Carved human skulls found at ancient worship center in Turkey

Ritual grooves are different from those discovered at other ‘skull cult’ sites

Ancient Turkish ritual center

SKULL SITE  Excavations of this ancient ritual center (left) in Turkey dug up large stone pillars and stone carvings of animals, people and abstract symbols (right). New finds show that hunter-gatherers there altered skulls of the recently deceased in a previously unobserved way.

German Archaeological Institute (DAI)

Hunter-gatherers who built and worshiped at one of the oldest known ritual centers in the world carved up human skulls in a style all their own.

At Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe site — where human activity dates to between around 11,600 and 10,000 years ago — people cut deep grooves in three human skulls and drilled a hole in at least one of them, say archaeologist Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin and colleagues. Ancient hunter-gatherers there practiced a previously unknown version of a “skull cult,” in which human skulls were ritually modified after death and then deposited together, Gresky’s team reports online June 28 in Science Advances.

Collections of human skulls modified in other ways have been found at several sites from around the same time. For instance, deliberately broken faces on skulls were unearthed at a Syrian settlement and may represent a form of punishment after death.

Seven excavated skull fragments enabled Gresky’s group to reconstruct the Göbekli Tepe skulls. These skulls of the recently deceased were carved for use in ceremonies to worship them as ancestors, the researchers propose. It’s also possible that the skull incisions marked deceased individuals who had been especially revered or reviled while alive.

A cord inserted through the hole drilled in one skull may have suspended that skull for display. Grooves probably ran from front to back on the skulls and possibly stabilized cords that held decorations of some kind.

Microscopic study of skull pieces from Göbekli Tepe indicates that grooves were cut with stone tools. A lack of healed bone on the edges of incisions suggests skull carving occurred shortly after death.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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