What Newly Discovered Ancient Civilizations Can Teach Us
Though it’s long been considered a fact that the earliest civilizations date back 5,000-6,000 years in places like ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, there is curious evidence suggesting that a highly intelligent, technologically advanced, and intensely social civilization existed much earlier—at least 10,000 BCE (or 12,000 years ago).
Boston University geologist and geophysicist Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D. didn’t seriously consider this second possibility until he saw Egypt’s Great Sphinx in person. Schoch—author of Forgotten Civilization—detected water wear on the iconic figure that led him to believe it was originally the work of an essentially unknown civilization predating ancient Egypt. “The Sphinx sits on the edge of the Sahara Desert, a hyper-arid region for the last 5,000 years,” he explains. Where would major water damage have come from? This initial discovery led Schoch to explore other evidence of early advanced civilization, which he’s placed at the last ice age. Schoch points to solar outbursts that he says ended the ice age and largely wiped out these civilizations. (Schoch argues that we’d be wise to learn from—and prepare for—similar forces of nature: “A lesson from geology is that natural events that have occurred in the past are destined to be repeated,” he says.)
Schoch’s work has the potential to overthrow long-held beliefs about the origins of civilization and the lens through which we see our own modern society and its future course. His perspective on what gave rise to consciousness (he disagrees with Graham Hancock’s theory tracing it to plant medicine psychedelics), why it’s so hard to overturn a belief system, what we stand to learn from the past—and even the question of ancient extraterrestrial life—is fascinating:
A Q&A with Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.
How has your work been received? Have any subsequent discoveries, or refutations, been made?
I announced my initial findings regarding the re-dating of the Sphinx at the October 1991 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. Many of my fellow geologists found my presentation enlightening and congratulated me on a job well done. Then, suddenly, I was under attack: Journalists reporting on the story phoned various Egyptologists for their opinions. Without having been present at the meeting, without having seen my data or analyses, the Egyptologists universally decried my conclusions, insisting that an older Sphinx was impossible, that at such an early date, humanity was in a hunter-gatherer stage and lacked the technology, the social organization, and even the will to carve the proto-Sphinx. My critics demanded further evidence of civilization existing at such a remote period. (Unbeknownst to me or them, such evidence would soon be forthcoming.)
In 1995, the late Dr. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute began excavating a site in southeastern Turkey, just a short drive from the modern city of Urfa (aka Sanliurfa), known as Göbekli Tepe. For years, Schmidt and his team quietly excavated the site, and only slowly did information make its way into the archaeological literature, and then into the public arena. In 2010, I first visited the site for myself (I have been back with others many times since)—and was awestruck.
“Already one conclusion is inescapable: There is a disconnect between what conventional historians and archaeologists have been teaching all these years, and the evidence on the ground.”
At Göbekli Tepe, immense, finely carved, and decorated T-shaped limestone pillars—many in the range of two to five and a half meters tall, and weighing up to an estimated ten to fifteen tons—stand in Stonehenge-like circles. Schmidt and his group uncovered four such stone circles or enclosures (as they are often called); based on surface finds, partial excavations, and geophysical methods, the site may contain another twenty or so still buried under debris. Various pillars at Göbekli Tepe are decorated with bas-reliefs of animals, including foxes, boars, snakes, aurochs (wild cattle), Asiatic wild asses, wild sheep, birds (cranes, a vulture), a gazelle, and arthropods (a scorpion, ants). The carvings are refined, sophisticated, and beautifully executed. Not only are there bas-reliefs, but also carvings in the round—including a carnivorous beast, possibly a lion or other feline—working its way down a column.
Based on radiocarbon analyses, the site dates back to 9,000 to 10,000 BCE, possibly earlier, straddling the end of the last ice age. Furthermore, Göbekli Tepe is a record of the turmoil and chaos that marked the end of the last ice age and the demise of this civilization: pillars knocked over and broken, then hastily re-erected, crude secondary stone walls, along with evidence of intentional burial of the site.
In addition to the proto-Sphinx and Göbekli Tepe, even more evidence is slowly coming to light. I am hesitant to announce findings prematurely, but some of the cases are relatively well-known sites that, like the Great Sphinx, will require re-dating in terms of their extremely ancient origins. The work is ongoing, but already one conclusion is inescapable: There is a disconnect between what conventional historians and archaeologists have been teaching all these years, and the evidence on the ground.
What do you think gave rise to this much-earlier civilization?
This is fascinating to ponder: It is curious and perplexing that large-brained “humans” (including species that are separate and distinct from ours, but closely related, such as the Neanderthals) have existed on earth for well over 100,000 years (perhaps twice, or more, as long), yet apparently civilization appeared only within the last 20,000 years or so. Based on the evidence, I do not believe civilization resulted from early humans “turning on” their brains by ingesting psychedelics or other hallucinogens. Also, I haven’t seen convincing solid physical evidence behind the hypothesis of extraterrestrial alien intervention in ancient times, seeding civilization among brutish ape-like humans.
So why did civilization first arise? Was it just by some chance event (perhaps a mental event in the mind of one person, or an invention), which may have seemed trivial at the time, that sparked something in a small group of humans, which then spread culturally? Did all of the right circumstances, whatever they may have been, somehow come together? Was it due to a favorable climatic regime that in turn had an effect on habitats and biotas, such as producing more abundant plant food and animal game?
We do not really know when or where civilization was born. Neither the civilization that first constructed the proto-Sphinx and its associated temples, nor the builders of Göbekli Tepe, represent the beginnings of civilization; rather, they are a pinnacle of a previous cycle of civilization before it was decimated by a natural catastrophe. The origins of civilization must go back much further than 12,000 years ago, but we do not know how far back. Were there several cycles of civilization—with earlier civilizations taking various forms—prior to the one at the very end of the last ice age? Was civilization born several times, only to be snuffed out?
Earth is subjected to numerous external influences, including changes in the overall electromagnetic background, variations in the flux of cosmic rays entering our atmosphere, solar outbursts, gamma-ray bursts, and many other types of factors. How such factors have influenced both the development of life on our planet, and the mental abilities and thus cultural attributes of humans, remain open questions. Classical ancient civilizations and traditional indigenous cultures around the world speak of cycles of the ages, such as the concept of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages; the Yuga Cycle; or the Mayan concept of successive world ages. Could there be some truth to these ancient beliefs? It has been demonstrated that subtle changes in the electromagnetic/geomagnetic field can modulate mental abilities in humans. Might this be part of the reason civilization flourishes at certain times?
Why did the civilization you’re studying, and the last ice age, end?
This early cycle of civilization was dealt a mighty setback. Based on various lines of evidence, including isotope studies of ice cores and sediment cores, geological and archaeological data, we can reconstruct the events that brought the last ice age to a close:
Major solar outbursts and eruptions, the likes of which have not been experienced on earth in modern times, were the instigating factors. Electrical plasma discharges from the sun, driven to the surface of our planet, would have caused widespread incineration where they touched down, as well as wildfires. Solar outbursts not only warmed the planet overall—hitting glaciers, oceans, and lakes, through melting and instantaneous evaporation—they would have placed vast amounts of moisture into the atmosphere that subsequently came down as torrential rains. These rains, combined with rising sea levels, caused widespread flooding across the globe. The release of pressure on the earth’s crust caused by the melting of glaciers kilometers thick resulted in a cascading effect of earthquakes and active volcanoes. There is also evidence that solar activity can directly influence and modulate earthquake activity.
A dark age ensued, which I refer to as SIDA (solar-induced dark age). For thousands of years following the end of the last ice age, humanity was reduced to hunting and foraging as people experimented with early forms of agriculture. Retreating to caves and underground or rock shelters enabled isolated pockets of humanity to survive the cataclysmic solar-induced onslaughts and high radiation levels. Many large mammals, such as mastodons, saber-toothed cats, and giant ground sloths, went extinct at this time–because they had no place to escape. Smaller animals could hide in burrows, under rocks, and in small cracks and crevices. If humans had not been so creative and intelligent, and also so widespread across the globe, we might have been destined for extinction as well.
Thus, during the millennia prior to the latest cycle of civilization, beginning circa 5,000 to 6,000 years ago with dynastic Egypt and civilization in Mesopotamia, humanity was in a primitive stone-age state, as the conventional paradigm holds, except that this state was due to a decline from an earlier and more advanced state. After a time lag of millennia, civilization as we know it arose from the literal ashes of SIDA.
As mentioned, pockets of humanity survived in isolated spots where the natural geography and resources were relatively hospitable. A good example is the Cappadocia region of modern Turkey, where the soft volcanic bedrock was conducive to the excavation of extensive underground shelters and indeed entire cities, providing protection from the occasional solar outbursts that most likely continued for centuries or millennia after the close of the last ice age, somewhat analogous to the aftershocks following a large earthquake. Tellingly, the origins of Indo-European languages can be traced back to this region of Turkey at the same time.
(A side note: There has been some discussion of a comet hitting earth and ending the last ice age. The timing of the hypothesized comet, however, does not coincide with the end of the last ice age. The comet is said to have impacted earth circa 10,900–10,800 BCE; that is, some 1,200 or so years prior to the end of the last ice age. Some of the evidence for a comet at this time has, in my assessment, been misinterpreted. Rather than a comet, the case can be made that unusual solar activity instigated a short-term cooling event prior to the sun exploding with a mighty outburst circa 9,700 BCE, ending the ice age and decimating the early civilizations of the time.)
What’s known (or thought to be known) about how these people lived?
It’s difficult to say, in large part because much evidence was destroyed during the aforementioned cataclysms, but based on the material we have, we can do our best to reconstruct their culture and lives:
The words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) express the myth of a nomadic culture at that time: “…the life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That is, humans were hunters and gatherers, foraging for food. The technology of the time was primitive, characterized as “Stone Age.” Social institutions were minimal. In warmer climates people could go naked, whereas in colder climates they wrapped themselves in animal skins and huddled in caves. But at least for the civilized people of the time, the builders of Göbekli Tepe and the proto-Sphinx complex, this picture is wrong.
Rather than brutish savages, the picture that emerges is of refined, highly sophisticated people. (Yes, there may have been—certainly were—gatherers and hunters living simultaneously with the early civilizations, just as there are today, even in our electronic age.) These early “civilized” people must have had great organizational skills and technological know-how in order to be able to carve the proto-Sphinx and construct the associated buildings. Likewise, to carve, transport, and erect the circles of megalithic pillars at Göbekli Tepe would require equally advanced knowledge and organizational abilities.
Given the precise astronomical alignments found at both Göbekli Tepe and the Sphinx complex, these early people were also accomplished astronomers. (During the end of the last ice age, the proto-Sphinx, quite possibly a lion at that time, faced the rising of the sun in the constellation Leo on the vernal equinox. At Göbekli Tepe, based on my analyses, the excavated stone circles or enclosures were oriented toward the region where Orion rose in the sky on the vernal equinox at the end of the last ice age; I believe one of the pillars, with its prominent belt, is meant to be interpreted as Orion in the sky—just as the Sphinx faces its celestial counterpart. Furthermore, this position slowly changes over time due to precession—the slow drift of the stars relative to the sun and ecliptic, often measured relative to the vernal equinox—which the builders of Göbekli Tepe took into account as they used the site, reorienting subsequent pillars.)
“Rather than brutish savages, the picture that emerges is of refined, highly sophisticated people.”
To carry out the engineering of their monumental creations required a solid grasp of surveying and measurement techniques, and of mathematics in general. This also suggests that they may have used symbolic and notational means to record information; perhaps they were even literate in a modern sense. This is a highly speculative and controversial notion, but may find support in apparent recurring symbols on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe. And the pure artistry evident in the Göbekli Tepe carvings reflects their cultured society.
Also found at Göbekli Tepe are beautifully executed stone beads with tiny holes drilled through them. These were probably used as jewelry, or sewn onto apparel that has long since vanished, and one has to wonder how these beads were made and how the tiny holes were drilled through them, apparently without metal instruments.
We can extrapolate that these people, those who constructed Göbekli Tepe and the proto-Sphinx, were technologically advanced, artistically refined, astronomically inclined, and social (for the immensity of their constructions suggests communal effort).
Why has the standard paradigm of the origins of civilizations stuck?
Paradigms take on a life of their own, and remain resilient even in the face of contrary facts. Worldviews, ingrained belief systems, status quo conventional thinking tends to be maintained for a number of reasons, both inside and outside of academic circles. There is a sort of inertia when it comes to belief systems, and any widespread paradigm is a form of belief system. Galileo (1564-1642), who lived and worked a century after Copernicus (1473-1543), espoused the heliocentric system, yet was convicted of heresy and died under house arrest for questioning the standard geocentric paradigm of the time (with earth placed at the center of the universe). It was not until 1992 that the Catholic Church cleared Galileo’s name.
Regarding the origins of civilization, many today take comfort in the belief that civilization originated within the last 6,000 years and we, today, are the pinnacle of humanity. Many want to believe that we are for all practical purposes invulnerable, that there is always a technological fix (for any crises, whether human-created or natural).
In academia, careers are made supporting a specific paradigm, and to question the paradigm is to question the integrity and very being of those who espouse it. Peer pressure is institutionalized in the “peer-review system.” In order to be published in most academic journals and the like, “peers” review the proposed publication and based on their comments the potential article is accepted or rejected. Typically, the peers (often anonymous) are the upholders and gatekeepers of the standard paradigm of the time, so it can be extremely difficult to publish through the usual academic channels, and thus be taken seriously, if one is working outside of the accepted paradigm.
“Many today take comfort in the belief that civilization originated within the last 6,000 years and we, today, are the pinnacle of humanity.”
In some cases, non-specialists (who do not have the same vested interests), academics from outside of a particular field, or members of the public, are more willing to consider new paradigms. Likewise, younger academics, who have yet to establish their careers, are often open to new views and a paradigm shift can occur as an older generation retires.
At Boston University (where I have been a full-time faculty member since 1984), the wheels are starting to turn. When I first announced my Sphinx findings in the early 1990s, certain faculty members within the university wanted to see me fired—that is how threatening my work was to their long-held beliefs. Now, over a quarter century later, the Institute for the Study of the Origins of Civilization (ISOC) has been established at Boston University’s College of General Studies, and I am its first director. It is a fledgling institute in its nascent stages, but with scientific, public, and financial support, I believe the ISOC can become a vehicle for serious research, resulting in a shift in standard thinking.
What lessons can we learn today from this early civilization and what happened to it?
Researching the past has real relevance and importance for us today. In particular, the last cycle of civilization was brought down by forces of nature, with the evidence pointing to a major solar outburst. Today, despite the general hubris and complacency of many, we are more vulnerable than any known past civilization. Why? Our modern developed world is highly reliant on electricity and electronics, and it is this technology that will be hardest hit when (not if) our planet experiences the ramifications of another solar outburst. Studying the data in detail, such as isotopes recorded in ice cores and sediment cores, combined with modern records of solar activity, I am convinced that our sun today has entered a period of instability and volatility unlike anything seen since the end of the last ice age.
“Today, despite the general hubris and complacency of many, we are more vulnerable than any known past civilization.”
I do not want to be an alarmist or scaremonger, but I will also not back away from discussing the hard evidence. In 1859, there was a solar outburst known as the Carrington Event (named after the astronomer Richard Carrington) which literally fried the primitive telegraph systems of the time. Today, a Carrington-level event would devastate our modern electricity-based world—our grid would act as a conductor for the incoming energy. And the Carrington Event was quite minor compared to the solar outbursts that ended the last ice age.
We must invest in our infrastructure, rework our electrical grid systems so that they are less vulnerable, decentralize certain aspects of our technology, and deemphasize or eliminate other aspects. It will take collective will and financial backing.
What about Atlantis and other seemingly mythical civilizations? Do you think other prehistoric civilizations/people existed?
Earlier, I mentioned the concept of the Yuga Cycle, for instance, which posits that there were previous civilizations going back into the deep past. Is this all just fantasy? Much earlier in my career I would have thought so, but with recent discoveries I cannot be so certain. We now have incontrovertible evidence of two cycles of civilization, separated by a dark age lasting some six millennia. Were there additional, even earlier, cycles of civilization? The dynastic Egyptians of 2,000-3,000 BCE spoke of a “first time” millennia earlier, a time known as Zep Tepi, when civilization came to their land. Does Zep Tepi refer to the time of the proto-Sphinx and Göbekli Tepe, or perhaps to a still earlier era?
Regarding Atlantis, it is a fascinating topic. The story comes down to us from Plato, one of our greatest philosophers. Is it all just a political and philosophical metaphor? I do not think so. But I am not an Atlantis hunter. What I find most interesting and relevant to my research is Plato’s timing of the destruction of the advanced civilization of Atlantis by natural causes. Converting his chronology into our calendar years, the collapse of Atlantis took place around 9,600 BCE—in other words, at the end of the last ice age. I do not believe it is mere coincidence that this corresponds with the modern dating of the collapse of civilization as represented by Göbekli Tepe and the proto-Sphinx.
“Is it all just a political and philosophical metaphor? I do not think so.”
This brings me back to the Great Sphinx. As I already mentioned, in the early 1990’s, as part of my geological studies of the Sphinx, geophysicist Dr. Thomas Dobecki and I carried out seismic surveys around and under the statue. Besides subsurface weathering profiles, we delineated an apparently artificial chamber under the left paw of the Sphinx. Oddly, and unbeknownst to me at the time, the American psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) had predicted that just such a chamber would be found. Furthermore, he claimed it would prove to be a “Hall of Records” containing archives related to Atlantis. I have to admit that, at the time, I was a bit embarrassed to be seen as corroborating the sayings of a psychic, but the facts are the facts. For over two decades I have wanted to explore this chamber further, initially with non-invasive geophysical techniques which could then set the stage for potential penetration by drilling and insertion of suitable optic equipment, or excavation. The Egyptian authorities have, in the past, been unwilling to grant such permission. But time is of the essence, especially with rising water tables in the Giza area, which may already be flooding the chamber. Who knows what precious, and extremely ancient, artifacts it may contain?
On a hopeful note, since the recent political changes in Egypt, I have been able to meet with various key officials. The path is being laid for continuing the research into the chamber under the Sphinx. The critical element now is to raise funds to support the endeavor. (If interested, for more information, and opportunities to contribute, you can contact the Organization for the Research of Ancient Cultures—ORACUL.)
What do you make of the Pleiadians and the possibility of ancient extraterrestrial life?
Regarding Pleiadians (supposed extraterrestrial beings exhibiting “Nordic” characteristics), or extraterrestrial intelligent life in general: Personally, given the incredible number of galaxies (hundreds of billions to trillions, depending on the estimate), much less solar systems with earth-like planets, I do not doubt that there are advanced, technologically sophisticated civilizations elsewhere in the Universe. We may even have evidence of them. The “WOW! signal” detected in 1977 by the Ohio State Big Ear radio telescope (since demolished) as part of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and the strange behavior of the star located in the constellation Cygnus, known technically as KIC 8462852 (also known as Tabby’s Star or Boyajian’s Star), have been interpreted as possible evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations. [For more on UFOs, see this goop piece with Leslie Kean.] However, to hypothesize that we have been visited by ETs in ancient times, and furthermore that these aliens might have seeded or kick-started civilization, is not a route I will take without clear and robust evidence. To this date I am not convinced by the circumstantial evidence that has been put forward in support of such ideas.
Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D., a full-time faculty member at Boston University since 1984, earned his doctorate in geology and geophysics at Yale University. In addition to teaching, Dr. Schoch serves as Director of the Institute for the Study of the Origins of Civilization (ISOC) at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He is the author of Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, among other titles, and works closely with his wife, Catherine Ulissey, in pursuit of a deeper understanding of humanity’s past.
Related: What Is Consciousness?