The World's "Earliest-Known Temple" Was Built 11,500 Years Ago With Geometry In Mind

Forget the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge: This is Göbekli Tepe, a spectacularly mysterious ancient site. mehmet.ozer/Shutterstock

A fresh look at Göbekli Tepe, an 11,500-year-old structural complex in Upper Mesopotamia, has reaffirmed it might just be one of the most mind-blowing sites in human history. 

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Israel Antiquities Authority have applied algorithm-based analysis to the architectural layout of Göbekli Tepe and found the prehistoric site, thought to be the earliest known temple, was not a simple construction of oddly placed structures, but an orchestrated complex with an underlying geometric pattern. Considering this sprawling temple complex was constructed around 11,500 years ago – before the widespread development of agriculture, and some 6,000 years before the construction of Stonehenge – that’s quite the feat. 

The findings of the new research were recently published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Göbekli Tepe, the oldest known architectural monument, continues to spur controversy and confusion among archaeologists. The site sits on a mountainside along the Fertile Crescent in present-day Turkey. It consists of numerous structures and monuments, some of which are ornately decorated with carvings and sculptures of animals, built during the Neolithic age at some point between 9,600 and 8,200 BCE. The age of the complex is remarkable as it suggests it was built by hunter-gatherers before the advent of agriculture and thousands of years before other complex monumental architecture arose. It's though to have been of ritual significance.

Göbekli Tepe, as seen from above. Gil Haklay/AFTAU.

It was widely thought that structures such as this could only be achieved after a society has mastered agriculture, but Göbekli Tepe pours cold water on that fundamental assumption. 

"Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological wonder," Professor Avi Gopher, from TAU's Department of Archaeology, said in a statement

"Built by Neolithic communities 11,500 to 11,000 years ago, it features enormous, round stone structures and monumental stone pillars up to 5.5 meters (19 feet) high," he explained. "Since there is no evidence of farming or animal domestication at the time, the site is believed to have been built by hunter-gatherers. However, its architectural complexity is highly unusual for them."

Geometric pattern underlying the architectural planning of a complex at Göbekli Tepe. Gil Haklay/AFTAU. 

As this new research shows, the construction of the site would have required a considerable amount of planning capability, organization, and knowledge. For one, it would have required a grasp of geometry in order to create the floor plans, which the study authors argue lay in a geometric shape that is no coincidence. The research also shows that the complex regularly uses rectangular architecture and square shapes, which were not commonly used by Stone Age humans, but is often seen as a characteristic of early farmers in the ancient Levant. 

"Our findings suggest that major architectural transformations during this period, such as the transition to rectangular architecture, were knowledge-based, top-down processes carried out by specialists,” said Gil Haklay of the Israel Antiquities Authority. 

"The most important and basic methods of architectural planning were devised in the Levant in the Late Epipaleolithic period as part of the Natufian culture and through the early Neolithic period. Our new research indicates that the methods of architectural planning, abstract design rules, and organizational patterns were already being used during this formative period in human history."

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