Overturning Expectations About Ancient Man

Have you ever watched a construction crew busily raising a large steel building? The massive cranes, earthmovers, and power drills are a tribute to modern ingenuity. Yet we shouldn't thump our chest. The people who scattered from the Tower of Babel could construct impressive structures, too — and without the benefit of modern tools. Everyone is familiar with Stonehenge, but that does not impress archaeologists. Several walled cities had sprung up in other places, and the human race's engineering abilities were already advanced by this time. According to secular assumptions, hunter-gatherers had already spent thousands of years acquiring the skills and resources necessary to build monuments. At least, that was the assumption ... until the discoveries at Göbekli Tepe.

In southeastern Turkey overlooking the Harran plain is a site known as Potbelly Hill (Göbekli Tepe in Turkish). You can't miss it. The 22-acre plateau, located in the Germus range high above the valley, lies just 30 miles (50 km) east of the Euphrates River. Archaeologists began studying the area in 1963, but at first they ignored this mound because it appeared to be just a medieval outpost.

Then in 1994, Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute noticed some flint chips and decided to take a closer look. What he discovered overturned secular assumptions about the rise of human culture.

Not Your Typical Neolithic Site

A quick glance at the pillars and artwork of Göbekli Tepe shows that these builders were skilled artists and masons. This high relief sculpture of a four-legged reptile with impressive teeth may depict an animal that lived on the nearby plain.

It's easy to excuse the original lack of interest. Ancient stone toolmakers usually lived and worked near water and game, but this mound is located at the highest elevation of the mountain range, approximately 1,000 feet (305 m) above the surrounding plain. The closest water source is 3 miles (5 km) away. No evidence of livestock has been found at the site, so the builders may have had to travel down to hunt or farm.

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