In previous posts we looked at the Upper Paleolithic period in Europe, and the possible influences of shamanism on the burst of human creativity that occurred at that time–the “cultural explosion” from which advances in observational astronomy, the arts, religion and technology emerged. In this post we fast-forward to the early Neolithic–the “New Stone Age”–the transitional stage between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies that first occurred in the Near-East in the areas of the Levant and Turkey. Here, shamanism again appears to have played a central role in cultural transformation.
The most important archaeological discovery from this period is Gobekli Tepe in south-eastern Turkey. It is the world’s oldest known monumental stone temple dating from around 9,600 BCE–predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years. In the Turkish language Gobekli Tepe means “belly hill”, an oddly appropriate name for one of the birth places of civilization. The site was discovered fortuitously in 1994 by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt who describes it as “a cathedral on a hill”. Archaeologists propose Gobekli Tepe was a place for religious gathering where shamanic rituals were performed.
Gobekli Tepe consists of a number of megalithic stones–massive carved pillars–some of which are 16 feet high, weighing between seven and ten tons each. These are arranged in circular enclosures–rings measuring ten to thirty meters in diameter, inside which stone benches are placed. Only four such rings have been excavated so far from an estimated twenty. Amazingly, the people who built these impressive monuments were hunter-gatherers and not members of a highly organized agricultural society. They were nevertheless able to transport the stones without beasts of burden as well as organize and feed a large workforce.
The bas-relief carvings on the cleanly carved stone pillars depict gazelles, snakes, scorpions, foxes, vultures, cranes and wild boars. Curiously, all the animals in the carvings are male in gender and many are represented in aggressive postures. Schmidt concludes Gobekli Tepe was a ritual center—specifically a cult of the dead—and its carved animals were placed there as guardians of the spirit world. He states the “T” shaped pillars may represent mythical creatures, deities or ancestral figures “that illustrate the other world”.
Other researchers propose the stone circles and pillars of Gobekli Tepe were oriented to astronomical alignments—and the animal carvings have associations with specific stars and constellations. Writer Andrew Collins presents astronomical evidence that the structures are aligned with the constellation Cygnus the Swan. He notes that Cygnus is located on the Great Rift of the Milky Way, the dark area in the galaxy which was believed to be the womb of the heavens as well as the entrance to the sky-world by some ancient cultures.
Both Collins and Schmidt point out a carving on one of the pillars that appears to represent a vulture with wings articulated like human arms, as well as anthropomorphized feet, proposing it may depict a shaman. Above the vulture’s right wing is a carved circle, which in Collin’s opinion symbolizes a human soul released into the care of the vulture-shaman who is carrying it from earth to its afterlife destination in the Milky Way and the constellation Cygnus.
Supporting this theory he shows that the pattern of the constellation Cygnus when overlaid on the vulture-shaman matches it closely. Another correlation is the scorpion image carved immediately below the vulture on the pillar (see above drawing) which some experts propose represents the constellation Scorpius–positioned below Cygnus in the sky.
Evidence of vulture related shamanism has been found at other sites in the region dating to the same period as Gobekli Tepe. Archaeologists discovered the wings of large predatory birds as well as vultures, which they speculate were worn as part of a ritualistic costume used in a cult of the dead. Collins proposes other structures found at Gobekli Tepe such as a stone pillar with a hole in it, may have celebrated birthing rituals. He notes that the constellation Cygnus is identified with the swan and stork throughout Eurasia—birds associated with the bringing of souls from the sky-world into birth in this world. As well as a temple of death, he writes Gobekli Tepe was “…a place where the rites of birth, death and rebirth were celebrated both in its architectural design and in the highly symbolic carved art left behind by its builders”.
Klaus Schmidt proposes the need to sustain the community of builders of the monument led to the earliest cultivation of wild cereals, which would in turn would lead to the invention of agriculture. Religious ceremonies conducted at Gobekli Tepe by shamans, possibly members of a priestly class, brought groups of widely dispersed nomadic peoples together, catalyzing cultural changes and technological breakthroughs. Through their innovations in stone carving and masonry, as well as cultivation of wild grains, the religious leaders of Gobekli Tepe laid the foundations of the Neolithic revolution to come, characterized by agriculture and monumental building. Schmidt speculates the builders of Gobekli Tepe may have inspired Sumerian myths of the Annunaki gods, believed to have first brought the gifts of civilization to mankind. Collins proposes they inspired the myths of the mysterious Watchers of the Hebrew Book of Enoch—the fallen angels who intermarried with the daughters of men, teaching them the forbidden arts and sciences of heaven.
Archaeologist Ian Hodder insists: “Gobekli Tepe changes everything”. Its revolutionary implication is that organized religion preceded civilization as we know it by centuries. In the words of Klaus Schmidt “first came the temple, then the city”. Historians and archaeologists previously assumed the discovery of agriculture led to the rise of cities, then art and religion. Gobekli Tepe turns this widely accepted theory on its head–instead it appears the urge of humans to gather together to worship led to civilization.