With buildings dating back to 9,000 BCE, a fascinating look at the world's oldest structures that have stood the test of time.
During the Neolithic Age, a period that lasted from around 9,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE, the world looked dramatically different. With the gradual development of agriculture, formerly nomadic societies began to settle, and temporary encampments gave way to permanent homes carved into bedrock and erected from massive stones: the world’s oldest structures.
Into the rock they carved their fears, hopes, and dreams: they left behind both mysterious, indecipherable pictograms and stunningly clear animal reliefs. They raised the world’s first megaliths, enormous rock monuments that stood watch over religious ceremonies and burials.
And they made homes, honeycomb-pattern mazes and wide-open temples, underground tombs, and lofty daises for ceremonies and sacrifices. The structures are as different as the peoples who made them. They span the globe, appearing everywhere from Turkey and Malta to France and Peru.
Read on to explore the world’s oldest structures.
Megalithic Temples, Malta
Dating back to 3,500 to 2,500 BCE, the Megalithic Temples of Malta are some of the oldest structures in the world. As the name suggests, they are a group of stone temples older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Excellently preserved, they were rediscovered and restored in the 19th century by European and native Maltese archaeologists.
While not much is known about who built them, evidence from inside the temples – livestock sacrifices – suggests that local farmers constructed the stony structures. There are several temples scattered around, many of which appear on the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, the most important one of them all is the two-temple complex at Ggantija.
Knap of Howar, Scotland
The Knap of Howar is located on the Scottish island of Papa Westray and is home to a Neolithic farmstead dating back to 3,500 BCE. Made up of two adjacent rounded rectangular thick-walled buildings with very low doorways, the farmstead is believed to be the oldest preserved stone house in northern Europe.
Oldest Structures: Newgrange, Ireland
Newgrange is nestled in eastern Ireland, and many believe the structure to be a religious site with 5,000-year-old roots. While the edifice’s purpose is shrouded in mystery, many speculate that its functions were largely religious given the way the rising sun floods the interiors during the winter solstice.
Hulbjerg Jættestue, Denmark
Dating back to 3,000 BCE, the difficult-to-pronounce Hulbjerg Jættestue is a burial spot in Denmark. Upon its discovery, forty corpses were found inside, one of which showed early examples of dentistry.
Monte d’Accoddi, Italy
Monte d’Accoddi is an archaeological site in Sardinia, Italy, that archaeologists believe was erected between 2,700 and 2,000 BCE. Discovered in 1954, Monte d’Accoddi probably once featured an altar, temple, or step pyramid.
This Neolithic warren of ancient homes dates back to 7,400 BCE. Though the purpose of each of the rooms found in the compound is up for debate, archeologists are relatively sure that all were domestic buildings — that is, each nook and cranny was a home.
Since there were no streets or roads to separate the dwellings, people lived in close proximity, which points to a deeply cooperative society. Bodies were found buried beneath hearths and beds, suggesting the people of Çatalhöyük venerated their dead and kept them close.
The Wall Of Jericho, West Bank
The Wall of Jericho, of Battle of Jericho fame, didn’t actually come tumbling down — or at least, not this one. The wall that the Israelites reportedly destroyed in the Book of Joshua would have been a construction from the Bronze Age.
The original Neolithic Wall of Jericho is considerably older, dating perhaps as far back as 8,000 BCE, when the end of the Ice Age made it possible for migrating nomads to settle there permanently. Archeologists suspect the construction was designed primarily to protect the emerging city of 2,000 from floodwaters. It may be the oldest city wall ever discovered.
Göbekli Tepe, Turkey
Göbekli Tepe, Turkish for “Potbelly Hill,” boasts the world’s oldest megaliths, constructions of giant rocks joined without concrete or mortar. Massive stone T’s circle outward from a central point, all buried deeply in sockets that the site’s ancient inhabitants carved out of bedrock around 9,000 BCE.
Göbekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by a margin of 6,000 years, and it’s even more mysterious. Its stones are decorated with indecipherable pictograms and animal reliefs, with a particular emphasis on vultures. Nobody knows what it was used for, but the recent discovery of skulls with mysterious holes suggests to some, including archeologist Klaus Schmidt, that the construct might have been home to a kind of death cult.
Cairn Of Barnenez, France
The Cairn of Barnenez, dating back to 4,800 BCE, is one of the oldest surviving examples of Neolithic art and architecture. It almost didn’t make it to the present — in the 1950s, the site was being used as a quarry for paving stones, a damaging operation that nearly destroyed the site. Fortunately, the tumulus’s hidden chambers were discovered in the nick of time.
Eleven chambers line the passage tomb — so named because of the single long passage that bisects the hill — and archeologists have uncovered some of the most interesting examples of megalithic art: stone drawings of bows, axes, snakes, and several indecipherable repeating symbols. They also found axes, flint, and arrowheads.
The World’s Oldest Structures Endure
The Neolithic Era saw the beginning of architecture as we know it — and that any of it survives today is a testament to the genius of a bygone age.
It was a hard age, a time full of new questions for humanity. One of the mysteries archeologists and anthropologists still puzzle over is why — why did Neolithic humans suddenly begin to farm and build?
For years, researchers pointed to the changing climate. The last Ice Age was ending, making agriculture newly possible, and farming meant building permanent settlements.
But today, some anthropologists are stressing a different factor: a shift in human cognition. It’s no coincidence, they say, that the Neolithic Age witnessed astonishing new art. The pottery, sculpture, and carvings that decorated the newly formed settlements were as important to the inhabitants as the walls themselves.
The Neolithic Age witnessed the birth of civilization in all its aspects: its architecture, its communities, and its spirit.
Now that you know about some of the world’s oldest structures, take an in-depth look at Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe, the ancient temple that predates Stonehenge. Then read up on Pumapunku, the holy site where the Incas say the world was created.