When I read the founding texts of Western Liberalism, I’m often struck by how right they were about some things. Read Rousseau and you see that the men of the Enlightenment were figuring out evolution long before Darwin came along. They did not call it evolution and they were not approaching it from a biological perspective, but they understood there was a period before human settlement. They knew that period of human organization required different men than the world at that time produced.
That said, they got some big stuff wrong too. The “state of nature” was nothing like Hobbes imagined. It was not men in a constant state of warfare against one another. Of course, the blank slate stuff upon which Rousseau built his moral philosophy is, we now know, complete nonsense. We are what our DNA instructs, for the most part. There’s not only variation between people, there’s diversity between groups of people due to generations of inherited traits, within isolated groups of humans.
There are two things to learn from that. One is that tens of millions of people were murdered because Rousseau was completely wrong about the nature of man. That’s a big mistake. The other take away is that even when a theory seems to explain what we observe, it could still be wildly wrong. For instance, the ruins at Gobekli Tepe are forcing archaeologists and historians to rethink the civilization timeline.
On the day I visit, a bespectacled Belgian man sits at one end of a long table in front of a pile of bones. Joris Peters, an archaeozoologist from the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, specializes in the analysis of animal remains. Since 1998, he has examined more than 100,000 bone fragments from Gobekli Tepe. Peters has often found cut marks and splintered edges on them—signs that the animals from which they came were butchered and cooked. The bones, stored in dozens of plastic crates stacked in a storeroom at the house, are the best clue to how people who created Gobekli Tepe lived. Peters has identified tens of thousands of gazelle bones, which make up more than 60 percent of the total, plus those of other wild game such as boar, sheep and red deer. He’s also found bones of a dozen different bird species, including vultures, cranes, ducks and geese. “The first year, we went through 15,000 pieces of animal bone, all of them wild. It was pretty clear we were dealing with a hunter-gatherer site,” Peters says. “It’s been the same every year since.” The abundant remnants of wild game indicate that the people who lived here had not yet domesticated animals or farmed.
But, Peters and Schmidt say, Gobekli Tepe’s builders were on the verge of a major change in how they lived, thanks to an environment that held the raw materials for farming. “They had wild sheep, wild grains that could be domesticated—and the people with the potential to do it,” Schmidt says. In fact, research at other sites in the region has shown that within 1,000 years of Gobekli Tepe’s construction, settlers had corralled sheep, cattle and pigs. And, at a prehistoric village just 20 miles away, geneticists found evidence of the world’s oldest domesticated strains of wheat; radiocarbon dating indicates agriculture developed there around 10,500 years ago, or just five centuries after Gobekli Tepe’s construction.
To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.
The model of human development has been based on the idea that humans began to learn how to farm and domesticate animals while living as hunter gatherers. Groups of humans figured out that they could improve their prospects by cultivating wild crops, thus providing a hedge against the bad times. This led to the slow development of cooperative societies and eventually settled agriculture-based communities. Large scale social organization beyond blood relations happened after agriculture, not before.
The existence of large structures requiring lots of people working together over a long period of time, perhaps across generations, before the advent of agriculture is a big deal. It means cooperation is the result of something other than economic necessity. In other words, people started cooperating for some reason other than it made for better living conditions. The theory presented in the linked story suggest the motivation was spiritual. The people who built Gobekli Tepe did it to please the gods in some way.
This may not sound like a big deal, but consider that the last 300 or so years of Western political debate has been between Team homo economicus and Team homo reciprocans. If both are just manifestations of a basic human drive for spiritual salvation, then basing economic and political systems on either is only going to end in tears, which would be a good way to describe the 100 million or so dead trying to prove Rousseau was right. It means our self-interest and cooperation are bound by something else.
I’ve written a lot about how our ideological impulses are just channels through which our natural religious impulse flows. Those of us less inclined to believe, tend toward political skepticism. Those more inclined to believe, tend towards mass movements like socialism, communism, libertarianism, etc. Much of what vexes the modern West is the deluded belief that we have evolved past our superstitions and spiritual impulses. Maybe that’s all wrong and maybe it is important.