The Neolithic Skull Cults of the Near East - Part One
The Epipalaeolithic, Natufians, Jericho & the Agricultural Revolution, Göbekli Tepe and early Anatolia
“Besides the group of plastered skulls, a single example was encountered of the skull of an elderly man, without any of the other bones of the body, carefully set beneath the floor in the angle of a room. The earlier phase of the Pre-pottery Neolithic at Jericho also had a cult of skulls, which are found separated from the bodies and arranged in groups in various ways. To this phase also belongs a collection of infant skulls buried with the neck vertebrae attached, showing that the head had been cut off and not collected from skeletons. This find recalls the nests of severed heads found in a pre-Neolithic stratum at Ofnet Cave in Bavaria…”
- L. H. Wells, 1959
The quotation above comes from a short paper published in the South African Archaeological Bulletin, entitled From Jericho to Wessex? A Neolithic Enigma. The question concerns the curious phenomenon of the prehistoric obsession with the skull, a subject which Wells tackles by covering graves and excavations from Mesolithic Germany to Mycenaean Greece. What is it that so attracts man to curating and displaying the human head? What Wells could not have anticipated was the uncovering of many more plastered skulls, not just at Jericho, but across the whole Levant and Anatolia. We now know that this area, the ground zero for the Neolithic agricultural revolution, had a deep fixation with heads - cutting them off, dangling them from pillars, stacking them, burying them, tenderly covering them with gypsum and lime, and living with them staring out the very walls and floors of their domestic living spaces. To my knowledge no-one has comprehensively tackled the question of why this is so. Despite the mounting genetic and archaeological evidence for the complex shifts of people and culture within the Fertile Crescent, Anatolian and Levantine archaeology is a labyrinth, wrapped in centuries of speculation, but I will attempt to follow the thread back to its source, and see if any sense can be made of the Neolithic Skull Cult.
The Epipalaeolithic & the Dawn of Agriculture
Around 15,000 years ago, a group of hunters made their way towards a series of imposing limestone hills, overshadowed by a huge volcanic mountain. Their task was grisly but simple - locate and retrieve the head of a buried man. As they gently shoveled and scooped the dirt away, they came across a mouldering body, its teeth falling out. Retrieving the head, ensuring the jaw was intact, they replaced the earth and made their way home, pausing perhaps to make an offering, or light a purifying fire. This was Pınarbaşı, one of the only sites we have for the post-glacial period in Anatolia, before the advent of farming. It is also amongst the earliest records for the practice of ‘post-burial cranium retrieval’ - burying someone, only to return later and take the head.
3,000 years later, in western Galilee, a group of farmer-foragers began to dig into the circular stone burial mounds at Hayonim Cave. They had returned to an old haunt, a site known to their ancestors out of mind and time. As they dug, they found the bones, and then they laid their own dead amongst them. They shifted the old ones aside, mixed up long bones and ribs, offered pendants and teeth. But this time, unlike their forebears, they came back again to take the heads. This muddled grave site, of 48 people in 16 graves, shows a clear pattern. The earliest bodies kept their heads, but their descendants did not. We know this culture as the Natufians, perhaps the world’s first farmers. At some point in their millennia long journey of domesticating grasses and animals, they began to retrieve the heads of their dead, often without the jawbone.
This region, from the Anatolian highlands, across to the Zagros mountains and the Persian Gulf, and down to the Sinai, has been dubbed the ‘Fertile Crescent’ since 1914. It was here, during the wild temperature swings that characterised the end of the Ice Age, that the Neolithic Revolution began, and agriculture emerged as a new mode of human subsistence. The Natufians are often credited with this innovation, a Levantine people with mysterious origins. Although the power of modern archaeogenetics has succeeded in uncovering all manner of group dynamics, as we will see, we are still reliant on traditional methods of flint tool classification to carve up the Palaeolithic cultures which flourished in the Levant - names like the Emiran, Ahmarian, Aurignacian, Mushabian and Kebaran cultures. The Natufians are likely to be partial ancestors to a group known as ‘Basal Eurasians’, a branch of Eurasian humans which split earliest and possess little Neanderthal admixture. This is still contentious, and much work remains to be done to understand the Natufians, but it has long been clear that they were the first hunter-gatherers to domesticate wild grasses and legumes, between 10-13,000 years ago.
If we picture the Fertile Crescent at the dawn of agriculture as made up of three main gene pools, the southern Levantine Natufians, the Central Anatolians and the Iranian/Zagrosians, then we can begin to map the cultural influences which then played out in the later Neolithic. The Central Anatolians are also an enigmatic genetic group, with some evidence suggesting that they partially derived from European hunter-gatherers who fled the advancing ice sheets down into the Aegean. Work on this comes from mitochondrial haplogroups and whole genome analysis from both Pınarbaşı and Girmeler. These two people, intriguingly, can be modelled as 45-48% Balkan Hunter-Gatherer, which suggests a deep connection likely dating back to those foragers escaping the ice around 20,000 years ago.
Head and skull treatments during this immense span of time do suggest special attention was paid to the cranium. Roughly 50% of all Epipalaeolithic sites possess headless skeletons. Along with Pınarbaşı and the later phases of Hayonim Cave, we also have headless skeletons at el-Wad Terrace and Hilazon Tachtit. The even earlier Kebaran site of ‘Uyun al-Hammam shows a skull removal burial, suggesting the practice came before the Natufians. A cache of skulls was found at Erq el-Ahmar and the deliberate burning of skulls seems to have occurred as well, such as at Wadi Hammeh 27. Headdresses, adornments and red ochre staining rounds out the evidence, which points clearly towards the intentional modification and movement of heads.
The Early Neolithic, Without Pots, Without Heads
I don’t want to dwell on how and when agriculture appeared, since that would take several articles itself, but we move from what is called the Epipalaeolithic into the Neolithic when that threshold is crossed. The division of time in the Near East has been decided through extensive investigations and looks something like this:
Pre-Pottery Neolithic A: 10,000–8,800 BC
Pre-Pottery Neolithic B: 8800–6500 BC
Late / Pottery Neolithic: 7000-4500 BC
The rather dull names of Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B (PPNA/B) originate with the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978), a pioneer of careful ceramic excavation methods and leading authority on the famous Neolithic city of Jericho. Jericho became the ‘type site’ for the division of PPNA & B, meaning it came define those classifications, which have largely held up to the present day. The difference between the two is profound, with PPNA being a mixed foraging and farming culture living in circular houses, and PPNB relying solely on domesticated plants and animals, living in rectangular houses, using lime plaster and different stone tools. The introduction of pottery at the end of the Neolithic period represents yet another cultural shift.
It was Kenyon herself who first depicted Jericho as having a ‘Cult of Skulls’ in her 1957 book on the excavation. She, and her contemporary Ian Wolfran Cornwall, initially toyed with the idea that buried and ornamented skulls were ‘trophy heads’, before settling on the more familiar theory that this was an ‘ancestor cult’. Around 280 individual skull burials are known for the Natufian and PPN period, and half of all Levantine examples were recovered from Jericho. The city was founded around 9000 BC and was protected from the world by a massive stone wall and imposing tower. To describe the PPNA inhabitants of Jericho as ‘living with their dead’ would be an understatement. Over 270 bodies were discovered during excavations - under floors, crammed into foundations, squashed between walls. Heads separated and piled together, including five infant skulls, decapitated and placed in some kind of plastered altar basin at the base of a building.
Continuity with the Natufian past seems to be present, not only in the burial styles, but in some cases the people of the PPNA interred skulls and bodies with those of earlier individuals. Caches of skulls also appear as far afield as Iraq (Qermez Dere), Jordan (Erq el-Ahmar) and Israel (Netiv Hagdud). If a pattern does emerge during the PPNA then it could be characterised as ‘decreasing mobility’. Heads taken from burials don’t seem to move as far, and the connection between architecture and skulls/decapitation becomes much clearer. At Jerf el-Ahmar, a headless female skeleton was found splayed on the floor of a building which had burnt down. The most plausible interpretation is that the individuals was decapitated, and the house deliberately set ablaze, the two acts of ritual death combining into one.
Göbekli Tepe: Predation & Headhunting
Göbekli Tepe is one of the greatest archaeological enigmas of all time. A site without precedent which continues to vex archaeologists. What we do know about it is vastly outweighed by its mysteries, in particular, who built it, and why? This puzzling quality has attracted attention from a much wider range of thinkers and writers than most archaeological sites do, and countless videos and books cite Göbekli Tepe as evidence for extra-terrestrial activity, lost or hidden civilisations or the secret origin of cultic religions. Even staying within the bounds of conventional explanation leads us to some unsettling conclusions - in defiance of the academic desire for liberal interpretations, Göbekli Tepe points towards a cosmological vision based on bold and blatant masculine archetypes, of predatory and dangerous animals, of blood, violence, decapitation and the celebration of aggression and death. Whether or not this is true, all lines of available evidence point in this direction, as we shall see.
Göbekli Tepe is a site located in southeastern Anatolia, predominantly consisting of 20 enclosed circles, each with limestone pillars. Only four of these circles, or temene, have been excavated. The characteristic pillars, over 200 in total, are shaped like a ‘T’, with many sporting human motifs, such as hands, arms, loincloths and in one case, an erect phallus. The general consensus is that the pillars are abstract representations of people, and they appear across the region at similar sites. Of the four circular structures - A, B, C and D, the largest is enclosure D, sporting a huge pair of ‘male’ coded T-pillars. In addition to the human carvings, what strikes anyone who looks at this site is the rich and wide range of animal carvings across the pillars. Most prominent are snakes, but boar, scorpions, vultures, aurochs, gazelle, ducks, onagers, foxes, various birds and large carnivores are numerous. Many of these are snarling or show aggressive posturing. Between the pillars are stone walls, entrances, stone benches and rectangular enclosures. Interestingly the images are not random, but carefully patterned. In circle A snakes are the dominating species, in B foxes are more frequent, in C boars, while Enclosure D is more varied, with birds leading the numbers. This had led some researchers to suggest that Göbekli Tepe was a communal structure built and maintained by different groups, or clans, with each one represented by a different animal ‘totem’.
What is missing from Göbekli Tepe is equally as interesting. Many domestic tools and objects, such as awls and craft working artefacts, are absent. Fireplaces and hearths are also missing, which helps reinforce that the site was not a normal living area. Although some domestic structures have been excavated nearby recently, the overall impression is that Göbekli Tepe was a cultic or religious centre, used for ritual, political and spiritual purposes that we can only hint at.
In terms of construction dates, Göbekli Tepe spans both the PPNA and PPNB. The earliest dates place the initial buildings around 9500-9000 BC, making it roughly contemporaneous with Jericho. The site was used past 8000 BC before it fell into ruin, and some recent work shows that small groups lived amongst the rubble for a while. The PPNB occupation shows a marked reduction in pillar size and frequency, but great effort was expended in producing a waterproof flooring, made of crushed and burnt lime, mixed with clay and red ochre, before being polished. There is speculation that the pillar structures supported some kind of wooden roof, or possibly a second floor or platform. Either way, Göbekli Tepe at its peak must have been an awe-inspiring and perhaps terrifying spectacle, with flickering torches illuminating the dreadful sight of predators, snakes and vultures, headless men as you walked from the outside into the inner sanctum of rings. Although no agriculture has been recorded in the area, the inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe likely had communal feasts and gatherings. Large quantities of meat, grain and possibly alcohol were consumed on site, probably brought from somewhere else, given the lack of hearths.
As interesting as this is, why are talking about Göbekli Tepe? We have reason to believe that the site was integrated into a number of southern Anatolian sites, linked by a common skull cult. To quote from Graeber & Wengrow’s 2021 book, The Dawn of Everything:
In both medium and message, Göbekli Tepe could hardly be more different from the world of early farming communities. Its standing remains were wrought from stone, a material little used for construction in the Euphrates and Jordan valleys. Carved on these stone pillars is an imagery dominated by wild and venomous animals; scavengers and predators, almost exclusively sexed male. On a limestone pillar a lion rears up in high relief, teeth gnashing, claws outstretched, penis and scrotum on show. Elsewhere lurks a malevolent boar, its male sex also displayed. The most often repeated images depict raptors taking human heads. One remarkable sculpture, resembling a totem pole, comprises superimposed pairings of victims and predators: disembodied skulls and sharp-eyed birds of prey. Elsewhere, flesh-eating birds and other carnivores are shown grasping, tossing about or otherwise playing with their catch of human crania; carved below one such figure on a monumental pillar is the image of a headless man with an erect penis (conceivably this depicts the kind of immediate post-mortem erection or ‘priapism’ that occurs in victims of hanging or beheading as a result of massive trauma to the spinal cord)
In addition to the imagery of decapitation and head-hunting, there are several skull fragments from the site which give a chilling insight into how the place must have looked. Three skulls so far have shown a particular modification shortly after death, a hole drilled into the top of the skull and grooves carved down the bone. The most easily explainable scenario for these is that the skulls were being hung with cord or string, supported by the grooves to prevent slippage. Thus, we can add dangling skulls to the list of cranial activity at Göbekli Tepe.
To state that Göbekli Tepe was a place concerned with predators, male energy and human heads would be an understatement. Almost every aspect of the site presents us with images of aggression, hunting, violence, decapitation and even perhaps a fear, terror or mingled respect for the dangerous forces of wild nature. The people who carved these images focused on the most lethal species they knew of - snakes, scorpions, felines, bulls. They focused on predators, scavengers and hunters, they were fixated on human heads being tossed around by wild beasts, torn off by raptors. But in the wider context of Anatolia, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Welcome to the House of Skulls
Even out here in this upland Eden of steppe and forest, with running gazelle and quiet glades, there were horrors perhaps greater than Göbekli Tepe. Göbekli is just one of many ‘tepes’ scattered around the southern Anatolian uplands, we have Kocanizam Tepe, Taşlı Tepe, İnanlı Tepe, Karahan Tepe, Hamzan Tepe, and countless more waiting to be discovered and excavated. Many show similar features to Göbekli Tepe, such as stone heads, T-shaped pillars, carvings of wild animals and an absence of agricultural domestic life. Exactly who built all these is still a mystery, but most likely the descendants of the Central Anatolian hunter-gatherers, who had adopted some herding practices, and who were in contact with communities to the south and north through trade of obsidian, shells and foodstuffs. Isolated they were not, but certainly they had developed what seems to be a hyper-masculine culture focused on the practice of predation, perhaps a spiritual extension of hunting, in which they saw themselves as the apex hunters, not only of animals, but also of other humans.
We start our tour around this region with Körtik Tepe. This site lies to the east of Göbekli Tepe, a settlement made up of circular houses, hunting debris and the paraphernalia associated with collecting and grinding wild grains. Remarkably, this unassuming site contains the most human remains of any contemporary Middle Eastern settlement - 743 graves, with over 800 identified bodies. This alone makes it unusual, but a not insignificant number show signs of violence before death, and another group bear marks of ‘de-fleshing’, a nice euphemism for hacking and slicing away the meat from the head and face of a person, including detaching the jawbone in some instances. Cut marks to the rest of the body follow the major joints, and a rough pattern on the head looks similar to marks found on scalping victims. There is no consensus about what these marks represent - cannibalism, de-fleshing to create clean bones as part of the burial process, trophy scalping, manipulation of the dead to prevent spiritual attack from the deceased, the humiliation of enemies… the list goes on. What is clear is that the head was singled out for special treatment, consistent with the wider fascination with the skull we’ve seen so far.
Moving onto another major Neolithic site - Çayönü Tepesi - which is dated to between 8,630 to 6,800 BC, we again see an overwhelming preoccupation with the human head. Çayönü is a complex site, which shows evidence for a wide range of foodstuffs. The people here were not only gathering wild plants and hunting wild boars and deer, but also making use of domesticated and semi-domesticated plants and animals. Some researchers believe that the pig was first domesticated at Çayönü, but this remains to be seen. Also amongst the material artefacts were the region’s oldest copper objects - beads, hooks, pins and awls. Most striking however is the two types of burial found across the site, the first a more typical domestic-related burial, the second a far more disturbing practice found only in a building known to us as the House of Skulls. This unassuming structure, rebuilt several times, consists of a main room with many smaller shelf-like vaults or niches at the back. At the centre of the main room lay a huge one-tonne cut and polished stone slab, along with a large black flint knife. Analysis of the stone and knife has revealed crystallised haemoglobin from aurochs, sheep and humans. Within the building itself, over 450 human bodies were uncovered, including 90 skulls, some with the vertebrae still attached. The bones indicate that the majority were young adults, with some children. A mounted aurochs skull on the exterior of the building completes the picture of a temple of death.
The identification and diet of the people at Çayönü Tepesi has been of considerable interest to archaeologists. Bone isotope studies of both the inhabitants and the House of Skulls victims shows that not only did men and women eat different diets (meat and cereals for men, more legumes for women), but the people deposited in the House had a different diet to the people of the settlement, indicating they were from somewhere else, or treated very differently during their lives. A recent genetic study of the inhabitants shows that they were a mixture of central Anatolian and eastern Zagros peoples, consistent with the ancestral profiles we’ve seen so far. The paper also highlights a child with artificial cranial deformation - head binding - a topic we’ll return to in Part Two.
Describing all of southern Anatolian cultic practices and buildings would take a book, but in general they have the following features, found at the three sites just described: a specialised room or building, often semi-circular and half-sunken, with a special, labour intensive floor of terazzo or tiles, containing pillars, monoliths and stelae, decorated with images and paints, and with no trace of domestic or agricultural life. As archaeologist Tatiana Kornienko states:
The world of sculptures and reliefs at Göbekli Tepe is diverse and unusual. In a way, however, it repeats and adds to the representative picture already known from Nemrik IX, Bouqraz, Hallan Çemi, Körtik Tepe, Jerf el-Ahmar, Tell ‘Abr 3, Nevali Çori, Çayönü Tepesi, and other early Neolithic settlements. The most popular images found at the sites—the objects of worship—are anthropomorphic and mixed-type creatures; female and male, figures and symbols; heads of people; bucrania; and images of birds, feline predators, snakes, scorpions, and turtles. In Göbekli Tepe’s iconography there are also images of a wild boar, a lion, a spider, and a fox. These motifs are characteristic for sites dating to the PPN period in general; however, in Upper Mesopotamia they are similar in meaning, style, and manner and are clearly concentrated in buildings having a special purpose.
End of Part One
Unfortunately, we’ve only scratched the surface of the Neolithic skull cults in the Near East, and a second article will be necessary to cover crucial sites like Çatalhöyük and ʿAin Ghazal. We’ve raced through the Palaeolithic transformation to agriculture, the Natufians, early Neolithic cities and the cult centres of Anatolia, but we have yet to look at PPNB sites, the phenomenon of plastered skulls, artwork and figurines and really try and tie together some conclusions. Broadly speaking we’ve seen how the Neolithic skull cults drew on Epipalaeolithic and Natufian traditions of skull retrieval and associations between buildings and bodies, but the transformation and differentiation through the Neolithic is crucial to understanding how the skull cult fully emerges.