Around 10,000 years ago, the already striking presence of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey could have been even more impressive—as human skulls might have dangled in what is considered the world’s oldest temple.
According to new research published in Science Advances, three Neolithic skull fragments discovered by archaeologists at Göbekli Tepe show evidence of a unique type of post-mortem skull modification at the site.
The deep, purposeful linear grooves are a unique form of skull alteration never before seen anywhere in the world in any context, says Julia Gresky, lead author on the study and an anthropologist at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. Detailed analysis with a special microscope shows the grooves were deliberately made with a flint tool. One of the fragments even has a hole drilled in it, resembling skull modifications made by the Naga people of India who used the hole to hang the skull on a string.
The marks may only appear on a few fragments of bone that date between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago, but 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.
Skull and Bones
“Skull cults are not uncommon in Anatolia,” says Gresky. She explains that archaeological remains from other sites in the region indicate people would commonly bury their dead, then exhume them, remove the skulls, and display them creatively. Other archaeologists have even found that Neolithic people would remodel the faces of the dead with plaster.
Göbekli Tepe held special significance to the Neolithic people who lived nearby. “This was not a settlement area, but mostly monumental structures,” the anthropologist explains.
The site’s massive T-shaped stone pillars and prominent position on top of a hill with sweeping vistas suggests the hunter-gathers who lived here also had a somewhat complex culture and practiced rituals.