Out of the Caves and into the Temples
A Look at How and Why Neolithic Humans Began Constructing Sacred Monuments at the End of the Last Ice Age
More than 40,000 years ago, people began to use caves as ritual chambers. Then, around 12,000 years ago something changed, several advanced megalithic societies began producing extraordinary stone structures in order to access the spirit world and harness unseen forces in a new way. In line with this, our ancestors had a tremendous sense of community that allowed them to construct enormous sacred sites like the original Sphinx and Gobekli Tepe. In fact, the temples at the Giza plateau on the Nile in Egypt and Potbelly Hill on the Euphrates in Turkey were both used religiously by Neolithic pilgrims for countless generations.
It all began long ago, near the end of the last glacial period of the Ice Age when sea levels rose by a few hundred feet during the “Great Flood”. The Holocene glacial retreat occurred across the planet, effecting various areas in drastically different ways. As a devastating consequence of this, hundreds of thousands of people died all around the world. This was particularly devastating to the Natufians in Africa. In general, though, it was a crucial period of catastrophic upheaval in the evolution of all Homo sapiens.
Humans had been confined to lower latitudes when the glaciation event began, and we used tools comparable to those used by Neanderthals in western and central Eurasia and by Denisovans in Asia. However, near the end of the event, Homo sapiens migrated into Eurasia and Australia. As such, the source populations of Paleolithic humans survived the last glacial period in sparsely wooded areas and dispersed through areas of high primary productivity while avoiding dense forest cover.
As a result of the Holocene glacial retreat, a universal myth of the deluge emerged from various different anecdotal disaster reports that were handed down over time in an effort to remember what happened when the Constellation Leo became visible behind the vernal sunrise, all those years ago. Thus, the Old Stone Age eventually gave way to the New Stone Age when a group of post-flood survivors decided to take root where an outcrop of limestone was first witnessed in what is now Egypt.
The Giza Plateau was a few hundred feet above sea level, so the proverbial “primordial mound” appeared as if by a miracle. There the wandering nomads built what later became the Sphinx to symbolically reclaim the land from the sea. Long before ancient Egypt emerged, the great statue was originally an enormous male lion that gazed directly at the constellation Leo, serving as a marker for the spring equinox. To make this, the Natufians had to dig deep down into the solid rock and build a sacred site of unprecedented scale, with a sacred stone statue and a massive temple complex.
The great lion was an immense monolith carved into the bedrock of the plateau, which also served as the quarry for other monuments in the area. So, at the beginning of the Age of Leo, through miraculous feats of engineering and tremendous dedication, megalithic multi-ton blocks were removed and then assembled into an enormous temple complex. This was really important because moving the huge limestone slabs required the efforts of all the neighboring tribes, leading to the construction of a shared sacred space for hundreds upon hundreds of spiritual seekers.
To accomplish this, dozens and dozens of highly skilled stonemasons worked tirelessly for years, pounding stone hammers into solid rock at a rate of about forty strikes per minute, from sunrise to sunset day in and day out. Then the resulting one hundred foot tall, two hundred and fifty-foot long monolith served as an important beacon of hope. The shining white lion symbolized the god of the sun, just as much as the herald of the new age. This was a revolutionary act in the development of spirituality, centered around solar-based observances, leading to the construction of lithic calendars and clocks worldwide.
Meanwhile, over on Potbelly Hill, also high above sea level, the builders of Gobekli Tepe constructed another one of the oldest temples in the world. They even did it while wearing fox skin loincloths. Make no mistake about it, these were primitive people but they were doing very sophisticated stone masonry. After all, apes had already been working with stone for millions of years before our species emerged. More to the point, Homo sapiens had religion long before the domestication of plants and animals or the development of numbers, and that’s what ultimately drove them to build monoliths.
The Gobekli Tepe temple complex was a massive undertaking. There were more than 200 pillars in about 20 circles. Each monolith had a height of up to 20 feet and weighed up to 10 tons. They were fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the bedrock. Many of the pillars were intricately decorated with abstract pictograms and carved animal reliefs. The images depict a number of different animals such as lions, bulls, foxes, gazelles, donkeys, snakes, insects, arachnids, birds, and more. Of course, the most interesting pillars depict very stylized humans.
The thing is that, at that point in the great chain of being, there were shamans and funerals, but not yet wheels or laws. So, back then, life was very different than it is now, to say the least. People hunted gazelles, boars, and wild sheep in a pre-agricultural society. They built the site as a loose gathering of tribes, not a modern governed city. The ancient settlers just had small villages, with communal sharing and stores of wild-harvested grains. That was it.
More to the point, spirituality was absolutely essential to their way of life. Again, this was 12,000 years ago, and organized religion was taking things to the next level. To put that in perspective, seven hundred generations ago, priests gave rise to society, not politicians. I’m talking about whole groups of people who were animists just becoming deists for the first time. So, they finally began to personify the natural and supernatural forces that they revered, and this changed everything.
Ultimately, religion brought people together to help them settle and to set the stage for becoming farmers and shepherds later on down the line. Thus, the shift from revering nature to revering humanity led to the overconfidence that gave us the faith that we needed to rise above the rest of the animal kingdom, becoming gods and goddesses in our own right. In the end, we gave ourselves permission to have dominion over the world once the urge to worship finally sparked the first true civilizations and the rest is history.