A research published in the journal Science Advances reveals that a temple in Göbekli Tepe may have served as a gathering place for a Neolithic "skull cult" thousands of years ago.
Archaeologists from the German Archaeological Institute excavated thousands of bones in the 12,000-year-old temple and confirmed that about 700 bone fragments belong to humans but more than 300 of the fragments came from skulls.
According to the researchers, only three of the skull fragments had actually been modified with deep incisions, but stone carvings and other artworks also excavated in the temple depict an eerie fascination with human heads, especially decapitated ones.
Human Skull Modifications
As mentioned above, only three of the partial bone fragments found in the excavation site showed evidence of intentional deep incision, but the sheer number of confirmed human skull fragments already offer a glimpse of burial or cult practices at work.
In fact, one of the modified skull fragment had a small hole drilled through it and contained traces of red ochre pigment — the same pigmentation used for religious rituals and cave paintings. According to anthropologist and team member Julia Gresky, the holes and grooves would allow someone to place a cord around the skull and jaw and suspend it as a complete object.
The researchers confirmed that the markings were made using flint tools after employing the latest microscopy techniques to rule out animal activity and natural processes. Just to be clear, whoever made the markings did not wait for bodies to decay and reach the bone stage. Flint tools were actually used to remove the flesh from the skull, which really makes one hope that none of the skull owners were incorrectly pronounced dead.
"They're deep incisions, but not nicely done. Someone wanted to make a cut, but not in a decorative way," Anthropologist and team member Julia Gresky said.
The intention for the grooves and holes are not really clear yet, but various artworks in and around the temple seem to head toward the "skull cult" hypothesis.
Stone Carvings And Decapitation
Stone carvings also offer insight about the ancient tribes' interest in severed heads.
Two of stone carvings researchers shared depict figures carrying a human head like an offering, while a stone statue of what seems to be a human figure was intentionally decapitated, as seen in the photos below.
Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist from Whitman College in Washington who was not involved in the study, expressed his interest in the find but also hope to further their understanding of the mysterious site.
"It's nice to find this stuff, but it would be nice to understand it, too," Rollefson said.