An ancient “skull cult” might’ve existed thousands of years ago in present-day Turkey.
Three deeply carved skulls found at the Göbekli Tepe archaeological site suggest that humans disfigured the bones as part of a ritual, perhaps to venerate the dead or absorb the powers of fallen enemies, a team of German anthropologists reported this week in a new study.
Skull cults were common during the Neolithic period, which began around 10,000 B.C. Other digs worldwide have uncovered skulls covered in paint or plaster, or bearing intricate designs. In some modern Pacific Island cultures, skulls still represent a link between the living and the dead.
However, the ancient bones from Turkey are unique among the Neolithic skull cults. These are the first from their era to display a crude, practical-looking marking, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
The three skulls had multiple deep incisions along their midlines that were likely carved with a flint tool. Scientists ruled out natural causes for the markings, such as an animal gnawing at the bones, by using microscopic techniques. One skull also had a hole drilled into the left parietal bone, which forms the sides and roof of the cranium.
Unlike the more stylized or beautified skulls found at other sites, “Our skulls are not very nicely done. It doesn’t look very decorative,” Julia Gresky, the study’s lead author and an anthropologist from the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), said by phone from Berlin.
Excavations at Göbekli Tepe began in 1995. Gresky arrived at the dig site in 2009 after multiple human bone fragments were found. She found the last of three skulls in 2014 and began studying the markings closely with colleagues.
While it’s impossible to know what really happened at the Neolithic site, she said, the markings indicate the skulls were put on display. Perhaps the midline grooves or drilled hole helped stabilize the skulls.
“The skull seems to have been very important for these [Neolithic] people,” Gresky said.
The lack of artistic flourish also suggests these scratchings were meant to stigmatize the person to whom the skull once belonged — making these trophies of enemies, not altars to ancestors.