Wednesday, June 01, 2011

History of Civilization

Much-cited story of the month seems to be Charles Mann's National Geographic article on Gobekli Tepe, an extraordinarily large and complicated ruin in Turkey that is nearly 12,000 years old -- vastly older than Stonehenge and, he thinks, soon to become more famous.

The argument Mann takes from the excavator of Gobekli Tepe is that it proves that religion precedes agriculture.  The old theory, he reports, was that agriculture and complex  societies came first, then complex religions, probably crop- and fertility-based cults, as befitted an agricultural society.  No farming, no complex religion.  But Gobekli Tepe is older than early agriculture, and it looks like the mother of all temples. So Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion and even the building of massive places of worship precede agriculture.

Gobekli Tepe is amazing.  But I'm not sure the lesson is so new. At Catal Heyuk, also in Turkey, excavators long since found a relatively large city that existed, probably as a centre of trade, before agriculture had developed anywhere nearby.  Jane Jacobs, in her Economy of Cities, used this to argue that cities came first and that the techniques of tending seeds and keeping livestock probably began in cities and were later outsourced to the countryside (rural life being too dumb for such great invention, is her subtext).  And Stephen Mithen, in Before the Ice, a fine survey of prehistory, summarizes the argument that in particularly bountiful environments, previously migratory hunters and gathers had settled into semi-permanent communities well before developing agriculture.

So there are prior suggestions for permanent settlement and relatively complex societies coming into being before agriculture.  And if that is so, it's not surprising they would have complicated religions and even complicated temples like Gobekli Tepe --before they took to developing substantial agriculture.  This new site deserves its superlatives, that is, but archaeological thinking on prehistory need not be overturned completely by it.

See, you write the history of the world, even for kids, and you get intrigued by questions like these....

(Gobekli Tepe image from National Geographic)
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