Newsweek has a fascinating article about an archaeological site at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey that is well worth a look.
The site is the oldest religious temple ever discovered. Preliminary carbon dating has determined that some of the artifacts date from 9,400 BC, which makes the place about 11,500 years old. (Which, just to be clear, is 7000 years before the Great Pyramid and 6500 years before Stonehenge.) The article further explains:
The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals and even agriculture – the first embers of civilization. … [It] may be the very first thing that human beings ever built.
And yet, the site is amazing. The pillars show beautiful stone carvings and there are examples of sophisticated engineering techniques. The stone circles are nearly 30 yards across with pillars that stand more than 17 feet tall. Many of the stones (some weighing up to 50 tons) were first quarried and then transported half a kilometer to the site, where they were erected. What staggers me, though, is that the stone circles were roofed.
This quote from Ian Hodder, head of archaeology at Stanford University, summarizes my response pretty well:
[Göbekli Tepe] is unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date. The huge stones and fantastic, highly refined art [changes everything]. It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong.
This doesn’t happen often. Scientists don’t admit mistakes and call for established theories to be overturned. But when faced with such a revolutionary piece of evidence, you have little choice.
Göbekli is literally an outlier in every way. It shows engineering, organization, and artistic sophistication that seems to materialize out of nowhere. The only other comparable examples won’t appear for five thousand years.
To really put this in perspective, consider the timeline below. Arrayed across the bottom axis are the reigns of several ancient civilizations: the Chinese, Romans, Egyptians and Mesopotamians. In addition to this information, I’ve also placed the approximate dates of the the ice age, stone age and examples of religious and cultural monuments (the oldest of which dates to about 3500 BC).
When compared with Göbekli, the great civilizations and monuments of the ancient world seem to to huddle in an upstart mob at the right of the chart. Even the very oldest of the examples, a Mesopotamian palace, is separated from Göbekli by the same span of time that divides the ancient age from the modern day.
Such an amazing and sophisticated example at such an early date, literally, boggles my mind. It's absolutely amazing. And, paradoxically, the amazement and wonder helps to explain why Göbekli has remained essentially unknown. A discovery of this magnitude demands enormous attention and dedication. It takes almost as much as it gives, particularly from those that discovered it; and not every scientist is willing to give that kind of commitment. Thus, I completely understand the response of the man who discovered the site.
[Unable to interpret what he saw], the [American] archeologist who stumbled on [on the site] in the 1960s simply walked away.
But, even so, the evidence at Göbekli has the potential to completely transform the history of civilization. And I, for one, look forward to seeing what emerges.
Note: You can view a high resolution PDF of the timeline by clicking on the image, or here.