An Aerial/overhead view of An aerial photograph of the stone circles at Göbekli Tepe.

Unrecorded Mystery: How Did 12,000-Year-Old Hunter-Gatherers Build Multi-Ton Monuments? 

12,000 years ago, before the invention of pottery, metallurgy, and the invention of writing or the wheel, and essentially the Neolithic Revolution, a society in present-day Turkey quarried, transported, and raised stones weighing as much as 20 tons. But how on Earth did they do it? 


If someone were to ask you when multi-ton, megalithic monuments started appearing on Earth, what would be your answer? The Pyramids of Giza? For many people, this may be the case, but the truth is long before the first Egyptian pyramids, people on Earth built intricate multi-ton stone monuments using blocks that weigh dozens of tons. History, as we know it, is incomplete. Not in a sense that there’s a conspiracy surrounding it, but in a sense that humankind’s journey on Earth is so extensive we’ve still not been able to uncover it fully. Many new, mainstream discoveries are helping us rewrite many facts that were considered unchangeable until not long ago. What better way to rewrite history than with tangible proof? You see, our history is written in stone.

Although buried throughout various millennia, the remnants of great societies exist to this date. These are not necessarily the pyramids but much lesser-known ancient structures scattered across the globe. One particular site in present-day Turkey is unlike any other. It’s called Göbekli Tepe, and its name translates into potbelly hill.

Göbekli Tepe; Multi-ton stones and hunter-gatherers

Located not far from the present-day city of Şanlıurfa, the site is buried beneath the surface. Geological surveys have left experts awestruck, not only by its complexity but by its immense size. Nothing like it has ever been found anywhere in the world. As of June 2020, there are more than 200 stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe, buried beneath the surface (most of them) in 20 clearly denoted circles. These pillars are massive; they rise to an average height of 6 meters and have a weight of 10 tons. Fitted into sockets previously hewn out of the local bedrock, the t-shaped stone pillars are Göbekli Tepe’s most unique features.

Although the site is far from being completely excavated, archaeologists have found to this date points to an unpredicted archeological discovery, ready to change the history of early societies on Earth. That’s mostly because from the layers excavated by experts, we were able to find that Göbekli Tepe’s most massive stone pillars date back to a period called Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) (in early Levantine and Anatolian Neolithic culture), which dates back from circa 12,000 to around 10,800 years ago, that is from around 10,000 to 8,800 years ago.

Although experts say that tiny circular mud-brick dwellings characterize the PPNA, Göbekli Tepe changes it all. When other societies were building mud-brick dwellings, people at Göbekli Tepe were working massive blocks of stone ranging from 10 to 20 tons in weight, building on a never-before-seen scale.


Ahead of its time

Klaus Schmidt, one of the most famous excavators of the site, discovered two phases of occupation at Göbekli Tepe, the oldest of which can be traced back to around 10,000 BC. This means that already 12,000 years ago, the society that was in charge of building Göbekli Tepe was ahead of its time, at least in the construction and organizational sense. Its true purpose remains a profound mystery, although various theories propose that Göbekli Tepe was either a massive ceremonial site—which would make it the oldest known megalithic temple on Earth or an early astronomical observatory. Experts like Schmidt suggest the site was used in a religious or ceremonial sense, where people from vast distances traveled to the site to pay their respects. Whatever the case, the imposing stratigraphy at the site attests to several centuries of activity, the earliest of which originated during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A.

The site’s history has been divided into three distinct stages denominated by experts as layers III, II, and I. Layer III represented the oldest stage. At this stage, experts say that Göbekli Tepe’s distinct circular compounds appear, ranging from 10 to 30 meters in diameter. It was during this stage that the site’s most notable features appeared; the t-shaped limestone blocks. To date, only four circular structures have been excavated at the site, although there is evidence of at least 16 more similar structures. Each of these circles is believed to house eight stone pillars, which means Göbekli Tepe is home to around 200 t-shaped stone pillars.

Unique designs

Most of Göbekli Tepe’s unique pillars are decorated with a number of abstract, enigmatic pictographs, many of which depict animals. Certain elements on the pillars have been interpreted as symbols that appear in Neolithic cave paintings in different sites. Among the animals illustrated on the pillars, experts have found bulls, lions, snakes, reptiles, birds, and vultures. It is believed that 12,000 years ago, when the oldest parts of the site were constructed, the area surrounding Göbekli Tepe was home to a great variety of wildlife. The stones used in the construction of the site were transported from nearby quarries, the most distant of which was located no more than 1,000 meters away.

A mystery

Despite the short distance, it still remains a profound mystery as to how ancient people 12,000 years ago managed to quarry, transport, and raise into positions tons of blocks weighing 10 or 20 tons. We must take into consideration that the people who built Göbekli Tepe did so without the aid of pack animals or technologies such as the pulley or the wheel. Göbekli Tepe is so old that it predates pottery, metallurgy, the invention of writing or the wheel, and essentially the Neolithic Revolution. One of the quarries not far from the site is home to a massive block of stone whose weight has been estimated at around 50 tons. Although the ancients did not use it in the construction for a reason, we still don’t know. They most likely did have the means to transport and raise it. If they carved it, the surely must have figured out how to move it.

D18eveloped societies

Everything we know about Göbekli Tepe tells us that already 12,000 years ago. There were developed societies on Earth and not mere hunter-gatherers. Everything we know about the site is preliminary since no more than 5 % of Göbekli Tepe has been excavated. Future generations of archaeologists will help unravel the site’s secrets, but from everything we’ve found to this date, Göbekli Tepe is a site like no other. Whoever built Göbekli Tepe was organized and was able to prepare its workforce. It is estimated that around 1,000 people were needed to quarry and transport the stones that were used in the site’s construction. This means that the society that built Göbekli Tepe was able to provide not only food for such a big community but also clothing, houses, and medicine.


Remember, Göbekli Tepe was not built in a day, and it most likely took several generations to complete a site that would deliberately be backfilled around 8,000 BC. Yes, Göbekli Tepe changes it all, and I see the site as a monument as impacting as the Great Pyramid of Giza in a historical and architectural sense.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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