Skull fragments marked by carving have been found at Gobekli Tepe, a site in southeast Turkey dating back around 11,500 years that has been dubbed the oldest known temple in the world.
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Gobekli Tepe, a stone's throw from Turkey's border with Syria, is famous for stone cultic monuments, some bearing elaborate carved images of animals, including snakes and vultures, and geometric shapes.
Little is known about the people who built the hilltop site, 760 meters above sea level. The "temple" consists of a number of circles of massive T-shaped pillars, dating to roughly the time people were in transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture (though evidence from Israel indicates that some cultivation, certainly of grains, began as much as 23,000 years ago).
The rub is that hunter-gatherers had not been thought capable of having either the social sophistication, cohesion or resources to create monumental construction, let alone the gargantuan engineering effort involved in creating Gobekli Tepe (and similar sites, such as nearby Karahan Tepe).
Now the archaeologists are thinking hunter-gatherers not only built this extraordinary site, but were worshipping skulls. Or possibly their ancestors.
The Gobekli skulls, all from adults, bore clearly intentional deep incisions made by flint tools along the sagittal axes, transverse from back to front. One also had a drilled hole in the left parietal bone and remains of red ochre pigment. Aided by microscope technology, Gresky and the team ruled out natural causes – think hyenas, vultures and the like - for the marks. Animals probably wouldn't have ceremoniously painted the remains with red ocher, either.
Why would the ancients bother to do this to skulls? Possibly worship, or gloating. Or convenience: "Firstly, carvings may have fulfilled a quite practical function. In order that the lower jaw did not detach from the skull it may have been fastened with cord," suggests the German Archaeological Institute, adding, "The carved grooves on the skull would have stopped the cord from slipping on the roundish bone surface of the cranium. Further, the drilled perforation on the best preserved skull could have been used to suspend it from a beam or post."
Or maybe it had to do with worship. Veneration of ancestors seems to have been a habit in the whole area thousands of years before Stonehenge was even a gleam in the eye of proto-Druids.
The same explanation has been proffered for no-less extraordinary "plastered skulls" found throughout the region, from Israel to Turkey, also from around 9,500 years ago. That's within a fairly similar time frame as the carved skulls now uncovered at Gobekli Tepe.
These "plastered skulls" were actual crania that had been "fleshed out" with plaster; the result was then decorated, with the eyes represented by shells from the sea, which often was dozens or hundreds of kilometers away, underscoring the importance of the artifacts to their Neolithic manufacturers. More than 50 have been found.
Later civilizations also venerated the skull, and bone modification post-mortem was not rare. Evidently the manner of modification changed over the millennia: the type of modifications done to the Gobekli Tepe skulls was previously unknown, report Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute and colleagues.
There could be explanations other than ancestor veneration for the Gobekli skulls, though, which bore some evidence that they were defleshed shortly after death, claim the scientists. They could be evidence of the ancient Gobekli Tepeans gloating at enemies, much as the Turkish adversary in ancient Jaffa tormented the Napoleonic armies ten thousand years later by decapitating captured soldiers and putting their heads on stakes on top of the walls as a deterrent.
Gobekli Tepe and its temple monuments, some of which are 16 feet tall, had been lost for thousands of years. They were initially rediscovered in 1963 in a survey by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago. However, it took the late German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute to realize that what they'd found wasn't boring Neolithic grave markers, but exciting T-shaped monuments, some blank, some gorgeously carved.
More recently the remains of rooms and anthropomorphic statues were also unearthed at Gobekli Tepe, including a 66-centimeter tall standing person with hands meeting across its belly, face looking upwards. Perhaps he was carved in a position of veneration for ancestors.
So who built Gobekli Tepe? We don't even know at this point if the local population in southern Turkey (as it is today) had been cultivating food yet, or whether hunter-gatherers were capable of much more advanced societal endeavors than previously thought.
Evidence that Gobekli Tepe was peopled by hunter-gatherers as opposed to farming folk comes from the over 100,000 bits and bobs of bone found there, which had clearly been cooked. Analysis has shown they come from wild animals, chiefly gazelles, not domesticated beasts. If there were any at the time.
Some think hunter-gatherers may have started growing food precisely in order to sustain a community of sedentary people who built the site. Certainly, the area had the potential for the development of early agriculture. The great European ice sheet had already collapsed, changing the geography of Europe forever and creating more clement conditions, at least as far as mankind's physiology is concerned. Indeed, climatic conditions in southern Turkey at the time were so gorgeous that some believe the area inspired the tale of the Garden of Eden. That has yet to be proven.