Wadi Faynan is an archaeological conundrum. Unearthed at this site in southern Jordan, is what appears to be a large amphitheater, probably used for public rituals or performances of some sort. The problem is that Wadi Faynan is over 11,000 years old – older than settled agriculture; older even than civilization itself. The Wadi Faynan amphitheater was a colossal undertaking requiring scores, if not hundreds, of laborers. Their efforts had to be planned, supervised, and carefully coordinated; and their mere presence necessitated feeding, housing, and clean up. Construction materials, tools, and other supplies had to be transported to the site, guarded, inventoried, and distributed for use. How could transient hunter-gatherers, who roam about in groups of a couple dozen or so, have accomplished such a complex logistical feat? If Wadi Faynan was just an isolated one-off, then maybe it could be dismissed as a mysterious anomaly. But it is not.

Perched on a hilltop in southeastern Turkey is the temple of Göbekli Tepe, one of the world’s oldest ritual sites. Carved into its massive stone pillars are the images of animals, presumably deities to whom sacrifices and homage were offered by the gathered throngs of so long ago. As with Wadi Faynan, Gobeki Tepe was constructed over 11,000 years ago; long before the rise of city-states; long before villages, towns, or farms. Hunter-gatherers built Gobekli Tepe. 

Wadi Faynan and Gobekli Tepe are forcing archeologists and pre-historians to rewrite the origins of civilization. It now seems that it was not the settling force of agriculture but the organizing force of ritual and religion that put an end to our hunting-gathering days.

The old story was that about 10,000 years ago humans began experimenting with growing their own grains and domesticating cattle. Since the food no longer moved around, neither did the people; and so increasingly our ancestors settled in villages and towns. Eventually their religious beliefs and rituals followed suite as tribal taboos and shamans gave way to priests, temples, and “big” omnipresent gods. But agriculture was supposed to have been the first link in the civilizing chain. First you get the stable food source, then the village, and finally the priest and temple.

Wadi Faynan and Gobekli Tepe turn this process on its head. What they suggest is that our ancestors started gathering into larger communities for religious purposes, not because of a stable food source. Klaus Schmidt, the archeologist who discovered Gobekli Tepe, argued that it was a pilgrimage site. Roaming hunter-gatherers converged at Gobekli Tepe for communal rituals. Over time, the crowds grew and the rituals became more elaborate. More elaborate rituals led to more impressive monuments, which required more workers to build. In feeding the workers and pilgrims, people – either intentionally or accidentally – became more selective about the wild grains and other plants they were collecting, leading to domestication. Indeed, genetic evidence indicates that the origins of domestic wheat are not far from Gobekli Tepe.

building Gobekli Tepe

Humans enact rituals for many purposes – to mark transitional moments, to commemorate important events, to celebrate triumphs and lament tragedies. But rituals are not passive players in these encounters. They transform us in turn, and their transformational power may have been strong enough to civilize us.

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