Why the Oldest Human Statue Ever is Displaying Its Penis

What Karahan Tepe tells us about human beliefs 12,000 years ago

Jared Barlament

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Maybe you’ve heard of Göbeklitepe. The findings, rolling in since the 1990s and accelerating in the 2010s, regarding what amounted to a completely pre-agricultural temple complex with impressive carved artworks of humans and animals and indecipherable symbols which hint at a highly developed and deeply meaningful world-belief system lost to time without any other trace than this.

Göbeklitepe was constructed from around 9600 BC and was in use until around 8200 BC, when it appears to have been intentionally buried and abandoned. It is 7,000 years older than either Stonehenge or the Great Giza Pyramid. Neither the wheel nor even pottery were in use yet in this area. If the symbols uncovered on the complex’s walls and stone works can be said to constitute writing, then they are by default the earliest form of writing ever found.

But Karahantepe, a similarly-sized settlement also filled with carved stone art, centrally erected stone pillars and a complex series of stone walls, is even older. Located 60 kilometers from Göbeklitepe, recent material analysis puts its construction at around 11400 BC. It is defined by several of the same kinds of “T-pillars”, named for their shape reflecting a capital T, which have rose to global archaeological prominance on account of Göbeklitepe, and for the fact that within just the past couple of years, their distinctive shape has allowed for the identification of a dozen other connected sites in southwest Turkey dating from roughly the same era in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic.

This development, so new that it hasn’t even made it into any history books yet, is so gargantuan it is hard to put into words: it constitutes the finding of the earliest villages on earth, the earliest monumental architecture on earth, and the earliest religious complex on earth.

If you’re a veteran in this subject, I apologize. All of that information is from a year or two ago now. What’s new is that a slew of carved human and animal figures, the former strikingly absent at Göbeklitepe, have emerged from Karantepe. One is a three-dimensional carved head. Another — in another world’s first — appears to be a free-standing statue 2.3 meters tall of a stylized human body with a detailed facial expression. What’s more: in this, the world’s first statue, the figure depicted is hovering both…

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Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.