“I want to know what were the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilization.”
When Voltaire wrote the above sentence, he was declaring his intent to chart the rise of European civilization from the Middle Ages, but I don’t mind appropriating his words to a different context. It can be easy for even imaginative students of history to lament that the low-hanging fruit has been all eaten up by their predecessors. Orthodoxy insists that we have answered Voltaire’s question, that we have mapped out the path man trudged from his apish origins through various lithic ages to arrive, finally and with great celebration, at his greatest achievement… us, of course! (Were you expecting something else?) Dazzling discoveries surely remain for the determined researcher, but even the greatest of these can only add depth and detail to a picture already painted by earlier generations. The ultra-specialized, domain-specific educational track prepares students for a career in our human past by systematically crushing their ambition and trimming their expectations. The message is, basically, that we already know more or less what happened. There are no more Troys to discover, no more Rosetta Stones, and no, the Sphinx is not 9,000 years old. All that remains for us is to classify, catalog, and comment. Now go sift through this pile of pottery shards on the off-chance that one of them will help tell us if a particular Roman soldier boiled or roasted his beef ration.
That’s why I always get excited when we discover something that reminds us that we don’t know shit. When Klaus Schmidt re-opened the case of Gobekli Tepe in the mid-90’s, we were hit smack in the face with how little we know about our own history. Gobekli Tepe is monumental complex of carved pillars and megalithic stone circles constructed at least 13,000 years ago in the hills of southern Anatolia, and then deliberately buried around 8,000 BCE (for reasons unknown). This date comes millennia before any evidence of crop cultivation or animal husbandry. The implications of the discovery are so mind-boggling that the appropriate response to its discovery would have been for the whole world to temporarily stop all wars, all crime, all other academic activity, and every occupation not related to helping figure out exactly what the fuck was going on. Every morning, I expect to see archaeologists and historians are not running naked and bleeding through the streets, self-flagellating in an attempt to bring everyone’s attention to the fact our entire understanding of the human story has been defenestrated by a German archaeologist. Suddenly, questions whose answers had calcified into dogma, categories into which all new data had to be twisted to fit, have been dusted off and hauled out for another look.
One of the great questions, naturally, has been who built Gobekli Tepe, and how. Presumably, building such a site would require surplus food and resources for workers, as well as complex social systems to direct and coordinate their efforts. But how could small bands of kinship-based hunter gatherers have done this? As a fantastically speculative New Yorker piece on the subject put it:
Whether or not Gobekli Tepe can be called anything like a “temple” is questionable. The writer succumbs to the common tendency to classify any discovery whose purpose has yet to be discovered as a religious artifact. But, leaving that quibble aside, the more fundamental and limiting assumption in the statement is that the monument was built by hunter-gatherers. Despite acknowledging that Gobekli Tepe contradicts everything we thought we knew, the author nevertheless shies away from asking questions which – as researches like Graham Hancock are painfully aware – will quarantine your work in New Age rags and Joe Rogan podcasts. If you hope to be published in the august pages of the New Yorker, you must take great care to be “serious”. And so the obvious question arising from Gobekli Tepe – namely, whether it was built by hunter-gatherers at all, and whether our entire timeline regarding the origin of complex societies (if not ‘civilization’) should be reassessed – is hardly considered. In fact, Schmidt says of the imagined hunter-gatherer-builders, “They were trained killers, nothing else,” and believes that Gobekli Tepe may have been built by hordes of slaves pressed into labor by primitive tyrants. Anything to avoid questioning assumptions on which the entire orthodox model of history rests. Anything to avoid having to start over.
Well, the last few decades have been tough for the historical dogmatists, and recently another 3-pointer was scored by folks like Graham Hancock, Randall Carlson, and other “alternative” archaeology researchers. (I swear to God, if anyone tweets this article with “Aliens” Discovery Channel meme, I’ll put my upcoming series on Gobekli Tepe on hold and then you’ll all be sorry! No aliens!) Archaeologists in the Galilee region of Israel recently made a discovery that pushes our ideas about who was doing what when through the back wall once again. Turns out humans have been growing their own food – or at least managing and encouraging it – since waaaaaay back in the day. As in, 23,000 years ago back in the day.
Cultivation is believed to predate settlement, so only its advent could foster the development of property accrual and civilization itself… Moreover, the prehistoric men living there were making flour. A grinding slab inside one of the huts, plus a stone tool from which microscopic cereal starch granules were extracted, provided unequivocal evidence that cereal grains were brought into the hut – and processed into flour. Outside another hut, the researchers found flat stones that may have served in baking.
I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself and stop sputtering.
If you’re not sputtering, read it again. We have an entire historical timeline based on the idea that cultivation was discovered 10-12,000 years ago and then spread by diffusion to the far corners of the earth. For a century, attempts to drive the dating of artifacts and monuments deeper into the past were squashed by the seemingly unassailable objection that there was no one around back then who could have created these things. But every year seems to yield discoveries which deal another blow to orthodoxy. With Gunung Padang in Indonesia, Catal Huyuk and Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, and countless other sites of mysterious origin and purpose, it is no longer necessary for one to believe in aliens or lizard men to arrive at the conclusion that we are closer to the beginning of understanding our past than we are to the end.
The discovery of crop cultivation c. 21,000 BC is fascinating as a standalone tidbit, but the cascading implications are overwhelming. At that time, global temperatures were about 4 degrees (C) higher than at present, so sea levels were lower and the climate in the Levant and the Middle East was milder. Were the ancient horticulturalists at the cutting edge of human innovation, or were they boondock peasants using rudimentary techniques while an even more advanced society huddled, then as now, near the coasts? There is no inherent reason to believe that the subjects of the recent discovery were the most advanced humans in the world at the time, and the speculative coastal groups would be miles out to sea and hundreds of feet underwater now. Glaciers expanded, and sea levels fell even further as the earth underwent abrupt and dramatic cooling from about 15,000 BC, and then, around 11,600 BC, a catastrophic melting flooded whole regions and caused sea levels to rise once again. If human beings were baking freaking bread c. 21,000 BC, and given how quickly we moved from basic horticulture to advanced society in regions we can observe during our Holocene era, it’s difficult for an undisciplined mind like mine not to wonder what our ancestors might have been up to in the intermediate period.