Duration 20 years (02023-02043)
The established paradigm on the origin of agriculture and early civilization is that as the last ice age ended and climate became both more stable and temperate, humans were able to domesticate crops for the first time. The fertile alluvial soil deposited with the yearly floods by the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers provided abundant harvests to support complex societies such as ancient Egypt and Sumeria.
This paradigm of progress proceeding on a materially overdetermined set course seems to rest on increasingly shaky grounds given recent finds on early history of cultivation and settlement, as well monumental construction. The most important of these recent discoveries is Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. What Klaus Schmidt’s team found at Göbekli Tepe in 1995 were three concentric stone walls enclosing spaces sometimes dotted with towering 18-foot tall T-shaped pillars. Constructing these pillars, each weighing about ten to twenty tons, required tremendous human labor.
The most startling aspect of these ruins is their age: the site is dated to 9500 BC, over 6000 years older than the ruins at Stonehenge. They predate the current consensus origin of human agriculture.
No one can yet say with confidence what construction techniques were used, and what timelines were considered acceptable for their completion.Tellingly, estimates by archaeologists put the human labor requirement for extracting the pillars and moving them from local quarries to be about five hundred people. Assuming usual estimates of Neolithic population density, this would have been quite the organizational feat. How were hundreds of laborers fed if not through agriculture? And how was it organized? How should we best describe such a society?
The Sumerian city-states of what is today Iraq, such as Eridu, are typically considered to be the origin of civilization. But these cities are four thousand years younger than our radiocarbon dates for Göbekli Tepe. The walled complex at Göbekli Tepe forces us either to push the origin of agriculture much further into the past or else reconsider whether agriculture is necessary for such complex human societies. Either possibility yields important new information about our species. And both have the consequence that we must revise what we expect to find in the future and what kind of digs we should fund.
I think we have underestimated both the social and material technologies needed for ancient life. When we find remains of beavers, we assume they built beaver dams, even if we don’t immediately find remnants of those dams. The beaver dams are part of what biologists would call the animal’s extended phenotype, an unavoidable necessity of the ecological niche that the beaver occupies. When we find Homo sapiens skeletons, however, we instead imagine the people naked, feasting on berries, without shelter, and without social differentiation. What, we should ask, is our extended phenotype?
I believe the extended phenotype of humanity is a complex society. How frequently did such complex societies arise, only to fall and be forgotten? I strongly suspect they might be not thousands, but tens of thousands of years older than we believed previously.
The time is especially ripe for an improved understanding of such lost human history, not just because these finds have stimulated interests, but because the political conditions in Turkey and China—two plausible geographic centers of very ancient civilization—are likely to remain friendly to exploring the ancient past for at least the next decade or two. Because of this I believe that in the next twenty years there will be archaeological discoveries demonstrating equal or greater architectural advancement to the monuments at Gobekli Tepe, dating from before 11,000 BC. This will fundamentally weaken the tie between the end of the last ice age and the emergence of complex society.
Evidence of a longer history and prehistory of our species would push us to rethink some other assumptions about the nature of progress and technology. When it comes to thinking about politics, economics, and culture, history is our only data set. Rethinking what humans are and how we’ve lived over the last few hundred thousand years may open us up not just to new discoveries about prehistory, but new possibilities for our future. We, after all, hope to be more than just another set of ruins for our descendants to argue over.
Samo Burja is negotiating the terms of a bet about this prediction. It will soon be added to Bets on the Record.