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Entrepreneurs of Civilization

Wolf In Sheeps Clothing by Melissa Washburn

We have no wisdom traditions nearly as old as we are, and maybe that’s because we’ve buried something important.

In the last couple of months, we all got older—by some 100,000 years. New discoveries in Morocco suggest we’re now 300,000 years old! Even at 25 years per generation, that’s 12,000 generations. So, every report from Ancestry.com should now be as thick as an old phonebook, and we must accept the fact that we have no wisdom traditions nearly as old as we are. Maybe we’ve buried something important?

In the last few years, civilization also got a lot older—and that could be a clue. Now we know that humans built massive structures at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey nearly 12,000 years ago. These 60-foot circles included 20-ton stones that required hundreds of people to move, and a 50-ton stone was left in the quarry. All this heavy lifting came before the wheel, before metal tools, before farming, and even before people raised sheep or goats. This massive stone complex was built by people we think of as lowly hunter-gatherers.

We also now know that people have been smarter for far longer than we thought. One likely theory about the evolution of the human brain suggests that we became so smart because of fire and cooking. To cook food is to predigest it, dramatically increasing nutrient availability to fuel more powerful brains. Cooking food is at least 400,000 years old, and may be a million. Those 300,000-year-old Moroccans were found amid gazelle bones and charcoal, and they supposedly could have gone unnoticed today on the streets of Manhattan if they had only worn hats.

So individuals with brains as big as ours hunted and gathered and cooked for hundreds of thousands of years until, for some reason, at Göbekli Tepe they started cutting and moving ever larger stones, setting them in circles, and carving them with scary creatures like lions and spiders. Only a fraction of Göbekli Tepe has been excavated, but so far it doesn’t appear that the people who built the complex lived within the grounds. Recently some human skulls were found, and so it seems that the first act of civilization-building was some sort of temple that was probably tied to survival. Let’s make something up.

Let’s imagine hunter-gatherers around the fire, happily watching reruns of the constellations for the millionth time. But this night a newcomer came to dinner—or perhaps she was the intended dinner or the dessert and had to talk fast. Whatever. She or he convinced the others that if they just cut some giant stones into the right shapes and moved them into a circle, they could frighten away death. And at that very moment a shooting star lit up the night—and everyone believed!

If you have ever gotten together with a bunch of people to move a large stone you know how exciting it can be. At least at first. You probably also know that the temple didn’t work. To scare away death you not only need to cut and raise the giant stones, you need to carve the right symbols on them, and then add a few skulls to show you mean business. Finally, of course, you need to know the special words that make it all work.

Whatever the real story, Göbekli Tepe suggests that civilization started not with seeds for farming or a flock of goats or even better housing. Civilization started with a story: probably some version of a “stone soup” story or Huck Finn painting the fence. Thus, the entrepreneur of civilization was likely a charmer who could talk otherwise reasonable people into toiling all day to raise giant boulders. We also know the first temple complex grew over several lifetimes, so the stones and stories took on a life of their own. Thus, Göbekli Tepe was the original (drum roll, please. . .) “Home of the Whopper!”

As the stones and stories grew in power, so did their keepers. This was the likely birthplace of the first priesthood and ruling class, the first “one percent”—and of course the Dumnoualos, which is proto-Celtic for “world ruler” or “world wielder.” The Dumnoualos was the one who knew exactly what words to say to keep people raising ever-heavier stones for their own good. Thus, the Home of the Whopper produced the con-mander in chief.

Then civilization ended. Completely. People didn’t just abandon Göbekli Tepe. The stone tools used to cut the temple stones as well as the shards from the original cutting were mixed with hundreds of cubic yards of dirt to bury the place. Why?

Göbekli Tepe could have been invaded, but there was no known group of outsiders capable of invading. And why would they? The temple had no food or water or even gold. It was just a story told in stones. Why invade it to destroy it?

Another explanation is this: The temple/story drew too many people and overwhelmed the hunter-gatherers’ food supply. Meanwhile, building the temple coincided with a shift in climate, and Göbekli Tepe was transformed from a fertile land with abundant game into a desert. These ancient people had no way of knowing what caused the climate to change, but they were smart enough to notice that the big change in their world was the creation of the temple—and that 99 percent of the people were now hungry. The Dumnoualos talked as fast as he could, but the next human invention was the shovel.

For thousands of years, people told the cautionary tale of civilization but gradually forgot the punch line. They started farming and raising animals when a new version of the proto-Celtic Dumnoualos—now the Gaelic Domhnall—convinced them to give up their extra food to build a bigger temple. This time for sure!

And sure enough, this time the story that the first civilization worked so hard to bury became unstoppable—and more and more people grew hungry again until the story finally produced the most shovel-ready leader of them all, the one known in English as The Donald.