Buzzwords, Bogeymen, and Banalities of Pseudoarchaeology: Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe
Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Rolf Cosar, CC-BY-SA-4.0.

This article is part of the “Buzzwords in
Pseudoarchaeology
” series

In the realm and imaginations of those who disseminate fake, fraudulent, and fantastic archaeological claims, there are some things that are just cliche in their discussions: the go-to bogeymen for blame or rancorous contempt, or just statements they find profound which barely rise to a level of trite reality.

One of these is “Göbekli Tepe,” the name of a Neolithic archaeological site discovered in Turkey in 1963. It’s a very special site for a couple of reasons, perhaps most notably that there appears to be monumental architecture present that precedes agriculture. Until the structures at this site were dated, it was thought that agriculture logically preceded monumental architecture in societies and, in general, it probably does. One of the supposed reasons for this is that agriculture allows for increased production and storage of food as a source of calories, and the opportunities for social stratification and skill or trade specialization.

While this may still be sufficiently true in many societies of the ancient past, Göbekli Tepe shows us that it isn’t necessarily true.

Another, related, reason why Göbekli Tepe is a very special site is its age. Earliest levels of the site date to about 9600-8800 BCE. That’s a little more than 11,000 years ago.

As Pseudoarchaeological Trope

In his book Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock writes this about Göbekli Tepe:

“Göbekli Tepe is the oldest work of monumental architecture so far found anywhere in the world, or at any rate the oldest accepted as such by archaeologists. […] the problem at Göbekli Tepe is the pristine, sudden appearance, like Athena springing full-grown and fully armed from the brow of Zeus, of what appears to be an already seasoned civilization so accomplished that it “invents” both agriculture and monumental architecture at the apparent moment of its birth. […] Archaeology can no more explain that than it can explain why the earliest monuments, art, sculptures, hieroglyphs, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and architecture of Ancient Egypt are perfect at the beginning without any traces of evolution from simple to sophisticated. “

Hancock, Graham (2012). Magicians of the Gods. London: Coronet, pp. 5, 10.

About both Göbekli Tepe and Egypt, Hancock is, of course, wrong.

Egyptian monuments, writing, architecture, etc. all show varied degrees of cultural evolution. Early tombs show a Mesopotamian influence in brickwork such as with the pre-dynastic tomb 100 in Hierakonpolis. Burials themselves evolve from round, pit graves with simple grave goods, to rectangular graves with increased numbers and varieties of goods. Initially jars were painted with funeral processions, which evolved later into entire temple murals.

By the Early Dynastic Period, tombs over graves began to appear as certain members of Egyptian society attained increased wealth and status. These were rectangular mastabas with burial chambers placed underground. Grave goods are even more evolved, including furniture, weapons, cosmetics, jewelry, and so on. The first pyramids begin to show up in the Old Kingdom and even these are clearly a progression of trial and error as architects experiment with style, form, and function with varied success.

Petrie's Pottery Marks
Pottery Marks from Petrie, W.M.F. (1895). Naqada and Ballas. London. Many of these
marks are clear precursors to later hieroglyphs.

Pottery of the pre-dynastic evolves from simplistic forms like the Badarian Period, to etched and painted geometric designs of the Amaratian Period, to early amphorae in the Gerzean Period complete with lugs and handles. Interestingly, early pot-marks painted and incised on vessels in Naqada very much resemble early hieroglyphs. So even these small aspects of Egyptian technology are easily observed as following a progression of development over hundreds, even thousands of years.

Contrary to Hancock’s claim, Egyptian culture did not simple pop into existence. And neither did that of Göbekli Tepe. In much the same way, the site of Göbekli Tepe developed over time. Though, because of the challenges of preservation and the amount of time involved, it’s less obvious.

But suppose no archaeological evidence was present to support technological and cultural progression at either site? Would this automatically be evidence that the people of either started out “perfect at the beginning?” Of course not. It would be more likely to indicate poor preservation in the archaeological record. At the very least, this would necessarily be an equal hypothesis to falsify.

It’s great age coupled with it’s monumental architecture makes Göbekli Tepe a site that mystery mongers want to associate with. This is probably because that great age comes with a longer period of time for nature to do its thing with site preservation. In particular, only the most durable bits of the material record are permitted to survive. Stone tools, the stone pillars the site is famous for, some stone figurines, a few bones, some pottery, and the incised or carved designs found on pillars and pottery.

Enter the Denisovans

In his book, Denisovan Origins, co-authored with Greg Little, Andrew Collins attempts several spurious connections between Denisovans and the people of Göbekli Tepe. The connections are presented as though they’re obvious and “clear,” a word Collins overuses in his narrative, particularly since very little is validated beyond the selection of that adjective.

For instance, Collins would have his readers believe that the culture of Göbekli Tepe is the result of Denisovan culture. In spite of the fact that precious little is actually known about this subspecies of archaic human beyond a few bones, some artifacts that may or may not have belonged to them, and that some of their DNA continues to exist in some modern humans. What we don’t know is whether or not any of the modern humans that created the Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe had any of this DNA. Nor do artifacts of one culture say anything about the other.

In fact, while the distance in time from the present to the peak of Göbekli Tepe’s occupation is about 11,000 years or so, the distance in time from today back to the most recent Denisovan we have material evidence for is as early as 51,000 years. If we were to draw that to scale, it would be like comparing the distance from New York to Atlanta with NYC to San Francisco. Nearly four times the distance.

Catastrophic Impactors!

And of course there are those that think the circle found on Pillar 43, the Flamingo Pillar (some call it the “vulture pillar”) represents a comet that started the Younger Dryas period, wiping out the Clovis culture along with the megafauna of the day.

Let’s unpack this a little. The alleged Younger Dryas impactor would have been 12,800 years ago. The Flamingo Pillar was probably erected around 12,000 years ago. The difference in time, 800 years, is long enough for 32 generations to pass. When you think about this just a little, it becomes absurd to believe that the people of Göbekli Tepe were attempting to represent a comet or meteor. There was no form of writing. And if you want to argue that there was an oral tradition that saved the information, you need only consider that, in 32 generations, a single inhabitant of Göbekli Tepe had over 4 billion ancestors. Each telling their version of the story. Ever play the game of telephone?

Göbekli Tepe has an appeal to the significance junkie in all of us: its great age; its grandiose pillars; its mysterious purpose; its pre-agrarian origin; and so on. The fact that it was created so long ago means that much is lost to the processes of nature when it comes to material record, though we’re probably lucky it spent much of its time in a desert.

When there are questions about archaeological sites, artifacts, or features, there will always be the Mystery Mongers who will happily give you their preferred explanation. And, like the modern day “psychic,” they’ll toss a variety of these “explanations” at the wall, hoping one will stick, confident they’ll be remembered for their hits and not their misses.

Sources and Further Reading

Dietrich, Oliver (2016). How old is it? Dating Göbekli Tepe. The Tepe Telegrams.

Schmidt, Klaus (2000). Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey: A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. Paléorient, 26(1), 45-54.

About Carl Feagans 366 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

37 Comments

  1. Let’s unpack this a little.
    present time is 2000ad
    The alleged 1172 invasion of eire would have been 800 years ago.
    strongbows dublin was probably erected around 800 years ago.
    The difference in time, 800 years, is long enough for 32 generations to pass.
    When you think about this just a little, it becomes absurd to believe that the people of dublin were attempting to recall their history written or oral.
    There was a form of writing. And if you want to argue that there was an oral tradition that saved the information,
    you need only consider that, in 32 generations, a single inhabitant of dublin city had over 2 billion ancestors.
    gaelic viking norman tudor english victorian
    Each telling their version of the story. Ever play the game of telephone?
    and we each have our version
    how much more so then for gobekli 12,600bc comet strike
    12000 bc 32 generations later recalling the most momemtuus event in their earth history a story to recall and remember not by rote memory but be carved stone

  2. And how is it that we know the Norman Invasion of Ireland actually happened? it isn’t because of oral tradition. It’s because of writing. The details were written down. And even then much of it is probably very questionable.

    Göbekli Tepe has a pillar with some animals and a circle carved in it around 800 years (or more) later. And this, pseudoarchaeologists tell us, is proof positive that a comet hit the Earth and started the Younger Dryas, killing off megafauna and the Clovis culture. And every other comet recorded in history as a drawing or incising has a tail. You’d think their most “momentous event” would at least be recorded accurately, eh?

  3. Regarding the notion that agriculture must precede monumental building. I agree with you that this is very likely generally true but that Gobekli-Tepe is an exception. Well there is at least one other exception to that rule in my opinion and it has been known for quite sometime. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. Although some may disagree that their very large, indeed monumental housing is indeed monumental. I disagree also the fact it is in wood rather than stone doesn’t in my opinion matter. The natural environment of the Pacific North-West coast was such that they could indeed settle down in villages that were more or less permanent and build large constructions out of wood all without agriculture. I frankly suspect if they instead used stone has their favorite building material they would have built at least has monumentally has Gobekli Tepe.

    From what I’ve read it appears that the natural environment of much of that part of the Middle East was likely fairly rich and thus likely to support dense non-agricultural population enough to support building sites like Gobelki Tepe.

  4. Not sure where ‘flamingo stone’ comes from, and the embedded astronomy at Göbekli Tepe was initially published by the U of Edinburgh in the journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry. Magicians of the Gods cites the paper. You’ll also learn that the vulture stone has no direct depiction of extraterrestrial impacts; rather, it points to a specific time in history ~13000BP. There are other ancient structures that point to the same era of history.

  5. The Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry isn’t really a very good source of scientific data. See my previous review of Michael Jaye’s alleged peer-reviewed article there. As to the ‘flamingo stone,’ the name comes from me. I like the flamingo on it. Officially, the team at Göbekli Tepe have named it “pillar 43” and “vulture stone” or “vulture pillar” appears to be an arbitrary name assigned by mystery-mongers. If they can name stuff, I should be able too 🙂

    While archaeoastronomy is a real sub-discipline of archaeology and astronomy, the propensity of people to pretend to find “patterns” and “alignments” and call it archaeoastronomy is very often pseudoscientific.

  6. Carl states: “…Göbekli Tepe has an appeal to the significance junkie in all of us: its great age; its grandiose pillars; its mysterious purpose; its pre-agrarian origin…”.

    I think you’re on to something here, Carl; more than likely, the average person who is interested in Gobekli Tepe has no other nefarious motives except for those. The unknown is always more interesting than the known, it’s part of what makes life worth living.

  7. I would not know about gobekli tepe if it weren’t for graham Hancock. But because of magicians if the gods, my knowledge of ancient history has been expanded at least to now know about this ancient and fascinating site. I realize that what Graham Hancock says has to taken with a grain of salt, but his books are still the best introductions to many ancient sites for the lay reader. And this is where skeptics like yourself fail. You need to point us to books that are as well written as his that you would endorse. You need to engage with us as he does and compete for our attention by addressing our natural curiosity about the past, as he does. Instead you talk down to us, and make us feel small and unworthy of your professional attention. The fact is, I’m perfectly happy to learn from archeologists, but I hate your contemptuous attitude that you have towards Graham Hancock – all because he does your job better than you do. Even if he has the freedom to be much more speculative than academic archeologists – he gets the tone right with regards to his respectful and compassionate relationship to his readership. Perhaps you should take a moment to consider what he is doing right, and that archeologists are getting wrong with respect to your relationship to all of us who are deeply curious about the origins of humanity?

  8. One more thing – it was through graham Hancock that I learned about Karl Schmitt, the archeologists who excavated gobekli tepe. I am happy that Schmitt took the time to talk to Hancock before he tragically died. He understood that graham Hancock was not an enemy, but rather a student and someone with a similar curiosity about that ancient place. Now I follow the current excavation of that site, and I am reading through the history of the archeological research there.

  9. Adrian, I genuinely appreciate your comments here and I’ve actually echoed some similar comments in other articles both here and in venues directed at my fellow archaeologists. It’s very easy for a professional in any field to come off as condescending when critiquing non-professional works. I’m conscious of it and actually make some attempt to avoid it, but I realize I’ve a long way to go in that endeavor. Regardless of how I feel about Hancock or those like him, I definitely recognize they’re successful in reaching the public. And you’re correct: he reaches the public much better than I or most other archaeologists do.
    I would, however, like to offer you a couple of recommendations. Take a look at the works of Eric H. Cline (https://amzn.to/3bq4Dxl [affiliate link]). He has some books on archaeology that I would bet you find at least as interesting (hopefully more) than those of Hancock. Cline is an inspiration to us all when it comes to connecting to the public. Others along that vein include Brian Fagan, Colin Renfrew, and perhaps Barry Cunliffe, though the latter two aren’t nearly as prolific as Cline and Fagan and maybe not as plain spoken.

    Again, thanks for the comments. I appreciate the insight from your perspective and I like to think it is helping to shape my overall approach to fake, fraudulent, and fantastic claims in archaeology.

  10. Discardedknight,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. In doing so, this obviously has some meaning for you. I’m genuinely curious why you have that opinion of archaeology. What, specifically, informs your view this way?

  11. You haven’t posted any reasons for ‘why’ this particular journal merits total dismissal. The publication stands without scientific scrutiny. Yes, there are some ad hominem and straw man attacks from skeptical magazine (a good source). It’s commonality in critics of nuanced authors around this subject: never attack the argument or idea, instead attacking the authors. It seems like everyone is towing the ‘pseudoscience’ line.

    The only instances where anything close to a dialogue took place was between Graham Hancock and Zahi Hawass, and the JRE debate between Graham Hancock, Randall Carlson, and Michael Sheremer supplemented by Mark Defant and the other man. An embarrassing display for the mainstream.

    You’re professional archaeologist, why not challenge Graham Hancock or Randall Carlson to a debate prove your point? The solution to resolve this is straightforward and Graham and Randall both welcome debate. What do you say? A chance to expose pseudoscience?

  12. Quite honestly, I’m not interested in a debate with these guys. Mostly because I’m not a very good rhetorical debater. There’s a certain amount of quick wit and rhetoric that wins the day in spite of logic and reason. I’d rather engage with the public itself on the merits of scientific discovery and method.

    With regard to the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry (MAA) not being a good source, I should probably clarify. There are definitely good articles within their pages. I’ve read them. The problem is there seems to be some inconsistency with regard to what they define as “peer review.” Their methods of refereeing submissions allowed Michael Jaye’s article to be accepted with some very glaring deficiencies and poor scholarship. With this kind of reckless acceptance policy, how is a reader supposed to trust the journal has done its due diligence?

    Thanks again for your comments!

  13. I think you’re crystallizing my point for me: you’re saying that the journal of MAA is credible as long as it coheres to your (archaeological) narrative. In the case that it challenges that view it loses credibility. I’m not a professional archaeologist, will you educate me and the public in the ‘glaring deficiencies and poor scholarship’ in the “What does the fox say” article?

    Nature magazines multiple articles on Australasian DNA in the Amazon with no trace in North America? Is this pseudoscience? Does it call Nature’s credibility come in to question? ‘Mystery’ is peppered all over the article, how come Nature is not considered a ‘mystery monger’?

    Just now, I had an epiphany. Graham Hancock and his peers provide the public with something that, at the very least, sells. The reason no academic is interested to provide an honest public discourse or debate is because they can tap into the success of Hancock et al by simply attacking them as the ‘pseudoscientists’ and ‘boogeyman.’ It’s profitable this way, it keeps costs low, because one doesn’t have to buy their books and read them to critique, one can just attack their character.

    Thanks for writing this article. This has in fact been enlightening!

  14. I think you might be missing my point, but I’m sure the fault is mine. I’m not saying MAA is credible as long as it fits my narrative. I’m saying that while I’ve read many articles that appeared to be of genuinely good scholarship, I also know of at least one where there are glaring deficiencies. I discuss it in this article on my blog: https://ahotcupofjoe.net/2019/11/the-pseudoarchaeology-of-michael-jayes-worldwide-flood/

    I should have included that link in the last comment. I’m not familiar with the “what does the fox say?” article you mention. But I’ll assume it’s the one regarding archaeoastronomy you referred to in a previous comment.

    Because of the problems associated with Michael Jaye’s article, and how it shows, at minimum, a sloppy referee system at work with MAA, I’m forced to wonder about the scholarship of those articles I read previously. I assumed they were refereed well and carefully vetted. I didn’t notice any red flags at the time, but now I’d question just about everything from P-values to data integrity. I’m sure there are probably more articles that are carefully and meticulously researched if only because the authors were diligent. But what about those authors that figured out a long time ago what I just now recognize? Are there some exploiting MAA’s poor review habits? Are there some that just have bad science by otherwise well-meaning authors that made honest mistakes that are overlooked by the MAA editorial staff and referees?

    There are definitely papers that get through even well-known journals like Nature that have problems. Sometimes these are retracted; sometimes the editorial staff publish to let peers duke it out in rejoinders. I’m familiar with the Population Y papers, one of which was in Nature. I don’t know why you think I should consider it pseudoscience. I saw no fantastic claims being made. If anything, it offers some promise at exciting things to come in the field of archaeological DNA.

    One of my goals is to provide a rational, scientific perspective from a professional in the field of archaeology to the claims of archaeology by non-professionals that happens to be fake, fraudulent, or fantastic. I’m definitely *not* saying that non-professionals can’t have something worth saying, reading, or listening to on the topic. But, in this seemingly “post-truth” age where television programs like “Ancient Aliens” is wildly popular, there is a large deficit of professional responses to wildly speculative and fantastic claims that are without scientific merit. I seek to be at least one, small Google hit for someone curious enough to search for more information.

    Thanks again for commenting!

  15. Carl states: “One of my goals is to provide a rational, scientific perspective from a professional in the field of archaeology to the claims of archaeology by non-professionals that happens to be fake, fraudulent, or fantastic…”.

    But you don’t do that Carl; You provide a forum where others here, when they disagree with someone, can label them as “nazi”, “racist”, or worse. All the while, you sit back and claim “..look, I’m a rational guy…”. You said, in a previous article, there were things archaeologists could do better in talking to the public and in regard to disputes; you might want to consider some basic rules. You might be aware of a fellow named Sam Harris; he notes in his debates when an opponent starts to use terms like those, it’s a “show stopper and cuts off debate” (he’s been called a racist and Islamophobic). And in case you don’t know who Sam Harris is, he’s very left of center, agnostic, pro-science, etc., so I would think you can’t label him a “soodo-scientist”..LOL..

  16. To further Adrian’s comments: I became interested in The Great Serpent Mound after reading Hancock’s “America Before”, and even visited it after reading the book. Perhaps not unexpectedly here, after posting that, I was then treated to a lecture about how Hancock’s readers were “possible vandals”….

  17. Carl states: “…Because of the problems associated with Michael Jaye’s article, and how it shows, at minimum, a sloppy referee system at work with MAA, I’m forced to wonder about the scholarship of those articles I read previously. I assumed they were refereed well and carefully vetted…”.

    Well, there you go, Carl, now you sound like Graham Hancock; “Because mainstream archaeologists were incorrect about the Clovis First Model….now you can’t trust ANYTHING they say and it’s all suspect…”. Welcome to the club Carl, you’ve now become what you hate, lecture and condemn others for.

    And this is EXACTLY Graham Hancock’s overall point on mainstream archaeology….they make mistakes..they screw up….they’re suspect….if they got Clovis First wrong, what else have they gotten wrong?…

  18. Carl says: “…But, in this seemingly “post-truth” age where television programs like “Ancient Aliens” is wildly popular…”.

    I agree that AA is mostly BS; but you *completely* miss the point about why the average viewer tunes in, and it has nothing to do with science, and has everything to do with entertainment. You are tilting windmills here. This is like assuming people watch Star Wars for the science…

  19. I advise removing any further links from this site from reddit and discontinuing correspondence. This is simply another platform to disinform and force a narrow minded academic perspective. Carl’s language is clearly aimed at attacking the personal integrity of independent authors. There’s no progressive contribution made here, he’s only profiteering from the fame and mountains of research done by the authors he attacks.

  20. Carl and his fellow travelers here, all who make overt claims to being strict adherents to science and the scientific method, share a strange similarity to what Ghandi apparently said about Christians: ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’. In a similar fashion, “I like science, but I don’t like your scientists. Your scientists are so unlike your science”. As soon as Carl and others here disagree with you, the ad-homs will begin and they suddenly abandon their science…

  21. Write a good archaeology book Carl, and make it entertaining……and I’ll promise to buy it and then you can turn a profit..:)…

  22. Which means, I presume, you have no intention of debating me. In what sense is my work pseudoarchaeological? And while we’re at it, perhaps you could explain in what sense you are a ‘professional archaeologist’? It’s not clear from your bio.

  23. Thanks for the article. I fall between your view and Hancock’s. True that archaeologists need actual evidence and lots of it, but Hancock is right about Clovis-first being defended long past any sensible point. Smart people have large egos and that’s true in all fields. I’m really waiting for some technique for dating carved stones; then we’ll know about a lot of this stuff.

  24. Thanks for the comment! Clovis first hasn’t been taught in decades. It was revised as a hypothesis when new data was confirmed. It was the right hypothesis for the data available when it was conceived. New data caused a revision. I’m hopeful that science will never become rigid and unyielding and always be revised with new evidence and data. Science is, by definition, provisional.

  25. And this is two decades ago. Also, I was well into my undergraduate work then. Nobody was teaching that Clovis was first since the decade prior. It was, however, around the time of that article in 2001 that many sites between 13,000-24,000 years old were beginning to be described in the literature. Scientific archaeology is pretty danged cool.

  26. Ian Rae says: “…they face a powerful and entrenched theory…”. Which, on the face of it, doesn’t sound like a science at all, or that it was provisional. It sounds more like a political party. Despite Carl’s assertions that mainstream archaeologists are just a bunch a good ole boys who love science, I think the opposite is probably true; their biases are just as severe as anyone else’s. And I guess “provisional” actually means “cover your ass”. The Clovis First Model was good science…..and now it’s not. It’s no wonder people are reading “alternative archaeology”…

  27. I find it objectionable that you include it in a list of pseudoarchaeology. However, I’m only interested in debating you on this if you are actually a professional archaeologist. As you avoided this question, I assume you are not.

  28. You’re free to assume whatever you like. I’m really not interested in any sort of “debate.” If I choose to comment on your work in the future and you find it objectionable, feel free to express that objection here or wherever you please. I’m still not sure what your “work” is, precisely. Which is why I asked if I’d commented already.

  29. I am very amused by the reactions of some people to your rather restrained opinions of pseudo-scientists who push crap.One of the most common tropes of Alternadoxy is to ritually complain about the tone of so-called Orthodox Scientists. That they are not being respectful enough, that they are saying bad things in a bad way about the Alternative thinker. It is very amusing. Graham Hancock I am sadly familiar with; from his shoddy Fingerprints of the Gods, which recycled so many “mysteries” that were not mysteries to his boosterism of the face on Mars and his shilling of 2012 Mayan doom and gloom, Graham Hancock has been reassuringly pseudo. And like so many of the Orthodox adherents of Alternadoxy he has not bothered to hide much of the time his contempt for the “Orthodox”. Accusing them of conspiracy and so forth; hiding the “truth” etc.

    Graham Hancock is also amazingly unoriginal in that so much of the stuff he produces is just an update of much older notions of Alternadoxy. What I especially see in Hancock is Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antidiluvian World and his book Ragnarok.

    Basically what Hancock is selling is warmed over old stuff and frankly he is a bore.

  30. Pacal: Since you’re so easily amused and bored by Hancock’s writings, why do you feel the need to read and then comment on them? Just curious, as your comment marks you as such an obvious bore….LOL.

  31. I’m sorry, gleaner63. I think you’ll agree that I’m pretty patient, but your comments are increasingly non-productive and designed to gaslight, provoke, or belittle. I’ve disabled your ability to leave further comments.

Comments are closed.