There is a standard view of history and historical progress that remains in many textbooks and popular works. Human culture evolved from primitive hunter gatherers who lived in small groups with an egalitarian culture and little social organization. Their religion was mostly shamanistic.
Then came the agricultural revolution. Farming meant that instead of moving from place to place, people could remain in the same place the whole year. Agriculture also yielded more food per person’s effort. This meant that groups could grow larger.
Large groups meant greater social organization and division of labor. This in turn led to social stratification and organized religion. This was accompanied with the building of massive religious constructions like the pyramids of Egypt.
This idea certainly sounds logical. So logical that historians and anthropologists like Jared Diamond have debated whether the shift to agriculture was a good thing considering all the social changes this entailed. Even back in the 1970s, Jacob Bronowski discussed the conflict between settled agrarian and nomadic pastoral societies.
The problem is that while logical, there is little actual evidence for this idea. Increasingly, there is evidence that does not fit the model at all.
Consider the site of Gobekli Tepe in South East Turkey. This site contains 200 pillars of up to 6m (20ft) in height arranged in about 20 circles. The massive pillars were adorned with carvings of animals like foxes, boars, cranes and panthers. Many of the pillars retain a T shape with a large flat slab placed on top. Some of them also have slender human arms and loin cloths on the lower body indicating that these were meant to represent human or human like divine forms.
The site has been dated between 10,000 to 8000 BCE. It’s significance was initially noticed by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. Schmidt is convinced this is the earliest evidence we have of organized religion.
Pillars of Gobekli Tepe
The problem is that the date of these ruins puts it well beyond the so called ‘agricultural revolution’. Indeed, there is evidence of wild cereals in the surrounding area as well as butchering of wild gazelles and donkeys.
The idea that a non-sedentary population could have erected, augmented and maintained monuments of such complexity is completely at odds with what experts believed possible. At present, the site poses more questions than it answers.
Poverty Point, Louisiana, US
But Gobekli Tepe is not unique. There is another much later monument in United States which poses the same question. Poverty Point on the banks of the Mississippi river in Louisiana comprises of earthworks built between 1650 and 700 BC. Again, the scale of the monument is staggering. The site is 910 acres and has been studied since the early part of the 20th century. The labor required to erect it is many times what would have been required to make Stonehenge, indeed you could fit hundreds of Stonehenges in poverty point.
Consider the 72 ft high mound A which would have required moving 238,500 cu meters (31,200 trucks worth) of soil by hand. The astounding thing about this is that archaeologists believe the mound was built within 90 days by a culture of hunter gatherers.
This would have meant over a thousand workers working full time. These laborers would need to be fed and housed implying a large and concentrated supporting population. Finally, what kind of social organization would it have taken to organize and direct such a large workforce?
The purpose of this massive structure is again believed to be religious. It seems even pre-agrarian societies had complex religious beliefs and powerful social organization.
Human prehistory is richer and more diverse than we give it credit. Perhaps we need to unlearn some of our prejudices to appreciate it.