Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple
Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple

Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple

Stephanie Schoppert - July 11, 2017

Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site that dates back over 11,000 years. It is believed by some to be the first evidence of a hunter-gatherer civilization building a massive temple. Located in modern-day Turkey, the site was discovered in 1963 and in 1994 efforts to excavate the site began. Now more than 20 years into the excavation and preservation of the site, new discoveries have archaeologists questioning what they once believed to be the site’s purpose. It is now thought that the people who created Göbekli Tepe were part of an ancient skull cult.

Göbekli Tepe is a series of circular and oval-shaped structures on the top of a hill that dates back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Period which ranges from 9600 – 7300 BCE. At the site are 20 different installations which come together to form what is believed to be the oldest temple in the world. The site features intricate carvings, evidence of rituals being performed, and evidence that efforts were taken to preserve the site after it was abandoned. It is thought that the site was abandoned about 9,000 years ago and was largely untouched by humans until it’s rediscovery in 1963.

Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple
Installations at Gobekli Tepe.

Each installation has two massive pillars in the center and these pillars are then surrounded by enclosures and walls. The walls and enclosures would also feature more pillars. The pillars are T-shaped and range in height from 3 to 6 meters. The pillars are believed to be depictions of people as some of the pillars have carvings of human extremities on them. There are also detailed rock statues and animal carvings as well as number of abstract carvings at the site. Most of the carvings are found in the flat surfaces of the large pillars.

It is unique because it has been theorized that hunter-gatherers settled down and began farming, and it was that shift that led to cities and settlements. But Göbekli Tepe pre-dates farming which suggests that it might not have been farming that led to hunter-gatherers settling down but rather the construction of large temples like that of Göbekli Tepe. There are also numerous questions about where the massive rocks came from and how such complex structures emerged from a society that had yet to establish farming is still unknown.

Research and excavation continues at the site has largely benefited from how the site was preserved. The entire site was back-filled and buried deep underground after it was abandoned. While this took tremendous amounts of material it also ensured that the entire site was remarkably well preserved. Now, thanks in part to the remarkable preservation of the site, a recent discovery has turned up evidence that the temple at Göbekli Tepe may have been part of a skull cult. This puts the purpose of the site and the people who created it in an entirely new light.

Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple
Evidence of modification after death in the skull fragments at Gobekli Tepe. National Geographic

Skull cults is a term that is used by archaeologists to describe prehistoric people who venerated the skulls of the dead to the point of worshiping them. Most skull cults are recognized from the modified skulls that have been found at other archaeological sites. At other sites, there is evidence that the bodies of the dead were buried whole. However, later the bodies would be dug back up and then the skulls would be removed and the rest of the body reburied.

After removing the skull, it would then be decorated or changed to suit the desires of the skull cult. In some the skulls would simply be modified in order to be displayed. In others, the skull would be carved or otherwise decorated. Some Neolithic societies were found to have covered the skulls in plaster in order to remodel the faces of the dead. Skull cults were not uncommon in Anatolia and there is evidence of other skull cults dating back 9,000 years.

But what sets Göbekli Tepe apart is that the skulls found here are even older and they are the first from their era to display a crude but practical looking marking. Fragments of three skulls from three adults have been found to have had modifications done to them. There are deep incisions along the mid lines of the skulls that were created with some sort of flint tool. Microscopic study ruled out all natural causes for the incisions including the potential of the skull being gnawed on by an animal.

What is perhaps most intriguing is that one of the skulls has a small hole drilled into the left parietal bone. The parietal bone forms the sides and top of the cranium. Close examination of the bone proved that the cuts into the bone were after the individuals had died. Archaeologists also note that the carvings do not appear to be as decorative as other skulls that have been found in skull cults leading them to surmises that the modifications might have been part of a cult ceremony. The carvings are believed to be part of a ritual rather than something to make the skull look beautiful.

Another reason why it is believed that the skulls could have been part of some sort of ritual is that they were found among thousands of other bone fragments. These fragments included the bones of humans as well as animals. Since this was never a site where people lived, these bones may have all be involved in other rituals or it may have been a place where hunter-gatherers would come to venerate their dead. There are several reasons why other skull cults chose to modify and worship the skulls of the dead and archaeologists are still trying to determine whose skulls the cult would choose for their rituals and why. They do have several theories about what this could say about the people who would visit Göbekli Tepe.

Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple
Aerial View of Gobekli Tepe. Mashable

These skulls could very well be the beginning of skull cults that would spread throughout the world and be found in other Neolithic sites. After all the site was visited by hunter-gatherers who did not remain at the site but continued on after visiting the site. There is nothing to suggest that the hunter-gatherers stayed long or settled in the area, so it is likely that they brought and expanded upon the traditions that were forged at Göbekli Tepe.

There is also another reason why the people who came to Göbekli Tepe would modify the skulls in order to display them. The skulls could have been those of enemies who had been dispatched and they were modified in order for them to stand out among the other skulls that would have been seen at the sight. The markings may have been part of a different ritual that was done to enemies over those who were allies. While this is an intriguing thought there is no way of knowing for certain without further evidence. More excavations at the site will hopefully turn up more clues for archaeologists trying to solve the puzzle.

The most likely scenario for at least some of the modification done to the skulls was for display purposes. The hole in one of the skulls may have been created so that the skull could be hanged as part of a display of numerous skulls. The mid line grooves on the skull may have also been an attempt to stabilize the skulls somehow as part of a display. As of yet large amounts of skull bones have not been found or examined so just how many skulls could have been displayed at the site and how long a skull would take residence at Göbekli Tepe is unknown.

Archaeologists Find New Evidence of a Skull Cult in the World’s Oldest Temple
Sculptures and carvings at Gobekli Tepe that show the importance of the skull. National Geographic

There have also been statues and carvings found at the site that suggest there were rituals and a veneration of the human skull. One find has been a statue that was carved to represent a human and then the head was deliberately severed from the statue with some sort of tool. Another statue shows a head being carried as a gift to be presented to the temple. The final bit of artistic evidence at the site is a carving into one of the pillars that shows a bird-like creature missing its head.

Of all the bones found at the site that date from 10,000 to 7,000 years ago it is only these skull fragments that show signs of any sort of modification after death. The site had several pits that have animal and human bones mixed in with flint tools. It will take the discovery of new pits of further examination of the bones in the pits already discovered to definitively say what significance the skull held to the people of Göbekli Tepe and what rituals may have been performed at the site. It may also lead to greater understanding of why the site itself was created and where the people may have gone after the site was abandoned.