Early Human Religion: A 747 Built in the Basement with an X-Acto Knife
Does the evidence point to mankind's fully natural origin? Seeking signals in the noise, we've already noted that, from early on, we find not only respect for the dead, but a sense of the divine. Indeed, the most spectacular discovery of the twentieth century -- Göbekli Tepe -- has missed becoming a popular icon like King Tut for perhaps that precise reason. It is, as we shall see, a stunning embarrassment to conventional science thinking about human origins.
It's long been known that our ancestors treated the dead with respect, though their practices seem unconventional today. At one 32,000-year-old cave site, for example, the bones were ritually defleshed after death, presumably to preserve them. Some Neanderthal peoples buried their dead in a fetal position, coated the bones with red ochre or left flowers or (more practically) bison and reindeer bones for the departed. We do not know the relative prevalence of these practices or the reasoning behind most of them.
And what of religion? The most remarkable religion before the dawn of writing is surely represented by the worship site Göbekli Tepe, discovered in southeastern Turkey in 1994, and dating from about 11,500 years ago. It consists of about 20 stone wall circles (only a few of which have been excavated). Two megaliths face each other in the middle of each ring (illustrated here). The rings are also surrounded by huge, T-shaped stone pillars, some adorned with carvings of dangerous animals. The tallest pillars are about 16 feet and probably weigh seven to ten tons.
Archaeology (2008) tells us,
Göbekli Tepe's circles range from 30 to 100 feet in diameter and are surrounded by rectangular stone walls about six feet high. Many of the pillars are carved with elaborate animal figure reliefs. In addition to bulls, foxes, and cranes, representations of lions, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, and snakes appear on the pillars. Freestanding sculptures depicting the animals have also been found within the circles. During the most recent excavation season, archaeologists uncovered a statue of a human and sculptures of a vulture's head and a boar.As Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, the complex 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.Mann put it like this: "Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife."
The immense complex, which predates Stonehenge by about seven thousand years, has cast doubt on the conventional view that agriculture produced cities, suggesting instead that religion did. We have no idea, of course, what the religion that called forth such a massive long-lasting effort was -- not its cosmology, nor its teachings, nor its organization. We only know that no one lived at the site (no water or evidence of cooking).
One enterprising suggestion was proposed by an astronomer in 2013, that the builders were motivated by the sudden appearance of Sirius, the dog star, as a result of one of Earth's periodic millennial wobbles:
Today, Sirius can be seen almost worldwide as the brightest star in the sky -- excluding the sun -- and the fourth brightest night-sky object after the moon, Venus and Jupiter. Sirius is so noticeable that its rising and setting was used as the basis for the ancient Egyptian calendar, says [Giulio] Magli. At the latitude of Göbekli Tepe, Sirius would have been below the horizon until around 9300 BC, when it would have suddenly popped into view.But wait, why was any human looking for such a "sign" from heaven? The bonobos and the chimpanzees could see the same star. And with what result?
Whatever these unknown people saw or sensed, many consumed much of their lives celebrating and memorializing it. And yet curiously, instead of getting better at constructing temples, the Göbekli Tepe worshipers grew steadily worse:
The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.Was it a loss of faith? Whether or no, in the words of Göbekli Tepe's discoverer Klaus Schmidt, "Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces. I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind."
But such a thesis is hardly tenable in human evolution studies today for two reasons. First, it attributes a more powerful role to the mind than naturalism permits. Consider a few of the many theses currently on offer: Humans are not smarter than animals, just different; consciousness is a state of matter, like gases; our brains determined everything about us before we are born; and anyway it's a jungle in there.
The "science" view is that Göbekli Tepe, like the 747 in the basement built with an X-Acto knife and the tornado in the junkyard that accidentally produced life, is just random neuronal noise.
Second, evolutionary psychologists are divided on religion as well. Some think that religion is a useful illusion that confers an evolutionary advantage. That is, Darwin's natural selection acting on random mutations favored the development of the relevant genes. Others say it is merely a byproduct of randomly mutated traits that selectively conferred such an advantage.
So the one thing Göbekli Tepe cannot -- by definition and irrespective of any evidence -- be is either a response to revelation or a valid insight into the nature of things. In short, it could not be how most religious people experience all such enterprises. And this despite the fact that the find was not predicted by naturalist theses -- and has not confirmed any of them.
Was the source of Göbekli Tepe divine? We can't know that, of course, just as we can't objectively say what subjectivity feels like. What we can do, however, is rule out explanations that don't fit the story. Naturalist accounts of religion would certainly be one of them.
Editor's note: Here are links to the whole "Science Fictions: Human Evolution" series to date.