Conventional archaeological thought maintains that organized religion—the building of temples and the development of elaborate rituals—was a by-product of human settlement. As humans settled down into agricultural societies, they had enough leisure time to build upon folk religion and to start more ambitious construction projects. Then archaeologists discovered Gobekli Tepe. Located in the Urfa plain of southeast Turkey, near one of the most fought-over regions on Earth, is a temple whose ruins may be the oldest organized place of worship known to man. Gobekli Tepe (“Potbelly Hill,” after the mound it was buried under) was discovered by Klaus Schmidt in the mid-1990s and dates back to as far as 9500 B.C., about 5,000 years before Stonehenge. If accurate, this places it in a time before even pottery was invented in the Fertile Crescent, when people were still living in mostly nomadic cultures. The sites are mainly constructed of Stonehenge-like massive limestone slabs covered in elaborate animal carvings. Nobody knows how they were moved to their present locations.
Schmidt (who died in 2014) and his successor, Lee Clare, believed that the ruins were religious and served as a site for rituals—long before most archaeologists think that fixed, organized religious activity took place—and that they were built by the hunter-gatherer cultures that lived at the time,overturning the conventional timeline of religious evolution. They noted that the sites showed no evidence of habitation and were continuously maintained, with older sites buried and new ones constructed to take their place.
But others have contested this conclusion. Canadian anthropologist E.B. Banning contends that, far from being nomadic, the site served as an early home for some of the first settlers of the region. She points out that the idea of separating religious spaces from more ordinary ones (like homes) is a Western conceit that the ancient Near East did not share at the time. Her paper notes that there is nothing about the characteristics of the structures that explicitly rules them out as being homes and that nearby ruins also share traits that mix “sacred” elements with domestic purposes. Domestic artifacts such as portable mortars and stone bowls could also indicate that people did reside there. And while the inhabitants may not have been full-time farmers yet, sickles and other items found around the site could indicate that they had begun to cultivate plants.
The Ubaid Lizardmen
The Ubaid Lizardmen… mostly found in Tell Al’Ubaid but also in Ur and Eridu. They come from a pre-Sumerian people—the Ubaidians. These hand-sized statuettes usually depict lizard- or snakelike people in various informal poses, such as holding and suckling a baby. Others are portrayed wearing shoulder padding or armor and holding staffs or scepters. It is the elongated heads and almond-shaped eyes that lend the figurines their reptilian appearance, leading many to believe that they depict serpent-related gods. Stranger theories conjure up extraterrestrials or an unknown reptilian race that may or may not still exist, as we have already touched upon.
However, most archaeologists believe that the figures served a more mundane purpose, and some even question whether they depict anything reptilian at all. The Ubaid society was known to practice skull modification—whereby the skull was manipulated from an early age to deform its shape—which would explain the heads. The almond-shaped eyes are a fairly common early stylistic rendering of Asiatic features, and less pronounced examples have earlier been found around the region.
A lack of contextual information surrounding the sites where the figures were unearthed makes it hard to establish their purpose. Many of the figures were found buried with individuals yet also seemed to have held a purpose during the owner’s life. Because not everyone had a figurine, most archaeologists tend to believe that they marked some form of status. Additional clues include the similarity of their features and the general age-group of the figures’ owners (mostly young adults). The owners may have been teachers, shamans, or priests of some kind.