The Troy that Homer sang. Hatusa, the capital of the Hittites. The Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük. Archaeological sites as exceptional as these would fill any country with pride. However, of the eighteen places in Turkey declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO today, the undisputed star has been a site that still has little meaning for everything it means. Its importance is understood with a simple comparison. It is a complex so immemorial that it predates the second oldest in the world, the tower of Jericho, by a millennium and a half, according to current academic consensus. Göbekli Tepe is simply the oldest monument ever found.

Its dating is dizzying. According to radiocarbon measurements, this megalithic complex located in the extreme southeast of Anatolia, practically touching the Syrian border, stopped being used in 8350 BC. C. at the latest.

In other words, the newest thing about it is four centuries before anything began to be built in Jericho. If that reference raises eyebrows, the start date of Göbekli Tepe directly takes your breath away. The rise of it could date back to 9612 BC. C., an estimate made, it is worth reiterating, with a radiometric evaluation as objective and contrasted as carbon 14. In other words, the age of the Anatolian site reliably exceeds 11,600 years.

However, the first scientific expedition that crossed this milestone decided to skip it. In 1963, a mission from the University of Chicago realized that the “pot-bellied hill,” which is what the name of the place means, was not entirely natural. The group recognized its Neolithic origin, which, in that region of the famous Fertile Crescent, where the earliest civilizations emerged, is estimated between the years 10,000 and 4,500 BC. c.

Scholars identified Byzantine and Muslim, that is, medieval, graves in Göbekli Tepe. They also took samples of the numerous flint chips that, under the Mediterranean sun, seemed to flame on the ground. However, they did nothing else. They continued on. They saw no signs of interest to carry out an exhaustive tasting.

This is how Ibrahim Yildiz and his son Mehmet, two Kurdish shepherds who grazed their cattle there, continued to do so. Every day they took their animals to the gentle elevation, and, in search of shade and coolness, they reclined under a solitary mulberry tree that grew on the summit next to two graves. Like the explorers of Chicago, these locals were unaware that beneath them lay “the beginning of monumental architecture” and “the beginning of art as an imaginary product,” as Göbekli Tepe has been defined by the well-known British travel journalist Anthony Sattin in the essay Nomads (Criticism, 2023).

“In 1994, Klaus Schmidt,” a German archaeologist, says the same book, “was in a nearby town and an old man told him that he had seen flint stones” at that site. However, the scientist “knew that there was only limestone and basalt in that terrain.”

Hence he headed, intrigued, to that place. “Thanks to what he had learned while writing his thesis and in various field work,” explains Sattin, who was able to interview the archaeologist months before he died, he “also knew that the flint stones that the old man told him about, which For his colleagues they were of no interest, they were tools that primitive hands had used to file the bedrock”, an arduous task, “possibly with the intention of giving shape to the enormous blocks of stone that he would soon begin to discover.”

The scholar understood that he would spend the rest of his life investigating that site. He was forty years old. For the remaining twenty years, until his death in 2014 from a heart attack, Schmidt led a mission there that has revealed surprising insights into the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. His ambitious work of excavation, analysis and exegesis has given way to a stage of more limited objectives, with the emphasis placed on the thoroughness of the exploration and its assimilation.

This change of focus began with the discoverer’s successor in charge of the works, the German-Argentine archaeologist Ricardo Eichmann, who sought to clarify with the utmost rigor the multiple unknowns posed by the site and its fit into prehistoric evolution.

Son of the infamous organizer of the “final solution” in the Third Reich, Professor Eichmann, who unequivocally repudiated his father’s Nazism, had the same institutional support that Schmidt enjoyed. He led a joint endowment of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the Sanliurfa Archaeological Museum by Turkey. Located in the ancient city of Edessa, the latter exhibits bas-reliefs, free-standing statues and totems recovered at the site.

The Turkish archaeologist Necmi Karul has assumed direction of the field work since 2019, as well as the incorporation of Istanbul University to the team and a reorientation of the project towards documentation and conservation.

Professor Karul does double duty, as he also coordinates the missions in Karahan Tepe. It is an enclave that, dated around 9400 BC. C., is located about thirty kilometers from Göbekli Tepe and shares with it the unprecedented period of construction and many physical characteristics. Known since 1997, this nearby site has been excavated since 2019 and yielded important finds, such as an anthropomorphic sculptural head, in 2022. Its novelty means that it has not yet been included in duly agreed lists of ancient monuments.

Meanwhile, since the first shovels of earth for its exhumation, Göbekli Hill has shaken notions that were believed to be immovable about the most remote human past. Its vestiges call into question, without going any further, one of the mantras of modern prehistory, the concept of Neolithic revolution.

Proposed by the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe in 1936, it consists, in a synthetic way, in that, after tens of thousands of years of roaming the planet in search of sustenance, with few alterations in their way of life, some Homo sapiens opted for produce food themselves. As? Through agriculture.

According to this model, considered valid until very recently, those initial cereal plantations were the touchstone that drove the transition from nomadism to sedentary lifestyle. The ears had to be taken care of and watered after planting. Also make sure that wild animals or other human groups do not eat the grain before it is ready to harvest. The solution would have been to stay nearby, forming settlements in the vicinity, which soon became stable.

This novel mode of survival would have generated consequences such as specialization of work, social hierarchy, domestication of animals, ceramics to store grain, looms with which to make coats, larger and walled versions of towns, observatories for the stars, altars where to pray for fertile crops and honor the ancestors… In short, the lifestyle that is called civilization because of its constitutive cell, the city, in a sequence that would reach the present.

Gordon Childe’s thesis sounded very logical. Until Göbekli Tepe dynamited its foundations. Klaus Schmidt condensed his imprint into a brief formula: “First there was the temple, then the city.” That is, the opposite of the conventional view. In fact, he called the place, long before any proto-urban vestige, “the first temple in the world”, without anyone being able to refute it until now.

In a challenge to current knowledge, it would have been erected by groups of hunter-gatherers still without fixed residence, who agreed to build, over generations, this very special site. In short, it may have been spirituality, and not agriculture with its settlements, that sparked the revolution supposed by the Neolithic for humanity.

Indications have already emerged that could also correct Schmidt’s proposal. Karahan Tepe may have been a residential enclave. Likewise, in that corner of Anatolia, another thirty kilometers from Göbekli Tepe, is the first region in which wild wheat was cleared, the click that Gordon Childe preached.

That site, Mount Karaca, could provide information that is still unknown, as could Karahan Tepe and the site on these pages, of which 95% remains to be explored. That’s what’s fascinating about archaeology. Like all science, it is rewritten as new layers of reality are revealed and assimilated.

This text is part of an article published in number 669 of the magazine Historia y Vida. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at