Weird History

The World's First Skull Cult Has Just Been Discovered In Turkey 

Ryleigh Nucilli
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Researchers just discovered skull fragments that point to the first-known skull cult at the site of a ruined temple in Turkey, and archeologists the world 'round are pretty fired up about it. The discovery, published in the June 2017 issue of Science Advances, explains three skull fragments found at the world's oldest temple, Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey, have unique markings that could serve as evidence the temple was also the site of a Neolithic skull cult. Given that the temple is the oldest example of monumental architecture in the world, the fact it might also have been the site of the first-known ritual skull worship is pretty exciting stuff.

Though the discovery is undoubtedly an exciting one, it has also raised lots of future questions for researchers. Did the skull fragments belong to friends or foes of the worshippers? Were they revered or feared? While these questions haven't yet been answered, as the archeologist who led the dig, Julia Gresky, said, researchers will just have to keep looking. For, with enough bones, enough "small pieces, these not very beautiful human bone fragments... really can tell great stories."

The Skull Fragments Have Unique Markings That Point Toward A Skull Cult
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Photo:  YouTube

On June 28, 2017, archeologists Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm, and Lee Clare published their exciting findings in the journal Science Advances – they discovered skull fragments (pictured above) with human-made modifications the likes of which had never been seen before. The researchers found the bones in deposits at Göbekli Tepe, 11,600-year-old temple ruins in Turkey. 

The skull fragments all have deep, linear grooves that would have been carved by the Neolithic-era (10,000-2,000 BCE) worshippers at the temple, and likely displayed at the temple as well. As the researchers explain, this is exciting because these fragments "could indicate a new, previously undocumented variation of skull cult in the Early Neolithic of Anatolia and the Levant." 

That's right – a brand spankin' new historical skull cult. Researchers don't yet know if the skull fragments belonged to friends or foes of those at Göbekli Tepe; only additional findings and research could shed any light on that question.

The Skulls Were Found At Göbekli Tepe – The Oldest Temple In The World (Sorry Stonehenge)
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Photo: Teomancimit/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Göbekli Tepe, ruins located atop a hill in southern Turkey, has been described as "the world's first temple." It is the oldest known example of "monumental architecture" – the first larger-than-a-hut piece of architecture that archeologists have ever discovered. Built around 11,600 years ago, Göbekli Tepe – which translates to "Potbelly Hill" – predates the circle of stones at Stonehenge by around 6,000 years. It's also 7,000 years older than the Pyramids of Giza. But it's not just the age of Göbekli Tepe that's impressive to archeologists and tourists alike. The grandeur of the structure, and the sophistication of its adornments, which include carvings of "a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars" are also said to be breathtaking.

The temple, which showcases massive limestone pillars, would have been constructed at a time before the invention of the wheel, writing, pottery, and metal. We can now add a probable totally unique skull cult to its list of accomplishments.

What Exactly Is A Skull Cult?
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Photo: Rolfcosar/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

According to National Geographic, "skull cults" might not have been as gruesomely and spookily occult as their name suggest. The expression is a more general term that refers to cultures and societies that would have "venerated the human skull after death." And there's a rich history of skull cults having existed in ancient societies all around the world; they proliferated during the Paleolithic Period, which extends from around 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 BCE. The Paleolithic era encompasses humans' first use of stone tools – perfect for carving skulls with.

So, it's not the skull cultish-ness of the discovery at Göbekli Tepe that excites archaeologists. There were plenty of skull cults. It's the "deep, purposeful linear grooves" that they display. This particular type of alteration, according to archaeologist Julia Gresky, has "never before [been] seen anywhere in the world in any context" – a true first.