It’s been called the world’s first temple—dozens of massive carved stone pillars, assembled in rings atop a manmade hill more than 11,000 years ago and decorated with intricate reliefs of gazelles, lions, snakes, crocodiles and other animals. Now, researchers working at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey have uncovered human skull fragments with carvings unlike any seen before.
According to their findings, the repetitive cuts in the skull bones appear to be evidence of a previously unknown Neolithic skull cult, which may have united living and dead in powerful communion at the famous site.
Ritual worship of the human skull, or “skull cults,” date as far back as the early Paleolithic period, which ended some 120,000 years ago. At other Neolithic sites in Southeast Anatolia (part of modern-day Turkey) and the Levant (modern-day Syria and Palestine), archaeologists have uncovered plenty of evidence that human skulls were given a special status. They’ve found skulls placed in special formations, for example, or decorated with plaster or paint to make them look more lifelike.
But the carvings found on the skull fragments at Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for “Potbelly Hill”) are different from any known type of skull modification, according to Julia Gresky, an anthropologist from the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. When Gresky and her colleagues analyzed seven skull fragments identified as the remains of three different individuals, they found all three skulls had deep cuts along the sagittal axis (the suture that runs along the top of the skull).
“There were a lot of cut marks in one place, which made a very deep groove in the bone,” Gresky told HISTORY. On each of the three skulls, this groove ran down the middle of the skull all the way from the chin to the back of the head. In addition, the researchers found a hole drilled in the left side of one of the skulls, suggesting there could have been a thread or cord running through it. The perforated skull also showed remnants of red ocher, a natural pigment that Gresky said Neolithic groups are known to have used for ritual purposes such as burials.
When the researchers analyzed the carved skull fragments using a digital microscope and a scanning electron microscope, they determined the cuts had been made using a stone tool, rather than by animal gnawing or other natural causes. Seeing no signs of healing, they concluded the skulls were not carved while their owners were still alive. Nor were the markings made too long after their death, when the bones would have become drier and more brittle.
So far, no human burials have been uncovered at Göbekli Tepe, and these skull fragments provide the very first evidence of how the dead were treated at the famous ritual site.
At first, Gresky said, she and her colleagues were surprised by the rough nature of the carvings. They had expected finer work, given the high quality of the animal reliefs found etched on the site’s massive stone pillars. Then they considered the possibility that the carvings might not be ornamental, but could have been intended to serve a more practical purpose. “Maybe they were suspending the skulls and displaying them somewhere,” said Gresky.
The purpose behind this particular skull cult remains unknown. Some skull cults among hunter-gatherers are believed to have been a way of communing with and worshiping ancestors. Other groups have focused on the skulls of their recently defeated enemies, preserving and displaying them as gruesome trophies. Skull-cult practices have also been understood as a kind of fertility ritual, or a way of encouraging the fertility of crops, animals or even humans. Based on the evidence found at Göbekli Tepe, it’s impossible to say whether these carved skulls were seen positively (as ancestors, for example) or negatively (as enemies).
Since the mid-1990s, Göbekli Tepe has fascinated scientists and historians with its suggestion that religious worship may have predated the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer groups to more settled agricultural societies. Some 6,000 years before Stonehenge and 6,500 years before the Great Pyramid at Giza, the hunter-gatherers on the Urfa plain carved and assembled the dozens of limestone pillars, building something that was—as far as we know—larger than any other structure in the world at the time.
Though less immediately impressive than these engraved pillars, the carved skull bone fragments discovered at Göbekli Tepe provide a fascinating glimpse into how living and dead may have interacted at this early Neolithic ritual center. “You have this really monumental structure, really impressive and overwhelming,” Gresky said. “But then if you look at the small pieces, these not very beautiful human bone fragments, they really can tell great stories.”
Gresky and her colleagues at the German Archaeological Institute have published their findings about the Göbekli Tepe skull cult in the latest issue of the journal Science Advances.