In the 1920s the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe coined the term “Neolithic Revolution” to describe the relatively sudden transition from a predominantly hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a predominantly agricultural one, marked by the appearance in the archaeological record of pottery, polished stone axes, and permanent settlements of agriculturalists replacing the temporary camps of nomadic hunter-gatherers.
The concept of the “Neolithic Revolution” created the impression that cultures were essentially nomadic until the invention of agriculture, whereupon there was a fairly rapid transition from nomadism to living in permanent settlements and ultimately the development of civilization (literally, building, then living in, cities). It was therefore assumed that complex settlements including sophisticated architecture must have been the consequence of this Neolithic Revolution.
However, discoveries from the 1950s onwards suggested that this was perhaps overly simplistic, or even wrong. Excavations carried out by the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho on the West Bank of the River Jordan revealed a permanent settlement of seventy mudbrick-built circular houses averaging about five metres in diameter. Overall, the settlement was capable of accommodating about a thousand people. It also included the remains of a tower built of undressed stone, eight meters high and nine meters wide at its base with twenty-two internal steps leading to its summit. There no evidence that this tower was built as a defense, and it is now believed that that it had a ritual, or religious function.
Similar permanent settlements have been discovered nearby, all dating to between 11,600 and 10,000 years ago and all built not by agriculturalists but by the hunter gatherers of what is now termed the Natufian culture. However, the site that poses the greatest challenge to the idea that permanent settlements and monumental structures only became possible through the invention of agriculture is Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. Again about 11,600 years ago, more or less contemporaneous with the first houses at Jericho, huge limestone slabs were quarried, then carved into T-shaped pillars eight feet high and weighing about seven tons. These pillars were then erected within circular enclosures about thirty meters in diameter sunk into the ground, the walls being shored up with undressed stone. Two pillars were placed in the center of each enclosure with others positioned around the edge, with stone benches in between. The faces of many of these pillars have relief carvings of animals, foxes, wild pigs and cattle, deer and snakes, although one pillar includes a carved human arm. Only four such enclosures have been excavated: archaeologists believe that many more are yet to be discovered.
The animal bones and plant remains found at Göbekli Tepe show that it was made not by farmers but by hunter-gathers. At the same time, the size and complexity of its construction, requiring the co-ordination of many communities over decades, implies a far more sophisticated society than had previously been assumed for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The purpose of the structure at Göbekli Tepe is unknown, but as there is no evidence long-term habitation, it seems clear that people only gathered there periodically. This has led to speculation that its function was primarily or exclusively religious. Some archaeologists consider that it was a pilgrimage site for the entire surrounding area at which dead ancestors could be venerated, although no tombs or graves have been found. If Göbekli Tepe was a temple or some other kind of center for ritual activity, it means that organized religion predates civilization by many thousands of years. If so, it could be that it was our ancestors’ religious impulse which ultimately led to the building of the first cities, and not the other way around.
However, other factors may have been involved. The systemised domestication of cereals began around 12,000 years ago. The main difference between wild wheat and domesticated wheat is that when wild wheat ripens, the seed-bearing part of the plant shatters so that the seeds can disperse and germinate rapidly, whereas in the domesticated variety they do not. One theory is that this non-shattering variety first appeared in wild wheat as a mutant strain, the people picking it realising that wheat seeded from it could be far more effectively harvested. However the first domestication of wild cereals occurred, it would lead to one of humanity’s greatest transformations, as over the next few thousand years and throughout Asia, Europe and China, agriculture slowly supplanted the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had been followed by all human species for over two million years. Yet this may have been a matter of necessity rather than choice, as there are huge disadvantages to the agricultural lifestyle compared to the hunter gatherer one. Agriculture is far more labour intensive, produces a generally inferior diet and confines a community to one location which increases the incidence of communicable disease, particularly from livestock. Archaeology has confirmed this, the bones and teeth of hunter gatherers being generally larger, stronger and healthier than those of their farming contemporaries. One theory is that the climate changes of the Younger Dryas Event in southwest Asia changed seasonal conditions which favoured the mutant strain of wild cereals. Another is that such climate changes reduced other food sources. However, Göbekli Tepe is only a few miles from where this domesticable strain of wheat grows in the Karacadag mountains, and work on the site seems to have begun at around the same time that domesticated wheat strains first appear in the archaeological record. This has led to conjecture that agriculture was not simply a necessity but a fundamental part of a momentous change in religious beliefs in southwest Asia which then spread throughout Europe.