Feasting in Göbekli Tepe; alcoholic beverages in the PPNA?

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey“, by Oliver Dietrich, Manfred Heun, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt & Martin Zarnkow, 2012.

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The tell of Göbekli Tepe on the Germus¸ range has an outstanding role, not as a settlement, but as a hill sanctuary. Göbekli Tepe is characterised by an early layer (III) dating to the PPNA, which produced monumental architecture with huge, T-shaped pillars arranged in circle-like enclosures around two even taller central pillars. The pillars are interconnected by walls and stone benches and are decorated with varied animal motifs, including foxes, snakes, scorpions, boars, aurochs, gazelle, wild ass and birds, as well as, in some cases, arms and hands, showing that they are sculptures representing stylised human-like individuals. A later phase (layer II, early and middle PPNB) consists of smaller, rectangular buildings containing often only two small central pillars or none at all. A geophysical survey showed that the older, round megalithic enclosures were not restricted to a specific part of the mound but existed all over the site, and it seems very probable that at least 20 enclosures existed in total. The mound is the result of the rapid and intentional backfilling of these circles after some time of use.

Since neither domesticated plants nor animals are known from the site, it is clear that the people who erected this monumental sanctuary were still hunter-gatherers, but far more organised than researchers dared to think 20 years ago. The first time a cult building with T-shaped pillars, comparable to those of layer II of Göbekli Tepe, was uncovered was at Nevali Çori, a settlement site now flooded due to the construction of the Atatürk barrage. In its immediate vicinity there are three more sites with T-shaped stones visible on the surface (Sefer Tepe, Karahan Tepe and Hamzan Tepe), but no excavations have been carried out there so far. These places form a group of sites belonging to one cult, but their community was not confined to these sites.

Observations in the field of iconography are the main argument for the existence of such a cultic community. Shaft-straighteners often bear incised decorations of animals and symbols. Several examples have been found so far at Göbekli Tepe.

These motifs also occur on thin-walled stone cups and bowls of the Hallan Çemi type. Complete vessels of this group have recently been discovered at Körtik Tepe as part of rich grave inventories. Fragments of such vessels have been found at Göbekli, Çayönü,  Nevali Çori, Jerf el Ahmar, Tell ‘Abr 3 and Tell Qaramel. Another connection is suggested by the zoomorphic sceptres of the Nemrik type. Their distribution coincides exactly with the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’: they are present at Hallan Çemi, Nevali Çori, Çayönü, Göbekli Tepe, Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, Jerf el Ahmar and Dja’de.

This explosion of images, with few forerunners in Palaeolithic art, offers a view of a symbolic world, which had commonalities shared among the residents of PPN sites in Upper Mesopotamia.

This complex symbolic system continued for millennia. A prerequisite for its long life must have been an extensive network of supra-regional contacts sustained on a regular basis. For the large amount of quarrying, stone-carving and construction work required to build a monumental sanctuary like Göbekli Tepe, there had to be a means of bringing together groups from different areas and organising communal work. An answer on how this was achieved lies in the widespread evidence for extensive feasting, including the consumption of—most likely alcoholic—beverages, in the PPN archaeological record.

It can be safely stated that people’s first interest in wild grapes in western Asia was for alcohol production, evidence for domestication only following in the fourth millennium BC. From Göbekli Tepe now comes further chemical evidence this time for beer brewing, although it is not fully conclusive as yet.

Chemical analysis was recently conducted also on a group of large limestone basins from Göbekli Tepe. Six barrel- and trough-like vessels have been found in PPNB contexts. Due to their size and capacities of up to 160 litres they are static, integral parts of particular rooms, but fragments of such vessels appear in all strata. Some of them show grayish-black residues adhering to the lower parts of the vessels.

First results show probable evidence of oxalate for some samples, but the applied Feigl test was not sensitive enough to give reproducible results. Oxalate develops during the steeping, mashing and fermentation of cereals (barley, but also einkorn wheat and others and can indicate the production of malt and beer. A complete scapula of an onager was found at the bottom of one vessel at Göbekli Tepe.

In Göbekli Tepe, the occurrence of beer making is not yet certain, but as signs of habitation are also absent, it is a possibility that not every step of production was carried out there. The grain may have been malted at nearby settlements and been brought there only on special occasions. Genetic analyses have shown that the domestication of single-grained einkorn and emmer wheat took place around the Karaca Dağ in close vicinity to Göbekli Tepe. It is an intriguing thought that brewing and the domestication of wheat might be interrelated.

Although chemical evidence is still sparse, all factors taken together support the idea that the possibility of creating alcoholic intoxicants was already known in the early PPN.

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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