A 12,000-year-old “Stonehenge on steroids” transformed nomadic humans into members of complex societies.

92ndStreet Y

When the late German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt discovered the world’s oldest known structures, he came up with a revolutionary theory about the history of human civilization: “First came the temple, then the city.”

What Schmidt and his team dug up starting in the mid 1990s was a magnificent temple complex in southeastern Turkey, on a site called Göbekli Tepe, or “Potbelly Hill.” The stone complex, circular in structure with T-shaped pillars and elaborate carvings of humans and mythic animals, was built some 12,000 years ago—long before villages, pottery, and even agriculture. Yet, as a new video from the cultural nonprofit 92nd Street Y explains, it’s where the world’s first cities emerged, marking the turning point for when humans transformed from nomads into members of complex societies.

Some researchers believed it to be a religious gathering place where, as the journalist Andrew Curry reported for National Geographic, “hunter-gatherers might have traveled long distances to meet, worship and help build new monumental structures, sponsoring feasts to display their wealth.” Indeed moving those pillars (the largest weighing 16 tons) would have required hundreds of people, a thought that reinforced Schmidt’s theory.

It helped that Göbekli Tepe conveniently sat on the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent, an arc of arable land with mild climate that made it the “birthplace of agriculture.” And while there’s no evidence of any permanent settlement at the site (not yet, anyway), the way Schmidt saw it, the need to feed and house all these workers led to the emergence of communities that eventually learned to plant crops and domesticate animals.

Eventually, as Jonathan F.P. Rose, author of the book The Well-Tempered City, further explains in the video, these settlements started to trade with one another, creating a network of connected communities. The more connected they are, the more dense and complex settlements become. Add in language and culture—not to mention control systems technological innovation—and voilà, (thousands of years later) you have your first cities.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A crowded street outside in Boston
    Life

    Surveillance Cameras Debunk the Bystander Effect

    A new study uses camera footage to track the frequency of bystander intervention in heated incidents in Amsterdam; Cape Town; and Lancaster, England.                            

  2. Perspective

    Hurricane Barry: Lessons From a Disaster That Wasn’t

    Hurricane Barry largely spared New Orleans, but it underscored that climate change brings complex impacts and hard choices.

  3. People wait in line, holding tote bags in the sunshine, outside a job fair.
    Equity

    How 3 Skill Sets Explain U.S. Economic Geography

    Metro areas in the U.S. with higher cognitive and people skills, versus motor skills, perform better economically and are more resilient during downturns.

  4. A man stands next to an electric scooter
    Transportation

    Why Electric Scooters Companies Are Getting Serious About Safety

    Lime has joined rival Bird in establishing a safety advisory board tasked with helping the e-scooter industry shape local regulations—and shake its risky reputation.

  5. A photo of anti-gentrification graffiti in Washington, D.C.
    Equity

    The Hidden Winners in Neighborhood Gentrification

    A new study claims the effects of neighborhood change on original lower-income residents are largely positive, despite fears of spiking rents and displacement.

×