Archaeologists have discovered what seem to be the remains of a
“skull cult” in an ancient ritual site in southeast Turkey.
More than 9,000 years ago — before the existence of the hanging
gardens of Babylon, pyramids of Egypt, or Stonehenge — Neolithic,
Stone Age people gathered at the site, called Göbekli Tepe.
No one is exactly sure why. But a new study published in the
Advances by researchers from the German Archaeological
Institute suggests that the location had some kind of ritualistic
There is no sign that humans buried their dead there, but there
are at least 691 shards and chunks of bone. At least 408 of those
fragments come from human skulls.
The site also boasts monumental buildings with “monolithic
T-shaped limestone pillars, an impressive repertoire of limestone
sculptures, low and high reliefs,” all in a prominent location,
according to the study.
In the study, the research team writes that skull fragments from
at least three individuals show signs of deliberate modification.
Deep grooves run across the forehead of some bones, going around
the back of at least one. One skull has a hole drilled in it.
None of these markings comes from decapitation or from taking the
flesh and tissue off the bones, though other marks attest to
this. Instead, they seem to have been inflicted shortly after
That indicates the skulls were somehow on display, perhaps even
hung so that visitors would see them dangling.
Similar remains have been found in other archaeological sites
where there was some worship of skulls, including sites in
ancient Anatolia and the Levant.
People have long venerated human skulls for several reasons —
some worshipped ancestors, and others believed the dead could
protect the living. Some groups also displayed the skulls of
Anthropologists refer to these practices — where there seems to
be religious or ritualistic practice and treatment done to skulls
— as skull cults.
Researchers think early hunter-gatherers might have come together
at the Göbekli Tepe site, which is home to one of the oldest
known man-made buildings thought to have been constructed for
This temple seems to have housed one of the oldest of these skull
cults that researchers have encountered so far.