Monday, May 16, 2022

Karahan Tepe

 About twelve years ago, I mentioned relatively recent discoveries at Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey, and the strong suggesting arising from them that a common anthropological narrative -- that agriculture is the seed of civilization -- may be wrong. The evidence is that the people who built Gobekli Tepe were hunter-gatherers, and the site predates the known beginnings of agriculture, but the site also of course proves that they had stone buildings and monuments and fairly sophisticated carved art (mostly sculptures of animals), and there is no sign that the buildings were for habitation, which is usually pretty easy to establish, which means that they were ritual buildings of some kind, probably religious. The argument was also made that, given the orientation of the buildings, the builders were deliberately building with a view to the Winter Solstice.

Since then more excavations have been done in the area, known as Taş Tepeler, and the most important, which only really began to be publicized last year, is Karahan Tepe. Like Gobekli Tepe, it is from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A era, but the evidence indicates that it is  likely older than Gobekli Tepe. While there are a number of differences, Karahan Tepe has a number of features, including similar stone building and similar stone carving. The plethora of skull carving suggests association with a skull cult, of which we have much later attestation in the area; the considerable representation of phalluses and statues with their hands over their phalluses suggest some ritual association; and the orientation of the buildings may confirm the Winter Solstice hypothesis. All of those, of course, confirm that the use of the buildings was religious.

This leads to the suggestion that civilization and agriculture arose out of ritual and religion, and the buildings made for such purposes, rather than vice versa. We have to be careful about generalization; the reason the Taş Tepeler sites survived is that they were stone sites at some point deliberately buried, so they reach back to a point from which most other evidence has been destroyed by time. We don't know any details of the rituals that went on there (although there is some evidence of deliberate collection of rain water and of feasting, and speculation has been made, given all the skulls, that they practiced at least occasional human sacrifice), and we also don't know if these people were typical in practice for that time or weird and aberrant, even for the region, much less for humanity generally.

Sean Thomas reports on the site and its significance for The Spectator.

Here's a travel write-up that gives a better sense of how the area looks.

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