The mysterious remains of one of the world's first organized religions

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Homo sapiens may have had religion since the dawn of our evolution, but building vast monuments to our beliefs is a relatively recent development. And by "recent," I mean 11,600 years ago. Archaeologists believe they've found the oldest temple ever built, in southern Turkey.

Called Göbekli Tepe, it is perhaps the world's first example of a vast, monumental architecture project. And these photographs of it reveal a world where spiritual beliefs are, possibly for the first time, dramatically remolding the landscape. It is both an utterly alien and utterly familiar place.

In National Geographic, Charles C. Mann explains what we're seeing in Vincent J. Musi's incredible photos:

To [archaeologist Klaus] Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars are stylized human beings, an idea bolstered by the carved arms that angle from the "shoulders" of some pillars, hands reaching toward their loincloth-draped bellies. The stones face the center of the circle-as at "a meeting or dance," Schmidt says-a representation, perhaps, of a religious ritual. As for the prancing, leaping animals on the figures, he noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them, or incorporating them as totems . . . Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones-a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries.


Schmidt said the amazing this about this find is that it proves that nomadic people are capable of creating vast, monumental architecture. He added:

These people were foragers. Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources. They can't maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can't carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then here is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that.


This sheds a new light on early human development, in which our ancestors spent tens of thousands of years as foragers. It also offers the possibility that humans first learned to settle down by creating monuments where worship, feasting, and general social bonding took place. Maybe cities started with monuments devoted to dancing.

Read more about the weird, unexplainable remains they've discovered at Göbekli Tepe via National Geographic


All photographs by Vincent J. Musi.

(Thanks, Marilyn Terrell!)