Göbekli Tepe: Complicating Theories of Wheat Domestication

Kyle Richmond-Crosset

The Early Agricultural Transition

In about 8000 BC, early humans in southwest Asia developed an entirely new system of food production; it was a massive agricultural transition. Before this time, humans lived in small and mostly nomadic groups, hunted animals, and gathered a wide variety of plants for subsistence. After this transition, humans lived stationary lives in larger villages and and then cities, and they relied on cultivating nearby land in order to survive. This was not an overnight revolution; generations of small, incremental changes over hundreds of years contributed to a “ratcheting process” that eventually ruined any chance of returning to a hunting-gathering society (Ponting, 1992). Archeologists largely agree that the start of the agricultural transition probably began with the domestication of wheat in approximately 8000 BC, in Mesopotamia (“Ears of plenty,” 2005). But there is still substantial disagreement about the cause(s) of wheat domestication (Ponting, 1992).

The Origin of Domesticated Wheat

One explanation is that humans began to farm “as soon as human knowledge and cultural achievements had reached a sufficiently advanced level” because it was a clearly significant improvement over hunting and gathering (Ponting, 1992). This theory has been widely discredited, not only because there is no evidence that humans became significantly smarter during or shortly before 8000 BC, but also because the emergence of agriculture did not create a better life for early humans. In the contrary, when compared to the lives of hunter-gatherers, the agricultural transition meant harder work for more hours in worse conditions for the vast majority of humans (Harari, 2011) (Ponting, 1992).

Another theory posits that climatic changes related to the end of the last ice age created conditions that were favorable for farming. In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Harari (2011) argues that the warming of the Middle East, and the concurrent increase in rainfall, created a new climate “ideal for Middle Eastern wheat and cereals.” As humans began to harvest and eat more wheat, seeds were accidentally spread near temporary campsites. Over generations, the wheat became more and more plentiful and groups of humans would stay at these sites for weeks and then months to harvest the grains. Eventually, harvesting transformed into more and more elaborate cultivation, and eventually farming. This theory is plausible, but it overlooks that fact that China and Mesoamerica experienced independent agricultural transitions several thousand years later. Consequently, the climate change in these places would “have been very different and unlikely to elicit a similar response” (Ponting, 1992). Also, significant changes in climate have occurred other times during the history of early humans without similar consequences.

Mark Cohen, in his book The Food Crisis in Prehistory, argues that the transition to agriculture was the result of increasing population pressure (Cohen, 1977). As humans spread slowly across the globe, they eventually reached a point where it was difficult to geographically expand into land suitable for hunting and gathering. Ponting puts this tipping point at about 4 million people and at around 8000 BC (Ponting, 1992). Continuing population increases made agriculture essential; with less space, hunting and gathering would no longer be able to provide the subsistence early humans needed to survive. Farming was difficult (substantially more difficult than hunting and gathering), but it provided enough food for a growing population, and some extra (Cohen, 1977). This allowed for an even more rapid population increase, and therefore a demand for even more food. Cohen argues that population pressure and food surplus essentially forced the agricultural hand of humans in a cycle of growth that could not be broken. Food surplus and increased population density were the necessary ingredients from which "social complexity" arose (Turchin, 2013). The transportation, distribution, and allocation of food surplus in rapidly growing cities required “institutions able to organise this process” (Ponting, 1992). According to Cohen and others, these institutions became temples, and religious elites became bureaucratic officials who controlled the flow of food (Cohen, 1977) (Ponting, 1992) (Turchin, 2013). Other critical aspects of social complexity, such as specialization, abstract thought, and the sharing of collective myths, were built upon a foundation of plentiful material resources.

Göbekli Tepe Disrupts Standard Theory

A recent archeological discovery in Turkey threatens to flip the population pressure theory on its head. Göbekli Tepe is a large, 22-acre site in southeastern Turkey composed of massive stone pillars arranged in many circles (Curry, 2008). The largest pillars are 16 feet tall and weigh many tons (Curry, 2008). Some of the pillars are “blank, while others are elaborately carved: foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures abound, twisting and crawling on the pillars' broad sides” (Curry, 2008). The excavation of the site was led by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt from 1996 until his death in 2014. Schmidt argues that the carved pillar statues found in the center of several stone rings “represented very powerful beings. If gods existed in the minds of Early Neolithic people, there is an overwhelming probability that… it is the first known monumental depiction of gods” (Schmidt, 2010). He calls Göbekli Tepe “the first human-built holy place” (Curry, 2008).

A circular ring of pillars at Gobekli Tepe
A circular ring of pillars at Gobekli Tepe. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

Archeologists have dated the initial construction of the stone circles at approximately 9600 BC (Turchin, 2013). The first known instance of wheat domestication occurred only 30 kilometers away, sometime between 7800 and 7500 BC (Harari, 2011) (Heun, 1997). This would suggest that the first religious site preceded the first instance of crop domestication by more than one thousand years. Schmidt consequently argues that Göbekli Tepe was built by a great number of hunter-gatherers, who “must have had a highly complicated mythology, including a capacity for abstraction” (2010). This directly contradicts the argument that it was only after the domestication of wheat were humans were able to develop complex societies and build imagined myths.

The effort and collaboration required to feed the many humans who built Göbekli Tepe before wheat domestication was enormous: most likely, animals killed in far-away hunts were brought to the site to feed workers. This is evidenced by the presence of large animal bones at the site (Schmidt, 2000). Schmidt believes that “the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains” (Mann, 2011). In fact, the dates of the earliest domesticated einkorn wheat seeds correspond to the height of activity at Göbekli Tepe (Mann, 2011). While Göbekli Tepe upends the common theory on the rise of ritual and religion, wheat domestication essentially remains a story of population pressure. In order to feed the many people who built the pillars, or perhaps to feed the people who came to interact with the temple, early humans were forced to find a better way to feed a larger population without a larger space.

It’s Complicated

Ultimately, it was most likely a combination of factors that culminated in the domestication of wheat. These theories, in other words, are not mutually exclusive. For example, it may be true that the end of the ice age around 12000 BC improved the climate for wheat (Harari, 2011). Perhaps it was both mounting population pressure on a general scale and a desire to feed laborers at Göbekli Tepe that forced early humans to experiment with wheat cultivation. And it’s unclear whether the same factors that influenced wheat domestication in southeast Turkey also influenced corn domestication several thousand years later in Mesoamerica or in China.

Göbekli Tepe complicates the discussion of early agriculture, but maybe more importantly, it raises important questions. If shared myths and complex, abstract thoughts (perhaps even of God) among early humans came before the early agricultural revolution, then what caused humans to begin to build something as complicated and enormous as Göbekli Tepe? In other words, if the management of food surplus didn’t create the societal framework of ritual and religion, then what did? Schmidt believes that it was the ability “to use symbolic culture, a kind of pre-literate capacity for producing and ‘reading’ symbolic material culture, that enabled communities to formulate their shared identities” (Schmidt, 2000). However, he’s not clear as to why or exactly when humans acquired this ability to think and share symbolically. Göbekli Tepe demonstrates that religion, abstract thought, and agriculture may have interacted in a way not previously understood, and one that is contrary to popular theory.

Works Cited

Cohen, Mark Nathan. The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977. Print.

Curry, Andrew. Göbekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?" Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian, Nov. 2008. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

"Ears of Plenty." The Economist 20 Dec. 2005.

Harari, Yuval N. "Chapter 5: History's Biggest Fraud." Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper, 2011. 70-87. Print.

Heun, Manfred et al., “Site of Einkorn Wheat Domestication Identified by DNA Fingerprints”, Science 278:5341 (1997) 1,312-14.

Mann, Charles C. "Göbekli Tepe." National Geographic. National Geographic, June 2011. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

Ponting, Clive. Ch. 3 and 4 in "A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations." St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991. ISBN 0-312-06989-1, McCabe GF75.P66 1992 pp. 18-67.

Schmidt, Klaus. Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey: A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations." Paléorient 26.1 (2000): 45-54.

Schmidt, Klaus. “Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs.” 2010.

Turchin, Peter. Complex Societies before Agriculture: Göbekli Tepe." Social Evolution Forum. The Evolution Institute, 17 May 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

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last updated 9/19/16