Research ArticleANTHROPOLOGY

Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult

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Science Advances  28 Jun 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 6, e1700564
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700564
  • Fig. 1 The site of Göbekli Tepe.

    (A) Location of Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey (Upper Mesopotamia). (B) Overview of excavated areas, showing find locations of skull 1 (a), skull 2 (b), and skull 3 (c). Credit: Erhan Küçük, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute (DAI). (C) Impression of the monumental round-oval buildings with their characteristic T-shaped monolithic pillars. Credit: Nico Becker, Göbekli Tepe Archive, DAI.

  • Fig. 2 Schematic drawings of Göbekli Tepe skulls.

    Gray, preserved elements; red, modifications. (A) Frontal, superior, and posterior view of skull 1. (B) Frontal, superior, and lateral view of skull 2. (C) Frontal, superior, and lateral view of skull 3.

  • Fig. 3 Macroscopic details of artificial skull modifications.

    (A) Skull 1: Fragment of frontal bone with carvings. (B) Fragment of left parietal bone with drilled perforation. (C) Skull 2: Fragment of right parietal bone with carvings. (D) Skull 3: Fragment of frontal bone with carvings. Credit: Julia Gresky, DAI.

  • Fig. 4 Anthropomorphic depictions from Göbekli Tepe.

    (A) Intentionally decapitated human statue (height, 60 cm). Credit: Nico Becker, Göbekli Tepe Archive, DAI. (B) The gift bearer holds a human head in his hands (height, 26 cm). Credit: Dieter Johannes, Göbekli Tepe Archive, DAI. (C) Pillar 43 (building D) with low relief of an ithyphallic headless individual, one arm raised (bottom right). Credit: Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe Archive, DAI.

  • Fig. 5 Skull 1: Tentative reconstruction.

    Drilled perforation at the top of the cranium is used to suspend the skull with a cord (red). Carvings were used for stabilization purposes, preventing the cord from slipping. Credit: Juliane Haelm, DAI.

  • Table 1 Cases of human bone modification (from archaeological and ethnographic literature).
    PeriodSiteArtifactsBone elementIntention/interpretationReferences
    Upper PaleolithicGough’s Cave,
    CupCraniumSkull-cup production in
    combination with cannibalism
    Le Placard Cave, FranceCupCraniumSkull-cup production(48, 49)
    Isturitz, FranceCupCraniumSkull-cup production(50)
    Mesolithic-NeolithicLepenski Vir, SerbiaNotation systemLong boneMarking or counting
    a series of events
    of diaphysis
    Long boneProfane tool (paddle) for
    smoothing surfaces in clay
    vessel production
    Herxheim, GermanyCupCraniumSkull-cup production(52)
    EuropeRondellesCraniumAmulet with magical or ritual function(4, 53)
    Bronze AgeEuropeRondellesCraniumAmulet with magical or ritual function(53)
    El Mirador Cave,
    CupCraniumSkull-cup production in combination
    with cannibalism
    Middle AgesTübingen, GermanyFluteLong boneMake music(55)
    Buddhist contextsIndia and TibetBowls and drumsSkullParaphernalia for religious ceremonies(56)
    (20th century)
    Dayak people,
    Carved ornaments in
    skulls, attachment
    of objects with cord
    SkullHead-hunting as prestige(57)
    Naga people,
    India, and Myanmar
    Attached horns evoke
    hybrid-like appearance
    SkullSkulls as human trophies(31)

Supplementary Materials

  • Supplementary material for this article is available at

    Supplementary Material

    Supplementary Text

    fig. S1. Skull 1: Details of carvings and drilling.

    fig. S2. Skull 2: Details of carving.

    fig. S3. Skull 3: Fragments of frontal bone with microscopic views of carvings.

    fig. S4. Skull 1: Frontal, left parietal, and occipital bone fragments with carvings and cut marks.

    fig. S5. Skull 1: Left mandible fragment with carvings and cut marks.

    fig. S6. Skull 2: Right parietal bone fragment with adhering frontal bone fragment and left parietal bone fragment with carvings and cut marks.

    fig. S7. Skull 3: Frontal bone fragment with carvings and cut marks.

    table S1. Detailed description of the carvings on the three skulls.

    table S2. Criteria for cut marks made using lithic tools (1517) and associated images in figs. S1 to S3.

    table S3. Modifications attested on human skulls from PPNA and PPNB sites in Anatolia and the Levant.

    table S4. Compilation of Neolithic sites from Anatolia and Levant showing different burial customs [after Perschke tab. 1, p. 99, (19)].

    References (5866)