THE GARDEN OF EDEN lies somewhere in southeastern Turkey, near the prehistoric city of Urfa (modern-day Şanlıurfa), a few miles north of the Syrian border. Or at least that is what the residents of the city believe.
According to the Bible, after God made Adam, he planted a garden “in the east” and placed him within it. He then made a river flow out of the garden, dividing it into four branches, two of which are known today as the Tigris and the Euphrates. Out of the soil, God made to grow every species of tree—those that were pleasant to the sight, and those that were good for food—and bade Adam to eat whatever fruit he desired (save one, of course). He then filled the garden with every animal of the field and every bird of the air, giving Adam dominion over all living things.
Together with his companion, Eve, Adam basked in this paradise, free from work and struggle. They had no need to till the soil, to sow or reap—no need for labor at all.
But when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were cast out of Eden forever, forced to survive through toil and hardship. The ground itself was cursed. The produce dried up, along with the soil of the earth. The bounty turned into thorns and thistles, driving Adam and his descendants to subsist by the sweat of their brow every day for the rest of their lives until they returned to the dust from which they were made.
There is no actual Garden of Eden, of course. As with so much in our ancient scriptures, the story is meant to be read as myth. But myths are not “false,” in the way we understand the word today. The significance of a myth rests not in any truth claims it makes but in its ability to convey a particular perception of the world. The function of a myth is not to explain how things are, but why things are the way they are. The ancient Hebrews did not organize time into seven-day weeks with the seventh day for rest because that was how long it took God to create the world. Rather, they claimed God took six days to create the world and the following day to rest because that is how they already organized time.
The story of the Garden of Eden, like the numerous flood narratives of the Ancient Near East or the tales of gods who die and return to life, represents a special class of myth called “folk memory.” These are universal myths predicated on the collective memory of a particular culture or society (regardless of how chimerical that memory may be) and passed down orally from generation to generation. They can be found in some form in almost every religion and among nearly all cultures.
Embedded in the myth of the Garden of Eden is a collective memory of an era long ago when human beings were free from toil and struggle, when there was no need to slog day and night over the land. An era, in other words, before the rise of agriculture, when our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve were, to put it less biblically, hunter-gatherers.
And that is how the ancient city of Urfa has come to be regarded in the collective memory of its inhabitants as the location of the Garden of Eden. Believers will point to the fact that, like the biblical Eden, Urfa is nestled between four rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates, and that it, too, is located in what the Bible terms “the east”—that is, west of ancient Assyria. However, the main reason so many people around the world believe that this city rests upon the ruins of Eden has less to do with Urfa’s location than it does with what lies just ten miles to the northeast, atop a high mountain ridge called Göbekli Tepe, or Potbellied Hill. For buried there, just beneath a man-made mound on the very tip of the highest peak overlooking a desolate plateau, are the remains of what is widely recognized to be the earliest religious temple ever constructed—“the Temple of Eden,” as Klaus Schmidt, the chief archaeologist of the site, playfully calls it.
The temple is comprised of twenty or more large enclosures built of mortar and stone. Some of these are circular; others are oblong. A few of them spiral like galaxies. The entire temple complex stretches a thousand feet long and a thousand feet wide. Tucked in the center of each stone enclosure are two matching megalithic T-shaped pillars, some of which stand more than sixteen feet high and weigh as much as ten tons. The central pillars are engraved with images of ferocious beasts and lethal creatures: lions, leopards, and vultures; scorpions, spiders, and snakes—nothing like the dreamy, docile animals found in the painted caves of the Paleolithic era. Alongside these beasts are intricately wrought geometric figures and abstract symbols carved up and down the pillars. The prevailing theory is that they represent a kind of symbolic language—a far more ancient equivalent of Egyptian hieroglyphics—though we lack the key to decipher them.
Artist’s rendition of the construction of Göbekli Tepe (c. 12,500 to 10,000 B.C.E.) Fernando G. Baptista/National Geographic Creative
What makes the temple truly extraordinary, however, is that it was built at the end of the last Ice Age, between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago. That’s at least six thousand years before Stonehenge and seven thousand years before the first Egyptian pyramids. It is so old it predates the rise of agriculture, meaning that this enormous, intricately designed monument was constructed by seminomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherers wearing animal skins who had yet to invent the wheel.
Even more startling is the fact that there is no evidence that anyone ever lived at the site. No homes or hearths have been unearthed anywhere near Göbekli Tepe. There is no obvious water source; the nearest freshwater stream is located many miles away. The only possible explanation for the lack of amenities is that this was a sacred place designated exclusively for the performance of religious ceremonies.
People would have journeyed from villages scattered within as much as a hundred-mile radius to participate in whatever rituals took place here. They would have been from different tribes. They would have claimed different gods. And yet somehow this disparate assemblage of Paleolithic peoples had managed to put aside their differences and focus their devotion on a common, unifying symbol. The archaeological work being done at Göbekli Tepe by Schmidt and others has given us an idea of what that unifying symbol may have been. It is the supreme symbol of human spirituality, born from the raw material of our cognitive processes, rendered in our earliest attempts to express our conception of the divine, and transmitted successfully into nearly every religion and culture the world has ever known. That symbol is the “humanized god”—the god made in our image—and it sits at the center of each and every one of the stone enclosures in the Temple of Eden.
The matching T-shaped pillars that dominate the temple structure are more than blocks of stone. Look closely and you can see that the pillars have arms carved into their sides. The arms come together at the front of each pillar, just above what might be a belt or loincloth. Some of the pillars appear to be wearing jewelry. The small blocks that cap the pillars and complete the T shape are widely assumed by researchers to be heads. All of this suggests that these are not merely pillars; they are abstract humanoid figures.
The figures are faceless; no eyes, nose, or mouth has been carved into them, but that is not because their creators lacked the skill. One need only look at the exquisite detail of some of the animal carvings at Göbekli Tepe to recognize what master artisans they were; a leopard carved into the side of one pillar is so detailed you can see its ribs. No one doubts that the temple’s builders could have carved the central pillars into more well-defined human beings if they had wanted to do so. But they chose to represent them in a deliberately abstract fashion, which suggests they did not intend the pillars to represent actual humans, but rather supreme beings in human form.
T-shaped pillar at Göbekli Tepe with human hands and belt (c. 12,500 to 10,000 B.C.E.) Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic Creative
We do not know whether the humanized gods at Göbekli Tepe represent a pantheon of individual, personalized gods or are merely an expression of anonymous deities. The answer may lie in the unique set of glyphs etched into each pillar. The glyphs could be a form of identification. They could be the name of that particular god or a description of the god’s attributes. They may narrate some myth about the god, or describe the particular power for which the god should be petitioned, rather as a Catholic Book of Saints informs the faithful which saint should be prayed to and for what purpose. Unless we are someday able to translate the glyphs, we may never know the answer.
What we do know is why the central pillars in Göbekli Tepe are humanoid, why the different tribes that gathered here would have used the human form to represent their nascent idea of what the gods looked like. They had little choice in the matter.
We are, as we have seen, evolutionarily adapted to implant our own beliefs and desires, our own mental and psychological states, our own souls, in other beings, whether they are human or not. Our Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device makes us susceptible to perceiving agency in natural phenomena. Our Theory of Mind makes us inherently biased toward “humanizing” whatever phenomena we encounter. So then, how else would we picture the gods except in human form? We are the lens through which we understand the universe and everything in it. We apply our personal experience to all that we encounter, whether human or not. In doing so, we not only humanize the world; we humanize the gods we think created it.
In the centuries that follow the building of Göbekli Tepe, this unconscious urge to humanize the divine will carry with it certain consequences—both positive and negative. The more we think of the gods in human terms, the more we will project our human attributes upon them. Our values will become the gods’ values, our traits will become the gods’ traits. Eventually, we will make the heavenly realm a mirror reflecting the earth, so that the gods who take on our personalities will also take on our politics, even our bureaucracies. To get to know the gods better, we will construct entire spiritual systems based on the only thing we can truly know: ourselves. The gods need food, because we need food; and so we will offer them sacrifices. The gods need shelter, because we need shelter; and so we will build them temples. The gods need names, so we will name them. They need personalities, so we will give them ours. They need mythic histories to ground them in our reality, formalized rituals so they can be experienced in our world, servants and attendants who can fulfill their wishes (which are nothing more than our wishes), rules and regulations to keep them happy, prayers and petitions to ward off their anger. What they need, in short, are religions. And so we will invent them.
But arguably one of the most significant consequences of our compulsion to humanize the divine is what seems to have occurred as a direct result of the building of Göbekli Tepe: the birth of agriculture. For it is the conceptualization of personal gods in human form, and the institutionalized myths and rituals that accompany such a process, that will push us out of the Paleolithic era, that will compel us to stop wandering and to settle down, that will give us the impetus to alter the earth to our advantage by inventing agriculture. Simply put, in transforming the gods of heaven into humans, we will transform humans into the gods of the earth.1
FOR NEARLY TWO and a half million years of our evolution—more than 90 percent of our existence as hominids—we foraged the earth for our food. We were predators, stalking through forests and plains, competing for prey with beasts far more adept than we were—though not nearly as clever. This experience as hunter-gatherers shaped and defined us. It enlarged our brains and constructed our cognitive capacities, gradually transforming us from impulsive brutes to discriminating beings.
Our gods, such as they were, were the gods of the hunt. Our rites and rituals, our myths and legends, our subterranean sanctuaries, our very conception of the cosmos were powered by the mystical solidarity that existed between hunter and hunted. That solidarity extended from the animals we killed to the tools we used to kill them: our bone harpoons and wooden spears, our fishhooks and woven nets, became charged with sacred power. Our reliance on these weapons for our very survival transformed them from mere objects into simulacra of the spirit world.
Hunting gave us mastery over our landscape, obliging us to form a mental map of the world we inhabited—its ridges and slopes, its valleys and rivers. It not only inspired our creative imagination, it entrenched in our consciousness certain societal values that we still strive for today: Our need for mobility as hunters prohibited the accumulation of material possessions, the hoarding of property, and, as a result, the stratification of society into haves and have-nots.
Then, sometime around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, we inexplicably swapped our spears for plows and transformed ourselves from foragers to farmers. We ceased scavenging for food and started producing it. Rather than hunting for animals, we began to breed them.
Hunting may have made us human, but farming forever altered what being human meant. If hunting gave us mastery over space, farming forced us to master time, to synchronize the movements of the stars and the sun with the agricultural cycle. The mystical solidarity we enjoyed with the animals with whom we shared the earth was transferred to the earth itself. We stopped praying for help with the hunt and prayed instead for help with the harvest. Our spiritual focus shifted from the sky—traditionally associated with fatherly, male deities—to the earth as Mother Goddess, thus elevating the position of women in society. The fertility of the earth became bound up with the fecundity of women, who hold the mystery of life within their wombs, so that, as the legendary historian of religions Mircea Eliade argued, the physical work of plowing the fields became akin to a sexual act.2
The process of transforming the earth to our advantage brought with it a whole new set of values and behavioral norms, as well as a new collection of myths to help us make sense of the changed world we inhabited. It was around this time that the concept of the “immolated deity” first arose—the god who dies and is dismembered and from whose body creation springs. Think Phan Ku, the creator god of China, whose skull became the dome of the sky, whose blood became the rivers and seas, and whose bones became the mountains and rocks; or the god Osiris, who taught the ancient Egyptians how to cultivate the earth before being killed and cut to pieces by his fiendish brother, Seth, who scattered the pieces of his body along the fertile Nile valley.
Not only did such mythologies better coincide with the birth, death, and rebirth of our crops, they fostered a more intimate relationship with the divine. After all, if the crops we plant in the earth are believed to arise from a god’s dismembered body, then when we partake of those plants, we are in fact consuming the body of the god—a concept that will have a long life in the religious practices of the Ancient Near East, including the Christian ritual of the Eucharist.
Once we started farming, it is generally assumed, we stopped moving. We settled down and built villages and temples. Villages require rules, and so we privileged some among us to make laws and enforce them (thus the birth of organized society). Temples require priests, and so we designated others to regulate worship and speak to the gods on our behalf (thus the birth of organized religion). The division of labor led to the partitioning of society, and the novelty of wealth and personal property. We went from exchanging gifts to bartering and eventually to buying and selling, hoarding and forfeiting, having and not having.
As food became more readily available, populations soared. The congregation of large communities into public spaces allowed ideas to be more rapidly exchanged and technologies to be more seamlessly adopted. Art flourished, technology was shared, civilization was born, all because of the fateful decision to stop hunting and gathering and start farming and domesticating.
This dramatic shift in human development effectively ended the Paleolithic era and launched what is known as the Neolithic Revolution. The term was coined by the archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe, who considered the birth of agriculture to be the most significant development in human history (after the mastery of fire). Most people would likely agree with Childe that the domestication of animals was obviously beneficial to human beings, and that farming was clearly preferable to foraging. Agriculture must have created more reliable food sources, since there was no longer any need to pursue animals across far-flung hunting grounds or to scour the forests and fields for edible foodstuffs. Rather than randomly decapitating stocks of wheat and barley and stuffing them into our mouths, we could instead plant and harvest acreages of grain. Rather than spend our days combing the wilderness for game, we could capture and pen animals, slaughtering them for food whenever we liked.
Yet the more we learn about the rise of agriculture, the more we realize that it may have cost our ancestors more trouble than it was worth. To begin with, the backbreaking process of spending almost every waking hour—from sunrise to sunset—clearing the land, plowing the earth, collecting and sowing seeds, irrigating the fields by hand, and then guarding the crops day and night against locusts and thieves, was far more time-consuming and labor-intensive than simply going out into the wild and hunting for animals that were still everywhere in abundance.
Farming meant that the skins of freshwater that had to be carried from distant sources to keep the community alive now had to be shared with crops whose thirst was insatiable. It meant that the forests that sheltered us from the elements and protected us from predators had to be burned down to make room for fields and pastures. It meant sharing our food with animals who had to be fed and protected, taken out to pasture, kept clean and free of disease. And what was the reward for all of this drudgery and self-denial? Surprisingly, it was less food, not more.3
Studies have shown that the agricultural revolution led to the consumption of fewer vitamins and minerals and substantially less protein. Only a few types of grain were suitable for early farming and an even smaller number of animal species were suited to domestication. The hunter survived on dozens of different species of plants and animals. If any species fell in short supply, he could simply focus on another.
The farmer, however, relied on a small variety of domesticated plants and animals. If there was a drought, or if any one of his wheat or barley crops failed, he and his kin would starve and die. If any one of his sheep, goats, or chickens caught a disease, it could wipe out the entire herd, and he and his kin would starve and die. Faced with an exigent crisis, the hunter could simply pack up and follow his meal wherever it led him. The farmer had little choice but to stay put and perish along with his efforts.
It is no wonder that in most ancient agricultural societies, at least one out of every three children died before the age of twenty. As the Israeli historian Yuval Harari observes, the bodies of Homo sapiens were adapted to running after game, not to clearing land and plowing fields. Surveys of ancient human skeletons show just how brutal the transition to agriculture was. Farmers were more susceptible than hunters to anemia and vitamin deficiency. They caught more infectious diseases and died younger. They had worse teeth and more broken bones, and they suffered from a host of what were fairly novel ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and hernias. In fact, skeletons unearthed in and around the Ancient Near East indicate that in the first few thousand years of the Neolithic Revolution, humans lost an average of six inches in height, largely as a result of their inadequate diet. In light of all this, the transition from hunting to farming seems not only to have been a bad bet on humanity’s part; it was, in Harari’s words, “history’s biggest fraud.”4
Given the enormous time, energy, and resources it took to farm, what accounts for the abandonment of hunting for the harsh reality of agricultural life? Childe believed that the abrupt changes in climate that took place at the end of the last Ice Age, around 11,700 years ago, spurred human beings to develop alternative food sources. As the earth warmed and the glaciers retreated, climatic pressures forced populations to squeeze into a few favorable geographical zones, where they experimented with collecting and planting certain varieties of cereals and legumes.
However, subsequent studies of ancient weather patterns have demonstrated that the changes in climate ushered in at the end of the last Ice Age occurred far too slowly to cause the kind of sudden mass migration that Childe imagined. Childe is right that climate change may have allowed for the rise of agriculture and animal domestication. But it caused neither.5
Others have argued that the advent of agriculture was the result of population pressures in infertile regions, or that overhunting led to a sharp rise in animal extinction, forcing early humans to devise alternative food sources. The archaeological record supports neither hypothesis. There appears to be no evidence to support the extinction theory, and the first examples of agricultural activity occurred in resource-rich regions like the Fertile Crescent—that arc of moist, bountiful land that rises from the lower Nile valley in Egypt, bends around the Levant and southern Turkey, and dips into Iraq and the western ridge of Iran.6
The trouble with most of these theories is that they are based on the widely held assumption that agriculture came first, and permanent settlement followed as a result. We suppose that our ancient ancestors ceased their nomadic ways because they started planting seeds and therefore had no choice but to settle down in order to care for their crops. However, the discovery of Göbekli Tepe and other ancient sites built by hunter-gatherers across the Levant has turned this idea on its head. We now know that permanent settlements came first, and then, many years later, farming arose. We were living in villages with booming populations, building giant temples, creating great works of art, sharing our technology for centuries before it occurred to us to grow our food.
So then, if the domestication of plants and animals was not the result of sudden environmental changes or mass extinction or sudden population increase, what was it that spurred the transition from hunting to farming? The discovery of Göbekli Tepe and similar devotional sites across the Ancient Near East suggests that it was the birth of organized religion.
Constructing a temple the size and scope of Göbekli Tepe would have taken many years and required a huge workforce of excavators and quarrymen, masons and artisans, to complete. These workers would have needed a steady supply of food over the course of the project. Hunting the aurochs and gazelles, boars and red deer, that stalked the surrounding area would not have provided enough meat to feed them. So they gradually began to cultivate the indigenous grasses that grew all around the region in order to bolster the workers’ food supply. That would have led to the planting of seeds and the harvesting of crops. Eventually, they might have decided to capture animals in large numbers and pen them for easy slaughter. That in turn might have led to the breeding of sheep, pigs, goats, and cattle—all of which, the archaeological records show, were first domesticated in and around eastern Turkey, in the vicinity of Göbekli Tepe, and around the same time as its construction.7
The physical act of building the temple may have necessitated the planting of crops and the domestication of animals to feed the workers and worshippers gathered there. But to permanently settle, form, and modify the earth, to exert our will upon animals and utterly disrupt the way they are born, bred, and raised, to create artificial environments that mimic the natural world—all of this would have required a giant psychological leap in the way we think about the relationship between humans and animals, between people and the earth. More than a technological revolution, it would have required a revolution in the way we think about the human condition—a “revolution of symbols,” to borrow a phrase coined by the French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin. For our Paleolithic ancestors, that revolution came in the form of an institutionalized religious system dominated by belief in humanized gods.8
After all, to conceive of the gods in human form, to claim that we share the same physical and psychic qualities as the gods themselves, is to view humanity as somehow distinct from the rest of the natural world. For the first time in our evolution we began to imagine ourselves not as a part of the universe, but as its center. Gone is the animistic worldview that had bound us in soul and spirit to the natural world. And if we’re no longer bound in essence to the animals and the earth, then why not exploit them? Why not intervene in nature to dominate and domesticate it, to transform it to our advantage?
The construction of Göbekli Tepe may not only have inaugurated the Neolithic Era. It likely initiated a whole new conception of humanity. It placed human beings at the center of the spiritual plane, exalted above all living things: rulers of nature, gods over the earth. What followed this tectonic shift from primitive animism to organized religion—in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in Europe and Greece, in Iran and India, China, and beyond—was the formation of entire pantheons of personalized, humanized gods, each embodying a particular human attribute, until there was a unique god for every good and bad quality we possess.
Thus what began as an unconscious cognitive impulse to fashion the divine in our image—to give it our soul—gradually became, over the next ten thousand years of spiritual development, a conscious effort to make the gods more and more humanlike—until, at last, God became literally human.