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Mother of Invention: Decoding Göbekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe

In this essay Martin Sweatman reveals how the organized, prehistoric effort to build the sacred megaliths of Göbekli Tepe (pictured above) set the stage for the development of a complex society. This case study suggests it was a belief system (scientific in its time, but religious to modern minds) that led to the earliest glimmerings of civilization, including the development of agricultural technologies. Such a heretical insight overturns the general consensus among scholars that religious temples emerged in Neolithic times only after the establishment of sedentary farming communities and complicated social structures. In other words, Göbekli Tepe demonstrates that technology did not lead to the advent of civilization, but instead, it was a belief system and a desire to live together that engendered the agricultural technology necessary to achieve that cultural goal. —Image credit: Teomancimit

Out with the new, in with the old

The origin of life, the origin of consciousness and the origin of civilisation are among the most profound problems confronting us. Naturally answers are hard to find. So hard, that until recently, these issues were typically reserved for philosophers or even priests.

But science advances inexorably and with Klaus Schmidt’s 1995 discovery of Göbekli Tepe—a 13,000 year-old megalithic hill-top temple in southern Turkey—it seems we can now answer probably the easiest of these. Civilisation, it appears, began with a bang!—specifically the global catastrophe known as the Younger Dryas impact—likely caused by Earth’s collision with a swarm of cometary debris.

Ironically, the religious have always known this, as most religions tell of a catastrophic event at the origin of the world—perhaps a great flood or conflagration often involving a dragon or serpent falling to Earth, followed by the emergence of a new civilisation. The serpent here probably represents this erstwhile comet.

It has taken a long time for science to catch up. There are good reasons why. Modern science has its roots in the European Renaissance and was born when European philosophers split with religion, i.e. Christianity. They wanted, quite rightly, (statistical) confidence in their theories, which is what science aims to supply. But by splitting with religion, its catastrophic imagery—the fire and brimstone—had also to be abandoned. Unfortunately, the bathwater and the baby were rejected.

Over the following few hundred years, science developed an alternative ‘gradualistic’ view of prehistory supported by its own dogma. Craters were thought to be formed by volcanoes; abrupt transitions in the fossil record were thought to be caused by wholesale erosion; and massive deposits of sediment were thought to be blown by the wind. Cosmic impacts, extinction-level events and mega-tsunami were ruled out. Earth was a safe haven—a paradise—and we needn’t worry ourselves over those serpentine comets that slink through the inner solar system with their immensely long and bright tails.

It was unthinkable that science could have made a worse job of understanding our past than religion.

Dissenters of this orthodoxy were side-lined or even ridiculed. Such was the passion with which the gradualistic dogma was held. It was unthinkable that science could have made a worse job of understanding our past than religion. But all that has now changed. Slowly the scientific evidence for immense global catastrophes, as well as somewhat smaller ones, has emerged and must be accepted. Gradualism in science is now dead and buried.

It is now clear that cosmic impacts occur regularly on Earth, causing immense destruction on geological timescales—millions of years. The Earth impact database grows ever longer and most asteroids larger than one kilometre in diameter in near-Earth space have been detected. The science of asteroid impacts is now well-established.

But despite this back-tracking in science, the possibility that a global extinction-level catastrophe could have occurred on the timescale of human civilisation—let alone have triggered civilisation only 13,000 years ago—just as the religious stories tell us, is still extremely hard for many scientists to accept. It’s the ultimate embarrassment for science. Even worse, this event was likely caused by collision with a comet, not an asteroid. Which means we have been cataloguing the wrong cosmic threat. Ouch! Probably we should have listened to the ancient myths that cast comets as the ‘bringers of doom’—quite literally ‘evil-stars’ that spell ‘dis-aster’.

Comet

How do we know it is more likely that the Dryas impact was caused by a comet and not an asteroid?

Geochemical evidence for the Younger Dryas impact is spread over at least five continents; The Americas, Europe, West Asia and Africa. Such a wide range of dispersion implies either a massive asteroid impact or a broad swarm of cometary debris. However, an asteroid impact on this scale is quite unlikely, given that we now know how many objects of the required size currently orbit in near-Earth space. Collision with a cometary swarm of the proposed size, on the other hand, is predicted by Clube and Napier’s theory of ‘Coherent Catastrophism’. This theory is based on the latest astronomical observations, which show it is very likely a giant comet, perhaps 100 kilometres or more in diameter, became trapped within the inner solar system in the last few tens of thousands of years and has since broken up and decayed, leaving dozens of large dormant comet fragments in near-Earth space along with the active comet Encke and a massive zodiacal dust cloud.

The Younger Dryas impact

The comet impact scenario circa 10,800 BC makes perfect sense according to all the scientific evidence we have. And it doesn’t just make scientific sense, we can now understand the basis for most of the world’s religions. So in the end it is a triumph for science—finally we can explain religion with its cycles of destruction and re-birth and its prominent ophiolatry.

Prehistory Decoded by Martin Sweatman
Martin Sweatman expands on the ideas in this essay in his book Prehistory Decoded.

Evidence for the Younger Dryas impact event is collected in several hundred research papers in some of the world’s top science journals.1See “Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis” accessed on 26/02/2020 for a full bibliography of papers related to the Younger Dryas impact theory. The data is clear and reproducible—the event definitely occurred and it was massive. Given the mountain of overwhelming evidence, it’s now irrational to deny this.

But the possibility that this impact also triggered a new religion that in turn gave rise to the origin of civilisation is disputed mainly by archaeologists, anthropologists and historians burdened by their dogma. Although Göbekli Tepe was revealed to the world over 15 years ago and its significance to the debate surrounding the origin of civilisation is generally recognised, the possibility that Göbekli Tepe was constructed to memorialise the Younger Dryas impact event is strongly disputed. The reason for this is the scale of the paradigm change required within these disciplines to accept such a radical new finding. Many of their most widely-held and cherished beliefs would need to be abandoned and this is simply not going to happen quickly. Especially when in recent decades these disciplines have themselves become less scientific and more like the religions they aimed to replace.

Championed by Darwin, gradualism has infected all academia. And yet it is actually a crazy extrapolation. No scientist today would dare to propose it.

Chief among these beliefs is gradualism, applied now on the timescale of human civilisation. As already noted, this belief stretches back several hundred years—to at least the time of Hutton and Lyell—and until recently formed the foundation of geology. Championed by Darwin, gradualism has infected all academia. And yet it is actually a crazy extrapolation. No scientist today would dare to propose it. Only its momentum keeps it going. Indeed, the evidence arrayed against this notion by neo-catastrophist astronomers specialising in cometary science is undeniable.2W. Napier, D. Asher, M. Bailey and D. Steel, ‘Centaurs as a Hazard to Civilisation’, Astronomy and Geophysics vol. 56, issue 6, p. 24-30 (1995).

Next up is local evolution of culture. Before the 1970s it was widely accepted that many aspects of culture were highly diffused—it seemed to be the only way to make sense of apparent similarities between widely separated peoples. The evidence in terms of linguistics and mythology, at least, seemed obvious. But since then, largely for political reasons rather than scientific ones, this view was generally abandoned by archaeologists in favour of a model that requires us to assume all similarities between widely separated cultures are coincidental. Fortunately, we have been rescued from this awful non-science by recent developments in the study of ancient DNA. It is now effectively proven that great migrations of cultures have occurred—repeatedly—spreading their identities and DNA over wide areas.3D. Reich, Who we are and how we got here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past (OUP Oxford, 2019). Nevertheless, the time-depth and geographical span of some of the diffused aspects of culture that we must now consider—namely art, astronomy and religion, which probably stretch back 40,000 years or more—is still difficult for most to countenance.

Then there is the history of astronomy. It is generally believed among historians that the Western set of constellations was invented by the Babylonians in the first millennium BC, although there are hints that some asterisms and star names were derived from earlier sources, like the ancient Sumerians. Moreover, precession was believed to have been discovered by Hipparchus of ancient Greece during the second century BC. The possibility that both were well-known over 40,000 years ago and that all the Babylonians did was fiddle with some of the constellation symbols is currently considered unacceptable by many scholars. But in general, these same scholars are non-scientists, unused to considering the extreme statistical likelihood that they are wrong.4M.B. Sweatman and A. Coombs, ‘Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient Knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes’, Athens Journal of History vol. 5, issue 1, p. 1-30 (2019).

The list of scholarly beliefs that Göbekli Tepe overturns goes on, but perhaps the least contentious among them is that agriculture was not only invented but required, before civilisation could develop. This conviction was the reason for the intense archaeological activity in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East where agriculture first developed. But Göbekli Tepe—situated at the heart of the Fertile Crescent—has turned that belief, along with all the others, on its head. For it shows that megalithic architecture, proto-writing and a level of organisation that screams ‘civilisation’ were already in play several millennia before the accepted dawn of agriculture.

Sedentary agriculture emerged after Göbekli Tepe

What is the root assumption underlying this stubborn belief that agriculture preceded civilization? And why is it fundamentally erroneous?

Civilisation is itself difficult to define precisely. But typically, we think of it in terms of the appearance of larger settled communities with specialists, such as warrior, builder, artist and priest. It was generally assumed before Göbekli Tepe’s discovery that these specialisms can only occur when significant food surpluses are available, so that people can actually spend time specialising rather than searching for food. In turn, it was thought that significant food surpluses required agriculture, which can elevate food production far above natural levels. However, Göbekli Tepe—a massive construction project with advanced artistry that would have required significant organisation—appears several millennia before agriculture is established. More precisely, Göbekli Tepe was constructed several millennia before domesticated variants of animals and plants appear in the archaeological record—its people were, however, likely experimenting with animal husbandry and cultivation. This means it is the desire to live together in larger communities, rather than the existence of agriculture, which is the key to the origin of civilisation. Presumably then, agriculture developed as a necessity to support larger communities.

Pillars 18 and 31 at Göbekli Tepe
Pillars 18 (front) and 31 (rear) at Göbekli Tepe. Image courtesy of Alistair Coombs.

Göbekli Tepe

It is quite remarkable that such an amazing feat of artistic and engineering skill could have been accomplished by the hunter-collectors of the day, presumably using only their bare hands and basic stone tools. Nothing else comes close to the achievement of Göbekli Tepe—as far as we currently know—until the huge stone ‘city wall’ and tower of Jericho were erected around 3,000 years later. It truly is the world’s first ancient ‘Wonder’.

Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe
Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe. Image courtesy of Alistair Coombs.

More remarkable still, however, is the information encoded in the numerous carved animal symbols on Göbekli Tepe’s giant pillars. Klaus Schmidt, the site’s chief excavator until his untimely death in 2014, recognised these symbols might be precursors to those that appeared in Ancient Egypt 8,000 years later. Specifically, he suggested that the pillars’ many carvings of snakes that appear to threaten the other animals, might have morphed into the Uraeus symbol of Ancient Egypt. Very likely they represent an early instance of ophiolatry and symbolise the serpentine character of comets and meteors. Schmidt also realised that a code was deployed on the pillars in that the animals were symbolic and not intended to actually represent wild animals. But he could not decode their meaning.

Pillar 2 at Göbekli Tepe
Pillar 2 at Göbekli Tepe. Image courtesy of Alistair Coombs.

However, in 2017, together with Dr Dimitrios Tsikritsis, I provided an interpretation for these animal symbols that we now know is correct beyond reasonable doubt. It is now clear they represent practically the same star constellations we currently use today in the West. It appears, then, that the world’s first temple was also an observatory. Moreover, we could begin to ‘read’ the information on its many pillars. For example:

  • Pillar 43, an ornate pillar embedded into the wall of enclosure D, very likely records the date of the Younger Dryas impact using precession of the equinoxes. A fragment of Pillar 56 also appears to encode this date.
  • Pillar 2, one of two central pillars from enclosure A, very likely records the radiant path of the Taurid meteor stream, which was probably responsible for the Younger Dryas impact.
  • Pillars 18 and 31, the tallest pillars yet found that stand at the heart of enclosure D like a pair of sentries, likely represent comet-gods associated with the Taurid meteor stream. Perhaps they represent an early instance of the sky-twin myth documented across much of the known world. Later, in Ancient Egypt, the vulpine symbolism of Pillar 31 might have come to represent Set, god of chaos, while the bovine symbolism on Pillar 31 might have come to represent Osiris, Set’s brother and god of the underworld.

While these readings are not proven, statistical arguments show they are likely correct.5M.B. Sweatman and D. Tsikritsis, ‘Decoding Göbekli Tepe with archaeoastronomy: What does the fox say?’, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry vol. 17, issue 1, p. 233-250 (2017). Translation of the animal symbols into constellations, however, is almost certain. If you find this hard to accept—and I don’t blame you at all because of the cognitive dissonance this new understanding generates—you’ll enjoy the next discussion even less.

Zodiacal dating

Realising that the code displayed at Göbekli Tepe was unlikely to have been invented shortly after the Younger Dryas impact, I soon began to look for other examples of it at earlier and later archaeological sites. My focus was on religious or cultic use of animal symbols that belonged to the ancient zodiac exhibited at Göbekli Tepe. Especially I searched for cases where four animal symbols are displayed together to represent a date using precession of the equinoxes—the four animals correspond to the constellations of the four solstices and equinoxes of a specific year.

Astonishingly, it seemed that wherever I looked almost every case I encountered obeyed this scheme. Many pre-historic cultures specifically in western Eurasia seem to have used it. Indeed, the only reason for limiting its use to ancient western Eurasia is that I have not yet looked further afield. For all I know, it could be global. For example, there are hints the Maya might also have used this code, with their Jaguar and Eagle warriors. Both the Eagle and Feline are members of the ancient zodiac—representing Sagittarius and Cancer respectively—and the dates of these respective warrior-cults fit well with these specific constellations and precession of the equinoxes.

Zodiacal dating system emerged from Göbekli Tepe

How might our understanding of human prehistory change if this ancient system of zodiacal dating turns out in fact to be global?

It is generally thought that the Americas were peopled from Asia by migrations across the Beringian land-bridge when sea levels were much lower at the end of the last ice-age—around 15,000 BC or so. If earlier migrations occurred, they likely involved only small numbers of people. Due to sea level rise, this route became impassable around 10,000 BC, except by those able to make ocean voyages. Again, the numbers would have been small via this route. Therefore, if the zodiacal system is found across the Americas, it implies the system was most likely carried there during the great migrations between 17 and 12 thousand years ago, providing clear evidence for the ancient provenance of this astronomical system and its durability. Note that Michael Witzel, professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, in his book The Origins of the World’s Mythologies makes a strong case for an extremely ancient mythological system that spans Eurasia and the Americas. He predicts this system—that he calls Laurasian—began around 40,000 years ago and continues to the present day in most parts of the world. This timescale and the core beliefs of the Laurasian religion fit perfectly with Clube and Napier’s theory of Coherent Catastrophism, for they can be interpreted as describing repeated destructions of the world by cosmic collision events.

Certainly, almost every animal painting in western European Palaeolithic cave art with a reliable radiocarbon date follows this system. The probability of this level of agreement occurring by pure chance is in the region of one in several hundred million.6M.B. Sweatman and A. Coombs, ‘Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient Knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes’, Athens Journal of History vol. 5, issue 1, p. 1-30 (2019). It is this statistic—along with the incredible correlations observed at Göbekli Tepe—that show this system has been correctly deduced.

Even the oldest accepted pieces of figurative art—the 40,000 year-old Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave and the lion figurine of Denisova Cave—agree perfectly with this system. These feline figurines likely represented the winter solstice constellation Cancer at the time they were made. It seems therefore that a consistent cultural trait endured within Europe for over 30,000 years.

Lascaux Shaft Scene (from Lascaux II, the replica cave). Image courtesy of Alistair Coombs.

Lascaux

Of all this art, perhaps the most astonishing is at Lascaux in southern France. The Lascaux cave system entrance aligns very well with the summer solstice—the orange light of sunset on this date illuminates the famous ‘Hall of Bulls’. It’s probably no coincidence that the bull symbol—according to the ancient zodiac—represents the constellation Capricornus, which was the summer solstice constellation at the time the caves were in use.

Further down the cave past the many fabulous animal paintings so carefully rendered is the entrance to a deep shaft. A difficult climb down into darkness brings you eventually to the most famous and probably most important Palaeolithic cave art of all—the Lascaux Shaft Scene.

Why was this scene painted in such an inaccessible location? Why does it consist of four animal paintings together with one of a dying man? And why did its painters feel obliged to invest such considerable skill, time and effort in its creation? Comparisons with Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe— another wondrous piece of art kept ‘secret and safe’ for millennia that also displays four prominent animal symbols and a dying man—are inevitable, despite their separation in time and space. Indeed, interpretation of the Lascaux Shaft Scene using the ancient zodiacal system discovered at Göbekli Tepe suggests its message is almost identical to that on Pillar 43.

The four animals of the Lascaux Shaft Scene are the bull, rhino and water bird on the main wall and a horse on the rear wall. Consulting our ancient zodiac, these paintings represent Capricornus, Taurus, Libra and Leo respectively. Knowing the approximate epoch in which these caves were occupied—somewhere between 13,000 and 17,000 BC according to stylistic analysis of the paintings and radiocarbon dating of charcoal pieces found on the cave floor—leads to a more precise zodiacal date for the scene—between 15,300 and 15,000 BC.

Lascaux Shaft Scene (from Lascaux II, the replica cave). Image courtesy of Alistair Coombs.

Very interestingly, this date range aligns closely with another climatic event at around 15,200 BC revealed by a Greenland ice core.7M.B. Sweatman and D. Tsikritsis, ‘Decoding Göbleki Tepe with archaeoastronomy: What does the fox say?’, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry vol. 17, issue 1, p. 233-250 (2017). More interestingly still, this date range is known to correspond to a major population bottleneck during the Middle Magdalenian period in southern France where these caves are situated.8C. Barshay-Szmidt et al., ‘New extensive focused AMS 14C dating of the Middle and Upper Magdalenian of the Western Aquitaine/Pyrenean region of France (ca. 19 – 14 ka cal BP): Proposing a new model for its chronological phases and for the timing of occupation’, Quaternary International vol. 414, pg. 62-91 (2016).

Perhaps then, the Lascaux Shaft Scene is telling us what happened at this time? Almost certainly, this is no ordinary hunting scene—as it is commonly described—and comparison with Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe looks to be particularly apt. Perhaps it is telling us about another cosmic collision event with the Taurid meteor stream, the painting of the dying man indicating extensive loss of life.

Further weight to this proposal is provided by the disembowelled bull. Given that we suspect the Bull actually represents a constellation, it makes sense to interpret the spear as another meteor strike, this time from the direction of Capricornus. Note that the Taurid meteor stream would have emanated exactly from this region of the sky at this time. Note also that in many later cultures the bull symbol is associated with death and the underworld.

We therefore have a fully consistent interpretation of this scene; an interpretation which aligns with other similar ancient artworks and explains why this scene was painted in such a remote location. Probably like Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, the Lascaux Shaft Scene was an immensely holy shrine—a memorial to a devastating cosmic disaster—that had to be preserved and protected at all costs.

A lost civilisation

Moving forward in time from Göbekli Tepe, the same system is apparent at: Bonkuklu (8,300 – 7,500 BC, southern Turkey); nearby Catalhoyuk (7,000 – 6,000 BC); Lepinski Vir ( ~ 6,000 BC, Serbia); Ein-Gedi ( ~ 4,000 BC, Israel); pre-dynastic Egypt (~ 3,500 BC); early Bronze-Age Mesopotamia (3,200 -2,500 BC); the Indus Valley (2,600 – 1,900 BC); Celtic western Europe, including Iron-Age Denmark and Britain ( 100 BC – 100 AD); and Iron-Age Pictish Scotland (late first millennium BC – 500 AD). The religious art of these cultures appears to follow the same system, with only occasional and minor alterations to the zodiacal symbols. This accounts for much of the world’s most famous pre-historic art.

More controversially the system might also explain the apparently anomalous weathering displayed by the Great Sphinx of Giza. This famous ancient megalithic structure with clear astronomical alignment—it faces due east towards sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes—has always been a thorn in the side of conventional scholars. Zodiacal dating only adds to their woes since it suggests construction just prior to the 8.2 kiloyear event—the most significant climatic anomaly of the last 10,000 years—while conventional thinking places its construction around the early Bronze Age at the same time as the Great Pyramids.

Great Sphinx of Giza and Göbekli Tepe linked by Zodiac

What are specific examples of “anomalous weathering” evident on these monuments?

The weathering of the Sphinx and its enclosure has long been controversial. Deep vertical gouges and significant erosion in the western and southern edges of its enclosure walls suggest an age that far surpasses that proposed by Egyptologists. Based on this and on acoustic reflection measurements performed on the enclosure floor, Professor Robert Schoch of Boston University argued for a construction date for the Sphinx in the region of 7,000 to 5,000 BC, which agrees perfectly with my suggested zodiacal date. This is further supported by the fact that significant water runoff into the Sphinx enclosure can only have occurred long before the neighbouring Pyramids were built—since their quarries would have diverted the stream. Furthermore, recent optically stimulated luminescence measurements of the granite facing blocks that cover the Sphinx Temple, which lies next to the Sphinx itself, show they were emplaced at around the same time as the Pyramids. And yet these granite facing blocks are deliberately carved to fit over the weathered limestone Sphinx Temple blocks. This suggests they are much younger than the Sphinx Temple, which is known to be constructed from limestone blocks quarried out of the Sphinx enclosure.

This disagreement suggests an early stone-age Egyptian culture lost to science, wiped out by a suspected cataclysm around 6,200 BC. Only their enigmatic megalithic structures, like the Sphinx and its neighbouring temple, remained standing—to tease and confound modern scholars who interpret all the evidence they find at these ancient sites in terms of later cultures. Probably the pioneering people of Egypt prior to the 8.2 kiloyear event were culturally descended from Göbekli Tepe, given their proximity and similarity in terms of megalithic architecture, astronomy, religion and art.

But they would not have been the only culture to perish in the 8.2 kiloyear event, for the people living on Doggerland—a huge, low, flat island now submerged in the North Sea—were also swept away at this time by a mega-tsunami generated by the Storegga Slide—an undersea landslide of prodigious scale. And from ancient DNA studies, we now know that much of the hunter-gatherer population of Europe was replaced by Anatolian farmers shortly after this climatic event.9D. Reich, Who we are and how we got here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past (OUP Oxford, 2019).

We do not yet know why this great migration out of Anatolia into Europe happened, but severe climate change and widespread disease induced by one or more cosmic collisions with the Taurid meteor stream appears to be a distinct possibility. Likewise, the Storegga slide might also have been triggered by the same impact —after all, its timing perfectly aligns with the coldest decades of the 8.2 kiloyear event.  Indeed, orbital calculations suggest that Earth would have intersected the densest region of the Taurid meteor stream precisely at this time. It will probably do so again in the second half of this millennium. Adding further support to this idea, raised levels of iridium—an element found in much greater concentrations within asteroids and comets than on Earth—were found within an ‘8.2 kiloyear black mat’ in Chile, South America.10J.S. Pigati et al., ‘Accumulation of impact markers in desert wetlands and implications for the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 108, issue 19, p. 7208-7212 (2012).

Taurid Meteor Shower
Image credit: Channone Arif

How does this ‘black mat’ found in Chile support the notion that the earth will collide with the Taurid again in about 1000 years?

An impact like the Younger Dryas event, which appears to be memorialised by Göbekli Tepe, is predicted by Clube and Napier’s theory of Coherent Catastrophism. Their theory also predicts further collisions with debris from the Taurid meteor stream over the past few tens of thousands of years, although the Younger Dryas impact might have been the largest. Because of the way the orbit of the Taurid meteor stream evolves, most (but not all) of its impact risk is confined to periods of a few hundred years every 3,000 years or so. The last high-risk period occurred just before 0 BC, which means the next high-risk period is due in around 500 to 1,000 years. Counting backwards, we can expect to find evidence for other impact events just before 3,000 BC, 6,000 BC and so on. For example, the 8.2 kiloyear event occurs at about 6,200 BC, making it a good impact event candidate. The first geochemical evidence supporting this notion—an abundance of iridium—was found recently within a black layer of sediment, known as a ‘black mat’, in Chile dated to this time. Moreover, the impact event indicated by the Lascaux Shaft Scene, at 15,200 BC, is also a good candidate. The Younger Dryas event, however, at 10,800 BC, does not fit this pattern.

Art, religion and astronomy

This tale about the origin of civilization is connected by a trio of immensely ancient and important activities: art, religion and astronomy. It appears they were joined by a fourth activity—megalithic architecture—from Göbekli Tepe onwards, although as has been discussed, dating stone is problematic. Probably the first three of these inter-linked and mutually supporting cultural traits were passed down the generations for 40,000 years or more. Such a long timescale requires some explanation: how was it possible?

Perhaps, because it was imperative. The regular destructions of the world by the Taurid meteor stream had to be recorded somehow to warn future generations. This requires astronomical knowledge and an information system capable of both describing and dating such events over extremely long timescales. Fortunately the configurations of bright stars we still observe today—the western set of zodiacal constellations—would have appeared almost identical 40,000 years ago. The only significant change in their position is caused by the very slow precession of the equinoxes.

Meanwhile, perhaps religion is the natural human response to such phenomena as giant disintegrating comets and the awful destruction they bring. With religion we might hope to understand why such events happen and how to control or appease these majestic, wrathful and mighty gods. So it is entirely natural that religion would have an astronomical flavour. Moreover, religion can engender a sense of strength and community needed to survive the dark days. Indeed, it appears this sense of community was sufficiently strong after the Younger Dryas impact event to trigger civilisation itself.

And finally, what better way than through great artworks might a civilization impress upon viewers the dire importance of this cosmic situation? Furthermore, astronomical and religious knowledge can be combined into one coherent system. In combination with massive architecture, the monumental nature of what’s at stake can be clearly communicated. There is no more perfect example of this principle than with the Ancient Egyptians, who according to ancient DNA studies, were descended mainly from the people of the Fertile Crescent.11V.J. Scheunemann et al., ‘Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods’, Nature Communications vol. 8, 15694 (2017).

Even today—although the essential message of these earlier religions has been subsumed by more contemporary political imperatives and the zodiacal system has been relegated by the invention of writing—the marriage of art, religion and monumental architecture remains clear. However, the original astronomical, catastrophic and cometary symbolism can still be seen in modern religions, if you know where to look.

The importance of Göbekli Tepe, then, is that it demonstrates how belief, based on the knowledge system of the time, guides the development of complex societies. In other words, the current orthodoxy has it backwards. Religion was not a leisure activity that grew out of the invention of agricultural technologies. Instead it was the belief system that determined the technology. In the case of Göbekli Tepe, an astronomical belief system gave rise to megalithic architecture and agricultural societies. Surely this conclusion makes more sense: astronomical knowledge, notation and beliefs, prompted by repeated cosmic destructions, begat monumental art and architecture, which in turn begat large communities and agriculture. Disaster, in sum, may very well be the ur-mother of civilisation, and belief, the true mother of invention.


Prehistory Decoded by Martin Sweatman

Martin Sweatman is a scientist (associate Professor) at the University of Edinburgh, one of the world’s leading universities, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. His specialism, statistical mechanics, has enabled him to solve one of the world’s greatest puzzles—the meaning of ancient artworks involving animal symbols. His book, Prehistory Decoded, was published in 2018 by Troubadour.

3 Comments

  1. David Solway says:

    Extraordinary. Ordering the book immediately.

  2. VERONICA ROACH says:

    On the chicken-egg argument of cultivation it has always seemed to me much more likely that farming happened via little steps….a few humans realized that if they put seeds in the ground, plants grew….so they started doing that many, many millenia ago…maybe just with particularly easy & fast growing plants..which some stuck in the ground where they camped, OR they just dropped & trod in by mistake ! and when they circled back later, maybe next season to the same camping spot or cave entrance – voila they have something edible growing….once that had happened, even if by accident….they realized this was a great idea & did more of it. It was only when they gradually formed bigger groups that they realized planting a lot of stuff was a good idea. If you watch how some African & Amazon people plant their crops – they just plop seed into little spots among the other plants, they don’t ‘cultivate the ground ‘ as in a American farm !!! And I’m quite sure THAT is how “farming” was gradually done. It’s really a matter of how you tell the story & you don’t have to start trying to explain brain sizes etc to understand this concept. I think humans were for hundreds of millenia already far evolved from apes & much smarter than we give them credit for !

  3. VERONICA ROACH says:

    The single most fascinating thing that NOBODY can explain about Göbekli Tepe is those ‘bags’ on the top of one of the pillars ! The very same ‘bags’ that appear over & over in all of the ancient civilizations’ carvings & paintings – and quite OBVIOUSLY have some very deep meaning to all of them – I was asking about them even B4 Göbekli Tepe was discovered since I have been reading up on all of this ancient stuff since Velikovsky startled the world with his questions way back in my youth ! WHAT are those ‘bags’ everywhere worldwide ???

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