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Skull cult remnants found in world’s oldest temple


Fragments of carved skulls found at the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey offer evidence that this Stone Age civilisation venerated the skulls of some of its dead, writes Tim Wallace.


Carvings from Göbekli Tepe.
Carvings from Göbekli Tepe.
Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe Archive, DAI.

More than 10,000 years ago there existed a human society in the northern reaches of Mesopotamia that, thanks to recent archaeological finds, has revolutionised what we thought we knew about the cultural sophistication attained by human communities long before they worked out things such as how to domesticate animals or make pottery. Now researchers believe that culture included belief systems incorporating some previously unknown form of “skull cult”.

These findings come from analysis of human bones found among the monumental architecture unearthed at Göbekli Tepe in the south-eastern region of Anatolia in Turkey. The site is by far the oldest human megalithic construction yet found, predating Stonehenge and the earliest of the Egyptian pyramids by some 6,000 years.

A sketched reconstruction of one of the skills, showing the drilled perforation at the top of the cranium used to suspend the skull with a cord (red) and carvings used to prevent the cord from slipping.
A sketched reconstruction of one of the skills, showing the drilled perforation at the top of the cranium used to suspend the skull with a cord (red) and carvings used to prevent the cord from slipping.
Juliane Haelm, DAI

Featuring large monolithic T-shaped pillars hewn from limestone and adorned with carved images of humans and animals, the Göbekli Tepe site was first credited by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who conducted the first fieldwork there in 1995, as an important ritual hub for communities of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (approx. 9600-7000 BCE). It is now widely credited as being the world’s oldest-known temple.

If it was indeed a temple, then the religious beliefs it embodied and rituals it enabled appear to have included a previously undocumented variation of skull veneration, say researchers Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm and Lee Clare, of the German Archaelogical Institute in Berlin. They base this conclusion on the fragments of three skulls recovered from the site that show marks of deep intentionally made grooves along the centre of the craniums as well as a hole drilled in the top of one of the skulls.

These incisions are consistent with the skulls having been displayed in some way, the grooves possibly being used to keep in place cords that secured the skull’s jawbone to the cranium while the hole in the top of the cranium allowed it to be suspended. Alternatively, the incisions might also represent a form of branding, the researchers say, marking the individuals from which the skulls came “as different from others, either in a positive or in a negative way”.

“The three modified skulls from Göbekli Tepe represent an entirely new category of find, which testifies to the interaction of the living with the dead at this important Early Neolithic ritual centre.” conclude Gresky, Haelm and Clare in their paper, published in Science Advances.

“These skulls, most likely removed from the postcranium in the frame of secondary burial rites, attest to the special postmortem treatment of certain individuals at Göbekli Tepe. Special status of the individuals could have been emphasised through the application of decorative elements to the crania, which were then displayed (also suspended) at designated points around the site.”

The term “skull cult” is used by anthropologists to describe any form of special status being given to the human skull. This includes veneration as part of ancestor worship and beliefs that skulls transmit special powers from the dead to the living. While the authors note an abundance of evidence of skull veneration from the same time period throughout the general region – such as the “skull building” found at Çayönü, also in Turkey, and the “skull depot” at Tell Qaramel, in Syria – the carvings found on the Göbekli Tepe skulls are novel.

The researchers are confident the marking were intentionally made, and are not “pseudo-cut marks” caused by trampling, animal bites or weathering, nor the unintended result of human actions such as defleshing associated with butchery techniques or scalping associated with post-warfare trophy-taking.

Tim Wallace is a contributor to Cosmos Magazine
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