One of the oldest surviving theories about the emergence of civilization is V. Gordon’s Childe’s Neolithic Revolution, in which the invention of agriculture (around 9,000 years ago) gave rise to all that we recognize as “civilized” – villages, writing, cities, and organized religion. While Childe wasn’t wrong about the big picture (agriculture was a revolutionary thing for human societies), recent discoveries from the Middle East and elsewhere have shown that he didn’t have the details quite right.
In particular, towns seem to have come before the invention of agriculture in the Middle East…and organized religion may have predated them both.
The site of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, has revealed itself as a possible religious pilgrimage site – one without evidence of residential occupation and predating the rise of most villages in the region. A spectacular arrangement of elaborately carved standing stones, the site is the oldest known example of monumental architecture. The stones comprising the open-air temple were quarried some distance away and carved with a wild assortment of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars.
The excavators speculate that construction, use, and worship at the site may have prompted scattered, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to begin to organize themselves and come together to built the region’s first permanent villages — all hundreds of years before they domesticated their first plant or animal.