Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Gobekli Tepe Animal Images: Are They Religious Symbols?

June 3, 2011

The National Geographic Magazine’s June issue blares this headline for its cover story: “The Birth of Religion: The World’s First Temple.” The article, written by Charles C. Mann with photographs by Vincent J. Musi, focuses on the hilltop site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, where ancient people built an elaborate ringed complex featuring massive stone pillars that are carved with animal images.

The scale of the construction at Gobekli Tepe is astounding given two key facts: The time was 11,600 years ago, and the people who carried it out were nomadic hunter-gatherers who roamed the land, free of settlements or domesticated animals or crops. Numerous assumptions about the sequence of key events in human prehistory are challenged by Gobekli Tepe.

And think about this: We are closer in time today to the builders of Egypt’s Great Pyramids than those pyramid-builders were to the Gobekli Tepe people!

Gobekli Tepe fascinates me-- I wrote about it in my last two books, Evolving God and Being With Animals--because it brings together animals and religion in human prehistory, or so the site’s lead archaeologist suggests. Klaus Schmidt interprets the site as a center for religious ritual, an interpretation captured by article author Mann:

“Amazingly, the temple’s builders were able to cut, shape, and transport 16-ton stones hundreds of feet despite having no wheels or beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Gobekli Tepe lived in a world without writing, metal, or pottery; to those approaching the temple from below, its pillars must have loomed overhead like rigid giants, the animals on the stones shivering in the firelight—emissaries from a spiritual world that the human mind may have only begun to envision.”

That’s fine writing. And it’s a compelling interpretation, too. The archaeological logic is predicated on close analysis of the site’s features and artifacts. Here’s Mann again: “As for the prancing, leaping animals on the [humanoid pillar] figures, [Schmidt] noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them or incorporating them as totems.”

In other words, the Gobekli Tepe people may have been after the animals’ power, and certainly not their meat. (Gazelle and aurochs bones at the site attest to hunting and eating-on-the-spot of those particular animals.)

There’s a larger context here too. Other sites in the region incorporate the same animal images a bit later on. And there’s a good case to be made (I tried to make it in Evolving God) that Neandertal and early Homo sapiens burials, as well as some of the art created later by our ancestors on cave walls at places like Chauvet and Lascaux, hint at people’s religious imagination millennia in advance of Gobekli Tepe.

So why am I drudging all this up again? As these things sometimes happen, just as I was grappling with a vague unease about the published materials on Gobekli Tepe, an email came in from my friend and co-author, the gorilla-gesture expert Joanne Tanner, raising some excellent questions. Joanne has allowed me to quote the relevant part of her email message here:

I have an overall question of why this structure, and many others that are shrouded in the mists of prehistory, seem to be so readily assumed to be 'places of worship' or 'religious centers'? Those are pretty broadly interpretable labels, I realize; but simply because masses of people gathered and there is impressive architecture and art work, why religion?

And here’s the thing. I find no solid answer to Joanne’s questions anywhere in the National Geographic article, or in any work that I know of on Gobekli Tepe (including my own secondary analysis). It’s abundantly clear that Gobekli Tepe is a ceremonial center, and that something fascinating went on there that pulled in people from miles and miles around the land. That “something” clearly involved animals and thinking symbolically with animals. But why this rush to leap from ceremonial center to temple quite so readily?

The strongest argument I can make in support of the archaeologist Schmidt’s interpretation—the one that most reporters buy into wholesale—is the contextual one. Sure, it was a shock to discover the timing of this monumental enterprise by pre-sedentary pre-farmers, but as I’ve noted, pre-sedentary pre-farmers do seem to be thinking about matters beyond everyday survival, in this region and, even earlier, elsewhere. Taken alone, a single cave with half-human, half-animal hybrid images, for example, does not a religion make. Yet when the “cave complex” known to exist across a wide region is considered as a whole, the details of the art-and-music-making behavior that’s argued for (for details see Evolving God and Being With Animals) points with some clarity towards ancestors who thought symbolically with animals and incorporated animals into an unknowable system of spirituality.

I’ve called this my strongest argument, but it is far from an airtight one. And even if the argument were airtight in one region during one period of prehistory, it shouldn’t be applied universally. The questions asked by Joanne remain, and lead to others.

What else (besides religion) might the Gobekli Tepe—and wider regional—animal image ceremonies have been about? Let’s throw our minds open. Could the rituals on the Gobekli Tepe hilltop have been about channeling animals’ power in order to strengthen social cohesion among groups who shared the hunting-and-gathering landscape? Was spirituality not involved at all, but rather animal-focused ritual in the service of cooperation and enhanced survival? How might archaeologists distinguish among these ideas? Is this a conversation the Gobekli Tepe archaeologists have had? If so, that’s an article I’d love to read.


  1. June 12, 2011 1:08 AM EDT
    still thinking about this, and surprised no comments from anyone. Probably for the same reason I haven't; it's a tough puzzle. But a little mental game is fun: suppose a completely alien culture that could not decode our language at all, looked at our postings on Facebook. Like our private group Cat Folks. Wow! These people must worship cats! Or Smiling Bears page- Hey, what is it with all these bears, seriously? If called on to explain this to the alien, I would have to say, well, we just LIKE cats and have relationships with these individual cats and like to share with others of similar mindset. Bears? We admire them and believe in their place in the world. We are fascinated with animals and constantly try to figure them out and the challenge never ends. Maybe the animals in ancient carving and drawing were the most fascinating things people had in their lives, just as they are to some of us today too. Except back then there wasn't a whole lot else to be fascinated with except these naturally existing companions on the life journey. Today the fascination is not as universal perhaps because there are so many other manufactured distractions.
    - Joanne Tanner

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.