In 1994, German archeologist Klaus Schmidt described the importance of a huge complex in southern Turkey. It is the oldest known example of religious architecture, built thousands of years before the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. As described in National Geographic, its construction would have required “more people coming together in one place than had likely occurred before,” and the complex was built before the development of writing, and before the development of techniques such as pottery or even the wheel.
The discoveries have revolutionized early archeology because Gobekli Tepe is apparently almost solely a religious site; there are no habitations nearby and no signs of permanent settlement. Whereas until about thirty years ago many archeologists had assumed religion was a byproduct of other events, such as the rise of agriculture or the settling of nomadic populations into more pastoral settings, Gobekli Tepe seems to demonstrate that religious institutions preceded and indeed may have caused these other phenomena, which led ultimately to the rise of civilization. As Charles C. Mann writes, “the construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it.” In other words, as an anthropologist is quoted as saying in the National Geographic article referenced above, the idea that human civilization was shaped by environmental forces, which then generated cultural symbols and rituals to explain it, is backward; rather, “I think that what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.”