Complex Societies before Agriculture: Göbekli Tepe

A week or two ago I was sitting in a doctor’s office, when I realized that I forgot to bring any readings with me. As I was idly rifling through the usual stack, my roving eye was suddenly arrested by a cover of a two-year old National Geographic, which proclaimed

THE BIRTH OF RELIGION: The World’s First Temple


The article was authored by Charles C. Mann, of the 1491 (and now 1493) fame:


and it describes excavations at Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey led by Klaus Schmidt.


It’s likely no one lived at Göbekli Tepe, a religious sanctuary built by hunter-gatherers. Scientists have excavated less than a tenth of the site—enough to convey the awe it must have inspired 7,000 years before Stonehenge. (National Geographic, June 2011)



There was a series of monumental structures built one after another at this site

There is no question that Göbekli Tepe is a spectacular site. But it also presents an enormous challenge to the standard archaeological theory of how complex large-scale societies evolved.

For most of our evolutionary history we, anatomically modern humans, lived in small-scale societies. And I mean, really, small-scale. Paleolithic humans interacted, on a daily basis, with at most a few dozens of other people, each of whom they knew intimately. These closely-knit local communities were embedded within ‘tribes’ – ethno-linguistic groups numbering many hundreds, or perhaps even two-three thousand people, who spoke the same language, shared same sacred beliefs, used distinctive ethnic markers (dress, tattoos, artifact styles) to distinguish ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and tended to cooperate with each other (especially when attacked by other ethno-linguistic tribes).

Beginning about 10,000 years ago this started changing, and now the vast majority of humans live in large-scale societies. And I mean really large scale – tens and hundreds of millions instead of hundreds/few thousands 10,000 years ago. In some cases (China, India) over a billion of individuals are encompassed by the same political community. If you think about it, this is truly an astronomic change – 6 freaking orders of magnitude! So how did it come about?

The standard archaeological model (which is so standard that it is rarely formulated in explicit terms) explains it this way. Around 10,000 years ago humans began domesticating plants and animals. This allowed them to dramatically increase production of food, which in turn enabled greater population densities, sedentary way of life, villages – and then cities, complex societies, states, writing, etc. – in short, civilization.

The adoption of agriculture, thus, created a resource base capable of sustaining high population densities and an extensive division of labor. It also generated the capacity to produce ‘surplus’ to support craftsmen, priests, and rulers. At this point, the standard theory branches out into several different models, with some emphasizing the need to manage economy, others focusing on warfare, and yet others stressing the role of ideological specialists (priests and religion). Details vary, but the common denominator is that a rich resource base is not only a necessary condition, but also a sufficient one. I call this the ‘bottom-up’ theory of the evolution of social complexity, because it treats social complexity as a sort of ‘superstructure’ on the material resource base.

In other words, you stir in enough resources into your evolutionary pot, and social complexity will inevitably ‘bubble up’, although different theories evoke different mechanisms explaining exactly how and why this happens.

The problem for the bottom-up theory is that Göbekli Tepe flatly contradicts the sequence of events postulated by this theory. Göbekli Tepe was a major religious and ritual center. It periodically gathered together people from a fairly large-scale society. Constructing the monument and carving the pillars required hundreds of workers and artisans laboring together, so the supporting society had to number in the thousands, at the very least. Probably tens of thousands, given that it couldn’t have a high capacity to generate the surplus needed to support the workers.


Building Göbekli Tepe (National Geographic, June 2011)

Its capacity for generating surplus had to be limited, because the society that built Göbekli Tepe subsisted by hunting and gathering. The earliest complex at Göbekli Tepe was built roughly at 9600 BCE, while the first evidence of agriculture in the area dates to at least one thousand years later. The workers at the site ate game – gazelles and aurochs – probably supplemented by gathered plant foods. They did not eat any cultivated grains.

So here we have an inverted sequence of events. First, a fairly large-scale society arises, with quite sophisticated ritual activities and buildings requiring mobilization of large numbers of workers. Next comes agriculture. This sequence suggests that the standard theory inverses the cause and effect. The National Geographic article suggests an alternative causation:

“Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height.”

The two rival models are illustrated in this diagram:


Exciting! Are we witnessing a scientific revolution in process?

Before we jump on this bandwagon, however, let’s ask two questions.

Question 1. Is Göbekli Tepe a freakish outlier, an unusual data point that should be discounted? Perhaps there is some problem with dating that, when corrected, will show that agriculture actually was adopted earlier than thought. In any case, a scientific theory cannot be rejected on the basis of a single example. However, as I will discuss in subsequent blogs we now have multiple examples in which an increase in the social scale precedes agriculture. But what we clearly need is a systematic study.

Question 2. Is the alternative explanation logically consistent? Here I am bothered by the key step, described in the diagram as follows: “Wonderment at changes in the world leads to organized religion”.

??! This reminds me of one of my favorite math cartoons:



One thought on “Complex Societies before Agriculture: Göbekli Tepe

  1. John Zerzan blames agriculture for the development of religion, symbolic thinking, specialization of labor, hierarchy, and domination — but this example seems to suggest that these are all inherently human, even without agriculture. Good caveat, though, that the dates could be off


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