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Did Geometry Guide the Construction of the World’s Oldest Temple?

New research suggests the center points of three stone megalith circles at Göbekli Tepe form a near-perfect triangle

An aerial view of one of the circular enclosures at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (Gil Haklay / AFTAU)
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Göbekli Tepe, a roughly 11,500-year-old complex in southeastern Turkey, is the world’s oldest temple. Now, new research suggests it may also be one of the earliest examples of geometrically planned architecture.

Located in southeastern Anatolia, Göbekli Tepe’s circles of T-shaped, limestone megaliths resemble a more intricate, less rough-hewn iteration of Stonehenge, which it predates by some 6,000 years. Neolithic hunter-gatherers likely constructed the temple, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Many of the site’s imposing stones feature etchings of foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures. Past excavations have also uncovered human skulls that show signs of ritual carving, prompting experts to theorize that the people who frequented the site may have belonged to a so-called “skull cult.”

Made up of giant stone pillars arranged in circles of up to 65 feet in diameter, “Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological wonder,” says study co-author Avi Gopher, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, in a statement. “Since there is no evidence of farming or animal domestication at the time, the site is believed to have been built by hunter-gatherers. However, its architectural complexity is highly unusual for them."

When experts first studied Göbekli Tepe in the 1960s, they dismissed it as a medieval cemetery. But in 1994, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt revealed the sprawling complex’s true age, sparking an intense debate over its origins that continues to this day.

Until recently, Britain's Stonehenge was thought to be the world's oldest set of stone monuments. But a recent discovery in the Turkish region of Göbekli Tepe has been estimated to be over 6,000 years older.

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, researchers had long thought that the development of complex social systems like religion only emerged after humans settled down and started making forays into agriculture. But Göbekli Tepe’s age—and a lack of evidence that farming or animal domestication occurred nearby—suggests the coordinated efforts required to build it may have instigated settlement rather than followed it.

Much of the site has yet to be excavated. Surveys suggest some 15 additional rings of huge stones remain buried beneath the soil, reports Yasemin Saplakoglu for Live Science. One of the outstanding questions surrounding the ancient site is whether its structures were built simultaneously or one at a time.

The authors of the new paper, published earlier this month in the Cambridge Archeological Journal, decided to address this question by determining whether the site’s round enclosures were part of a cohesive architectural scheme or if they were constructed without reference to one another.

“There is a lot of speculation that the structures were built successively, possibly by different groups of people, and that one was covered up while the next one was being built,” study co-author Gil Haklay, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, tells Ariel David of Haaretz. “But there is no evidence that they are not contemporaneous.”

Haklay and Gopher used a computer algorithm based on standard deviation mapping to analyze the site’s underlying architecture. They found that three of the enclosures appear to have been designed together in a triangular, geometric pattern.

These structures’ center points—situated roughly halfway between two large pillars in the middle of each circle—form a near-perfect triangle with sides measuring 63 feet in length, reports Haaretz.

Previously, scholars thought that humans only started using geometric shapes to create floor plans when hunter-gatherer societies settled down and began farming some 10,500 years ago, according to the statement. But the discovery of what could be geometric architectural design at Göbekli Tepe suggests these sophisticated plans may have actually predated agriculture.

Dating methods can’t discern whether the three enclosures were erected at precisely the same time, but the researchers tell Live Science they were likely planned as one project—a scenario that, in turn, suggests the builders used a diagram or schematic drawing to guide construction.

Göbekli Tepe
Geometric pattern underlying the architectural planning of a complex at Göbekli Tepe, as seen with a diagram superimposed over the schematic plan (Gil Haklay / AFTAU)

Tristan Carter, an archaeologist at McMaster University in Canada who was not involved in the research, tells Live Science that Göbekli Tepe’s builders could have built one enclosure first and planned the other two around it later to create an equilateral triangle.

Even if these three enclosures were designed and built together, “it doesn’t mean that the others were not constructed as single units, perhaps by different groups,” says Anna Belfer-Cohen, an archaeologist at Hebrew University who was also not involved in the research, to Haaretz.

She adds, “[I]t is more likely that there were many different groups that considered this entire area sacred and converged on it to erect the enclosures, rather than a single group that went crazy and just constructed these complexes day and night.”

Gopher and Haklay maintain that the geometric organization of the three enclosures is indicative of the huge societal and ideological shifts taking place at this point in human history.

“The layout of the complex is characterized by spatial and symbolic hierarchies that reflect changes in the spiritual world and in the social structure,” says Haklay in the statement.

Building such large stone structures would have required huge investments of labor and resources. The researchers theorize that the ancient society responsible for their construction may have become more stratified over time.

“This is where it starts: The sharing instinct of hunter-gatherer societies is reduced and inequality is growing; someone is running the show—I don’t know if it’s shamans or political leaders, but this is a society that has an architect and somebody who initiates a project like this and has the power to make it happen,” Gopher tells Haaretz.

Göbekli Tepe’s architecture and iconography may provide a window into an even bigger ideological change that presaged humanity’s switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture, explains Gopher to Live Science.

The northern point of the triangle identified by the new research is the largest of the three circular structures and the only one whose two stone monoliths bear anthropomorphic carvings, according to Haaretz. The researchers interpret this northern enclosure as the top of the triangle, placing humans atop a hierarchy formed by the two other animal-adorned points of the triangle.

“The end of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is more of an ideological transformation than an economic or technological one,” Gopher tells Haaretz. “Hunter-gatherers cannot domesticate anything, it’s against their world view, which is based on equality and trust. Once that ideology changes, the entire structure of society is transformed and a new world is born.”

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