A group of archaeologists discovered unprecedented carved skulls at a Stone Age temple, called Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey. The deeply chiselled human craniums are the first of their kind in the region.
Three Neolithic skull fragments that were discovered show evidence of a unique type of post-mortem skull modification at the site.
Archaeologists believe that this find is extremely significant and means that this society, like many others in this part of the world at the time, was a skull cult that venerated the human skull after death.
The research was published on 28 June 2017 in the journal Science Advances.
Hints of skull cult?
• When researchers first began excavations at the 12000-year-old temple, they expected to find human burials. Instead, they discovered thousands of animal bones as well as 700 fragments of human bone, more than half of which came from skulls. However, only three fragments were modified with incisions.
• One of the skulls had a hole drilled through it and contained remnants of red ochre, a pigment used for millennia in cave paintings and religious rituals. They resemble skull modifications made by the Naga people of India who used the hole to hang the skull on a string.
• As per the researchers, it is impossible that the marks were made by animals gnawing the bones, or by other natural processes. Instead, they were made with flint tools not long after the individuals had died.
• The deep, purposeful linear grooves are a unique form of skull alteration never before seen anywhere in the world in any context. Other small marks show the skulls were defleshed before carving.
• Artwork recovered at the site also depicts decapitated heads. They show one beheaded statue, perhaps intentionally. Another artwork called “The Gift Bearer” depicts someone holding a human head.
• The site's massive T-shaped stone pillars and prominent position on top of a hill indicate that the hunter-gathers who lived here also had a somewhat complex culture and practiced rituals.
• The researchers, as of now, are uncertain what the skulls were used for. However, they speculate that the bones could have been hung on sticks or cords to scare enemies, or decorated for ancestor worship.
• Researchers previously believed religion and complex society emerged after the development of agriculture. However, the site show the timeline may be the other way around.
• Remains from other sites in the region suggest that people exhumed the skulls of their dead and even reconstructed their faces using plaster.