Friday, May 20, 2011

Digging the Remote Past

As a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Sure, I wanted to be an Olympic decathlon champion and a fireman too. But while those occupations spoke to my sense of adventure, archaeology spoke to my heart. Where did man come from? That seemed to me an even more important question than how the universe began. After all, big bang or no big bang, Someone had to push the start button, however the thing is wired.

While I knew nothing positive about archaeology, I was pretty sure, even as an eight-year-old, that no one else knew anything either. I mean, we don’t even know who Homer was. How can we possibly know what the ancient Egyptians did for fun? Then there was a deeper, ultimate question: How exactly did religion begin? How did man’s religious sense first express itself?

A recent article in National Geographic, “The Birth of Religion,” has given me that oh-yeah feeling that I was onto something. In central Turkey, archaeologists are uncovering a religious site that is over 11,000 years old. That’s right: 7,000 years older than Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid. The article explains:

Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.

Set religion aside for the moment. What this discovery and others like it has done is to overturn the commonly accepted theory of how civilization began. The “Neolithic Revolution” and the rise of agriculture were supposed to have explained how hunter-gatherers settled down into villages, towns, and eventually cities. But that paradigm was based on circumstantial evidence. As one scientist remarked, ““You had an entire theory on the origins of human culture essentially based on a half a dozen unusually plump seeds.”

Now, thanks to finds like Göbekli Tepe, archaeologists speculate that human communities may have arisen because of . . . religion!

Read the article and wonder.

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