Skull Cults, Human Sacrifices and Ritual Use of Human Bones in the Neolithic Middle East

Home | Category: Late Stone Age and Copper and Bronze Age / First Cities, Archaeology and Early Signs of Civilization


Jericho plastered skull

Skull cults, human sacrifices and ritual use of human bones all utilize rituals or are themselves rituals, which begs the question: What is a ritual? Natalie Munro, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, wrote: Rituals involve meaningful, often repeated actions. In modern-day practices they are expressed through rites such as the hooding of a doctoral student, birthdays, weddings or even sipping wine at Holy Communion or lighting Hanukkah candles. [Source:Natalie Munro,, December 27, 2017]

Ritual practice may have emerged along with other early modern human behaviors more than 100,000 years ago. However, proving this with material evidence is a challenge. For example, researchers have found that both Neanderthals and early modern humans buried their dead, but scholars weren’t certain whether this was for spiritual or symbolic reasons and not for something more mundane like maintaining site hygiene. Likewise, the discovery of 100,000-year-old symbolic artifacts like pierced shell ornaments and decorated chunks of red ochre in caves in South Africa, was not sufficient to prove that they were part of any ritual activities. It was only when archaeologists found these artifacts, placed in graves going back 40,000-20,000 years, that it was confirmed they were part of ritual practice.

Feasts sometimes accompanied rituals and played an important role in them as well as society as a whole. play. Adapting to village life after hundreds of millennia on the move was no simple act. Research on modern hunter-gatherer societies shows that closer contact between neighbors dramatically increased social tensions. New solutions to avoid and repair conflict were critical. One of the central functions of ritual in these communities was to provide a kind of social glue that bound community members by promoting social cohesion and solidarity. Feasts generate loyalty and commitment to the community’s success. Sharing food is intimate and it builds trust. .

The simultaneous appearance of feasting, communal structures and specialized ritual sites suggest that humans were seeking to solve this problem by engaging the community in ritual practice. Communal rituals would have provided a shared sense of identity at a time when social circles were increasing in scale and permanence. They reinforced new ideologies that emerged out of a dramatic reorganization of economic and social life.

Plastered Skulls

Plastered skulls dated to 7000 B.C. were found at Jericho They consist of actual human skulls covered with plaster “skin” and sea shell for eyes. Each head is different. Some archeologist speculate they were sealed "spirit" traps," designed to keep the soul from wandering around.

Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “With the dramatic evidence provided by cached human crania overmodelled with pigmented clay and inset shells for eyes, a ‘skull cult’ has long been seen as an aspect of the early Neolithic cultures of the Near East. The best-known examples are those from first John Garstang’s and then Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at the PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) settlement at Jericho. Others have been found at ’Ain Ghazal, Beisamoun, Kfar HaHoresh, Nahal Hemar, Yiftahel,Tell Aswad and Tell Ramad. The practice continued into the later Neolithic, as seen at Çatalhöyük and Köşk Höyük. While they are often referred to as plastered ‘skulls’, many known examples are crania, i.e. lacking the mandible; [Source: Mesolithic 'skull cults' by Rick J. Schulting, University of Oxford, Conference Paper at the conference “Ancient Death Ways II. Proceedings of the workshop on archaeology and mortuary practices” at Uppsala, Sweden May 2013 ~]

“The source of the modelled crania (or less frequently skulls) is reasonably clear, as a number of intra-mural burials at the same sites lack their crania, which had been carefully removed, often leaving behind the mandible with the rest of the skeleton. It is partly this that has led to their wide acceptance as indicating ancestor veneration; if they were, on the other hand, the decapitated heads of enemies, as recently argued by Alain Testart, we would expect to find the mandible and uppermost cervical vertebrae, as well as evidence of peri-mortem trauma. In fact the mandible is present in many cases, for example, the plastered skull of an adult male from Jericho; an adult female from Beisamoun , as well as a number of the spectacular examples from Tell-Aswad. However, the presence of vertebrae, while not unknown, is rare, and no evidence of peri-mortem injury has been reported. Arguing more strongly against their interpretation as trophy heads is the ubiquity of the practice of removing skulls or crania from burials in the region at this time, suggesting it was the normative mortuary practice, and the general absence of evidence for the cutmarks that would be required for decapitation. ~

“The skulls or crania of only a few individuals were selected for modelling, on criteria that are unknown. A widespread interpretation, beginning with Kenyon’s publication of the Jericho finds, is that they are the remains of venerated elderly male ancestors. Ancestor veneration in turn is often seen as going hand-in-hand with farming societies – hunter-gatherers, in contrast, are seen as having little interest in ‘ancestors’, and hence, in head cults. We return to this point below. The suggestion that ‘skulls’ are exclusively those of men, and particularly older adult men, while fitting with the ‘venerated ancestor’ hypothesis, is problematic given that examples involving the crania of young men, women and indeed children have long been known . However, sexing plastered crania is difficult, so that for some researchers the jury is still out as to whether females are represented. What can be said is that, although a small number of juveniles may be represented, the overwhelming majority are adult. ~

“While the plastered ‘skulls’ have understandably received the most attention, the removal and secondary deposition of crania was common in both the PPNB and preceding PPNA, especially for adults (both male and female) but also occasionally for children and infants. This practice is known from at least the Late Natufian, with a number of examples extending it into the Early Natufian . Thus, if there is a relationship with ‘ancestors’, it is not one that emerges only with early farming societies in the Neolithic. On the other hand, it could be argued that the appearance of a cult of the ancestors was one aspect of the wider changes taking place within the Natufian, ultimately leading to domestication and farming in the PPNA. As noted by Michelle Bonogofsky, the presence of women and perhaps children in the corpus of modelled crania and skulls has arguably received insufficient attention in terms of the prevailing interpretation (which emphasises male ancestors), but is not necessarily a problem, since the ‘ancestors’ are not an essentialist category in any case, but are actively created from a complex set of beliefs. Ian Kuijt has discussed some of the dual processes of remembering and forgetting in relation to the modelled skulls in their transition from specific persons to undifferentiated ‘ancestors’. For our purposes here, the important point is that the elaborate treatment of the skulls/crania of a small number of select individuals in the PPNB had earlier antecedents in the removal of crania as part of a secondary mortuary rite extending back through the PPNA and into the Early and Late Natufian.” ~

Human Sacrifice in Turkey 5,000 Years Ago

In 2018, archaeologists working in announced that they had discovered of at least eleven children who were killed as part of an ancient ritualistic sacrifice. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The excavation of an extravagant tomb in a Bronze Age cemetery in Turkey dates the site to between 3100 and 2800 B.C.. Some of the remains show evidence of stab wounds, and one male victim experienced injuries to his head and hip. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, July 14, 2018]

The cause of death of some of the others interred there is less clear, but it is the manner in which the bodies are arranged that leads the investigators to argue that this was human sacrifice. The bodies of the eight young people (approximately eleven years old and older) were elaborately arranged around the remains of two younger children. They were then surrounded with lavish grave goods.

Lead scientist Dr. Brenna Hassett of the Natural History Museum in London said, “The burials are remarkable because of the youth of the individuals, the number that were buried and the large wealth of objects that were buried with them. Women and children in Mesopotamia were occasionally buried with grave goods, but they were normally personal belongings.” The mode of burial, therefore, suggests that something unusual happened here.

Gobekli Tepe ‘Skull Cult’

Gobekli Tepe skull

Jason Urbanus wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Göbekli Tepe is one of the world’s most significant, yet mysterious, archaeological sites. Between the tenth and eighth millennia B.C., people there erected a series of massive stone circles where groups gathered for religious or social purposes. [Source: Jason Urbanus, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2018]

In 2018, researchers revealed that microscopic analysis of bone fragments found at the site suggests that human skulls may once have hung there on prominent display. The fragments belong to three partially preserved skulls that were carved and altered after death. This is the first indication of how Göbekli Tepe’s inhabitants may have treated their dead, and archaeologists believe it may provide evidence of an Early Neolithic “skull cult” that exhibited the decapitated heads of either venerated ancestors or dispatched enemies at designated spots.

The discovery further underscores the complex ritual behavior exhibited at Göbekli Tepe. Marks on the three partial skulls indicate that they were de-fleshed, modified, and even painted. Deep incisions were repeatedly carved into the skulls with stone tools to create grooves that ran up the forehead and toward the back of the head. According to researcher Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute, the skulls may have been suspended by a cord that wrapped around the head and passed through a small drill hole at the top. The incised grooves would have prevented the cord from slipping along the smooth surface of the bone as it dangled. “The three modified skulls attest to the special treatment of certain individuals and represent an entirely new category of find,” she says, “one which testifies to the interaction of the living with the dead at this important Early Neolithic ritual center.”

Paleolithic Skull Treatments

Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “As with later periods, there is the need for an element of caution in recognising evidence for special treatment of the human skull in the Palaeolithic. To a large extent this relates to the circumstances and early date of recovery, often in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. The elements of the human skull are both relatively robust and easily recognised, as well as having been highly sought after by the fledgling science of physical anthropology. One might argue that in the prehistoric past as well as when recovered archaeologically, human skulls embody identity in a particularly powerful and compelling form. For the living individual, of course, facial features provide the most immediately accessible means of inter-personal recognition. When combined with skin, hair and eye colour, hair styles and the use of ornamentation the head can become a marker of group affiliation (artificial cranial modification and dental ablation might also be mentioned in this context). Ironically, when recovered archaeologically, the main concern of physical anthropologists was (and to an extent remains) similarly the identification of different racial groups and populations through craniometrics. Cranial remains in particular were thus more likely to be recovered, retained and described in publications. In the case of disturbed skeletal remains – which feature strongly in the archaeo logical record of the Palaeolithic – it is not always clear whether or not postcranial remains were present. [Source: Mesolithic 'skull cults' by Rick J. Schulting, University of Oxford, Conference Paper at the conference “Ancient Death Ways II. Proceedings of the workshop on archaeology and mortuary practices” at Uppsala, Sweden May 2013 ~]

“With this caveat in mind, there is still clear evidence for a special interest in heads in the Upper Palaeolithic, particularly in the Magdalenian. Jörg Orschiedt has provided a recent survey of the evidence, noting a dominance of cranial and mandibular remains, many exhibiting cutmarks, that can only be explained by deliberate selection. At Brillenhöhle (BadenWürttemberg, Germany), for example, there is evidence for careful defleshing of crania as well as postcrania, including cutmarks in positions indicating decapitation and scalping. This is interpreted by Orschiedt as occurring in the context of a complex mortuary treatment rather than as evidence of violence or anthropophagy (cannibalism). Secondary burial is indicated for the well-preserved cranium (sans mandible) of an adult male at Rond-duBarry (Auvergne, France), reportedly found within a setting of stones. No cutmarks are reported, so this might have involved the intentional retrieval of the cranium from a burial, with concomitant implications for marking or remembering grave locations. A striking but unfortunately poorly documented example of post-mortem modification involves the isolated cranium of a young female from Mas d’Azil (Ariège, France), into the orbits of which had been placed bone discs carved from deer vertebrae. These have unfortunately been lost. ~

plastered skull from Jericho

“A well-known aspect of manipulation of the dead in the Magdalenian involves the preparation of so-called ‘skull cups’. These are modified human crania, exhibiting cutmarks indicative of defleshing, and the removal of the facial area and basicranium through repeated blows, leaving a crudely shaped ‘cup’, though there is no evidence for their use in this capacity. Orschiedt (2002a) does suggest, however, that the example from Brillenhöhle was used to carry the small number of postcranial remains – many also bearing cutmarks – found at the site, as they all fit into the modified calotte. There are multiple examples from the sites of La Placard (Charente, France), Isturitz (Gironde, France) and Gough’s Cave (Somerset, England). ~

“A series of broadly comparable practices was carried out on human remains in the Epipalaeolithic Iberomaurusian and early Holocene Capsian cultures of North Africa. Both cranial and postcranial remains show evidence of post-mortem treatment, including defleshing and the use of red ochre. Occasionally, the head appears to have been the subject of more elaborate treatment than the rest of the body. One suggestion for the evidence of cutmarks, defleshing and dismemberment is that it relates to preparation of the body for transport to an appropriate burial location by mobile hunter-gatherers, an argument that has also been made in relation to secondary burial and ‘skull’ removal in the Natufian. ~

“An intriguing discovery from the Capsian site of Faïd Souar II (Algeria) consists of the front half of an adult skull, sectioned part-way through the parietals, with two drilled perforations, one on either side of the cranial vault. Originally discussed as a mask or a trophy, a recent reanalysis notes the lack of use-wear within the perforations, suggesting that, whatever its use, it was either very short-lived or infrequent. This specimen is also remarkable for a carved bone ‘tooth’ inserted into the abscessed socket of the right maxillary second premolar. Whether this was done while the individual was living, or after death is uncertain. Ironically, dental ablation of the upper central incisors was a common practice in the Iberomaurusian, becoming less frequent and more variable in terms of the teeth removed in the Capsian. Perhaps initially an initiation rite, its meaning may have changed through time. Given its high visibility, dental ablation would have certainly acted as a marker of identity at some level, though this likely would have varied geographically and chronologically. In the Caspian, more females than male are affected, suggesting that the practice was at least partly gendered at this time.” ~ Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “Without doubt the most spectacular finding in recent years in European Mesolithic studies is the site of Kanaljorden (Östergötland, Sweden). Here was found a number of human crania set on stakes on a submerged stone platform within a small, shallow lake adjacent to the river Motala Ström. Again, an important detail is that few mandibles were present, indicating that rather than heads, these were at least partially decomposed crania. Complicating this picture, however, is the fact that one of the crania was found to contain brain matter, indicating that either it derived from a relatively recently deceased individual, or that it was retrieved from a location with excellent preservational properties – such as would be supplied by the anaerobic conditions of small lakes and bogs. As with most discussions concerning the special treatment of human heads, the question arises as to whether this is a complex mortuary treatment carried out by one’s own group, or related to the taking of enemy heads as trophies. These alternatives, rather than being mutually exclusive, can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin: if the power to act or to intercede on behalf of the living is imputed to the dead, and in particular to the distillation encapsulated by the head, then taking that power away from an enemy forms part of the same logic. [Source: Mesolithic 'skull cults' by Rick J. Schulting, University of Oxford, Conference Paper at the conference “Ancient Death Ways II. Proceedings of the workshop on archaeology and mortuary practices” at Uppsala, Sweden May 2013 ~]

“Kanaljorden aside, some of the most compelling evidence for practices involving human heads in the European Mesolithic comes from the sites of Ofnet, Kaufertsberg (Bayern) and Hohlenstein-Stadel (Baden-Württemberg) in south-west Germany and Mannlefelsen (Alsace) in north-east France. These sites are of particular interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, and unlike the examples discussed up to this point, the presence of the mandible and one or more upper cervical vertebrae unequivocally indicates that these were fleshed heads when deposited, presumably not long after removal from the body, though this last aspect is open to further discussion: Ian Armit has suggested that the heads may have been dried and curated. The presence of soft tissue is further confirmed by the presence of cutmarks on the vertebrae. Secondly, there is considerable evidence for trauma on the crania. All three individuals at Hohlenstein-Stadel – an adult male and female, and a young child – show peri-mortem blows (occurring at or around the time of death). The child’s cranial vault is enlarged and distorted, a condition consistent with hydrocephaly. Untreated, the condition is invariably fatal. It may arise in infancy, leading not only to obvious shape changes in the child’s head, but also to behavioural changes. The rapid onset and highly visible nature of the condition may have been seen as inauspicious, and may have led to the killing of the child together with its parents (although the genetic link has not been confirmed). The single adult male skull at Mannlefelsen exhibits both cutmarks and perimortem injuries according to a recent re-analysis. No injuries have been reported for the young adult male skull from Kaufertsberg, though of course this need not mean that this individual did not also die violently. ~

“In terms of the number of individuals involved, Ofnet clearly stands out from the other sites. In 1908 two ‘skull nests’ were found within Ofnet cave, Bavaria, comprising a smaller group of six skulls in one pit, and a larger group of 28 in another. The exact number is unclear, which is not surprising given the fragmentary nature of the remains, the presence of many younger children with more fragile and unfused crania, and the early nineteenth century date of recovery. All of the skulls – or rather heads at the time they were deposited – were oriented facing west, while the cave itself opens to the south-west, leaving it uncertain whether they faced the entrance or the cave wall adjacent to it; the importance of direction is suggested by the Kaufertsberg skull, which Judith Grünberg has suggested was positioned to look out across the valley. A number of the Ofnet skulls were covered with red ochre and abundant red deer and shell bead ornamentation. Many have commented on the site’s unusual demography, which seems to indicate an overrepresentation of children and a paucity of adult males relative to a living community: of the 14 or 15 adults in the two pits, nine or ten are female and five are male. Both points are debatable. Firstly, subadult presence and mortality would be expected to be high at this time (it is the underrepresentation of young children that is the anomalous feature of many archaeological cemeteries). And secondly, given the relatively small number of individuals involved, the female–male ratio (10:5) in fact does not depart significantly from 50:50 (one-tailed binomial p = 0.151). ~

“While the exact number is uncertain, many of the Ofnet crania show evidence of peri-mortem trauma in the form of stone axe blows. With the claimed percentage affected varying between ca. 20% and 60%, this in itself strongly suggests that burial assemblage is far from reflecting a normative mortuary rite. This is further supported by the injuries found on the skulls from Hohlenstein-Stadel and Mannlefelsen. This may be a mortuary rite specifically for those dying violently, though this raises the question of why so many children are represented at Ofnet, unless this is indeed a massacre site (and not all the crania need necessarily provide evidence of injury, as some individuals may have been killed in other ways). One problem is that so little is known of other contemporary burial practices in the region. In any case, the ritual importance of the head is indicated. Their careful placement within pits, together with red ochre and, at Ofnet, abundant bead ornamentation, together with their shared orientation, all speak of these heads being perceived as having special power. Thus, the evidence from SW Germany and NE France suggests that the term ‘skull cult’ might not be inappropriate, though this depends on exactly what the term is taken to mean. Certainly an interest in the head can be seen, but whether their careful treatment qualifies as veneration – a central feature of the definition – is unclear. ~

“The main point of controversy regarding Ofnet has from the beginning revolved around its chronology. The initial debate focused on whether the ‘skull nests’ should be attributed to the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic or Neolithic. As Naber points out, even before any direct dating was carried out, the recorded stratigraphy and closely associated microliths supported a Mesolithic date. A series of radiocarbon dates confirmed this attribution. The next issue, still unresolved, relates to whether deposition of the skulls occurred over some centuries, or over a much shorter period, perhaps even as a single event. If the latter, and given the evidence for peri-mortem trauma, the possibility of a massacre presents itself, a position taken by David Frayer. If the two pits are contemporary, the 34 men, women and children could well represent an entire hunter-gatherer band – an extraordinary level of violence for this period. Jörg Orscheidt, on the other hand, has argued that the range of radiocarbon dates obtained on the remains is more consistent with repeated deposition spanning some centuries. The available dating is simply not good enough to decide between these two alternatives. A new dating programme is currently underway, with the specific aim of assessing the duration of use of the two pits at Ofnet. While it will not be possible to positively identify a single event, higher precision dates combined with Bayesian modelling should be able to distinguish between deposition occurring over more or less than a generation. If the dates are consistent with a generation or less (i.e. approximately 20 years), it would strongly support the massacre hypothesis.” ~

Ancestor Veneration, Trophy Skulls and Angry Spirits

9,000-Year-Old ‘Spirit’ Cult Masks from the Judean Hills in Israel

Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “No formal definition of ‘head cult’ or ‘skull cult’ has been provided here, beyond noting that it typically entails an element of veneration of the human head. The evidence for formal deposition in the Mesolithic is sufficient to posit a ritual context, though whether and to what extent this equates to veneration is open to debate. But assuming it does, what follows? In the introduction to this paper, the putative links between ancestor veneration and farming were noted (in the form of the extended Near Eastern tradition, dating back to the Early Natufian, of cranium/skull removal and the subsequent PPNB tradition of plastered ‘skulls’). Can such links be supported for hunter-gatherers, and, if so, what do they tell us? Using a sample of over 100 societies from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), Dean Sheils (1975) investigated the structural correlates of ancestor worship. His findings clearly linked ancestor worship with unilineal descent, and with the presence of polygyny. While a statistically significant relationship (p = 0.01) between ancestor worship and agricultural level was also identified, Sheils felt this to be spurious, an outcome of the fact that farming societies were more likely to exhibit the other traits, and that these were the more important causal factors. Regardless, what is important to note here is that, using the data provided, eight of 23 hunter-gatherer societies (ca. 35%) exhibit some form of ancestor worship. While this is significantly less than seen in horticulturalists (49 of 62 societies, or 79%), it does show that ancestor worship is far from uncommon in hunter-gatherers. Nor, it might be remarked, did Sheil’s study include any of the complex fisherhunter-gatherers of the Northwest Coast of North America, where ancestry certainly featured strongly, to the extent that heraldic art, hereditary leadership and institutionalised slavery existed. [Source: Mesolithic 'skull cults' by Rick J. Schulting, University of Oxford, Conference Paper at the conference “Ancient Death Ways II. Proceedings of the workshop on archaeology and mortuary practices” at Uppsala, Sweden May 2013 ~]

“If some form of ancestor worship did feature in the Mesolithic, it might imply a stronger sense and expression of territoriality, as is often proposed in relation to the presence of formal cemeteries, usually in the context of farming societies. But it is clear that huntergatherers can also act territorially, indeed in some cases extremely so (i.e. the use of lethal violence in response to boundary transgression). It is in such contexts that the distinction between the ancestor veneration and the taking of trophy heads can become blurred. There is sufficient ethnographic and archaeological evidence for the practice of head taking among hunter-gatherers that this – like expressions of territoriality and a marked interest in ancestors – should come as no surprise. The cultures of the Northwest Coast clearly demonstrate all of these features.

A midnineteenth century painting by the artist and traveller Paul Kane documents the return of a Songhees (Central Coast Salish) war party to their village near what was then Fort Victoria (now Victoria, British Columbia). A standing figure in the prow of the first of two canoes is shown holding up a head, while a corresponding figure in the second canoe is depicted holding a head in each outstretched arm. An additional head appears to be stuck on a pole in each vessel’s stern. Though this image may be a composite of a number of scenes witnessed by Kane, there is more than enough corroborative evidence for events precisely of this type that there is no question of its veracity. And, lest this behaviour be seen as brought about by the undoubted disruptions caused by Euroamerican contact, the archaeological record supports the considerable timedepth of the taking of trophy skulls. Dating from around 200 BC to AD 400, skeletons at the Boardwalk site, Prince Rupert Harbour (British Columbia) show considerable evidence for interpersonal violence, with some graves including elaborate weapons (e.g. carved whalebone clubs). Trophy skulls were found in at least one burial and in one cache at Boardwalk, and have been recovered from other sites in the area. ~

“The issue of differentiating between a ‘venerated ancestor’ and a trophy head is not seen as problematic in itself (though identifying which is in play in any particular instance of course remains difficult), since they can be interpreted as two sides of the same coin, an outcome of the belief that the head holds or concentrates the life force. The ways in which this is harnessed are diverse, but often involve corporeal remains. In some ethnographically known instances, however, heads were simply discarded in the bush after being taken on raids, it being the act of taking the head that was of paramount importance – it is unlikely that evidence of such practices would be forthcoming archaeologically. But in many other cases, heads, whether of ancestors (however defined) or enemies, were retained, sometimes only for a short period, and sometimes for many decades. Here again, the division between the two can be blurred, as among the Naga hill tribes of north-east India, who took the heads of enemies but converted them into their own ‘ancestors’ who were meant to sustain fertility of both people and crops. ~

“Moreover, while often presented and discussed as two extremes – ancestor veneration or enemy trophies – the skull may be interpreted in other ways when found separated from the postcranial skeleton. The heads of the deceased may have been treated in certain ways depending on the circumstances surrounding death, and have had more to do with appeasing angry spirits than with either veneration or trophy-taking. The distinction may blur when the angry spirits belong to those who died violently; indeed, this recalls the careful treatment of the buried skulls at Ofnet and Hohlenstein-Stadel. Seen in this context, the mortuary rites carried out by the survivors or by perpetrators (whether or not seen as a massacre, the evidence for lethal violence remains) may not differ substantially. The dangerous power of the dead can also be harnessed by shamans and sorcerers. This could potentially involve very elaborate ritual treatment that would nevertheless again have nothing to do with either veneration or trophytaking. Sorcerers among the Kwakwaka’wak (Kwakiutl) and Nuxalk (Bella Coola) of the cental coast of British Columbia used human skulls robbed from graves to curse people, inserting into them pieces of clothing or other personal items of the intended victim. Among the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) of western Vancouver Island, the voices of the dead were believed to have the power to call whales, and so chiefs used the corpses of the recently deceased to entice them towards their villages where they could be hunted more easily. While the entire corpse featured, the focus was on the head, a tube being inserted through a hole made in the back of the neck into the mouth through which to call the whale. Numerous additional examples from the ethnographic literature and indeed more recent contexts could be cited, but these serve to make the point. On the other hand, it is likely that societies attributing such powers to the deceased also practised some form of ancestor veneration and trophy-taking: both certainly featured among the Nuxalk and Nuu-chah-nulth. The ‘coin’ in this case simply has more than two sides.” ~

Gobekli Tepe

Neolithic Cult Sites and Spirit Masks in Israel

About 100 prehistoric "cult sites," many with penis stone structures and artifacts with vulva shapes cut into them, have been discovered in the Eilat Mountains, an extremely arid area of the Negev Desert in Israel.Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: At the sites, which date back around 8,000 years, archaeologists discovered a variety of stone structures and artifacts, including stone circles that measure 1.5 to 2.5 meters across (roughly 5 to 8 feet) with penis-shaped installations pointing toward them. Other findings there include standing stones that reach up to 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) high, stone bowls and stone carvings that have a humanlike shape. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, February 9, 2015]

The skull cult sites are often clustered together. In one area the team discovered 44 cult sites in a spot encompassing only 0.8 square kilometers (less than 200 acres). "Taking in[to] consideration the topography, environmental conditions and the small number of known Neolithic habitations in the general southern Negev, the density of cult sites in this region is phenomenal," the team wrote in an article published in the Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society.

Limestone “spirit” masks, estimated to be 9,000 years old, were found in the Judean Desert and Hills. Believed to be part of an ancestor worship cult, they weigh one or two kilograms and are oval shaped visage, according to the Times of Israel, “with glaring ocular cavities, toothy maws, and a set of holes along the outer edge. They were likely painted in antiquity, but only one has remnants of pigment. Each of the 12 is unique, and possibly depicts individuals. Some of the faces are old, others appear younger. One is a miniature, the size of a brooch. They may represent ancestors venerated as part of an early Stone Age religion. “It is important to say that these are not living people, these are spirits,” said Dr. Debby Hershman, curator of prehistoric cultures at the Israel Museum, who organized an exhibit of the masks in 2014. She was reluctant to place a mask from the exhibit over her face out of reverence for bygone traditions. [Source: By Ilan Ben Zion, Times of Israel, March 5, 2014]

Wand' Engraved With Human Faces Found Near 30 Headless Skeletons in Syria

In 2014, archaeologists found an ancient 'wand' engraved with two human faces near a burial site in southern Syria. The 9,000-year-old item, probably made of an auroch rib bone, likely depicted 'powerful supernatural beings,' archaeologists said. They excavated the wand from Tell Qarassa, one the few archaeological sites not damaged by war in Syria. [Source: Haaretz, Mar 17, 2014]

Haaretz reported: The five centimeters (two inch) wand was found near a burial site, where 30 headless skeletons were discovered previously. Archaeologists say the findings shed light on the rituals of people who lived in the Neolithic period. "The find is very unusual. It's unique," study co-author Frank Braemer, an archaeologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France told Livescience.

"Earlier traditions of figurative art had avoided the detailed and naturalistic representation of the human face. Fundamental changes occurred during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic with the famous plastered skulls of Jericho and other sites," International Business Times cited the archaeologists as saying. "Statues, masks and smaller carvings also appeared," they said in the findings, which were published in March in the journal Antiquity.

The auroch-bone wand, found by archaeologists during digs at Tell Qarassa in 2007 and 2009, was possibly used in a burial ritual, archaeologists believe."This small bone object from a funerary layer can be related to monumental statuary of the same period in the southern Levant and south-east Anatolia that probably depicted powerful supernatural beings," the experts said. "It may also betoken a new way of perceiving human identity and of facing the inevitability of death. By representing the deceased in visual form, the living and the dead were brought closer together."

The wand was created when the inhabitants of the region were making the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. According to Archaeology magazine: “The carved bone artifact has been interpreted as a kind of wand used in funerary rituals. Although there are other examples of carved bone wands, none display human faces. Only two faces remain on this example, but it is clear that the wand was deliberately broken or cut, and that, at one time, there were probably more faces on the bottom. [Source: Archaeology magazine, July-August 2014]

“It is the quality of the faces on the wand, not just their existence, that is revolutionary. According to Tell Qarassa project archaeologists, the artifact is of great significance for the study of the origins and meanings of human representation. Previously, humans were portrayed in a stylized way, but on the wand and other contemporaneous artifacts from the Neolithic Near East, faces start to be portrayed more naturalistically. The artist clearly wanted to focus attention on the closed eyes and mouth, as these are the most deeply engraved features. While no individual person is represented, there is a deliberate attempt to stress facial traits and, according to the archaeologists, concepts of personhood. This represents “a major innovation in the way the first farming communities conceived of the human image and a new way of perceiving human identity,” says archaeologist Juan José Ibañez Estevez.

Where the 9,000-Year-Old ‘Spirit’ Cult Masks came from in the Judean Hills and Desert in Israel

House Burials in the Near East

In the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods it was common practice to bury bodies within dwellings and return to a burial to retrieve a skull. Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: Skulls were curated; sometimes, facial features were modelled onto them. Groups of curated skulls have been found buried in or near houses in caches. Ian Kuijt has written of the cycles of ritual, a first cycle involving the burial of the newly dead body, the second involving the retrieval and curation of skulls, and a third involving the burial of caches of skulls. Thus we can see how memory was formed, modified, shared, reframed and shared again. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

“There are two more observations that we can make when we look at the traditions that had developed to frame how bodies were buried in many settlements around the hilly flanks zone. The first is that the number of burials found is never enough to account for the population of the inhabitants who must have lived within the area that has been excavated. In most cases, the number of burials can only equate to a very small percentage of the population. Even at Çatalhöyük, which is famous for the large numbers of bodies found buried beneath the floors of its crowded houses, the excavators estimate that the bodies buried within the houses represent at most half of the population. Since the buried bodies seem to represent a fairly representative cross-section of the population — there are generally as many males as females, and there are children and adolescents, as well as a minority who have reached old age — we can infer that some processes of selection were employed that were not governed by concerns for age, seniority, acquired status or sex. For lack of evidence of any other selection criteria, perhaps we should instead think that a death could be the occasion for ceremonies and rituals that needed to be performed from time to time. Thus, the dead body and its burial might be the necessary medium for ceremonies whose main focus was not on the proper disposal of the body. At Çatalhöyük, for example, there are bodies buried beneath the founding of the wall of a house, or under a doorway between a main and a secondary room. /+\

“The second observation, which has a bearing on memory and tradition, is that there is a very general set of rules that say that certain bodies should be selected for burial within the settlement, in or close to a house; and that, after a due interval, the grave should be dug into and the whole skull or cranium should be retrieved; on the other hand, the precise way in which those general precepts should be articulated is something that has become differentiated from one community to another. As more and more settlements have been investigated, the variations in practice have become clearer. While the usual position of the buried body is lying in a flexed or contracted position on its side, there were communities that did things differently. At Tell Halula, on the Euphrates in the north of Syria, for example, a deep cylindrical pit was dug, and the body, wrapped and bound in a cloth, was placed in a sitting position with the knees drawn up under the chin.

At Tell Aswad, near Damascus in Syria, bodies were placed against the base of the house wall, sometimes on the exterior face, and sometimes inside the house, or partly in a hollow that was cut into the base of the wall, and covered with soil; the mound that covered the body was plastered over in the same way that floors and wall surfaces were plastered . Here, small plastered mounds were very visible reminders of the ceremony and the body at the centre of that ceremony. But, at a certain point in time, that singular tradition that had developed at Tell Aswad was abandoned, and a quite different, but equally distinct practice was devised to replace it. Two mortuary areas, consisting of broad scoops cut into the earlier strata, were established at the edge of the built-up area of the settlement. Each mortuary area was initiated by the burial of a clutch of skulls. Those skulls had also had facial features modelled in clay on them and painted there in the Levant, but they are rare, although they have been frequently illustrated in books since the first examples were found at Jericho more than half a century ago. Skulls have been found reburied in small groups. But in this case, the last act in the ritual cycles of burial, skull retrieval, curation and reburial was used to institute a new cycle of burials. The deposit of a clutch of skulls was followed by a succession of single and multiple burials of bodies in both mortuary areas.” /+\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Gobekli Tepe skull from Public Radio International and Neolithic cult objects by Uzi Avner

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.