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How the World's First Cities Got Started

A 12,000-year-old “Stonehenge on steroids” transformed nomadic humans into members of complex societies.
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92nd Street Y

When the late German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt discovered the world’s oldest known structures, he came up with a revolutionary theory about the history of human civilization: “First came the temple, then the city.”

What Schmidt and his team dug up starting in the mid 1990s was a magnificent temple complex in southeastern Turkey, on a site called Göbekli Tepe, or “Potbelly Hill.” The stone complex, circular in structure with T-shaped pillars and elaborate carvings of humans and mythic animals, was built some 12,000 years ago—long before villages, pottery, and even agriculture. Yet, as a new video from the cultural nonprofit 92nd Street Y explains, it’s where the world’s first cities emerged, marking the turning point for when humans transformed from nomads into members of complex societies.