Review: Neolithic skull cults

Title: Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult

Authors: Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm and Lee Clare

Journal: Sciences Advances (2017) 3: e1700564


Why I read it:

I have always been interested in archeology and evolutionary biology, re-enforced by my readings of Pascal Picq‘s books and my love of fantasy (where several different humanoids co-exist usually). So, when this research was showcased on the BBC-News website, I decided to download the article.


The authors described their analysis of skull fragments found on a known ritual site of Göbekli Tepe (Turkey). They first explain the importance of the site, as it was first excavated in 1995, and showcase complex building, numerous carvings (depicting mostly animalistic figures) and statues. However, it is not a cemetery/burial site per se. The fragments were found at different areas of the excavation site and were attributed to three different individuals (all adults). The interesting and new found about these skulls is that they display intentionally made grooves, carved in long lines by typical neolithic tools. The skulls show also that the more known and typical alterations associated to skull cult (the use of human/animal skulls for cultural/religious purposes): ochre painting (extremely common for this region) and defleshing (removal of the flesh shortly after death). The authors precise that they use microscopy (optical and electron) to observe closely the grooves on the fragments: to be able to discard recently-made damage (rougher), animal damage (carnivores and rodents), as well as weather/location damage (which can prompt fragmentation). While they found some weather damage, they could safely discard animal and sintering damage. One of the skulls had a drilled-made round aperture (around 6mm) on the top, which is also unique for the time period. The authors then refers to previous work and past/current skull cults to establish a possible explanation of this deliberate carving: (1) branding, which can be associated to ancestry veneration or as a warning to enemy/faulty individuals or, (2) decoration, basically to enhance a cult or to use the skulls as based for decorative mask/ornaments. The skull with a hole could very well fit the second point, which the author suggests as a hanging system, where the grooves are carved to avoid that the ropes slip.

My view on the article:

It is a well-written article, where a novice (me) could very well follow the reasoning, as well as the techniques used to determine that the grooves where not only intentionally made, but might have a strong purpose (since the discovery site is definitively an important Neolithic culte hubbub). The reader is taken step by step through the research process, from the identification of the skulls fragments to the reasoning behind the groove’s origin. The argument that it should be considered as a new type of skull cult for the Anatolia/Levant area in the Neolithic period is consistent and well proven. In archeology, until an older or recurrent find is discovered, the actual find is unique. I really like that the authors took the opportunity to discuss the definition of “skull cult” and that several illustrations are given for several of the claims (archeological site, human-made objects found there, photos of the grooves, illustration of the skull fragments, illustration of the skull-hanging display…). At the end of the article, there are more details on the experimental techniques used and how the authors identify and classified the skull fragments/grooves.

What to make of it all:

While some might wonder why knowing what our ancestors worshipped in their spare time is important, I would point out that the evolution of human/hominids behavior is fundamental for several other research fields (art, History, animal behavior, medicine…). That said, the take-home message here would be that while we can infer so much on earlier lifestyle thanks to science, unknowns are unfortunately present to explain “the why”, and it is important to not input too much bias in the interpretation (which the authors did well, by checking other discoveries from different geographical areas and time periods, and contemporaries practices).

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