Dozens of skulls fleshed out with plaster nearly 10,000 years ago in an area from Israel to southern Turkey, are among the oldest human portraits known. Their purpose remains a mystery, but researchers now argue that they were part of a vast ancestor cult, that contributed to the successful rise of the first complex societies in the Neolithic period.
Since last week, visitors at the British Museum in London have been able to look upon the face of a man who lived some 9,500 years ago in Jericho, one of the world’s earliest known cities.
What scientists do today using micro-CT scans and 3D-printed models to reproduce the visage of the dearly departed was already being done at the dawn of civilization with much simpler means.
More than fifty Neolithic plastered skulls dating between 9,500 to 8,000 years ago have been found by archaeologists in an area ranging from the Negev desert in Israel to Anatolia in Turkey. Seven, including the one on display at the British Museum, were dug up in Jericho in 1953 by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon.
Why the skulls weren't war trophies
While the British Museum’s study has revealed new details of the life story of this individual as well as about the technique used to create plastered skulls, it has not provided a definitive answer to the question of why these enigmatic and grotesque-looking portraits were created in the first place.
Making a plaster skull entailed significant effort. The body was first buried under the plastered floor of the family’s house, a common practice for all burials during the period. After allowing time for the flesh to decompose, possibly one or two years, the head was exhumed, the teeth and mandible removed (probably because they were too mobile and would have made the artifact less durable) and the plaster applied. The skull was then decorated, with the eyes represented by shells from the sea, which often was dozens or hundreds of kilometers away, further underscoring the importance of the artifacts to their prehistoric makers.
The archaeological evidence combined with anthropological research on similar, modern phenomena have offered different explanations. The skulls have been variably interpreted as memorials to the dead, artifacts used in magical rituals, or charms to ward off evil spirits.
Kenyon speculated they might be the heads of vanquished enemies, but this seems unlikely, since archaeologists have since found headless skeletons buried under the floors of Neolithic homes, suggesting that the skulls belonged to close relatives rather than enemies.
Today, researchers interviewed by Haaretz mostly agree that the plastered skulls were tied to a form of ancestor cult, and may have played an important role in the rise of civilization as we know it.
The first farmers
The plastered skulls appeared at a key point in prehistory, when humans in Jericho and other sites around the Middle East began to abandon their hunter-gathering lifestyle and created the first sedentary, agricultural societies.
“For three million years, people lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers of maybe 25 to 30 members,” says Israel Hershkovitz, a professor of anatomy and physical anthropology at Tel Aviv University who has studied several plastered skulls discovered in Israel.
“Suddenly everything changes, people start living in large communities, producing their own food, building villages and cities with social stratification and division of labor,” Hershkovitz says. “Just 10,000 years later we went to the moon, achieving things we didn’t do in millions of years of evolution.”
This sudden shift toward larger, more complex societies, would not have occurred spontaneously, says Alexandra Fletcher, curator of prehistory of the Middle East at the British Museum and one of the scholars in charge of the Jericho skull study.
“Jericho is one of the largest sites we found from that period. A lot of people were living in the same area,” Fletcher says.
“Anthropological studies tell us that groups would reach that size and split due to social tensions or competition over resources,” she explains. “That didn’t happen in Jericho, they stayed together and continued to grow, so there must have been something that helped them overcome the tendency to split.”
According to Hamoudi Khalaily – an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority who excavated three plastered skulls at Yiftahel, a Neolithic site in the Galilee – most of these artifacts are found either in central public places or in “secondary burials”, that is, reburied separately from their body after many years of use.
This fits the idea of an ancestor cult, Khalaily explains. As long as the ancestors were known and remembered, the artifacts were prominently displayed. But when their memory faded, they were reburied with honor and possibly replaced with the portraits of other elders.
“It’s like a picture of a grandfather on the wall,” Khalaily says. “He was an important figure in the family and the young generation needed to learn about him, whether he was a great warrior, a hunter, a leader or a shaman.”
Most of the skulls belonged to older adults (which by the era’s standards meant around 40 years old). Both men and women could be selected to have their remains plastered, Khalaily adds, noting that at least one of the skulls at Yiftahel belonged to a female.
The fact that a single skull could be in use for decades or even hundreds of years before being reburied suggests that they functioned as symbols and rallying points for the entire community, says Fletcher.
“Ancestors were evoked as a means of holding the community together, she says. “It starts as the portrait of a particular individual, and with time it changes into an ancestor of everybody, a way to remind people that they have a communal investment in this place, based on the common ancestors.”
A Neolithic Abraham?
“If you have a large group of people and you look for an adhesive in order to achieve a common aim, the easiest thing is to use blood relations,” explains Hershkovitz, the Tel-Aviv based anthropologist. “But when populations grow, it becomes difficult to trace your blood relations, so you worship your ancestors.”
In early agricultural societies, as well as in modern nation-states, this form of worship also has another side to it, as it helps reaffirm a group’s ancestral ties to, and by extension its ownership of, a specific piece of land, Hershkovitz notes.
From the Biblical story of the patriarchs to the modern United States, such cultural phenomena are common throughout history, Hershkovitz says.
“The Jewish forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – are at the core of the Bible to give us legitimacy to the land, to anchor our rights to the Holy Land that was promised to them by God,” he says.
“The sculptures (of U.S. presidents) at Mt. Rushmore are the same idea, they are a statement of ownership: ‘This is our land and here are our ancestors, our most famous leaders.’”
So while practices like the worship of plastered skulls may have contributed to setting humanity on a path of breakneck-speed development that ultimately led to great empires and spaceships, they may have also been a catalyst for violence and wars over conflicting land claims – much like those we continue to experience today.
We don’t know when humans first started killing each other over land ownership, though a 13,000-year-old site in Sudan can claim credit to be the earliest-known example of large-scale war. We do know that Jericho has the oldest protective city walls ever found, dated to around 10,000 years ago.
Also, the analysis of the British Museum’s skull showed that this Jericho citizen, who was more than 40 years old, had suffered a broken nose earlier in his life, as well as a fracture to his skull above the left eye, which occurred around time of death and may been the cause of his demise.
Such injuries could have been the result of a series of accidents, although violence seems the most likely cause, says Fletcher.
“We should not imagine a utopian, idyllic life” for Neolithic people, she says. “Life was tough, and, often, it got violent.”