Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gobekli Tepe

I wish that I had posted on the very important archaeological site of Gobekli Tepe last summer when the article about it came out in National Geographic Magazine. It got yanked back to my attention when I read this extremely annoying article about it in the latest New Yorker.

Gobekli Tepe is a site in Turkey that dates back as early as 11,600 BP. Its importance stems from the fact that it contains some very striking monumental architecture that was made by pre-agricultural people. Most archaeological theories about cultural development have always held that this sort of sustained communal effort could only be accomplished by peoples who had an agricultural subsistence base and a well-developed social heirarchy to direct the work. As the archaeologist who excavated the site says:

"These people were foragers," Schmidt says, 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."

This is really cool stuff and I recommend that you page through the pictures accompanying the NatGeo article to see the amazing quality of the stonework and the earliest life-sized human statue. And there is no arguing that it is older than anything else like it that we know of so far. However, I believe Dr. Schmidt is a victim of some stereotyped thinking concerning the behavior of hunter-gatherers.

Hunter-gatherer societies don't have to be "small, mobile groups." It depends upon the nature of their subsistence base. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence from western North America shows large permanent settlements of hunter-gatherers all up and down the west coast. If you have a large, reliable non-agricultural food source - like the ocean or large groves of acorn-producing oak trees - you don't have to move around much at all. Whether you choose to go into the monument building business of course, is another story.

My first contrarian thought about the "unique" quality of Gobekli Tepe involved a well-known site in Louisiana, the large earth-mound complex at Poverty Point. This is a large complex of mounds covering around 500 acres that dates as early as 3500 BP. These people were hunter-gatherers as well, not as early as at Gobekli Tepe, but at the same stage of social and economic development. The Poverty Point folks didn't do stone monuments, they didn't have rocks, but their overall scope of effort dwarfs anything the people at Gobekli Tepe did: Mound A at Poverty Point contains 238,000 cubic meters of fill.

A second contratrian example would be some early cultures along the coast of Peru. Evidence of mound-building by hunter-gatherer people has been found in the Nanchoc Culture there that dates as early as 8000 BP. That's within striking distance of Gobekli Tepe's age. These cultures were very dependent on the rich Pacific fisheries, and it is becoming apparent that agriculture's first appearance here was in the form of raising cotton to make cord for fish nets, rather than growing foodstuffs.

I have a feeling the reason more sites like Gobekli Tepe haven't been discovered is due to confirmation bias. Now that the old paradigm is broken, more will be found. Archaeology is rife with examples of this.

As far as the annoying New Yorker article is concerned, Elif Bauman seems to want to make the center of attention herself rather than what's going on at the site. She complains the graduate students managing the excavation didn't want to talk to her, but based on her attitude in the article, I don't think I blame them.


Steve Bodio said...

She also did a pretty stupid (or to be charitable, unobservant) brush- off of Urfa, the nearest city-- an ancient, historically important, fascinating, and friendly place where I once spent a pleasant week. Perhaps it was a little too un- western? (;-)

It is Kurdish rather than Anatolian-- did she know?-- and has pigeon lofts in restaurants and photos of prize pigeons in hotel lobbies...

Reid Farmer said...

Right - after I posted this I remembered about your visit to Urfa a few years ago. You should re-post/link some of that material

Hard to be observant when you're always looking in the mirror

Zarin said...

Too many assumptions are being made about Gobekli Tepe with only about 10% of it uncovered. This is like describing any creature with only 10% revealed. It is a well known fact that hunter-gatherer groups must divide once they reach between 35-50 in population, 35-50 people could not have built Gobekli Tepe so there must have been a more reliable source of food and fresh water. This information has not been adequately established. The greatest danger here is applying modern sensibilities to the thinking of a people, who existed 12,000 years ago.

Neutrino Cannon said...

Mound A at Poverty Point contains 238,000 cubic meters of fill.

That's damn impressive for people who haven't invented the shovel.