Why Civilization Is Older Than We Thought

Sue Fleckney/Göbekli Tepe vulture stone, the world's first-known pictograph

The dry hills, brilliant sea, and neat rows of gated suburban communities made me wonder whether I had left San Francisco at all. Looking down on the suburbs of Istanbul that hug the Bosporus during my flight’s approach was unreal—not just because months of quarantine had put an end to the usual rhythm of work travel, but because the city’s rich history was invisible under the recent real estate developments.

Even Istanbul’s impressive new airport, with its tulip-shaped tower, felt more similar to SFO than the old Istanbul Atatürk Airport. Tulips might be the national flower of Turkey, but the sleek tower had been clearly designed in an international style, a style meant to impress international visitors and win Berlin architecture prizes in an era of global tourism. A style that, though it uses local motifs and materials, nevertheless makes you feel the same no matter where you are.

Still, as I disembarked my flight, I saw the whites and flowing curves as a show of a new kind of opulence. The new airport cost $12 billion to build, one of the many huge construction projects of Turkish strongman Erdogan’s new, powerful Turkey. Passing closed store after closed store, I spotted advertisements depicting another distinct shape: the T-shaped pillars of a site I had read so much about over the years, one that was unlike any other—Göbekli Tepe. Only a few years ago, this neolithic site, with the world’s oldest discovered buildings, was of obscure interest. Today, it is part of Turkey’s national tourism branding strategy. Modern development was hiding Istanbul’s rich history while highlighting deep Anatolia’s. The past becomes what we make of it.

Remaking the Past

Göbekli Tepe translates into English as “Potbelly Hill,” an apt description of the flat plateau where these ancient ruins were rediscovered in 1995. Observing the hills of Şanlıurfa Province in southeastern Turkey, they seemed arid and rugged, but not quite desert. The sunshine is interrupted by occasional storms, and the heat and nighttime cold so far inland are untempered by the distant Mediterranean Sea. Kurdish shepherds have long found the land hospitable enough for their flocks. After the ruins were discovered, some news outlets ran interviews with shepherds who claimed the site was traditionally considered a sacred or cursed site. But such stories are often confabulated in the aftermath of ancient discoveries.

Rolf Cosar/The excavation site of Göbekli Tepe

Along the way to the site, a forgettable visitor’s center greeted me with animations and music evoking primitiveness. Such art is a window into our modern shared subconscious rather than into the culture of a people who erected buildings 11,500 years ago. The genre of music conveys a primordial sense of community, one that is socially undifferentiated and innocent of technology. It doesn’t matter who you are: you can join the dance. This is misleading, since I suspect such communities were rather the opposite: fully reliant on their own technological assets, and furthermore closed off, reluctant to expose strangers to sacred rites or communal wealth. The feeling of an uninitiated modern person, upon entering the real Göbekli Tepe, would more likely be one of confusion or even mortal terror. 

We underestimate both the social and material technologies needed for ancient life. When we find remains of beavers, we assume they built beaver dams, even if we don’t immediately find remnants of such dams. The beaver dams are part of what biologists would call the animal’s extended phenotype, an unavoidable necessity of the ecological niche that the beaver occupies. When we find Homo sapiens skeletons, however, we instead imagine the people naked, feasting on berries, without shelter, and without social differentiation. The contemporary imagination of the state of nature has been bounded by the thought experiments of Western political theorists. We tend to look to thinkers like Smith, Hobbes, Rousseau, or sometimes Marx, rather than any considerations of what our plausible ecological niches could have actually been. Any hope of interpreting ancient discoveries rightly rests as strongly on the quality of our theory of human nature as it does on radiocarbon dating. What, we should ask, is our extended phenotype? 

The Turkish government made significant investments into remaking the archaeological site into an archaeological park. That money helped to smooth it into something globally digestible. It is now a memorable but ultimately unchallenging experience and one that doesn’t lend itself to lessons about the human animal. Visitors then depart the modern context-setting exercise of the visitors’ center to board a shuttle to the site itself. 

A recently-built walkway circles the excavated portion of the site. Three concentric stone walls enclose spaces sometimes dotted with towering 18-foot tall T-shaped pillars. For such pillars, each weighing about ten to twenty tons, no method of construction can do without a significant amount of human labor. No one can say with confidence what construction techniques were used, and what timelines were considered acceptable for their completion. Medieval cathedrals famously took decades or even centuries to finish. Decade-long planning and consistent construction would be quite the discovery in its own right, forcing us to reevaluate our conception of Neolithic society. Tellingly, estimates by archaeologists put the human labor requirement for extracting the pillars and moving them from local quarries to be about five hundred people. Assuming usual estimates of Neolithic population density, this would have been quite the organizational feat.

The most startling aspect of these ruins is their age: that they are old enough to predate the consensus origin of human agriculture. 

How were hundreds of laborers fed if not through agriculture? And how was it organized? How should we best describe such a society? The Sumerian city-states of what is today Iraq, such as Eridu, are typically considered to be the origin of civilization. But these cities are four thousand years younger than our radiocarbon dates for Göbekli Tepe. The walled complex forces us either to push the origin of agriculture much further into the past or else reconsider whether agriculture is necessary for such complex human societies. Either possibility yields important information about humanity’s extended phenotype. 

Myth and Material

Historians and social theorists have proposed materialist explanations for the rise of civilization in the Near East—namely, the accumulation of economic surplus. The fertile alluvial soil deposited with the yearly floods by the Tigris and Euphrates provided abundant harvests. Similarly, historians link the reliable flooding of the Nile River to the rise of civilization in Egypt one thousand years later. These river systems, together with modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, are sometimes called the Fertile Crescent, so named because the region is thought to be a common cultural and technological area where early agriculture and civilization developed hand-in-hand. Göbekli Tepe lies in this region as well, though it predates evidence of agriculture. With the surplus of food provided by agriculture along these rivers also came the need to store grain and protect these stores against nomadic raiders, who wished to enjoy the fruits of agriculture without the toil. Eventually, population growth caught up to the carrying capacity of the regions, necessitating irrigation and river regulation to make more land arable. Waterworks are vast undertakings that rely on the coordination provided by a central government to organize the necessary labor. The ancient state was born. 

This theory was furthest developed in Karl Wittfogel’s 1957 work Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. A former member of the Communist Party of Germany, he went about developing a materialist history independent of that orthodoxy. This work is one of the many Cold War-era polemics that argued that Russia and China are inherently different societies from the West, contra Marxist contemporaries who saw those countries as possible previews of a Western socialist future. Long-forgotten ideological disputes shape our current understanding of seemingly unrelated topics such as the origin of civilization and human nature. As a consequence, while it seems harmless to overturn these obscure theories, to do so sometimes means overturning our own ingrained conclusions about the future, whose political origins we have forgotten.

The New World is usually assumed to have been separated from the Old World for most of its history, ever since melting glaciers allowed the originally Siberian peoples of Beringia to move southward into modern Canada and settle the rest of the Americas some 16,500 years ago. Assuming such a degree of isolation, the origin of Mesoamerican civilizations would be independent of whatever happened in regions such as the Fertile Crescent, providing us a natural laboratory from which we could learn more about the human extended phenotype.

The Calusa of southwestern Florida might provide a natural experiment for thinking about our Turkish neolithic site: a complex hierarchical society that built mounds, towers, and wide canals, yet engaged in no agriculture. A grand temple—if that is what Göbekli Tepe was—wouldn’t have been beyond their abilities. Instead of the granaries posited by conventional accounts of the origin of civilization, they built “watercourts” to store the rich catches of fish they harvested from the waters of the Florida Keys. The Calusa were a relatively advanced society built on aquaculture instead of agriculture.

The implications of this natural experiment are dizzying when we consider it together with discoveries made on the island of Crete in 2009. The stone tools found there were dated to be at least 130,000 years old. Even with lower sea levels at the time, the Mediterranean island could only have been reached by boat. The tools are so old that they are attributed to Homo erectus, a species of our genus Homo that first emerged 2 million years ago.

That fishing, hunting, or gathering could sustain complex societies means that social technology, rather than the discovery of farming, is the key bottleneck of civilization. Furthermore, while we might debate how farmable temperate regions might be during an ice age, no one disputes that hunting and fishing could be bountiful in such times. This means we have no reason to assume complex societies can only be found after the last ice age. Rather, they may have been with us for a very long time—perhaps from our very beginning.

Otherwise unrelated domesticated animal species display a range of anatomical and behavioral phenotypes that set them apart from their wild counterparts: depigmentation; floppy, reduced ears; shorter muzzles; curly tails; smaller teeth; smaller cranial capacities; neotenous (juvenile) behavior; reduction of sexual dimorphism; docility; and more frequent estrous cycles. Biologists sometimes call this “domestication syndrome”. Comparing us to Neanderthals, with their larger teeth and brains, and more robust skeletons, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are the domesticated rather than the wild variant of mankind. Recent genetic studies lend further evidence to this conclusion.

Rather than small bands of hundreds of people, societies in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands seem to best fit our extended phenotype, at least once domesticated. The environment of evolutionary adaptation for Homo sapiens as we now know ourselves wasn’t the wild savannah; rather, it was complex society all along.

Regardless of the truth of this hypothesis, fishing doesn’t help us explain Göbekli Tepe’s location 250 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast. There are mountain lakes much closer by, but they couldn’t have supported sufficient fish populations to feed the hundreds of workers needed for monumental architecture projects. Does this still leave agriculture as the only explanation?

Recent digs in the forest steppes of Russia have found a large circular structure built over 25,000 years ago, using material from up to sixty mammoths. The labor invested here is much less than needed for the construction of Göbekli Tepe and, as a result, isn’t in and of itself sufficient evidence of a complex society—but this is no temporary structure. What might have presumably migratory hunters used it for? Perhaps the hunters were not so migratory after all. The Ice Age ecosystem was vastly more productive than modern Siberia due to vast herds of now-extinct megafauna like the mammoth, which through trampling and grazing maintained it in a grassland state, a much colder buffalo plain. Before the American bison was hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century, partially as a war measure against Native Americans, they numbered 30 million. A comparable abundance would make meat processing and storage, rather than hunting, the key logistical challenge. Large pieces of charcoal from the Russian dig site show that fires were lit inside the structure. Instead of a granary, perhaps a smokehouse.

Could this have been a purpose of Göbekli Tepe? The ruins do feature carvings and bas-reliefs depicting game animals such as boar, aurochs, and wild donkeys. However, since such animals are accompanied by vultures, scorpions, lions, foxes, cranes, storks, ducks, and snakes, they aren’t the dominant symbols of the site. Moreover, only a few animal remains have been found at the site. Might hunting have at least fed the builders? The climate of southeastern Turkey 11,000 years ago seems to have been about as dry as it is today. Even if we’re skeptical of climate models and posit a wetter, or at least greener, Mediterranean forest ecosystem, these lands weren’t grasslands where buffalo roam.

Dick Osseman/Animal sculpture unearthed at Göbekli Tepe
Alex Wang/Relief unearthed at Göbekli Tepe

This leaves us with only two possibilities for how the workers building Göbekli Tepe were fed: pastoralism or agriculture. This is why, though archaeologists presume Göbekli Tepe to have predated agriculture by thousands of years, agriculture-driven development is likely the right theory after all.

An additional clue can be found in the unusual monotheistic religion of the persecuted and suffering Yazidi people of Upper Mesopotamia, an area at the border of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Their faith focuses on seven of God’s angels, the first among those being Melek Taus. He is said to have been ordered by God to pay homage to a new creation—mankind—but refused God’s command. In Islamic theology, this is taken to be an act of rebellion by the angel but in Yazidi belief, the order is revealed to have been a test all along. Because of the unusual theology of the Yazidi—almost Abrahamic, yet seemingly something very different—they have been described as polytheistic or slandered as devil-worshippers throughout history. That charge inspired the American author H.P. Lovecraft to refer to them in his fiction as keepers of ancient and dark secrets. There might be some truth to this people being keepers of ancient knowledge. The forbidden fruit offered to Adam by Melek Taus in the Garden of Eden? Grain. 

Myths are often dismissed out of hand as a source on ancient history. Yet recent research reveals that at least some European fairy tales might date to the Bronze Age, so we know that stories can remain recognizably intact for a very long time. Australian Aboriginal tales which accurately describe some changes to Australia’s geography of rivers, coastlines, mountains, and lakes, as well as climate shifts for up to 10,000 years ago, should give us pause. It seems that multi-generational oral memory can be very reliable, if only the socioeconomic or ecological niche of its speakers and singers persists; eliminate that and stories morph wildly. At times such cultural heritage is more accurate than our much younger theories about the distant past. 

Discovery and Rediscovery 

When thinking about the dating of agriculture it is important to remember that Göbekli Tepe was rediscovered rather than discovered. In October 1994, the archaeologist Klaus Schmidt was reviewing archives of known sites, trying to decide where to dig next. A site description caught his attention: a hill that had first been excavated in a 1963 survey by the University of Istanbul and the University of Chicago, but abandoned soon after. Despite finding stone tools, they had assumed the tops of the massive limestone pillars to be medieval tombstones dating to the Byzantine Empire.

E. Kucuk/Aerial view of main excavation site, Göbekli Tepe

We see what we expect to see. Nowhere is this more true than in the funding-constrained and hyper-critical field of archaeology. The German Archaeological Institute, which provided a professional home for much of Klaus Schmidt’s career, has a mere €38 million yearly budget. For a field that requires specialized equipment costing up to thousands of dollars per day to use, dozens if not hundreds of skilled and unskilled laborers, full-time professionals to make sense of finds, and seasonal, frequently isolated, and international digs, this simply isn’t very much.

Fortunately for our understanding of humanity, Schmidt had previous experience excavating the then-revolutionary, if much younger, neolithic temple at Nevalı Çori. That site pushed back the origin of domesticated einkorn wheat to 10,400 years ago. Schmidt allowed himself to see again what he had already seen before. This brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s claims in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he proposes the incommensurability of different scientific paradigms. Before a new paradigm emerges, it is difficult to evaluate evidence right in front of our faces. Afterward, it is hard to even remember what the previous worldview held to be sacred.

The discovery of Sumerian cities, now considered to be the very beginning of recorded history, was itself an archaeological surprise. In the declining Ottoman Empire of the 19th century, British, French, and then German archaeologists dug and explored modern-day Iraq, searching for remnants of the much younger Assyrian civilization. The search was partially fueled by a desire either to find evidence for or against biblical accounts of history. Higher criticism had at the time transformed the Bible from a sacred authority in its own right into just another text that had a history that could be examined. 

No classical or pre-classical sources known to Europeans at the time mentioned Sumerian language or society. As much younger Akkadian cuneiform tablets attributed to Babylonians were translated, the title of “King of Sumer and Akkad” was among the first pieces of evidence that attracted attention. The entire civilization was up until then an “unknown unknown.” Decades of controversies ensued, such as the French Assyriologist Joseph Halévy insisting that Sumerian wasn’t a different language, but rather an ideographic method of writing, invented by the Babylonians themselves. 

The theoretical rigidity surrounding the rediscovery of ancient Sumer was not an anomaly in this regard either. The early 20th-century discovery and translation of thousands of tablets from the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa in central Turkey conclusively revealed a great empire that had previously been unknown outside of sparse references in the Bible and in records then only recently unearthed from Egypt and Assyria. Until then, evidence of the Hittites had been assumed to be relatively unimportant to the region’s history, conflated with other peoples from the region, or considered entirely mythical. Perhaps one forgotten civilization can be written off as a fluke—but two?

Excessive skepticism of what were thought to be myth-ridden sources also played a significant role in this era. Scholars of the 19th century no longer considered the Iliad and Odyssey to be poetic accounts of actual events. The city of Troy itself was considered a myth. It took a well-funded eccentric outsider named Heinrich Schliemann, Iliad in hand, to identify a previously explored site in Turkey as the likely location of Troy. Schliemann was an adventurer rather than a professional and was found guilty by a Greek court of smuggling jewelry and other golden artifacts found at the site out of the Ottoman Empire. The matter was settled with Schliemann paying 50,000 gold francs to the Constantinople Imperial Museum, as well as handing over some of the artifacts.

As much as we may credit Schliemann’s spirit of lawlessness with upending the paradigm of his time, it proves to be a double-edged sword for advancing archeological scholarship when we consider the vast illegal trade in antiquities that continues to the present day. In just one operation in 2019, Interpol recovered more than 19,000 artifacts from over 100 suspected traffickers, who had in their possession items from everywhere from Colombia to Afghanistan. Traffickers in Italy go through the effort of conducting their own digs using bulldozers and metal detectors to find saleable artifacts. The same happens in China, where one archaeologist admitted to his role in a criminal tomb-raiding ring. Current and former museum curators in the West have been repeatedly charged with illegally trafficking antiquities. Wealthy collectors have long created a demand for antiquities, acquired legally or not. What and how many important, paradigm-shifting artifacts might be hidden away in a private collection? The famous Lycurgus Cup, which greatly altered our picture of ancient Roman technical expertise, was forgotten for a century in the Rothschild family’s private collection until it was sold to the British Museum in 1958.

Lost or privately owned artifacts may be unknown unknowns, but it is not as if we have exhausted the investigation of our known unknowns either. Some 90% of the hundreds of thousands of tablets found in ancient cities such as Nippur and Girsu remain untranslated. Given the experiences of 19th-century archaeology, it is certain that further ancient discoveries can be made by critically examining and interpreting texts in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. The translation of these previously neglected tablets holds the exciting possibility of pushing the boundary between recorded history and unwritten prehistory much further into the past, even without further excavations.

The Politics of Archaeology

But further excavations are also needed. Shortly before his death in 2014, Klaus Schmidt estimated that despite nearly twenty years of digs at Göbekli Tepe, only five percent of the site had been excavated. Nor is Göbekli Tepe the only prize within reach: the capital of the Akkadian Empire, for example, remains undiscovered to this day. Especially needed are bold gambles, both at these sites and elsewhere, that try to prove or disprove what historians and archaeologists think they know about the dawn of civilization. Early Sumerian epics indicate an unusually intimate relationship between Sumer and an otherwise unknown land called Aratta. Speculation places Aratta somewhere in Iran, or perhaps even further afield—a detail that may well turn out to be of more than a little significance for a people whose language remains classified as an isolate, anomalously unrelated to any other known or nearby language groups, even over a century after being deciphered. After the brilliant Schmidt’s demise, who can we find that can see with new eyes?

Tourism provides a motive to promote spectacular sites, and while it does also secure funding for some digs, compromises are made between conservation and visitation, as well as between the myth built around the sites and the actual material found. Schmidt’s widow claimed that heavy machinery used to build the walkway at Göbekli Tepe damaged the site—a claim that Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism denies, but that it would deny even if true. The now much-celebrated site is slowly growing in Turkish consciousness as a national symbol. All tourism promotion starts by appealing to foreigners, but ends up also changing the minds of locals. The Eiffel Tower of Paris, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Colosseum of Rome are beloved, nationally-celebrated monuments partially because of their global appeal. 

Ancient history shapes modern politics. This is truer perhaps nowhere than in Egypt, where national identity and government legitimacy are built out of an uneasy compromise between a simultaneous commitment to Islam and a nationalist attachment to the polytheistic past which built the country’s world-renowned monuments. The division is visible on every bill of the Egyptian pound, with the obverse side displaying the country’s many beautiful mosques, and the reverse displaying symbols of antiquity such as the Sphinx, statues of Pharaohs, and even war chariots. Nationalists will tend to emphasize continuity with this antiquity, as something that distinguishes Egyptians from other Arabs.

The Egyptian one-pound bill features the mosque and mausoleum of Qaytbay, both built by Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay, and the temple of Abu Simbel, built by Ramesses II

It may seem strange to view ancient, dusty ruins and artifacts as anything other than inert curiosities, but their importance as both great political and economic resources is belied by the way Egypt’s long-ruling secular nationalists and opposing Islamists have battled over them. International tourism has been one of the pillars of Egypt’s economy for decades, at its peak in 2010 employing 12% of Egypt’s entire workforce and supplying a similar share of Egypt’s GDP. This was no happy accident either: starting in the 1970s, the secular regime of Anwar Sadat eased visa restrictions for foreigners, invested significant portions of the state budget into hotels and transport infrastructure, and established new schools for hospitality and tourism management, all as part of the infitah program to liberalize and grow Egypt’s private sector economy. Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist opposed to Egypt’s liberalization in 1981, but his successor Hosni Mubarak continued his policies.

The bid to build a powerful economic machine from Egypt’s renowned ancient heritage was ultimately successful. Unsurprisingly, Islamists decided to attack not only their secular opponents, but the machine they had built too. Terror attacks specifically targeting tourists have killed more than one hundred people in Egypt since the early 1990s, each time depressing tourist arrivals and national revenue. In the worst attack, in 1997, dozens of foreign tourists were gunned down by Islamists in the 3500-year-old Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. Whether the terrorists considered the heinous irony of spilling blood at a gravesite is doubtful, but they were certainly aware of the devastating effect the attack would have on Egypt’s economy, and by extension on the regime they opposed. The responsibility of defending the valued tourism sector falls not to the ordinary police, but to Egypt’s General Administration of Tourism and Antiquities Police, who guard not only archaeological sites, but also the tour groups that visit them.

The sphinxes and pyramids have political relevance not only due to the economic machine built around them, but also directly as symbols of legitimacy. Shortly before widespread protests forced Hosni Mubarak to resign from office in 2011, one of the last moves he made was to create the cabinet-level office of a Minister of Antiquities and appoint the noted archaeologist Zahi Hawass to the post. In other circumstances, it might seem bizarre for an embattled dictator facing crippling protests, strikes, and civil unrest to be concerned with the administration of archaeological sites—but viewed as an attempt to shore up legitimacy in Egypt’s unique political environment, the move, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, made perfect sense.

When the Islamist-aligned government of Mohammed Morsi won elections in 2012, fears rose again that the pyramids could be threatened by radicals seeking to eliminate symbols of what they considered to be idolatry. Those fears turned out to be short-lived as Morsi was deposed in a military coup only another year later, and Egypt’s secularist factions returned to power once more. In 2018, the 3200-year-old statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II that had once stood in Cairo’s main railway station was moved to the entrance of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, slated to be the largest archaeological museum in the world upon completion. Construction began in 2002 when Mubarak personally laid the foundation stone.

Egypt is hardly alone in the broader Middle East in its use of pre-Islamic monuments to strengthen national identity. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein partially restored the Ziggurat of Ur, casting himself as a successor to the ancient kings of Babylon. Hussein’s restoration of Babylon itself imitated ancient rulers by stamping his name in the bricks that were used. Hardly the first would-be restorer, he was preceded by millennia in the 6th century BC by the neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus, who mistakenly built up seven rather than three stages to the great Ziggurat.

It would be a mistake to think that these tendencies are unique to the Middle East. Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist Romania backed several disputed historical claims that put Romania at the center of historically important cultural and scientific developments, such as a Dacian alphabet long predating Latin and Greek writing. This approach to building a kind of cultural autarky is called “protochronism,” a term we can fruitfully apply to many other state-driven archaeological efforts around the world. Göbekli Tepe itself and the unknown people who built it can more easily be claimed as predecessors of the modern Turkish nation than the ancient Greek theater of Ephesus or the stadium of Aphrodisias, also located in Turkey. 

Similar selective identification with the past can be found in the evermore diverging interpretations of ancient history between Pakistan and India. Most of what we know of Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization comes from sites in Pakistan open to Western archaeologists. Meanwhile, Indian archaeology has intentionally been closed off from foreign, especially British, involvement. Political needs always prove decisive as to what is and isn’t pursued, since it is governments that, in addition to being the main source of funding, ultimately grant or deny permission to conduct digs.

World History Encyclopedia/Saddam Hussein’s name on modern bricks in the ruins of ancient Babylon

Certain discoveries can also be seen as political crimes. Zhao Khangmin, the key archaeologist who dug up the Terracotta Army in China in 1974, had been subject to a Maoist self-criticism session as a suspicious person “involved with old things” only a few years earlier. It is then understandable why Zhao kept the statues secret at first. It took a chance visit by a journalist from the Xinhua News Agency who asked a simple question to change this: “This is such a huge discovery. Why aren’t you reporting it?”

Directly referencing the possibility of political repression for a find is often dangerous in itself, since admitting the existence of political repression and censorship is often itself ideologically incorrect. A pointed question helped communicate that the finds were acceptable, while avoiding the problem of self-incrimination. Through posing the question, the journalist acted as the political specialist who informed Zhao—an understandably cautious archaeologist—that in the present political climate, thousands of statues of ancient Chinese soldiers were a political asset rather than a liability. The journalist left Zhao little choice in the matter and published the find, making the site known to Communist Party leadership. 

The statues weren’t smashed, but were instead made a point of national pride, accumulating the prestige of an ancient civilization to which modern China now considered itself an heir and which, in its heyday, was on par with Egypt or Rome. The Chinese government undertook significant promotion efforts in subsequent years, making the site one of the main stops of international tourism in China, comparable to medieval sections of the Great Wall. 

Zhao Khangmin’s fear not only for his own safety, but for that of the artifacts themselves, was well-justified, since Mao’s Cultural Revolution had seen numerous monasteries, temples, and statues ransacked as useless remnants of an oppressive feudal past. Societies undergoing ideological convulsion make for a hazardous environment for historical truth. As another example, Islamists, perhaps correctly, identify such ancient monuments as idolatrous. When Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanstian, infamously ordered the destruction of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, he reflected:

In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings—the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction.

However, it is also worth reflecting on how the achievements of a glorious past can be embarrassing to a less capable present. Iconoclasm is always an expression of a political desire to forget such achievements. 

While social reform movements tend to wish to destroy ancient finds, and nationalists cherish or fabricate them, the perspective of a conquering empire is that the legacy of a conquered people belongs to the victor, ultimately adding to the preeminence of the empire. Anything movable makes for good, prestigious loot. Egyptian obelisks decorate public squares in Rome, Paris, London, and Istanbul. It was the collection and classification of these spoils of conquest that often motivated the development of imperial British archaeology. The British Museum is a great achievement of mankind, but also a monument to the British Empire.

UNESCO’s list of common cultural heritages of mankind is also such a monument. The Turkish government extensively lobbied to add Göbekli Tepe to this list, as a way to raise the prestige and standing of their site in the West, and as a consequence raise their standing domestically. They finally succeeded in 2018. In contrast, the two Afghan Buddhas, already on the UNESCO list, were destroyed as a demonstration of sovereignty and defiance to such external prestige and even funding.

The preservation of heritage that cannot easily be moved can be made a casus belli. The destruction of the two Afghan Buddhas received significant airtime in the run-up to the American invasion of Afghanistan, as an example of senseless vandalism and zealotry. The Russian orchestra playing classical music in the Syrian ruins of Palmyra liberated from vandalizing ISIS forces in 2016 had a similar effect. Siding with the Syrian government, rather than with often U.S.-backed rebels, could then be cast as the more culturally enlightened option.

The History of Civilization Can Be Remade in Turkey 

As I gazed over the stones and pillars of Göbekli Tepe, the feeling of being confronted with something old and terrible—in the archaic sense—was inescapable, cheery tourist infrastructure notwithstanding. If it is hard enough for us to imagine how the Sumerians viewed the world, it is nearly impossible for us to imagine how the builders of this far more ancient site did. As the archaeologist Gary Rollefson pointed out, there is more time between Göbekli Tepe and Sumer than between Sumer and today. But although we may never see the world with the eyes that once saw excellent spots to carve vultures and lions into stone, in trying to understand something so terribly old, we might nevertheless come to see the world and our place in it with new eyes of our own.

The old paradigm of agriculture and civilization beginning after the last ice age, and proceeding on a materially overdetermined set course of progress, seems to rest on increasingly shaky theoretical grounds. As a consequence, the hypotheses of what we expect to find and what kind of digs we want to fund have to be revised as well. Not just because our timelines of monumental architecture and complex society have been thrown into question by Göbekli Tepe, but because of evidence of early cultivation, such as small-scale farming 23,000 years ago at the Ohalo II site near the Sea of Galilee. Over 10,000 years prior to when we had first thought agriculture began, at least some of our ancient ancestors had gathered over 140 plant species in one place, evidently sowing and harvesting early edible cereals and using rudimentary tools to turn them into flour.

The time is especially ripe not just because of these finds, but because the political conditions in Turkey are likely to remain friendly to exploring the ancient past for the next decade or two.  This may sound surprising given that Erdogan himself has been described as an Islamist, and recently reclassified the famous Hagia Sophia as a mosque to the opposition of UNESCO. But Erdogan is arguably an Islamist only insofar as he is a Turkish nationalist, and only insofar as Islamism supports his vision of a strong, prestigious, and unified Turkey that can throw its weight around the international arena as a sovereign power. Perhaps there is indeed political capital to be gained by downplaying or even destroying newly-discovered, pre-Islamic sites, labeling them pagan centers of idolatry. But there is much more to be gained by casting Turkey as the birthplace of human civilization; protochronism, nationalism, and dreams of autarky go hand-in-hand. In this case, these dreams are aligned with advancing our understanding. In any case, a Turkish conglomerate has already committed to spending over $15 million on the site over the next 20 years.

For better or worse, Turkey is also the most secure and hospitable country in the region for the foreseeable future, especially for any Westerners looking to conduct expensive archaeological digs. The risks and even physical dangers of attempting to conduct digs in neighboring Syria, Iraq, or Iran are substantially higher. As long as international collaboration is allowed on charismatic sites, and the Turkish government has an interest in discovering and developing them, with archaeologists making rather than breaking careers through discovery, this fringe territory near the edge of the Fertile Crescent is certain to yield further surprises. What kind of surprises? 

With both agriculture and monumental construction much older than what was thought before, we should likely rethink the origins of urban life as well. How old might settlements of hundreds or thousands of people be? How frequently did such civilizations arise, only to fall and be forgotten? I strongly suspect they might be not thousands, but tens of thousands of years older than we believed previously. I’m happy to take a Long Bet with a qualified challenger skeptical of such a claim, that in twenty years, we will know of at least one such permanent settlement older than 20,000 years. Perhaps such a bet can, in its small way, help stimulate some interest in hunting for such sites.

It is important that we do so, even if we have to rethink some of our other assumptions about the nature of progress and technology. When it comes to thinking about politics, economics, and culture, such history is our only data set. Rethinking what humans are, and how we’ve lived over the last few hundred thousand years, may then open us up not just to new discoveries about prehistory, but new possibilities for our future. We, after all, hope to be more than just another set of ruins for our descendants to argue over.

Samo Burja is the founder of Bismarck Analysis, a political risk consulting firm. He is also a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @SamoBurja.