‘Stone circles were homes for Man, not temples of the gods’

(Photograph copyright Berthold Steinhilber)

ISTANBUL, October 2011, The Times

A series of mysterious stone circles said to be the world’s first temple may have housed not gods but men, according to a Canadian scientist.

Göbekli Tepe, a complex of huge, elaborately carved stones built 11,000 years ago on a hilltop in southern Turkey, is ranked by many as the most extraordinary archaeological discovery of the past half-century.

Predating Stonehenge by 6,500 years, the cluster of huge T-shaped monoliths bearing stylised images of people and animals were erected before humans mastered metalworking, pottery or writing and have long been recognised as the earliest example of complex religious worship.

However, in a paper published this month in Current Anthropology, Ted Banning, a professor at the University of Toronto, claims that the stone circles could have been the homes of the world’s first settled people. “If my hypothesis is correct, no one in their wildest dreams would have thought we would find houses like that in such an early period,” he told The Times.

When excavation began in 1994 the site astounded archaeologists, pre-dating by millennia other man-made structures of similar scale and complexity. Until now, they claimed that it was devoid of permanent habitation and had been a place of religious pilgrimage for Neolithic hunter-gatherers.

Professor Banning points to the discovery of vast quantities of stone-tool debris, charcoal and animal bones to suggest that the site was settled: “It’s one of the world’s biggest garbage dumps. Food remains, tool fragments, charcoal; it’s difficult to see where they came from unless there were people living there.”

He said the “temple” hypothesis assumed that the builders of Göbekli Tepe drew distinctions between the everyday and the sacred, something that developed only later. The monoliths may have acted as pillars for roofed houses, and stone sickles found on the site suggest inhabitants were experimenting with agriculture. “I’m uncomfortable with the automatic conclusion whenever we come across a building that is large and impressive that it has to be a temple,” he said.

However, Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who first realised the significance of Göbekli Tepe and has led the excavation there since, dismissed Professor Banning’s theory. “I don’t agree with his ideas; however, I welcome any competing explanations,” he said, declining to give more specific criticism until he has responded through an academic journal.

With only a fraction of the 20-acre (8ha) site excavated, Göbekli Tepe remains a mystery. One unanswered question is why it was deliberately buried beneath thousands of tonnes of soil in a process that ended about 8,200BC. The stone circles may also shed light on the Neolithic Revolution, when humans moved from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled, agrarian existence.

With some monoliths 16ft (5m) high and weighing 16 tonnes, the site forces archaeologists to question the assumption that complex societies arose only after the mastery of agriculture.