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Collapse of the Standard Model
Sep 3 2013 3:53PM Posted by David Ludwig, Ph.D.

In physics, the “standard model” reconciles the interactions of many subatomic particles and forces, and with the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson (mediating gravity), it may well be a successful theory, meeting its objectives and providing testable experimental questions allowing verification. In human ecology, the closest thing to a “standard model” is the theory of urbanization. As you can read in nearly every book on human development (for example, see [1]), the model runs like this: hunter-gatherers interact with their provender to yield domestic plants and animals, the resulting food surplus allows village-sized settlements and division of labor, this yields elaborated religion and temple construction, which process requires so much labor and so many people that cities begin. 

This “Neolithic revolution” was pushed to the limits with the discovery and excavation of Catalhoyuk, one of the oldest substantial human settlements, was undertaken in Turkey [2]. Catalhoyuk seemed to substantiate the “standard model”. Replete with animal bones, animal totems, and signs of animal and ancestor worship, it appeared to exemplify the power of religion and temple construction to shift into urban architecture and urban settlement, yielding one of the earliest true city ecosystems.

Another discovery in Turkey, several hundred kilometers to the west of Catalhoyuk, recently seems to have collapsed that “standard model”. 
On an otherwise unremarkable hilltop, an elaborate stone temple complex, with multiple walled ovals surrounding enormous stone pillars vaguely human-shaped, carved with stunning representations of local game, wildlife, and predators, has been identified and explored [3]. The astonishing thing about Gobekli Teppe is its age—11,000 years old, predating Stonehenge by some 6,000 years. 

Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt has discovered, furthermore, that the engineers and visionaries who constructed and worshipped at Gobekli Teppe were not a stable agricultural society—the time period predates agriculture. Furthermore, remains excavated from the ruins confirm: the people of Gobekli Teppe were hunter-gatherers.

Now, admittedly, the location, in the north of the fertile crescent, was a region of food abundance. From wild einkorn wheat to herds of gazelles and aurochs, food was available and the people took full advantage. But the impact of Gobekli Teppe on the “standard model” comes from its clearly out-of-sequence placement on the continuum from agriculture to temple to city. Gobekli Teppe, with its deeply complicated ceremonial foundations (involving the recovery of human skulls from buried cadavers, for ancestor worship, and the subjugation of wild animals from their position as small carvings on large human representations) originated directly from hunter-gatherers.

Hunter-gatherers were not supposed to have the time, the division of labor, the intellectual sophistication, and certainly not the engineering skills, to produce such a stone monument. But it’s not “a stone monument”. It’s an entire religious complex, covering thousands of square meters of ground. And it is layered—it was in use for thousands of years.

And here’s what really brings the “standard model” into question. The entire temple complex was buried, after a period of shrinking size and utility, by its people. Probably because, the religious role of Gobekli Teppe was exported over time to places like Catalhoyuk. Absent Gobekli Teppe, Catalhoyuk can be seen to support the standard model. With Gobekli Teppe, Catalhoyuk and other cities of its time actually seem to be products of religion and settlement and stone construction skills long thought to be beyond the language and physical and intellectual resources of hunter-gatherers. 
Human ecosystems have been pushed at least 6,000 years deeper into the past than we have thought for centuries. It is an exciting time to be considering urban ecosystems. I can’t wait for the next jolt to our present notions of the constraints of human culture and human transformation of the landscape! 

[1] Mumford, L. 1961. The City in History. Copyright renewed 1989. Harcourt, Inc. NY.
[2] Balter, M. 2005. The Goddess and the Bull. Free Press, NY. Hodder, I, 2006. The Leopard’s Tale, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London. 
[3] accessed 3 August 2013. 

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