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Boncuklu Tarla: A megalithic site predating Göbekli Tepe

The uncovering of the stunning megalithic architecture of Göbekli Tepe in modern day Türkiye less than three decades ago turned our view of pre-history upside down, with the massive t-shaped pillars of the site pre-dating the pyramids and Stonehenge by some six or seven thousand years. But while it took the spotlight, archaeologists in the area continued finding other, similar sites with impressive architecture and dating back the same mind-boggling stretch in time, some 10,000 years before present.

One of the sites that has become well-known recently is Karahan Tepe (perhaps most notably after it was covered in Graham Hancock’s Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse). But another, lesser known site that lies further to the east may end up being even more important: Boncuklu Tarla. Discovered during construction work on the Ilısu Dam in 2008, it has undergone excavation over the last 11 years and has already turned up many things of note.

Like the other ancient sites of that time in Turkey, Boncuklu Tarla features a walled ‘temple’ with rock pillars – but they appear to predate Göbekli Tepe by a thousand years or so (though the pillars don’t appear to be as impressive), with the earliest layer of the site dating back a staggering 13,000 years. What’s more, the excavation over the past eleven years has worked through multiple layers of the site, with dating of those layers suggesting that it was occupied for around 4,000 years – from around 11,000 BCE to 7,000BCE!

The documentary Traces: Boncuklu Tarla, offers an early look at the site and excavations, along with extended interviews with the lead archaeologist Dr Ergül Kodaş:

Another of the highlights of the site is the extraordinary number of beads and decorative items discovered: some 100,000 or more beads have already been uncovered, along with 2,000 copper items (Boncuklu Tarla literally means ‘field of beads’). Many of the items are simple beads, rough shapes and hoops used for jewellery items like earrings, lip rings, necklaces and bracelets – however, there are also items carved in the shape of animals like scorpions and snakes as well (motifs found at the other sites of that age, it might be noted).

Another surprising discovery appears to be a sewerage system that dates back 12,000 years ago, an architectural feature that yet again shows that as humanity came out of the last Ice Age they were anything but primitive.

And archaeologists have found that the dead appear to have been interred under the houses of the residents, likely as a way of keeping family close by even after they had died. One poignant discovery appears to be a couple lying in a post-death embrace:

And all of these discoveries have been made already, despite archaeologists saying they have only excavated about 5% of the site!

Whatever the results of the full excavation as it unfolds over coming years/decades, what the discovery of Boncuklu Tarla, Karahan Tepe and the many other sites now being excavated shows is that while Göbekli Tepe was an extraordinary discovery – and remains extraordinary, with its vast numbers of amazing, sculpted megalithic pillars – it should no longer be seen as a singular outlier in history, an anomaly within its environment and time with some sort of special significance. Instead it appears to be just one of a number of sites with advanced architecture and societal organisation in the depths of history – and that this ‘civilization’ endured for millennia.*

As the presenters note in the below episode of The Prehistory Guys podcast devoted to Buncuklu Tarla:

The more we look, the more the idea of Göbekli Tepe being the ‘ground-zero’ of civilization becomes less and less tenable – in fact, it becomes downright misleading.

(* I really think it’s important, when we look at these discoveries so far back in time, that we remember the time scales involved and don’t just ‘mush it all together’. Thinking of ten or eleven thousand years ago as much the same time period as each other is a mistake – it’s a full thousand years…consider how different human culture was between 1000AD and 2000AD.)

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