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Carved human skulls found in ancient stone temple

Archaeologists have made a remarkable find in a 12,000-year-old stone temple in southeastern Turkey. Among tens of thousands of animal bones and a statue that may depict a kneeling figure holding a human head, researchers have uncovered the remains of human skulls that were stripped of their flesh and carved with deep, straight grooves running front to back.

The carvings represent the first evidence of skull decoration in the archaeological record of the region. “This is completely new, and we don’t have a model to go on,” says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, who was not involved with the work. The purpose of the carvings is unclear, he says, but they may have been part of an ancient religious practice. “There seems to be a focus on ritual reuse after decapitation.”

The site, known as Göbekli Tepe, has already changed the way archaeologists think about the origins of civilization. Located not far from the Syrian border on a hill with a commanding view of the surrounding landscape, it boasts multiple enclosures with tall, T-shaped pillars surrounded by rings of stones, many carved with reliefs. Such structures are unique for humans at this time—a period that predates agriculture or even pottery. Researchers once thought complex religion and society came about only after agriculture guaranteed early societies a food surplus. But Göbekli Tepe’s—which predates most agriculture—suggests it might have been the other way around: Hunter-gatherers might have started domesticating crops in order to have a reliable supply of food for workers at the site where they gathered for ceremonies.

When excavations at the site began in the mid-1990s, archaeologists expected to find human burials. Instead, they found animal bones by the tens of thousands. Mixed in were about 700 fragments of human bone, scattered throughout a loose fill of stones and gravel. “They’re distributed all over the area, in and around structures,” says team member Julia Gresky, an anthropologist at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. “We can’t put any individuals together.”

One of the carved skulls

German Archaeological Institute

More than half of the human bone fragments analyzed so far are from skulls. In a paper published today in Science Advances, Gresky and her co-authors describe three large skull fragments, each about the size of a hand. Cut marks on the bones suggest that someone removed the flesh and then carved bone with deep, straight grooves running front to back. One skull had a hole drilled into it, although only half of the hole was preserved. “The carvings consist of many deep cuts—somebody clearly did it intentionally,” Gresky says.

Heads—missing or decapitated—are also represented in the site’s stone artwork. The heads of some stone statues were deliberately removed or knocked off; archaeologists think one statue, which they dubbed the “Gift-bearer,” depicts a kneeling figure holding a human head.

The attention to skulls is part of a long tradition, although it’s the first instance in Anatolia, the region in and around modern-day Turkey. Farther south, in modern-day Israel and Jordan, for example, people living before, during, and after Göbekli Tepe’s time were removing the skulls from skeletons and setting them apart in special burial caches or on shelves. Some were decorated with plaster. But what’s going on at Göbekli Tepe is different. “This treatment of fragments is awfully unique. I don’t know of any other skulls where they’ve been carved or drilled,” Rollefson says.

And though many of the sculptures and stone reliefs at Göbekli Tepe stand out for their craftsmanship or artistry, including detailed depictions of birds, predators, and insects, the marks on the skulls seem to belong to a different, cruder class of carving. “They’re deep incisions, but not nicely done. Someone wanted to make a cut, but not in a decorative way,” Gresky says. “It could be to mark them as different, or to fix decorative elements, or to hang the skulls somewhere.”

Other relics found at the site, including a decapitated human statue (left) and a gift-bearer holding a human head in its hands.

Dieter Johannes and Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe Archive, DAI

Whatever their purpose, the carvings seem to mark the skulls as outliers: Dozens of other skull fragments have been found at Göbekli Tepe with no sign of carving or cutting. That suggests these skulls were singled out after their owners’ deaths for some reason. “They are really special, these three individuals,” Gresky says. The skulls might have been displayed as part of ancestor worship, or as trophies to show off the remains of dead enemies.

Michelle Bonogofsky, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility, argues that the authors have taken their interpretation of the finds too far. There’s not enough evidence to say what the skulls were for—and may never be, she says: “This is thousands of years before writing, so you can’t really know. The marks do appear to be intentional, but what the intention was I can’t say.”

Archaeologists hope to find more skull fragments at the site, to better understand whether the practice was a common part of rituals there. In the meantime the carved skulls deepen the mystery surrounding the site. “We keep hoping for the sample to expand, but with Göbekli Tepe everything new that comes up destroys what we thought before,” Rollefson says. “It’s nice to find this stuff, but it would be nice to understand it, too.”