plastered skull from Jericho

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Skull cult, veneration of human skulls, usually those of ancestors, by various prehistoric and some modern primitive people. Begun probably as early as the Early Paleolithic Period, the practice of preserving and honouring the skull apart from the rest of the skeleton appears to have continued in different forms throughout prehistoric times. Although some scholars believe that these skulls demonstrate prehistoric man’s cannibalism, most authorities agree that the skulls were cleaned and set up for worship long after death. [Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]

“Prehistoric man also paid special attention to animal skulls. This practice is believed to have been a type of hunting magic, whereas the human skulls were honoured with the reverence accorded to heroic ancestors and perhaps also were thought to assure the possessor of the protection and help of the deceased.

In presentation on skull treatments in the Mesolithic era (11,600-4000 B.C.), Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “The human head holds four of the body’s five main senses – sight, hearing, smell and taste – and shares the fifth, touch. Taken together with the uniqueness of facial features and their expressive capacity for communicating emotional states, it is not surprising that cultures around the world evince a strong interest in the head, in its embellishment with cosmetics and with adornments, in the elaboration of hair styles, and the wearing of head gear, as well as its prominent iconographic presence in what can be broadly termed ‘art’. And in death, if the corporeal remains are manipulated at all, it is the head that is often singled out for special treatment. [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 ~]

“There is a rich ethnographic record documenting such practices, and for many periods of the historic and prehistoric past there is abundant archaeological evidence for the importance attached to the head, although specific meanings may be debated. But the archaeological record becomes progressively more difficult to read the further back in time one moves, if only because it tends to be far more fragmentary and incomplete. Nevertheless, a number of both old and recent finds combine to suggest a special interest in the human head in Mesolithic communities in various parts of Europe and adjacent regions of Southwest Asia and North Africa. But aside from being of some intrinsic interest, what does this behaviour tell us about people’s views of themselves and their world? This contribution presents a survey of some of the evidence for practices involving the human skull in Mesolithic Europe, with brief forays into the aforementioned adjacent regions, touching upon both earlier and later periods before returning to the paper’s central theme: Is there evidence for a Mesolithic ‘skull cult’, and, if so, how might it be understood? ~

“The skull consists of the cranium and the mandible, whereas the cranium lacks the mandible. Since the mandible easily becomes detached from the cranium as the corpse decays, its presence indicates an intact head. One or more upper cervical vertebrae would also be expected to be present in this case. A cranium, conversely, may have been collected at any time (e.g. by digging into a grave and removing it) and so does not have the same connotations.~ “While long known as a feature of the Near Eastern Neolithic, there is growing evidence for the special treatment of the human head in Mesolithic Europe. This takes the form of secondary deposition of crania and mandibles, often in unusual contexts, including as ‘grave goods’ with other burials; cutmarks suggesting decapitation, scalping and defleshing; and the deposition of fleshed heads in pits, as well as, most recently, on stakes in shallow pools. After reviewing this evidence, discussion turns to its interpretation. Possible links with the ‘ancestors’ are explored, and ethnographic support for their importance among hunter-gatherers is reviewed. If accepted, there may be implications for the expression of territoriality in the Mesolithic. The blurring of the lines between revered ancestor and enemy when interpreting the treatment of human heads is emphasised.” ~

Websites and Resources on Prehistory: Wikipedia article on Prehistory Wikipedia ; Early Humans ; Prehistoric Art ; Evolution of Modern Humans ; Iceman Photscan ; Otzi Official Site Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History ;

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons: online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

14,700-Year-Old Skull Cups Found in British Cave

skull cup from Gough's Cave

In 2012, British archaeologists said they had found 14,700-year-old skull cup in a cave in southwest England. Gregory Katz of Associated Press wrote: “Ice age Britons drank from human skulls and may even have eaten flesh and bone marrow, but they were far from barbarians. The bowls look almost like works of art, ritual items laced with meaning. Look more closely, however, and it becomes clear they are made from human skulls. Scientists say they are the oldest known carbon-dated skull cups, said by experts to be about 14,700 years old. [Source: By Gregory Katz, Associated Press, February 28, 2011]

“British scientists writing in the Public Library of Science journal maintain the cups were fashioned in such a meticulous way that they only credible explanation for their manufacture is that they were used as bowls to hold liquid. If the hunters and gatherers simply wanted to eat the deceased person’s brains, there would have been far easier ways to get at them, scientists said. Experts believe the rare cups — two made from adults skulls, one from a child thought to be about three years-old — were used in some sort of ritual, as was common in many parts of the world. “It is likely that this was part of some symbolic ritual and not mere necessity,” said Sylvia Bello, lead author of the study. She said that the artifacts demonstrate how skilled early humans were at the manipulation of human bodies.

“The practice of using human skulls as cups or bowls has been well documented in many cultures, and in some cases skull cups have been elaborately decorated and used to adorn temples and in religious ceremonies. The practice was documented by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.. But the three skull cups found in an English cave are the only known examples from the British Isles, scientists said. The three skulls aren’t the first historic clues to early man found in Gough’s Cave in Somerset. In 1903, the complete skeleton of a man dated to about 10,000 years ago was found at the same site. Explorations of the site, which in human and animal remains, began even earlier.

“Although the team found indications that some of the flesh and bone marrow from the skulls was eaten, they concluded that cannibalism was unlikely to have been the main purpose of the modifications. It is impossible to say the flesh was consumed,” Bello said. “They could have de-fleshed to have a clean skull to work with, but then did they consume part of the brain or the soft tissue? We can’t prove it. I don’t know if they then consumed the brain, but that wasn’t the first purpose.” She did say the bone marrow seems to have been consumed.

“The use of skulls as cups or bowls in northern Europe is thought to have been fairly common during that time frame, but it is very rare to find actual examples that can be accurately dated by modern techniques, said Rick Schulting, an archaeology professor at the University of Oxford. “These finds are important because there are so few finds from this period,” he said. “These are fully modern humans like us but we have very little insight into what they thought about themselves and their world. We know they had some burials, we know they cared about their dead. This adds complexity to their world.”

“He said they were probably used in the ritual consumption of human remains, but said details cannot be known. “It’s not some barbaric bloodthirsty example,” said Schulting, who was not involved in the project. “It’s always a ritualistic setting where you eat the remains of the dead, but we can’t know in this case whether you’re eating your own revered ancestors, to keep in contact, or eating the outsider, the enemy, as a way of insulting them and imbibing their power and their spirit.” He said it was not unusual in that time period for people to consume the brain, which is seen as the seat of an individual’s identity, but it is not clear because of the lack of evidence whether this was done as an act of respect or contempt. The distribution of cut marks seen on the skulls indicates that they were scrupulously “cleaned” of any soft tissues, and subsequently modified by the removal of the facial region. The skulls were then meticulously shaped into cups by retouching the broken edges, Bello said. “All in all it was a very painstaking process given the tools available,” she said.

Evidence of Cannibalism in Spain 10,000 Years Ago?

possibel signs of cannibalism on a Gough's Cave skull

Purported evidence of cannibalism on human bones dated to about 10,000 years ago has been found in a cave about an hour's drive south of Valencia, Spain. Mike McRae wrote in Science Alert, “Researchers studying the dig site of Coves de Santa Maira have studied 30 human bones uncovered over the past few decades that appear to belong to at least two adults and a young child, all of whom lived some time during the final thousand years of the last glacial period.

Many of the adult bones show signs of having been cut and hammered with stone tools, heated, and possibly bitten by other humans, and were found scattered among the remains of other animals, such as ibex and red deer. Intriguingly, differences in radio-carbon dating suggest this occurred on at least two separate occasions. [Source: Mike McRae, Science Alert, March 22, 2017 =||=]

“While cannibalism is a taboo practice today, it's not at all uncommon in nature, or even in our own past. But proving what anthropologists call 'anthropophagic practices' within ancient cultures is no simple task. From an evidence-based perspective, signs of cooking could sometimes be the result of normal funerary practices, or even just the wear and tear of the remains as they slowly move about over the millennia. "In North African sites ... there are dismembered human remains with cut marks associated with secondary burials," the researchers point out in their recent paper. =||=

“It's important not to jump to conclusions too quickly, given in some cases bodies were dug up, cut up, and buried in pieces without being served with a side of rabbit. To be fairly certain that these bones are evidence of cannibalism among our ancient relatives, the researchers applied the following checklist based on the work of French anthropologist Bruno Boulestin: 1) Direct proof: the presence of human bones within human coprolites or the identification of human bites on human bones; 2) Indirect proof: mainly cooking or pot polish marks; 3) First-order primary criteria: anthropogenic fracture and differential anatomical representation; 4) Second-order primary criteria: mainly cut marks; 5) Secondary criteria that are not directly related to functional exploitation: position and preservation of the bones and presence of burned bones. =||=

“In simpler terms, if you find human bones in human poo, marks on bones associated with cooking, bones that seem to have been pounded open or cut into with a tool, or bones scattered rather than neatly placed, you can confidently conclude 'cannibalism'. In this case, the researchers were able to tick boxes 2-5, missing out on human bones in coprolite, or preserved faeces. Distinguishing the marks made by our own teeth from those of an animal isn't always clear, yet in this case the researchers were fairly sure the double arch punctures and triangular pits were a good sign that they came from human canines and molars. =||=

“So, the evidence has piled up in favour of at least two meals of human flesh and marrow. But why did they do it? That part remains something of a mystery; humans have been known to eat one another in times of desperation, but there's also the possibility it was simply a way to either honour the dead or insult an enemy, either from one's own family or from an outside group The world was changing around 10,000 years ago, with the beginnings of agriculture springing up among some cultures, and populations migrating far and wide as the last ice age came to a close. It's possible that the community that lived around the Coves de Santa Maira area might have run into hardship, although the numerous animal bones, sea shells, and broad range of resources in the surrounding environment at the time make that hypothesis a little less likely. =||=

“An increase in human remains dating to that period in the western Mediterranean suggest there could have been more encounters between different cultures, either leading to conflicts or competition over resources, or even an exchange of new rituals and cultural practices. Humans and their closest relatives have been burying their dead for at least the last 50,000 years, if not far longer, so it's not hard to imagine in that time there have been a few examples of funeral ritual we might find a little uncomfortable today. Who knows what bones are left to be discovered, and what secrets of past cultures they might yet reveal. This research was published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. =||=

Plastered Skulls and Skull Cults in the Near East

Jericho plastered skull

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.” ~

Gobekli Tepe ‘Skull Cult’

Gobekli Tepe skull

Gobekli Tepe also contains an excessive number of fragments of human skulls — including some that now appear to have been carved by ancient human hands, according to a study by a team of researchers led by Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute. Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The ritual use of human skulls may seem macabre to most of us today, but the archaeological record suggests that skull cults — groups that assigned symbolic importance to skulls — were quite common in the area around the Mediterranean Sea. [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2017]

The study published in Science Advances reveals that the people who came here to venerate their ancestors or their gods, or to mark life transitions, may also have been greeted by human skulls hanging from cords…Archaeologists working in the region have uncovered “skull nests,” piles of skulls, that have been separated from the rest of their skeletons, as well as skulls that appear to have been decorated with ocher or covered in clay.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “In Turkey, Carved Skulls Provide the First Evidence of a Neolithic "Skull Cult": Three carved skull fragments uncovered at a Neolithic dig site in Turkey feature modifications not seen before among human remains of the time, researchers say. Thus, these modified skull fragments could point to a new "skull cult" -- or ritual group -- from the Neolithic period. Throughout history, people have valued skulls for different reasons, from ancestor worship to the belief that human skulls transmit protective properties. This focus on the skull has led to the establishment of the term skull cult in anthropology, and various such cults -- each with characteristic modifications to skull bones -- have been catalogued. [Source: Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm and Lee Clare. “Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult,” . Scientific Advances, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700564. American Association for the Advancement of Science, June 28, 2017]

“Julia Gresky and colleagues observed a previously unknown type of modification in three partial skulls uncovered at Göbekli Tepe. Each skull had intentional deep incisions along its sagittal axes and one of those skulls also displayed a drilled hole in the left parietal bone, as well as red ochre remnants, the authors say. By using different microscopic techniques to analyze the fragments, Gresky et al. verified that the carvings were executed using lithic tools, thus ruling out natural causes, like animal gnawing. In addition, they were able to discount scalping as a source of the marks, due to the depth of the carvings; however, other minor cut-marks on the skulls show signs of possible defleshing, they say. More likely, the skulls were carved to venerate ancestors not long after their death, say the authors, or, to put recently "dispatched" enemies on display. These findings present the very first evidence for treatment of the dead at Göbekli Tepe.

12,000-Year-Old Grave: a Shaman With Animal Totems

Cast for the funeral of a child at Qafzeh Cave in Israel

Eliza Strickland wrote in Discover News: “In a dusty cave in Israel, archaeologists have unearthed a 12,000-year-old grave that they say may be the resting spot of one of the earliest known shamans. The grave contains the artfully arranged bones of a roughly 45-year-old woman as well as a collection of animal and human body parts, including a complete human foot, 50 tortoise shells, and bones from a wild boar, an eagle, and a leopard. [Source: Eliza Strickland, Discover News, November 4, 2008 ==]

““What was unusual here was there were so many different parts of different animals that were unusual, that were clearly put there on purpose,” said researcher Natalie Munro…. This care along with the animal parts point to the grave belonging to both an important member of the society and possibly a healer called a shaman…. Such healers mediate between the human and spirit worlds, often summoning the help of animal spirits along their quests, according to the researchers [LiveScience]. ==

“In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required], researchers describe the cemetery of a prehistoric Natufian settlement. The Natufian culture, which lasted from roughly 15,000 to 11,500 years ago, played a central role in the transition from foraging to farming and was the first known society to live in year-round settlements. Burials of the dead increased dramatically in number among the Natufians, indicating that these people assigned much symbolic importance to treatment of the dead [Science News]. ==

“The woman’s skeleton was separated from the other 26 burial sites found in the cave, and her grave was the only one lined with slabs of limestone. Ten large stones had been placed on her head, arms, and pelvis, perhaps to hold her body in a particular position, or because the community was trying to keep the shaman and her spirit inside the grave, [study coauthor Leore] Grosman said. It is likely that the 50 tortoises were brought live to the site and were eaten as part of a feast surrounding the burial, according to the researchers [Bloomberg].” ==

Feast of Turtles and Steak for 12,000-Year-Old Female Shaman

The world's first known organized feast — or food event of any kind — appears to have been a meal for 35 people that included the meat 71 tortoises and at least three wild cattle held around 12,000 years ago at a burial site in Israel. Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discovery News: “The discovery additionally provides the earliest known compelling evidence for a shaman burial, the apparent reason for the feasting. A shaman is an individual who performs rituals and engages in other practices for healing or divination. In this case, the shaman was a woman. "I wasn't surprised that the shaman was a woman, because women have often taken on shamanistic roles as healers, magicians and spiritual leaders in societies across the globe," lead author Natalie Munro told Discovery News. [Source: Discovery News, Jennifer Viegas, August 30, 2010 ||~||]

“Munro, a University of Connecticut anthropologist, and colleague Leore Grosman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem excavated and studied the shaman's skeleton and associated feasting remains. These were found at the burial site, Hilazon Tachtit cave, located about nine miles west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. According to the study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the grave consisted of an oval-shaped basin that was intentionally cut into the cave's floor. "After the oval was excavated, the sides and bottom of the floor were lined with stone slabs lined and plastered with clay brought into the cave from outside," said Munro. ||~||

“The 71 tortoise shells, previously butchered for meat removal, were found situated under, around and on top of the remains of the woman. The woman's skeleton indicates she suffered from deformities that would have possibly made her limp and "given her an unnatural, asymmetrical appearance." A large triangular stone slab was placed over the grave to seal it. Bones from at least three butchered aurochs — large ancestors of today's domestic cattle — were unearthed in a nearby hollow. An auroch's tail, a wild boar forearm, a leopard pelvis and two marten skulls were also found. ||~||

“The total amount of meat could have fed 35 people, but it is possible that many more attended the event. "These remains attest to the unique position of this individual within her community and to her special relationship with the animal world," Munro said. Before this discovery, other anthropologists had correctly predicted that early feasting might have occurred just prior to the dawn of agriculture. ||~||

Harvard's Ofer Bar-Yosef, for example, found that fig trees were being domesticated in the Near East about 11,400 years ago, making them the first known domesticated crop. Staples such as wheat, barley and legumes were domesticated in the region roughly a thousand years later. Full-scale agriculture occurred later, about 10,000 years ago. As agriculture began, however, "there was a critical switch in the human mind: from exploiting the earth as it is to actively changing the environment to suit our needs," Bar-Yosef said. Munro agrees and thinks the change could help to explain the advent of communal feasting. "People were coming into contact with each other a lot, and that can create friction," she said. "Before, they could get up and leave when they had problems with the neighbors. Now, these public events served as community-building opportunities, which helped to relieve tensions and solidify social relationships."” ||~||

skeleton of a woman from Qafzeh Cave in Israel

House Burials in the Near East

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “There is also a time dimension, a laying down of memory, in the widespread practice through the Epi-palaeolithic and Early Neolithic of burying bodies within the settlement, or, as at Asikli Höyük and parts of southwest Asia, it was common practice in the late Epi-palaeolithic and especially in the Early Neolithic to return to a burial to retrieve the skull. 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.” /+\

Teviec Burial from 6,700 years ago

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. ~

“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 Capsian, more females than male are affected, suggesting that the practice was at least partly gendered at this time.” ~

Teviec burial reconstruction

Skull Treatments in Europe

Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “While ‘skull cups’ do not appear to feature in the Mesolithic, other practices involving crania are reminiscent of those seen in the Late Upper Palaeolithic (this need not imply any direct continuity of the tradition, nor uniformity of meaning). The clearest example is perhaps that at Grotte Margaux (Dinant, Belgium), where an adult female cranium dating to the Preboreal exhibits numerous cutmarks on its zygomatic processes and on various parts of the cranial vault, the former suggesting cutting of the muscle attachment sites to facilitate removal of the mandible, and the latter scalping. Cutmarks consistent with scalping have also been noted on Late Mesolithic remains, including a child’s cranium from Dyrholmen (Jutland, Denmark) as well as examples from Ålekistebro (Sjælland, Denmark) and Drigge (Rügen, Germany). Probable cases of scalping that have survived have been found at Skateholm in southern Sweden and Zvejnieki in Latvia. Presumably most or all of these examples relate to trophy taking, as the hair is widely believed cross-culturally to be a powerful bodily substance. Cutmarked and fractured postcranial remains too were present at Dyrholmen, so treatment there was not restricted to the skull, and indeed the possibility of cannibalism has been raised. The same applies to the large human bone assemblage from La Grotte des Perrats, where there is abundant evidence for reduction of the body, including cutmarks and peri-mortem fracturing, again interpreted in a context of anthropophagy. [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 ~]

“In other cases there is more subtle evidence for special treatment of the skull. The presence of the small bones of the hands and feet of some 12 individuals at the Early Mesolithic site of l’Abri des Autours, Belgium, in conjunction with a dearth of cranial remains, suggests that at least some complete bodies were originally interred, with the skulls subsequently taken away for deposition elsewhere. Erik Brinch Petersen draws attention to a headless Mesolithic skeleton found at Vænge Sø, eastern Jutland, but, recalling the discussion above, it is unclear whether this was intentional removal or due to disturbance. ~

“A different practice is seen at the large Mesolithic and ‘Neolithic’ cemetery of Zvejnieki, Latvia. Special treatment of the head here did not involve its removal, but rather the coating of the face with a layer of coloured clay and the laying of perforated amber disks on the eyes. Only a small number of individuals were treated in this way, comprising three or four out of the more than 300 present. As Nilsson Stutz et al. note, this would have transformed the face of the deceased prior to burial, but it then would no longer have been visible. This transformation was thus intended for the world of the dead, not to be seen by the living, other than for a brief period – and possibly by a limited number of people – before burial. In this sense the practice differs markedly from the plastered ‘skulls’ of the Neolithic Near East, which it otherwise brings to mind. The documentation of the use of amber disks in burials at Zvejnieki has facilitated wider recognition of the practice in other parts of the Baltic where bone does not survive. Thus, paired amber rings with clay plugs found at the Corded Ware Culture sites of Kokemäki Pispa and Laukaa Hartikka in Finland can now be interpreted as having lain on the eyes of the deceased: rings and lens-shaped discs of slate may have served the same function.” ~

Skull Treatments in the Iron Gates

Teviec skull

Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “There is abundant evidence for the special treatment of the human cranium and mandible in the Mesolithic sites of the Iron Gates, including Lepenski Vir. Here, for example, an extended adult skeleton was placed in a pit (Grave 7) dug through the plastered floor of one of the site’s trapezoidal houses. As with other intramural burials at Lepenski Vir, this occurred in a structured space west of the hearth interpreted as a household ‘sanctuary’ by the excavator, Dragoslav Srejović. The pit was later enlarged and an additional human cranium, an auroch skull and a red deer skull with attached antlers were deposited. The human cranium was placed at the left shoulder of the extended skeleton; intriguingly, another cranium was found in this same position in Burial 54e. Conversely, other extended burials, otherwise largely intact, lacked the skull. As with examples in the Near East (no direct connection is being implied), the lack of cutmarks indicates that the skull/cranium was removed only after the flesh, muscles and ligaments had decayed, a period requiring some years. New excavations at Vlasac document an example in Burial H63, a fully articulated adult female lacking the cranium and mandible, but with the uppermost cervical vertebrae in situ; the atlas has been slightly displaced, perhaps when the cranium was removed. Human crania are also found in isolation, as in the case of ‘Burial’ 122, a cranium found above the hearth of building 47. Some of the partially articulated and disarticulated remains have been suggested to represent secondary burial in conjunction with excarnation. [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 ~]

“Given that skulls were often removed, but crania alone found in secondary deposits, it remains to account for the mandibles. Some at least were found set around large stone-lined hearths, as for example in building No. 40 at Lepenski Vir, together with a series of vertically set stone slabs mimicking the mandible’s triangular shape. It is tempting to suggest that the symbolism here revolves around either feeding the an estors, or having the ancestors ‘bless’ the food cooked on the hearth. The mandible in question is that of an adult female, perhaps linking women with the hearth and provision of the family and community. While this relationship is commonly assumed ethnographically, it is rarely demonstrable archaeologically. Even in this case, the situation is likely to be more complex than indicated in such a straightforward reading. And given the difficulty of reliably sexing isolated mandibles on morphological criteria alone, the connection itself is tenuous. ~

“Interpretation of the practices surrounding the human skull at Lepenski Vir and other Iron Gates sites are complicated by the intensity of activity taking place over a number of centuries, concentrated amongst closely associated structures and graves. There is a significant amount of disarticulated human bone – cranial and postcranial – across Lepenski Vir, some of which presumably represents disturbed earlier burials. The cranium may simply have received more careful treatment if disturbed than other elements. However, this is unlikely to be the full explanation. As the aforementioned examples demonstrate, in some cases intentional removal of the skull from a burial can be inferred, the lack of cutmarks on the vertebrae and their continued presence in the grave indicating that the flesh had fully decayed when this was done. In a recent overview of Iron Gate Mesolithic burial practices, Boroneanţ and Bonsall note examples from Lepenski Vir, Vlasac and Schela Cladovei. Detached crania (mandibles are also removed but are not typically recovered with the crania) occur as isolated finds, in small groups, and as inclusions in other graves. With the evidence from these and other sites, it appears that skull removal was common in the Iron Gates Mesolithic. Srejović interprets the treatment of human remains, and especially skulls, at Lepenski Vir as part of a cult of the ancestors.” ~

Skull Treatments in Sweden

Teviec burial

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

examining the Jericho plastered skulls

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.” ~

Were the Groups in Europe ‘Skull Cults’?

Stature from Ain Ghazal, about teh same age as the Jericho skulls

Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “While the available evidence is patchy and open to various readings, the overview presented here suggests the likelihood of widespread beliefs and practices involving the human head in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Europe. This is not to imply uniformity, as there are indications of marked regional variability. The best example of this is the carefully placed detached heads from a number of sites in south-west Germany, most notably Ofnet, and north-east France. And while only a small proportion of individuals may be involved, the application of clay ‘masks’ and amber or slate discs on the eyes of the deceased seems to be a distinctive feature of the eastern Baltic. Given the millennia separating Zvejnieki and the Finnish Corded Ware sites, this tradition may be a longstanding one. This need not be surprising, as there are other elements of northern Eurasian hunter-gatherer societies that seem to be widespread and persistent, for example, the use of elk-head imagery; this is found in the Baltic area, including Zvejnieki, and at sites in western Russia, most notably Oleni ostrov (Karelia, Russia) but also others. Marek Zvelebil discusses this and other shared motifs and symbolism in the region. The Mesolithic sites of the Iron Gates provide evidence of a different practice, involving the retrieval of the cranium, and sometimes also the mandible, from burials wherein the flesh had already decayed. While crania were redeposited in various ways, the mandibles were occasionally incorporated into elaborate hearth structures, with rich symbolic potential. Kanaljorden is different again, with partially decomposed heads set on wooden stakes in a shallow pool of water adjacent to a large settlement. Whether this practice will turn out to be more widespread remains to be seen, but it is unlikely to be unique. [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 ~]

“As well as differences, there are tentative suggestions of commonalities, though these need involve nothing more than ways of thinking about the human head shared across many cultures. For example, a number of the cases discussed in this paper imply, to varying extents, an emphasis on the eyes and on the act of watching. This is seen most incontrovertibly, of course, in the addition of shell eyes on the modelled crania and skulls of the PPNB. The isolated cranium of a young female with deer vertebrae discs inserted into the orbits at Mas d’Azil provides an intriguing, if currently unique, example from the Magdalenian. For the Mesolithic, there is use of amber discs for eyes at Zvejnieki, though here the dead did not gaze upon the living, but upon an underworld. Given their early date of excavation, the situation at Ofnet and Kaufertsberg is not clear, but the skulls at both may have been placed to look out of their respective caves, albeit from underground. In any case, it may be significant that all reportedly faced the same direction, perhaps hinting at the importance of a particular view, though its specific meaning escapes us. Views to an underwater otherworld may have played a role for the heads on stakes at Kanaljorden, which may never have risen above the water.~

“What the examples discussed above all share is the recognition that the human skull is a rich and varied source of powerful symbolism. Indeed, this belief is shared much more widely through time and space, and is arguably a defining human characteristic, associated as it is with both personal and group identity. To partially answer the question posed at the beginning of this paper, there is plausible evidence for ‘skull cults’ in the Mesolithic (as indeed there is for the Upper Palaeolithic and for the Neolithic), as evidenced by varied practices involving the head in both its fleshed and bony forms.” ~

12,000-Year-Old 'Shaman' Funeral Held at Mysterious Burial in Israel

In 2016, Hebrew University archaeologists announced that they had uncovered a 12,000-year old-grave inside a cave in northern Israel where it appeared a sham funeral was held. Rob Verger of wrote: “Eighty-six tortoise shells, an eagle’s wing, and the pelvis of a leopard are some of the bizarre objects placed under, around, or on the body of a petite woman, likely a shaman, buried 12,000 years ago in Israel.The woman’s body was placed on materials like clay and the cores of gazelle horns, and in addition to the other items, sea shells, a wild boar’s forearm, and a human foot were put on her body. [Source: Rob Verger,, July 7, 2016 /*]

“These details about the intricate burial of an unknown woman come from a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, archaeologist Leore Grosman, who, along with a professor from the University of Connecticut, Natalie Munro, have carried out an analysis of the fascinating funeral of a mysterious woman who was just under five feet tall. Together, the clues they discovered point to a six-stage funeral for a special woman, whose grave was sealed by a large rock. "The high quality of preservation and recovery of a well-preserved grave of an unusual woman, probably a shaman, enabled the identification of six stages of a funerary ritual,” Grosman said, in a statement. /*\

“The small grave, first discovered in 2008, is located in northern Israel near the Hilazon river. The researchers report that there was a great deal of preparation for the burial. Not only did the ancient people have to dig a pit to place the body in, but they had to procure 86 tortoises for their shells. Other objects and materials laid to rest with the woman include, flint, red ochre, and animal bones. "The significant pre-planning implies that there was a defined 'to do' list, and a working plan of ritual actions and their order," Grosman added. /*\

“This burial, which took place about 12,000 years ago, happened during the Natufian period, an era that spanned 15,000 to 11,500 years ago. This archeological find, the researchers say, demonstrated that funeral rituals were becoming more important events to people during this time period. The original discovery of this ancient grave was reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008, which describes the woman as both elderly and disabled. The analysis of the multiple stages of this complex burial was recently published in the journal Current Anthropology.” /*\

Gobekli Tepe

9,000-Year-Old Cave Rituals on Sweden’s ‘Witchcraft' Island

Archaeologists say they have discovered evidence of Stone Age rituals on an island off Sweden, which has long been linked with tales of witchcraft, supernatural powers and curses. Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “A Stone Age site where cave rituals may have been performed some 9,000 years ago has been discovered on Blå Jungfrun, an island off the east coast of Sweden. Blå Jungfrun's "huge boulders and steep cliffs provide a dramatic landscape, and for centuries the uninhabited island has been associated with supernatural powers," wrote a team of archaeologists in the summary of a presentation given recently at the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.[Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 22, 2015 \=]

“According to a centuries-old legend, witches gather every Easter on the island to worship the devil himself. Curses have also been associated with the island. For instance, those who remove a rock from the site are said to endure a lifetime of bad luck. How far back these beliefs and stories go is unknown. "The time depth of these stories is shrouded in mist but could be considerable," the archaeologists say. \=\

“The team began archaeological fieldwork on the island in the spring of 2014. "The results are astonishing and reveal extensive human activities on the island in the Mesolithic Stone Age," the archaeologists wrote. People who travelled to the island may have practiced various rituals inside the two caves, archaeologists say. One cave contains what may be an altar where offerings could have been made to deities. Meanwhile another cave has an area that could have been used like a "theater" or "stage." "In two caves, distinct ritual features were identified," wrote the team members, who hail from Kalmar County Museum and Linnaeus University, both in Sweden. \=\

“One cave has a massive hollow, about 2.3 feet (0.7 meters) in diameter, which was hammered into a vertical wall. A fireplace lies underneath the hollow. "We believe the hollow is man-made and that the fireplace has been used in connection to hammering out the hollow, probably [on] several occasions," said Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay, an archaeologist with Kalmar County Museum. Archaeologists said they are not certain what took place here; however, one clue comes from the cave's layout. "The entrance to the cave is very narrow, and you have to squeeze your way in. [However,] once you're inside, only half of the cave is covered and you can actually stand above the cave and look down into it, almost like a theater or a stage below," said Papmehl-Dufay. The "act of producing the hollow could have been the important part [of the ritual], perhaps even the sound created while doing so," he said. The noise from the hammering and the sight of the fire burning, as viewed from above, may have created an interesting effect for Stone Age audiences, the researchers said.” \=\

“The second cave yielded yet more strange clues. Archaeologists found a hammerstone and an area that was used for grinding up material. This area "could have been used to place something in, perhaps as part of some form of offering, like an altar," Papmehl-Dufay said. In between the two caves, the archaeologists discovered a small rock shelter, just 20 by 26 feet (6 by 8 meters), that contained stone tools and seal remains. Radiocarbon dating indicates people consumed the seals around 9,000 years ago. "A few people could have been sitting or standing, perhaps just resting or spending the night during sporadic stays on the island," Papmehl-Dufay said. "However, more-specific activities with ritual elements to [them] cannot be ruled out, such as feasting in connection to the rituals performed in the nearby caves." \=\

Three-Year-Old Seemingly Sacrificed 11,500 Years Ago in Alaska

About 11,500 years ago, a 3-year-old child was burned and buried in a hearth in central Alaska. After the cremation, the home that housed the hearth was filled in and abandoned and the remains of the body — charred bone fragments — were found still arranged as they were when the fire sputtered out.[Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 8, 2011]

Brian Vastag wrote in the Washington Post, “ Some 11,500 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, a child died near a river in what is now central Alaska. The people living with the child in a tent-pole house — presumably the parents — placed the 3-year-old's body in their home's cooking pit and lit a fire. After two to three hours of burning, the family covered the remains with dirt and left...That's the dramatic story emerging from the study of the oldest human remains ever found in Alaska — and some of the oldest in all of North America. “The cremation was the last event to take place in the hearth," said Ben Potter of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who led the team of archaeologists investigating the site on a broad sandy plain southeast of the city. Their study of site appeared in Science. [Source: Brian Vastag, Washington Post February 24, 2011 ^^]

“The cremated human bones are the "first evidence for behavior associated with the death of an individual," Potter said. "This was a living, breathing human being that lived and died," he said. The child has been named Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin (or Upward Sun River Mouth Child) by the local Native community, the Healy Lake Tribe. ^^

“At the site — called Upper Sun River in a translation of the Native American word for the locale — Potter and company were astonished to find a six-foot-wide circular pit, dug about a foot into the ground. Four post-holes surrounding the hearth and two other holes outside the circle indicate a tent-pole structure, perhaps covered with sod or animal skins, Potter said. ^^

“While Potter reported that the child probably died before being cremated, Michael Kunz, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks, suggested another possibility: "I don't think that there is any more evidence that the burned remains of the child indicate a cremation than they indicate that the child may have been cooked and eaten," he told AP. The body was found buried in the fire pit, Kunz noted via e-mail, and "the bones that are missing are the bones that have the most flesh on them and would most likely be used for food...Cannibalism among humans is not new news," added Kunz, who was not part of Potter's team. Potter said he disagreed, because it appeared soft tissue remained when the child was burned. And Irish said the child had been laid out with knees drawn up and hands placed to one side in a relatively peaceful position. Missing bones, he said, could simply have been destroyed by the fire.” ^^

artifacts from the Teviec burial

9,000-Year-Old Decapitated Skull Covered with Amputated Hands Found in Brazil

In 2015, scientists said they had found a decapitated skull covered in amputated hands under limestone slabs in a cave in Brazi. Charles Q. Choi wrote in Live Science: “These 9,000-year-old bones may be evidence of the oldest known case of ritual beheading in the New World, raising new questions as to how this grisly practice began in the Americas, the researchers said in a new study. Decapitation was likely common in the New World, according to the scientists. For example, in South America, heads of defeated enemies were often used as war trophies — the Arara people in the Brazilian Amazon used skulls of defeated enemies as musical instruments, the Inca turned skulls into drinking jars, and the Jivaro people of Ecuador shrunk heads to imprison the souls of foes. The Uru-Uru Chipaya people in Bolivia also once employed skulls in modified Christian rituals, and the Chimú culture in Peru incorporated decapitation as a standard procedure in human sacrifices. "Few Amerindian habits impressed the European colonizers more than the taking and displaying of human body parts, especially when decapitation was involved," said study lead author André Strauss, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. [Source: Charles Q. Choi, Live Science, September 23, 2015 +++]

“Until now, the oldest reported instance of ritual beheading in South America took place 3,000 years ago in Peru, and the oldest known case in North America happened about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago in Florida. Now, scientists have discovered a case of ritual decapitation in Brazil that dates back about 9,000 years. "This is the oldest case of decapitation found in the New World," Strauss told Live Science. The archaeologists spent several field seasons at Lapa do Santo, excavating the burials. +++

“The scientists investigated an environmentally protected tropical region in east-central Brazil known as Lagoa Santa, which means "Holy Lake" in Portuguese. The area, which is covered in savanna-type vegetation as well as forests, was explored heavily in the 19th century by researchers looking for evidence of interactions between prehistoric humans and giant animals, such as saber-toothed cats and ground sloths. The scientists focused on a site called Lapa do Santo, or "saint's rock shelter." It was here that the researchers previously found the oldest evidence of rock art in South America, which included pictures of penises, engraved on the bedrock there, that are about 9,400 years old. +++

“Excavations at Lapa do Santo revealed signs of human occupation dating back about 12,000 years. Stone tools and animal bones found at the shelter suggest the prehistoric groups that lived there subsisted on plants they gathered and small and midsize animals they hunted. In 2007, the researchers discovered 9,000-year-old fragments of human remains at Lapa do Santo, including a skull, jaw, the first six vertebrae of the neck and two severed hands. The bones were buried about 22 inches (55 centimeters) below the surface, under limestone slabs, which suggests they were part of a deliberate ritual entombment, the researchers said. The amputated hands were laid palm-side down over the face of the skull, with the left hand pointing upward and covering the right side of the face, while the right hand pointed downward and covered the left side of the face. Until now, only relatively simple burials had been uncovered in Lagoa Santa, Strauss said. +++

“In addition, the disembodied heads found in South America were typically discovered in the Andes mountain range, suggesting that decapitation began as an Andean practice. This new finding suggests that ritual beheading may have started elsewhere, the researchers said. It remains unclear why this ritual decapitation at Lapa do Santo took place. The chemical nature and physical features of the bones suggest they came from a member of the group that lived there, the researchers said, meaning the body likely was not a war trophy of an outsider. Instead, the people at this site may have used these remains to express their ideas regarding death and the universe, Strauss said.” The scientists detailed their findings online on September 23, 2015 in the journal PLOS ONE. +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Gobekli Tepe skull from Public Radio International

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 September 2018

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