The massive rock pillars of Göbekli Tepe are 11,000 years old and tower over a small hill in Turkey. Just dig a couple of decades ago, these mysterious structures are part of the most famous religious complex in the world. The pillars are covered in hundreds of statues, including human effigies and dangerous animals such as snakes and scorpions. Surrounded by nested, circular walls, these pillars suggest a complex spiritual worldview shared by hunter-gatherers in the area they have been cultivating for roughly 1,600 years. Now, a team of archaeologists has revealed that the decorated human skulls were part of the Göbekli Tepe ritual.
German Archaeological Institute paleopathologist Julia Gresky and her colleagues wrote inside Science Advances by excavating bone fragments that suggest an ancient “skull cult” at the site. Although it sounds like something out of a horror movie, skull cult is an ancient term that describes the ritual or religious conversion of multiple skulls.
Gresky and his colleagues found three skulls scored with deep cuts made by marbles. Pictures are drawn to the center of the face, continue across the forehead and all the way around to the back of the skull. A skull, painted with red ocher, also has a hole carved into the top. A possible explanation is that the skull cultists used to tie ropes to the skulls, and then put another rope through the holes in the skull, to keep them in. the stones.
None of these individuals survived from their natural portraits. Evidence shows that the skulls were cut and exhumed shortly after the people died. There is no telling whether the skulls belonged to respected ancestors or trophies from defeated enemies.
There are almost no other human remains at Göbekli Tepe, which makes it a very special sight. Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of small bone fragments at the site, but the area was not used as a burial ground. Instead, it was probably a ritual place used by traveling groups during special events, secret rituals, or celebrations. The people built the monuments during a time in history when people rarely lived in settled areas, and many archaeologists believe the site offers a rare glimpse into pre-agricultural belief systems.
Gresky and his fellow researchers point out that images of headless people and severed heads are common themes on the pillars at Göbekli Tepe. Some of the images show animals with human heads, while others show headless men (we know they are men because they have statues, a common representation at this time in history- human account). It is likely that these decorated baskets are part of the worldview described in these stone carvings.
We may not know what the builders of Göbekli Tepe believed, but we can now see the sacred site they created in more detail. As people entered the space, wandering between the walls, they would have seen actual human skulls hanging next to descriptions of what their skulls meant to them.
Science Advances2017. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700564 (About DOIs)
Image listing by Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm, DAI.