Göbekli Tepe Skull Cult


The internet has been buzzing about a potential 11,500-12,000  year old skull cult from Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. Göbekli Tepe was just discovered several years ago. The site is decorated with pillars depicting carvings of headless humans, snakes, and scorpions. It is thought be world’s oldest known Neolithic monumental religious complex.

Anthropomorphic depictions from Göbekli Tepe. (A) Intentionally decapitated human statue (height, 60 cm). (B) The gift bearer holds in his hands a human head (height, 26 cm). (C) Pillar 43 (building D) with relief in the lower right corner of a headless individual with an erection and one arm raised (bottom right). Nico Becker, Dieter Johannes and Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe Archive

Yesterday, in  Science Advances German Archaeological Institute paleopathologist Julia Gresky and her colleagues write in about excavating bone fragments, specifically three skulls scored with deep cuts made by sharpened stones. The carvings bisect the center of the face, continuing up the forehead and all the way around to the back of the skull. Interestingly, none of these individuals seemed to died from their skull carvings. Actually these modifications were done post-mortem, defleshed and carved shortly after the individuals died.

Close-up of Skull 1, found with a drilled hole that allowed the skull to be suspended, perhaps from the pillars at Göbekli Tepe. The cuts in this skull could have been used to position a cord. This skull also had red ochre on it, and may have had a lot more decoration at the time it was used in a skull cult ritual. Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm, DAI.

Gresky and her fellow researchers point out that carvings of headless people and severed heads are common themes on pillars at Göbekli Tepe. Some images show animals holding human heads, while others show headless men. We may never know what the builders of Göbekli Tepe believed, but Gresky argues the Göbekli Tepe were a skull cult.

To counter this claim, the three carved skulls in question only make up 15% of all the crania found at Göbekli Tepe. It is hard to claim a religion or cult based upon a n of three, let alone an entire cultural belief system. At the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey, bodies — some holding ornamented skulls — have also been found buried beneath homes.  The fact that the rest of Anatolia had similar decorated skulls also imply that perhaps this was part of a burial custom in that part of the world.

What are your interpretations of these results?