"Skull Cults" amongst Hunter-Gatherers?

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 81st Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL (2016)

While some aspects of ‘skull cults’ appear to be similar in hunter–gatherers and small-scale horticultural and agricultural communities, the details of how they function in skull rituals and are integrated with other elements of human behavior vary. Small-scale farmers have long been known to exhibit an interest in the human head. Manifested as either trophy taking or ancestor worship, or both, the range of practices involving the human head have typically been understood in a context of maintaining or enhancing fertility, whether of crops, animals, or human populations themselves. Although the evidence is sparse, many of the same practices are found amongst hunter-gatherers, for whom such interests might appear less immediately relevant. Balance with the natural world is more often maintained by appropriate behaviour towards prey animals, and most anthropological discussions have been more concerned with how hunter-gatherers limit their reproductive potential, rather than seek to enhance it. Why, then, do we see a widespread interest in acts involving the human head amongst hunter-gatherers, ranging from trophy taking to various kinds of post-mortem manipulation? The papers in this session seek to document the range of these practices both archaeologically and ethnographically, and to discuss the possible underlying rationales.

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-8 of 8)

  • Documents (8)

  • Heads that Speak: Dividuals and Trophies from the Eastern Woodlands Archaic (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Amber Osterholt. Christopher Schmidt.

    The removal of human body parts after death is a diverse practice with many cross-cultural nuances. Trophy taking is just one means of body part removal. Among the hunter-gatherers of the late Middle and Late Archaic (6,500 - 2,600 B.P.) of the US Eastern Woodlands, heads were common trophies, though any body part could be taken. A survey of over 20 sites shows that post-cranial trophies were often handled and kept for long periods of time. Trophy heads however, were utilized for a short time...

  • New research on the Mesolithic ‘skull nests’ of Ofnet cave, SW Germany (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rick Schulting. Jörg Orschiedt. Dani Hofmann. Gisela Grupe.

    Since their discovery in the early twentieth century, there has been controversy over the chronology of the two ‘skull nests’ found within Ofnet cave in southwest Germany. Initially the focus was on whether they dated to the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic or Neolithic. The first radiocarbon dates at least resolved this issue in favour of the Mesolithic, but the considerable range obtained fueled a second debate: were the skulls deposited in a single event, which, together with the peri-mortem injuries...

  • "Off with their heads": skull removal in the prehistoric Near East (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Nigel Goring-Morris. Anna Belfer-Cohen.

    While there is a huge difference in every aspect of existence between simple human societies, i.e. hunter-gatherers and complex ones, i.e. industrial groups, the head is always considered as the residing place of the essential part of what defines ‘us’ as rational human beings at the individual level. One may thus assume that this was the case also in prehistoric times, which at least partially explains the special treatment of heads that one can observe through millennia, from the...

    DOCUMENT Citation Only Paul Roscoe.

    Although commonly thought of as a land of horticulturalists, contact-era New Guinea was home to a number of ‘simple’ hunter-gatherer and complex fisher-forager groups. This paper surveys what we know of how these communities treated the human head in mortuary and other rituals and the cosmological contexts in which these rites were embedded. The fisher-forager cases are of special interest because at contact they were all head-hunters, an activity that generated elaborate ritual complexes...

  • On the ritual display and deposition of human skulls at Kanaljorden, Motala, Sweden, 8000 cal BP (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Fredrik Hallgren.

    This paper discuss the ritual display and deposition of human skulls among hunter-gatherers in Scandinavia during the Mesolithic. The discussion focus on the recently excavated site Kanaljorden, at Motala, Sweden, where select human bones – mostly skulls – from a dozen individuals have been deposited on a stone-packing on the bottom of a small lake. Two of the skulls were mounted on wooden stakes still embedded in the crania. Beside human bones, the finds also include artefacts of bone, antler,...

  • Post-mortem manipulation of the human skull in the Middle East during the Neolithic Period (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Michelle Bonogofsky.

    The Neolithic Near Eastern inhabitants of the Levant and Anatolia removed the skulls or crania of females, males and children after decomposition of the body, ca. 8,500-5,000 B.C. They modeled facial or other features over the disembodied skulls and crania of adults and children using substances such as plaster, marl, or collagen, and then generally painted them, while others were only painted. Many of the skulls and crania, however, display no apparent post-mortem decoration. Some skulls of...

  • Skull Removal and Mediation of Personhood over the Forager-Farmer Transition (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ian Kuijt.

    The transition from forager-collectors to small-scale agricultural communities, in the case of southern Levant the Natufian to Pre-Pottery Neolithic periods, is widely viewed by researchers as a critical evolutionary threshold, one that both sees the development of new economic realities, and at the same time, long-term continuity in select ritual practices. Numerous studies have put forth functional and symbolic interpretations for the existence of skull removal in specific ethnographic,...

  • Spatio-temporal variation in mortuary ‘skull cults’ among middle Holocene hunter–gatherers of the Baikal region, Siberia. (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Andrzej Weber. Vladimir Bazaliiskii.

    Middle Holocene hunter–gatherers of the Cis-Baikal region in Siberia (~7500–3700 cal BP) are known for their rich mortuary record. The evidence provided by about 1300 individual burials documented from roughly 150 cemeteries of various size, contains frequent references to the heads of the deceased allocated special mortuary treatment. These ‘skull cults’ include peri-mortem decapitation, post-mortem head or skull removal from the grave or a treatment with fire or red ochre. While much has been...