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Rewriting prehistory

Excavations at Karahan Tepe in Turkey reveal elaborate pre-farming ceremonial centre and a permanent settlement.

Southeastern Turkey is known to have been a very early location of both long-term permanent settlements, and also of cereal agriculture. But German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt caused a sensation in the 1990s when he uncovered an elaborate hunter-gatherer settlement, complete with ceremonial structures and elaborate engraved uprights at Göbekli Tepe dating to about 9600 BC. The latter may have been a centre for a death cult, and was occupied for generations long before permanent farming villages came into being, around 9000 BC. More research by Turkish and German scholars has since revealed other such settlements, including Karahan Tepe (pictured above), which lies near the Syrian border, about 35km from Göbekli.

Karahan dates to about 9400 BC, and was a village of carefully planned circular chambers. One chamber displays 11 giant phalluses carved into the bedrock, watched over by a bearded head with a serpent’s body emerging from the wall. Archaeologist Necmi Karul, from Istanbul University, who is leading the excavations, believes that this chamber with an entrance and exit, also an outlet for water, was a space devoted to rites of passage.

Overtly female figures are virtually absent. However, animals abound, ranging from insects to beasts attacking human heads. The site has more depictions of people than at the older Göbekli site, also T-shaped stelae that were abstract depictions of human figures. Interestingly, when the inhabitants decided to abandon the site, they took the time to fill in the shrines, as if they had died.

The remarkable chapter in human history being revealed in southeastern Turkey has thrown into question the long-held assumption that permanent village settlement only began with agriculture. The Turkish government plans to excavate as many as 30 sites in the area and to open the discoveries to tourists at some point in the future.

Image: Karahan Tepe, pictured this season, one of a number of prehistoric settlements that extend throughout the area, which include the pre-farming monumental site of Göbekli Tepe.

Photo: Ayla Jean Yackley

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