An Ancient ‘Skull Cult’ in Turkey Practiced Rituals With Bones of the Dead

Three carved human skulls found in southeastern Turkey provide evidence of reverential — or sinister — rituals tied to what was previously thought to be a typical hunter-gatherer society.

The mundane image of Göbekli Tepe has just been erased, however, given the recent discovery of three carved human skulls within the ruins. The findings are reported in the journal Science Advances.

“It can be that the individuals were decapitated when still ‘fresh,’” lead author Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute’s Department of Natural Sciences said.

“But,” she added, “it can also be that, like known burial customs of other Neolithic sites, the burials were reopened after some time, the skulls were taken and remnants of soft tissue that were still adhering to the bone were scraped away. Then the carvings were performed and the skulls were displayed.”

In short, the site was likely home to a Neolithic skull cult.

Skull cults refer to groups that practiced rituals involving the heads of the dead. The cults were sometimes peaceful and tied to ancestor veneration. The authors believe that carving “branded” the skulls, marking them as different from other human remains. But branding might instead have informed onlookers that these individuals were dead enemies.

Another similarly aged site, Tell Qarassa North in Syria dated to 10,700-11,600 years ago, featured deliberately mutilated facial skeletons. They have been interpreted as an expression of post-mortal punishment.

The skulls at Göbekli Tepe lack collagen, Gresky said, but organic residues were found in the mud mortar and wall plaster residues near the remains. These were radiocarbon dated to what are known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period (10,000-11,500 BC) and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period that followed and lasted until about 7,000 BC in this region. Göbekli Tepe is located 7 miles northeast of the city of Şanlıurfa, Turkey.

Analysis of the skulls revealed that one belonged to a female who lived to be 25–40 years old. Another was an individual who died between the ages of 30–45. The sex and age of the third skeleton could not be determined.

The adult ages of the individuals did not surprise the researchers.

“People who survived the critical periods in life, like childhood, and in women, the period of giving birth, had the chance to become quite old,” Gresky explained. “The average age in the Neolithic is low because of high infant mortality.”

As for how the skulls would have been displayed, the remains provide intriguing clues.

“In one skull,” Gresky said, “we have evidence of a drilled hole, which is placed in a way that the skull would have looked straight when hung.”

Another skull “showed scattered remnants of ochre,” she continued, “but not in a way that would verify a painting. It is rather due to placement of the skull in, or next to, ochre.”

Human burials have not yet been found at Göbekli Tepe, but Gresky expects that they will be located in future excavations. Such work will hopefully reveal more about what occurred at this still-mysterious site during its heyday.

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