Did the Drive to Worship Give Rise to Civilization?

By Charles C. Mann

[In southern Turkey,] buses (white, air-conditioned, equipped with televisions) blunder over the winding, indifferently paved road to the ridge and dock like dreadnoughts before a stone portal. Visitors flood out, fumbling with water bottles and MP3 players. Guides call out instructions and explanations. Paying no attention, the visitors straggle up the hill. When they reach the top, their mouths flop open with amazement, making a line of perfect cartoon O’s.

Before them are dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.

At the time of Göbekli Tepe’s construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Construction of the site would have required more people coming together in one place than had likely occurred before. Amazingly, the temple’s builders were able to cut, shape, and transport 16-ton stones hundreds of feet despite having no wheels or beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Göbekli Tepe lived in a world without writing, metal, or pottery; to those approaching the temple from below, its pillars must have loomed overhead like rigid giants, the animals on the stones shivering in the firelight—emissaries from a spiritual world that the human mind may have only begun to envision.

Archaeologists are still excavating Göbekli Tepe and debating its meaning. What they do know is that the site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species’ deep past. Just 20 years ago most researchers believed they knew the time, place, and rough sequence of the Neolithic Revolution—the critical transition that resulted in the birth of agriculture, taking Homo sapiens from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to farming villages and from there to technologically sophisticated societies with great temples and towers and kings and priests who directed the labor of their subjects and recorded their feats in written form. But in recent years multiple new discoveries, Göbekli Tepe preeminent among them, have begun forcing archaeologists to reconsider.

At first the Neolithic Revolution was viewed as a single event—a sudden flash of genius—that occurred in a single location, Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq, then spread to India, Europe, and beyond. Most archaeologists believed this sudden blossoming of civilization was driven largely by environmental changes: a gradual warming as the Ice Age ended that allowed some people to begin cultivating plants and herding animals in abundance. The new research suggests that the “revolution” was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.

After a moment of stunned quiet, tourists at the site busily snap pictures with cameras and cell phones. Eleven millennia ago nobody had digital imaging equipment, of course. Yet things have changed less than one might think. Most of the world’s great religious centers, past and present, have been destinations for pilgrimages—think of the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya (where Buddha was enlightened), or Cahokia (the enormous Native American complex near St. Louis). They are monuments for spiritual travelers, who often came great distances, to gawk at and be stirred by. Göbekli Tepe may be the first of all of them, the beginning of a pattern. What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.

Read the entire National Geographic article, here.

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5 Responses to Did the Drive to Worship Give Rise to Civilization?

  1. Kshamabuddhi das

    Archeologists should just stick to digging up old relics and dating them instead of trying to speculate on how and why religious faith develops in human society. They don’t even understand the first concept of spiritual knowledge that we are not the body. They have no good reason for speculating on topics beyond their range of expertise.
    Useless mental speculation that has not an iota of spiritual value.

  2. I think it is only natural to try to make sense of unearthed ancient artifacts – human past is a fascinating subject matter: we are fascinated by the Vedic tales of ancient times, and others are fascinated by stuff dug up by the archaeologists. We always try to make sense of what we experience.

    It is amazing how the perception of Ancient People has been changing over the years, giving them more and more credit and making them closer and closer to us Modern People. There is a great truth in that.

  3. This is simply more chicken-scratcing in the earth of so-called scientifically oriented people trying to understand what it’s all about. Like the song says, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” So this digging goes on. But rather than dig into the Bahgavad-gita or Srimad Bhaawatam, they prefer this chicken scratching technique.

    Each to his own. According to our understanding, Krishna, from within our hearts directs our wanderings, according to our sincerity to really understand the truth of our predicament. When He sees that we are ready to receive real enlightenment, He guides us to a real spiritual master, so that we can receive the bottom line. “Engage your mind in thinking of Me. Offer obeisances to Me. Worship Me. Surely you will come to Me.” BG 9.34.

    In the meantime, these so-called big thinkers continue with their chicken scratching approaches. And people in general attend so-called universities to hear from these speculators and achieve no profit. That is the way of this world.

    I once used to sit in those lecture halls hearing from these fools and rascals. Until one of them told me confidentially, “We don’t really know anything. These theories – we just make them up.” Shortly after I dropped out of university, and met the sublime professor, His Divine Grace, A.C. bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I’m really slow at applying the prescribed techniques. Never-the-less I am getting results, that are confirming the concepts.

    Krishna Consciousness is not blind faith. It really is a scientific process. Hypothsis (sambhanda), procedure (abhideya) and conclusion (prayojana) are parts of the great experiment. There are no tuition fees. And there is expert guidance. What more can one ask for? I was so desparately trying to understand my predicament. I am amazed at my good fortune. Every day is another chance to push deeper into the heart of Krishna Consciousness. Hari bol!

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

    • Ishan das:”I once used to sit in those lecture halls hearing from these fools and rascals. Until one of them told me confidentially, “We don’t really know anything. These theories – we just make them up.”
      It never fails to amaze me how can people who surround themselves with all the amenities modern science provide, like computers, internet, plane travel to India, etc. can with a straight face call people who gave them all this stuff “fools and rascals”. Unless you can produce a Vedic vimana, you are dependent on the so called material science to carry your ungrateful bag of bones to India. Many similar pronouncements on science coming from devotees are a laughable ignorance and naive arrogance, which is why so many intelligent people in this world dismiss our movement as a bunch of religious lunatics. Nobody will take the science of Krishna consciousness seriously until devotees actually start acting like they know what they are talking about. And if you don’t know a particular area really well, it is much better to leave that subject matter alone, or at least admit that this is only our limited understanding, not the ultimate word to be accepted as absolute truth.

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