The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion
Is Turkey’s “Stonehenge” evidence of the oldest religion in the world?
The massive stone enclosures of the Gobekli Tepe ruins (known to many as Turkey’s “Stonehenge”) may be the earliest examples of Neolithic religion. What do the enclosures and the fascinating reliefs that adorn their pillars reveal about the oldest religion in the world? (Photo: Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic Stock)
On a hill known as Göbekli Tepe (“Potbelly Hill”) in southeastern Turkey, archaeologists have uncovered several large megalithic enclosures that date between 10000 and 8000 B.C.E., the dawn of civilization and the Neolithic age. Each of these circular enclosures, which many have described as Turkey’s “Stonehenge,” consists of ten to twelve massive stone pillars surrounding two larger monoliths positioned in the middle of the structure. There are no village remains at or near the Göbekli Tepe ruins, suggesting that the unique site was a ceremonial center exclusively used for the practice of the Neolithic religion of local hunter-gatherer groups.
Given the early age of the site, equally surprising are the varied and often highly elaborate carvings that adorn the pillars of the Göbekli Tepe ruins. Among the pillars are detailed and often very realistic depictions of animal figures, including vultures and scorpions, lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes, and other birds and reptiles. In addition, some of the massive monoliths are carved with stylized anthropomorphic details—including arms, legs and clothing—that give the impression of large super-human beings watching over the enclosures.
The Göbekli Tepe ruins and enclosures—the earliest monumental ritual sites of Neolithic religion and possibly the oldest religion in the world—are causing experts to rethink the origins of religion and human civilization. Until recently, scholars agreed that agriculture and human settlement in villages gave rise to religious practices. The discoveries at the Göbekli Tepe ruins, however, indicate that earlier hunter-gatherer groups that had not yet settled down had already developed complex religious ideas, together with monumental ceremonial sites to practice the sacred communal rituals of Neolithic religion.
In his article “In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization,” Biblical scholar Ben Witherington III presents Göbekli Tepe. With his article “The Search for the Holy Grail: Misguided from the Start” in Mysteries of the Bible: From the Garden of Eden to the Shroud of Turin, Witherington joins an international team of experts presenting the Bible’s greatest enigmas.
Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins have uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, indicating that many different species—including those depicted on the pillars—were slaughtered, sacrificed and presumably eaten at the site. While it is uncertain to whom these sacrifices were made, it’s possible they were offered to the enclosures’ stylized human pillars that, as some have suggested, may represent priests, deities or revered ancestors in Neolithic religion. Given that human bones have also been found, others believe the Göbekli Tepe ruins may have been a Neolithic burial ground where funerary rituals and perhaps even excarnations were practiced.*
To learn more about the Göbekli Tepe ruins and Neolithic religion, read Ben Witherington III’s article “In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization” as it appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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*For excarnation in the later Chalcolithic period, see Rami Arav, “Excarnation: Food For Vultures,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.