Religion and Hierarchy at Göbekli Tepe
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Last week, we wrote about how what has become the conventional wisdom on the Neolithic Revolution, partly based on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, may be underestimating the importance of institutional innovations underpinning transition to agriculture (see our previous two posts on geography and the Neolithic Revolution).

We discussed how the evidence from Göbekli Tepe is particularly telling.

A National Geographic article on Göbekli Tepe by Charles C. Mann, the author of the excellent 1491 and its even more engaging sequel, 1493, is definitely worth reading in this context.

Mann tells the story of German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, whose research on Göbekli Tepe challenged the established wisdom at the time and pinpointed the role of religion and religious hierarchy before the transition to agriculture. But it also tells the story of how the conventional wisdom on the Neolithic Revolution, which goes back to the Australian archaeologist Gordon Childe, has been changing.

Mann writes of the Neolithic Revolution:

The new research suggests that the “revolution” was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.

He also explains based on Schmidt’s work why Göbekli Tepe symbolizes the sort of religion and religious hierarchy that emerged before the transition to agriculture. He quotes from Schmidt:

“These people were foragers,” Schmidt says, people who gathered plants and hunted wild animals. “Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow their resources. They can’t maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can’t carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then there is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that.”

Mann continues:

Discovering that hunter-gatherer had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife.

He also explains why Göbekli Tepe reverses the conventional wisdom:

The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization…. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm — a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants — and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

He sums it up again quoting from Schmidt:

“Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces. I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.”

We would add that it’s probably a product of the human mind in a very specific sense: a product of human institutions.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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