10-11

Like the creators of Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe left no written explanation of their motives. But, as the Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon Magazine, “a consensus is emerging among archaeologists that this was a hugely significant ritual center: not a permanent home but a sacred place where people gathered at special times.” The “Göbeklians” did not live on, or near, the hill; instead they traveled to it from many semi-permanent settlements within a large area, some coming from 100–200km (roughly 100 miles) away. We know this because archaeologists find the same kinds of symbolic objects from widely dispersed sites, from the T-shaped pillars, so characteristic of Göbekli Tepe temples, to peculiar-looking scepters.6

The Göbeklians carved T-shaped pillars from the side of the hill (a few of them are still there, unfinished), then transported them to a circular enclosure and installed them in carefully excavated rectangular pits. A typical temple has a dozen T-shaped pillars, with the two largest placed in the center, surrounded by the rest, almost like a group of people standing around two leaders. In fact, the pillars are clearly meant to represent people (or perhaps gods). The T-part looks like a head. Many pillars have arms carved into their sides and a loincloth in front.

Once the job of the construction was over, the fun part began. Göbeklians feasted on roasted gazelles and aurochs and drank copious amounts of beer. During their excavation of the site, the archaeologists Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff and their colleagues found large numbers of burned bones. They also found many large barrel-like and trough-like vessels, carved from limestone, with dark grayish residue coating the sides. Chemical analysis indicated the presence of oxalate, which precipitates during the fermentation of mashed barley (remember, this was not a cultivated cereal). Some of these vessels could hold 160 liters (40 gallons) of beer, or almost three kegs. Quite a party! A carved stone cup, found in the nearby site of Nevali Çori, depicts two people with raised arms, dancing. Between them cavorts a fantastic turtle-like creature, which Dietrich and colleagues think “might well hint at the dancers’ altered state of conscious.”

The archaeologists aren’t sure how long each temple was in use. At some point, however, the Göbeklians destroyed their temples by burying the monoliths in rubble. Clearly, the purpose was not to create a monument that would last forever; everything was in the service of the ritual.

Perhaps all the megalith-building cultures felt the same way. A retired carpenter and construction worker named Gordon Pipes recently recruited a team of volunteers to help him demonstrate how a small group of people could have moved the Stonehenge megaliths.7 Pipes estimates that 40-ton stones can be erected using Stone Age technology with fewer than 25 people. Placing lintels on top could require no more than a dozen workers. But such calculations and experiments seem to miss the point. At least as far as Göbekli’s temples were concerned, the idea wasn’t about erecting monuments in the most efficient manner, with the fewest possible workers—that’s the rationalistic thinking of a 21st-century engineer. The purpose was to bring people together.

This is an argument put forward by Jens Notroff and colleagues in an article titled “Building Monuments, Creating Communities.”8 These archaeologists look to recent ethnographic accounts of monument-building, such as the construction of megalithic tombs on the Indonesian island of Nias. There, a crowd of 500–600 share the work, hauling the megaliths—which are a bit smaller than the Göbekli pillars—using Stone Age technology (with a wooden sledge, rollers, and ropes made from lianas). It takes three days to move the stones a distance of 3km (two miles) to their destination. Many more people participate than is necessary. But it’s not about efficiency. It’s about having fun. And then, after the monoliths have been installed, everybody has a party with lots of food and (of course) beer. The tangible result—the monument—is not important. The intangible but lasting feeling of community and cooperation is what the whole thing is about.

pp. 171-172

Bringing together the various strands of the argument, I see the following sequence of events leading to the despotic archaic states. With the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago, the climate grew warmer and, more important, much less variable. Human populations began to increase everywhere. Migrations and colonization peopled new areas as they became habitable, and over the next few thousand years, the Earth’s landscapes filled up with foraging bands. Eventually, few places suitable for human habitation remained unoccupied. Areas where people were already present in substantial numbers during the last Ice Age, such as the Near East, filled up first.

According to the standard archaeological model, this is what happened next. Around 10,000 years ago, human beings started to domesticate plants and animals. This allowed them to increase production of food dramatically, which in turn enabled greater population densities, sedentary ways of life, villages—and then cities, complex societies, states, writing—in a word, civilization. The adoption of agriculture, then, created a resource base capable of sustaining high population densities and an extensive division of labor. It also generated a “surplus” capable of supporting craftsmen, priests, and rulers. At this point, the standard theory branches out into several different models, with some emphasizing the need to manage the economy, others focusing on warfare, and still others stressing the role of ritual and religious specialists. Details vary, but the common denominator is that a rich resource base is not only a necessary condition, but also a sufficient one for the rise of complex societies.

I call this the “bottom-up” theory of the evolution of social complexity, because it treats social complexity as a sort of “superstructure” on the material resource base. In other words, if you stir enough resources into your evolutionary pot, social complexity will inevitably bubble up.

The problem with the bottom-up theory is that in several places where we can date the key stages in this process, we see a different sequence of events. The two sites with early monumental architecture that we discussed in Chapter 1, Göbekli Tepe and Poverty Point, arose before agriculture.

So here we have an inverted sequence of events. First, a fairly large-scale society arises, with quite sophisticated ritual activities and buildings requiring the mobilization of large numbers of workers. Only later comes agriculture. Has the standard theory reversed cause and effect?

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
pp. 143-151

This was a paradigm of what was to happen in the next eight millennia. The king dead is a living god. The king’s tomb is the god’s house, the beginning of the elaborate god-house or temples which we shall look at in the next chapter. Even the two-tiered formation of its structure is prescient of the multitiered ziggurats, of the temples built on temples, as at Eridu, or the gigantic pyramids by the Nile that time in its majesty will in several thousand years unfold.

We should not leave Eynan without at least mentioning the difficult problem of succession. Of course, we have next to nothing to go on in Eynan. But the fact that the royal tomb contained previous burials that had been pushed aside for the dead king and his wife suggests that its former occupants may have been earlier kings. And the further fact that beside the hearth on the second tier above the propped-up king was still another skull suggests that it may have belonged to the first king’s successor, and that gradually the hallucinated voice of the old king became fused with that of the new. The Osiris myth that was the power behind the majestic dynasties of Egypt had perhaps begun.

The king’s tomb as the god’s house continues through the millennia as a feature of many civilizations, particularly in Egypt. But, more often, the king’s-tomb part of the designation withers away. This occurs as soon as a successor to a king continues to hear the hallucinated voice of his predecessor during his reign, and designates himself as the dead king’s priest or servant, a pattern that is followed throughout Mesopotamia. In place of the tomb is simply a temple. And in place of the corpse is a statue, enjoying even more service and reverence, since it does not decompose. […]

Let us imagine ourselves coming as strangers to an unknown land and finding its settlements all organized on a similar plan: ordinary houses and buildings grouped around one larger and more magnificent dwelling. We would immediately assume that the large magnificent dwelling was the house of the prince who ruled there. And we might be right. But in the case of older civilizations, we would not be right if we supposed such a ruler was a person like a contemporary prince. Rather he was an
hallucinated presence, or, in the more general case, a statue, often at one end of his superior house, with a table in front of him where the ordinary could place their offerings to him.

Now, whenever we encounter a town or city plan such as this, with a central larger building that is not a dwelling and has no other practical use as a granary or barn, for example, and particularly if the building contains some kind of human effigy, we may take it as evidence of a bicameral culture or of a culture derived from one. This criterion may seem fatuous, simply because it is the plan of many towns today. We are so used to the town plan of a church surrounded by lesser houses and shops that we see nothing unusual. But our contemporary religious and city architecture is partly, I think, the residue of our bicameral past. The church or temple or mosque is still called the House of God. In it, we still speak to the god, still bring offerings to be placed on a table or altar before the god or his emblem. My purpose in speaking in this objective fashion is to defamiliarize this whole pattern, so that standing back and seeing civilized man against his entire primate evolution, we can see that such a pattern of town structure is unusual and not to be expected from our Neanderthal origins.

From Jericho to Ur

With but few exceptions, the plan of human group habitation from the end of the Mesolithic up to relatively recent eras is of a god-house surrounded by man-houses. In the earliest villages,1 such as the excavated level of Jericho corresponding to the ninth millennium B.C., such a plan is not entirely clear and is perhaps debatable. But the larger god-house at Jericho, surrounded by what were lesser dwellings, at a level corresponding to the seventh millennium B.C., with its perhaps columned porchway
leading into a room with niches and curvilinear annexes, defies doubt as to its purpose. It is no longer the tomb of a dead king whose corpse is propped up on stones. The niches housed nearly life-sized effigies, heads modeled naturalistically in clay and set on canes or bundles of reeds and painted red. Of similar hallucinogenic function may have been the ten human skulls, perhaps of dead kings, found at the same site, with features realistically modeled in plaster and white cowrie shells inserted for eyes. And the Hacilar culture in Anatolia of about 7000 B.C. also had human crania set up on floors, suggesting similar bicameral control to hold the members of the culture together in their food-producing and protection enterprise.

Göbekli Tepe
by Wikipedia

Schmidt’s view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistical analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet discovered anywhere.[8][32] Schmidt believed that what he called this “cathedral on a hill” was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 150 km (90 mi) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants.[33]

Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believed that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls.[8] Schmidt also interpreted it in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated.[34] Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt believed, as others do, that mobile groups in the area were compelled to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). Wild cereals may have been used for sustenance more intensively than before and were perhaps deliberately cultivated. This would have led to early social organization of various groups in the area of Göbekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin on a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but developed rapidly in the form of “a large-scale social organization”.[35]

Schmidt engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to mankind from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic.[36] It is also apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favor of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions.[8][37][38] Expanding on Schmidt’s interpretation that round enclosures could represent sanctuaries, Gheorghiu’s semiotic interpretation reads Göbekli Tepe’s iconography as a cosmogonic map which would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and the cosmos.”.[39]

Cathedrals Built on Water: An Institutional View of Religion, Scholastic Discipline, and Civilization
by Robert Wyllie

Civilization involves a widespread belief in ideas, and is actualized through effective discipline. Nietzsche called this ideal basis of Roman civilization, for example, a Begriffsdome or “concept-cathedral” constructed “upon a moving foundation, as it were, on flowing water.”[5] In the less poetical terms of modern sociology, civilization is a social imaginary, broadly including the “images, stories, and legends” shared by large groups of people.[6] The temple typically comes before the city because disciplining a population with a social imaginary drastically lowers the costs of extending and maintaining power. […]

The lesson of Göbekli Tepe is that civilization is cheaper than we once thought. Even without a substantive economic base, or the perfect environmental conditions, a foundationless religious idea is enough to launch a civilizational project. Modern nomads, from sixteenth-century Calvinist radicals with their pamphlets, to twenty-first-century militant Islamists on YouTube and social media, have done the same. Civilizations emerge in effective discipline, which we see in the Reformed consistories’ emphasis on compulsory schooling and the emphasis on new strict school curricula by the Islamic State.

What we see on the news from Syria and Iraq is neither anomalous nor retrograde in any “grand scheme.” To the contrary, it seems possible that Western political tendencies to either underestimate radical Islam (usually on the Left) or essentialize it as Other (usually on the Right) might be related to an inability to understand the religious origins of Western civilization.

The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion
by Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

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.

Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins 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 were 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.

The First and Oldest Temple in the World? – Göbekli Tepe
by Bryce Haymond

Probably the biggest indicator that this may have been a temple lies in the fact that there has been no substantial evidence of any settlement at the site – no homes, no trash pits, etc. – the usual markers of human habitation. In other words, this wasn’t a site where people lived, so they must have been doing something else. The dating of the site indicates that the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so many archaeologists think that what was likely going on here was some sort of ritual – it was a shrine, or place of worship. This has changed many archeologists’ theories about the beginning of mankind. The history books have stated for a long time that people did not gather together and establish communities or centers of gathering (cities) until agriculture developed, sometime after 9,000 B.C. But this complex shows otherwise, which has provoked lead archaeologist Klaus Schmidt to say, “Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious – the world’s oldest temple”6. The interpretation is that “first came the temple, then the city”7. I think Hugh Nibley would have agreed with that argument. Furthermore, Schmidt gives another Nibleyesque statement on the “terrible questions” which these temples were made to answer: “In my opinion, the people who carved [the pillars] were asking themselves the biggest questions of all… What is this universe? Why are we here?”8. It may have been the very rituals that these people were gathering to perform that led them to develop agriculture. Andrew Curry in Science Magazine notes:

Archaeologists once hypothesized that agriculture gave early people the time and food surpluses that they needed to build monuments and develop a rich symbolic vocabulary. But Göbekli Tepe raises the alternative possibility that the need to feed large groups who gathered to build or worship at the huge structures spurred the first steps toward agriculture.9

The site is on the top of a hill/mountain, which is the highest point in that area. We learn from the scriptures and modern revelation that mountains are synonymous with temples. People always ascended to their sanctuaries. As Nibley often said, the temple is the cosmic mountain, the primordial mound or hill. Moses ascended Mount Sinai. Nephi was caught away to a high mountain. The temple has even been referred to as “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (Isa. 2:2). So it is not surprising to find a temple on a high hill.

Evidence indicates that people traveled from great distances to come to the site. Many bone remnants have been found at Göbekli Tepe, indicating that animal sacrifice was performed.10

Klaus Schmidt suspects another reason why this might have been a temple:

Though he has yet to find them, he believes that the first stone circles on the hill of the navel marked graves of important people. Hauptmann’s team discovered graves at Nevali Çori, and Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.11

Indeed, Sean Thomas has said that “human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters”12.

Schmidt has also noted that this was not only the first man-made monument, but “the first manmade holy place” ever built13. Gary Rollefson, another archaeologist from Washington, also agrees – “Certainly it was a major focus for regional celebrations or ritual activity”14. While there are several such ritual sites in the region, Rollefson notes, “Göbekli Tepe’s really the only one with that megatemple approach”15. Schmidt continues, “Here we have the religious center for settlements at least 50 kilometers away… Those were village churches; this is the cathedral on a hill”16. Andrew Collins likewise agrees: “Göbekli Tepe can be described as sacerdotal, in that it was clearly utilised as a place of veneration and perhaps communication with supernatural entities and domains”17.

Uncovering Civilization’s Roots
by Andrew Lawler

Some archaeologists argue that crop irrigation and the resulting food surplus spurred that rise, while others cite the appearance of kings, colonial domination, or spread of a common religion. But the new Ubaid finds add weight to the hypothesis that growing contact among different groups—a so-called interaction sphere—was the spark that eventually ignited the urban revolution. “There is a direct correlation between an increase in cultural interaction and an increase in cultural complexity,” says Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky.

The Beginning of the End for Hunter-Gatherers
by Graham Chandler

Traditionally, theories of the origins of food production have been based on human need: response to population pressures or other causes of resource imbalances. But as studies have advanced, no evidence of resource stress or malnutrition has been found in places where farming has bloomed, fueling new theories and debates.

But there’s little debate that the Neolithic period was truly a time of revolutionary change for humankind, not only in technology and ways of life, but religiously and spiritually. Jacques Cauvin, the late director emeritus of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, a leading scholar of the early Neolithic period in the Near East, called it a complete restructuring of human mentality, expressed in new religious ideas and symbols. Göbekli Tepe was front and center in that timeline.

The Neolithic revolution saw both highly developed religious ideology and mixed farming take a firm hold throughout the Middle East. Cauvin viewed the finds at Göbekli Tepe and the later sites of Çayönü and Nevali Çori as evidence of rooted communities with a religious bent. “We encounter for the first time simultaneous evidence for public buildings and for the collective ceremonies of a religious character that took place in them. These must have served as a strong cement for the psychological cohesion of these sedentary human groups,” he wrote in The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. “It is also quite probable that they were addressing … a personal divinity.”

As agriculture took root, it had a powerful impact on these religious themes. “It seems probable that at sites such as Göbekli Tepe and ‘Ain Ghazal [an early Neolithic village in Jordan], myths featured protagonists who mediated the hunting/farming dichotomy…,” write David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.

The switch from pure hunting and gathering to farming was surely a profound change. Says another Neolithic researcher, Peter Bellwood of Australian National University, “There are obviously many aspects of mobile hunter-gatherer society that are antithetical to adoption of the sedentary lifestyle of the cultivator. On top of this, we have the attitudes of the farming and pastoralist societies themselves, often ranked and status-conscious, with whom some of the ethnographic hunter-gatherers have come into contact and by whom many have eventually been encapsulated.”

First came the temple, then the city
by Christopher Seddon

Many of the pillars are carved with bas-reliefs of animals, including snakes, wild boar, foxes, lions, aurochs, wild sheep, gazelle, onager, birds, various insects, spiders, and scorpions. Where sexual characteristics are present, they are always male. The images are large, often life-size, and semi-naturalistic in style. Some pillars exhibit pairs of human arms and hands, suggesting that they represent stylised anthropomorphic beings. However, it is unclear as to whether they represent gods, shamans, ancestors, or even demons. There are also a number of mysterious abstract symbols that have been interpreted as pictograms (Schmidt, 1995; Schmidt, 1998; Schmidt, 2000; Schmidt, 2003; Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Pictograms are graphic symbols used to convey meaning, often by pictorial resemblance to a physical object. They are widely used in present-day road and other public signage to denote traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, speed cameras, etc. If the Göbekli Tepe symbols were indeed pictograms, then the origins of writing may extend back into the early Neolithic, thousands of years before the appearance of writing systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphic script.

No traces of houses have been found and there is little doubt that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world (Schmidt, 1998). Unlike Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe lacked a mixed farming economy. This overturned the conventional wisdom that such major projects could only be realised by fully-established farming communities. “First came the temple, then the city”, as Schmidt put it. How are we to interpret this temple?

One possibility is that the animals depicted in the various enclosures are totemic. It could be that the site was frequented by a number of groups, each of which identified itself with a different animal or animals and travelled to the site to perform rituals in its own particular enclosure (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). Another possibility is that Göbekli Tepe was associated with shamanistic practices (Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005).

A project on the scale of Göbekli Tepe would have required a large number of labourers and craftsmen. Coordinating the activities of all these people, to say nothing of providing them all with food and shelter, would have been a major undertaking. It should also be remembered that unlike the builders of Stonehenge, the Göbekli Tepe people were still not yet full agriculturalists. Such an undertaking was almost certainly beyond the capabilities of a few shamans and their communities. Instead, it seems likely that the monument was constructed by a hierarchical, stratified society, with powerful rulers. The shamans might have had more in common with priests (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). The link between rulers and religion, so prevalent in later times, might have already started to take shape.

The totemic and shamanistic explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and if the totemic view is correct, then it possible that animals depicted in each enclosure could provide clues as to the origins of particular groups. For example, wild boar depictions predominate in Enclosure C. This suggests a group originating from the north, where pigs account for up to 40 percent of the animal remains found at PPNA sites. Combinations of wild boar with aurochs and cranes, as seen in Enclosure D, suggest an ecotone of steppe and river valley, such as along most water courses in the Euphrates and Tigris drainage regions (Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

All Mixed Up?
by Andy Ornberg

I once read an account by a researcher who spent time with a group of aboriginal people in Australia. He insisted that there was a kind of mental telepathy going on between these people. He noted that there were times he would observe an individual drop what she was doing to respond to a command, summons, etc. she received when no one else was around. The only way this modern westerner could interpret this was to attribute it to telepathy, though it sounded much more to me like they were experiencing command auditory hallucinations ala Jaynes.

The Pirahã and the Bicameral Mind
by Merlijn de Smit

More strangely, the Pirahã have, according to Everett, a strong cultural taboo against talking about anything not within their immediate sphere of experience. No creation myths, or epic stories of any kind – or indeed no art of any kind. And finally entering bizarre territory: according to Everett in his Current Anthropology article, the Pirahã, despite any lack of actual religious belief or myth, do see forest spirits. Meaning, they see forest spirits. Everett recounts being woken from his tent one night by shouting and hollering – and found the whole tribe gathered at the river side, shouting at something on the other side. When Everett inquired what it was they seemed to upset about, the Pirahã incredulously asked whether he could not see the forest spirit that was obviously on the other side.

All of this is far from the “smoking gun” for Jaynes’ hypothesis. Jaynes regarded a total lack of deceit as a hallmark for the “bicameral” mind. The Pirahã seem to be well enough aware of the possibility of being cheated in trade, and, by Everett’s account, are very humorous, joke-loving people. But the apparent restriction of any communication to the immediate sphere of experience, and the actual, externalized perception of forest spirits, rather than imagining them, or divining their workings from inanimate nature, would, if indeed valid, at least bring to mind Jaynes’ thesis.

Mythologizing Landscape
by Andrea Green

Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes (1992) suggests that prehistoric people experienced the landscape in a way alien and inaccessable to contemporary westerners . According to Devereux, prehistoric people were “more easily able to enter trance conditions then we are” (1992: 38) He refers to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the “bicameral brain” – a mode of consciousness that Jaynes ascribes to prehistoric peoples where the brain was “wired” differently and therefore affected sensory perception. (1992: 39) Devereux uses this theory to suggest that the relationship of prehistoric (in this case early bronze age) people with their landscape and environment was experienced through a different consciousness – one which was often hallucinatory and which swapped easily between normal awareness and altered states. In such a state the landscape moved, spoke and gave instructions. The siting and purpose of ritual sites was decided upon through direct communication with the landscape.

Songlines in the City? Hearing the spirit dimension
by Lloyd Fell

Songs and singing are a combination of words and melody – that which separates and that which draws together. Zuckerkandl regarded folk songs and chanting as the most fundamental forms of music because they blend word and tone to integrate our rational and emotional aspects. Purce claimed that using the voice and listening to the sound at the same time enables us to ‘go beyond the dualism of language and separation from the world.’

Jaynes (1990) developed a provocative explanation that consciousness actually originated in ‘the breakdown of the bicameral mind’ which refers to a stage in the evolution of the human brain when the two hemispheres performed distinctly different functions. One side, usually the right hemisphere, produced voices, which directed the other side that controlled speech and conscious thoughts. These were interpreted as voices of the Gods and only as their influence waned did the human responsibility of decision making and reflection that we know as consciousness develop. He argued that the vestiges of this are evident today in the considerable number of people who do hear voices at certain times, in schizophrenia and in the ‘quest for authorisation’ which manifests itself in both religion and science today.

It is widely accepted that brain function is lateralised in that the so-called dominant hemisphere mainly controls speech and rational, linear, thought whereas the other hemisphere is more concerned with creativity, intuition, holistic perception and music. Many anthropologists think that song came before speech in our evolution and Jaynes reviewed evidence that very early poetry (and the voices of the bicameral mind) were invariably sung. There is good evidence that singing requires the opposite brain hemisphere to speaking and that listening to music is also highly lateralised. People with brain lesions that prevent speech can often sing. Jaynes argued that the experience of music is a vestigial operation of the bicameral mind therefore stemming from our historical belief in the sacred Muses.

Musical performance often occurs in groups, sometimes in an improvisatory manner. Improvisation in musical performance has been described as not so much a skill to be developed as ‘the unlearning of habitual patterns of nonawareness and disconnectedness’ (Borgo 1997). The skill of music improvisation is an apt metaphor for the awareness of holonomy in everyday living


2 thoughts on ““First came the temple, then the city.”

  1. This is the type of post that interests me the most. Yet it’s also the type of post that interests most people the least. That is a conundrum.

    This topic fascinates me to a degree that I find mind-blowing. After all, it cuts to the heart of what it means to be human. Why so little interest from most humans about what it means to be human?

    Maybe if I could answer that question I would have a better understanding of humanity.

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