New publication in Science Advances: Evidence for Skull Cult at Göbekli Tepe

Although burials are still not known at Göbekli Tepe, in recent years a total of 700 human bone fragments have been recovered from the fill of prehistoric buildings and adjacent areas. Anthropological analysis of this material by J. Gresky and J. Haelm from the Natural Science Department of the German Archaeological Institute is now beginning to reveal intimate details about the Early Neolithic populations at the site. Especially the fragments of three human skulls are shedding light on the treatment of the dead, which is suggestive of a previously unknown form of skull cult.

Fig 3

Macroscopic details of artificial skull modifications. A, C, D: carvings, B: drilled perforation. (Image: Gresky, DAI)

Deep grooves – made using flint tools – were carved into the surface of the skulls. In the best preserved cranium these carvings were accompanied by a carefully placed perforation (drilled hole). Modifications were essential for the purpose of decorating and displaying the human skulls. In this context, it can even be argued that the drilled perforation was used to suspend the cranium from a post or the beam of a building (perhaps even from a T-shaped pillar)!

Fig 4

Schematic drawings of Göbekli Tepe skulls. Gray: preserved elements; red: modifications. (Image: Gresky, Haelm, DAI)

  • The research article J. Gresky, J. Haelm, L. Clare, “Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult” is published in Science Advances: DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700564, published 28 June 2017, Sci. Adv. 3, e1700564 (2017):

Further information


10 thoughts on “New publication in Science Advances: Evidence for Skull Cult at Göbekli Tepe

  1. Interesting find.
    1. could be modifications to position the skull (eg so it could be displayed by hanging) [as stated above]
    2. could be modifications to add something to the skull eg a wig or head dress or something else.
    3. could have some other purpose eg to let the “spirits out”, other
    4. to permit ingress of something – cant think what and so tend to exclude that.

    These are skull fragments rather than whole skulls and so that complicates matters as well

    Just some thoughts passing on.

    cheers and keep up the good work.


    • Thanks, Owen. Of course, it would be so much easier if we could work on completely preserved skulls and skeletons. Nevertheless the fragments of skull that we do have certainly suggest your first two points.
      The drill hole in the best preserved skull was made after death and is too small to be a trepanation (I think this may be the direction you’re going here).


  2. Interesting find indeed. I could add some possible uses for the skulls.
    1. They had deep cisterns with water. A human skull can be used for fetching the water. That could be a part of initiation process for young warriors, for them to learn the wisdom of the dead by drinking water from their skulls.
    2. One can put a candle inside and create some eerie atmosphere in a way that the Americans still do with pumpkins on the day of the dead. In a ritual centre that presumably operated at night, one could use candles, and could have utilized such an addition to the scenery.
    3. It was a custom at that time to display prominently the heads of dead enemies for mockery. This is why they never depicted faces on T-pillars. If more so treated heads are to be found, than this could be the answer.
    4. If the number of so treated skulls is only 3, then they were part of the ritual. One skull for the Boar, one for the Fox, and one for the Bull, all connected by a rope, representing the Serpent.

    My questions are:
    a. Can the skulls be dated ?
    b. Can DNA be extracted from them ?


    • Interesting suggestions.. Always fun to speculate.
      Cocerning your questions:
      1) The skulls can be assigned to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and/or Early/Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB/MPPNB) periods (9500-8000 BC). Unfortunately, we cannot be more presise than that because the fragments were found in fill material, the origin and age of which cannot be determined. Also, radiocarbon ages made on the skull fragments were unsuccessful due to poor preservation.
      2) For the same reason (poor preservation of collagen) it is extremely unlikely (impossible) that DNA is preserved.


  3. Presume there was no pattern to where the skull fragments were found? Were they contemporaneous with the backfilling of GT? Any evidence of deliberate smashing? And is there any chance of DNA testing? Thanks in advance.


    • That’s right, Robert. There is no spatial pattern to where the fragments were found.

      I suggest that the skull fragments were not intentionally deposited but slipped into their respective find locations as a result of erosional processes at the site. As such, the skull fragments are – of course – older than the “erosional event” which led to their final deposition.

      No, there are no indications of deliberate smashing.

      Concerning DNA, please refer to one of my previous answers.

      Thanks for your interest.


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