Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A 12,000-year-old “Stonehenge on steroids” transformed nomadic humans into members of complex societies.
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.