It's more than twice as old as the Pyramids, or even the written word. When it was built, saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths still roamed, and the Ice Age had just ended.
The elaborate temple at Gobelki Tepe in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, is staggeringly ancient: 11,500 years old, from a time just before humans learned to farm grains and domesticate animals.
According to the German archaeologist in charge of excavations at the site, it might be the birthplace of agriculture, of organized religion — of civilization itself.
"This is the first human-built holy place," Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute says in the November issue of Smithsonian magazine.
Schmidt and his colleagues say no evidence of permanent settlement has been found at the site, although there are remains of butchered animals and edible plants.
However, all of the bones are from wild animals, and all the vegetation from wild plants. That means the massive structure was built by a hunter-gatherer society, not a settled agricultural one.
Yet the three dozen T-shaped standing limestone monoliths arranged around the site are 10 feet high, weigh several tons each and bear detailed, stylized carvings of foxes, scorpions, lions, boars and birds. The builders may not have been farmers, but they weren't primitive.
Massive amounts of manpower would have been needed to build the site, a logistical problem that may have spurred the builders to begin planting grain and herding wild sheep, Schmidt thinks.
Wild grain ancestral to modern wheat grows nearby, and the site itself is just outside the city of Sanliurfa, known as Edessa to the Crusaders — and which locals say is the Biblical city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham. The Euphrates flows eighty miles to the west, putting Gobelki Tepe smack in the middle of the Fertile Crescent.
"This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later," Stanford archaeologist Ian Hodder tells Smithsonian magazine. "You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies."