The harrowing tale of an apocalyptic comet impact may be etched into the pillars of the earliest known temple, Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey, erected by humans some 11,500 years ago.
Excavation of this site over the last two decades has uncovered megaliths carved with depictions of animals and humans, pushing back the timeline of human civilization, and attracting researchers hoping to decode the meaning of these perplexing pictograms.
In a recent study published in the journal Mediterranean Archeology and Archaeometry, University of Edinburgh chemical engineer Martin Sweatman and bioengineering postgraduate Dimitrios Tsikritsis propose that the carvings commemorate the devastation wrought by a comet impact, airburst, or destructive meteor shower some 12,900 years ago.
This hypothetical impact is considered a possible cause for the Younger Dryas global cooling period, which ran from 12,900 to 11,700 years ago, though there is much debate over whether the event happened or whether it could explain this cooling period. Some scientists have suggested that the Neolithic Revolution characterized by the emergence of agriculture and city-states—the lifestyle shift that yielded modern civilization as we know it—was catalyzed by the low temperatures of the Younger Dryas, which depleted hunter-gatherer food sources and forced ancient peoples to cultivate crops in settlements to survive.
Sweatman and Tsikritsis speculate that the Göbekli Tepe pictograms may be a contemporary record of this pivotal moment in human history. At the center of the hypothesis is the so-called "Vulture Stone," also known as Pillar 43, Enclosure D. The stone is decorated with a range of animal symbols, including a scorpion, an ibex, and many birds in various poses. At the bottom of the scene is an indistinct image of a headless man, while the top is bordered with large, repeating handbag-shaped drawings.
This fascinating tableau has understandably provoked much speculation about the intent behind its creation, including the idea that the animals are zodiacal representatives of ancient constellations. Sweatman and Tsikritsis propose that the distinct scorpion could correlate to the constellation Scorpio, the duck-like drawing to Libra, and the wolf symbol to Lupus. The circular shape in the center represents the Sun in this interpretation.
When viewed this way, the entire stone becomes a date-stamp for when the Sun and depicted constellations were aligned as shown in the drawings, making Göbekli Tepe an astronomical observatory as much as a religious site.
The team then calculated when the celestial arrangement depicted on the stone had recently occurred in human history, and came up with the years 2000 AD, 4350 BC, 10,950 BC, and 18,000 BC—plus or minus 250 years.
10,950 BC not only coincides with the construction and ritual occupation of Göbekli Tepe, but also with the estimated date range of the Younger Dryas impact, if it happened. The team suggests the headless man could be a dramatization of "probably the worst day ever in human history since the end of the ice age; the hypothetical [Younger Dryas] catastrophe," as quoted in the study.
Were the ancient peoples of Göbekli Tepe trying to warn the future about the devastating consequences of climate change from the dawn of prehistory? It makes a good story, but more research into the site and its oddities will need to bear it out. Problems with the hypothesis have already been pointed out in an article on The Tepe Telegrams, a website curated by Göbekli Tepe research and excavation staff, written by archeologist Jens Notroff, who argues that the paper cherry-picked its symbolic bearings.
"This can be demonstrated for instance with the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as symbol of death and mass extinction in the paper—however silently omitting the emphasised phallus in the same depiction which somehow contradicts the lifeless notion and implies a much more complex narrative behind these reliefs," Notroff said. "There are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of Pillar 43 which went completely uncommented here."
Indeed, boners are not normally associated with Doomsday events. But Sweatman is currently working on a rebuttal to the critique, so perhaps there will be more to that story. Regardless, the discussion can be filed among the many mysteries of Göbekli Tepe, a window into the past that continues to intrigue and dazzle experts and armchair archeologists alike.
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