E. Fuller Torrey


On his book Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion

Cover Interview of October 23, 2017

A close-up

For readers just browsing, I would hope that they would open to chapter six in the book and specifically to the section on skull cults. This is the time in history, about 10,000 to 8,500 years ago, when ancestor worship had apparently reached its peak and the first gods were about to emerge. It was the time of the birth of the gods.

The gradual shift from hunting and gathering to farming that had taken place between 12,000 and 7,000 years ago had brought about profound changes in the relationship between the living and the dead. A migratory lifestyle demands that the dead be buried wherever they die. A sedentary lifestyle, by contrast, allows for the burial of the deceased in the vicinity of the living and thus the accumulation of ancestors’ bodies over several generations. In southwest Asia it was common to bury the deceased directly beneath the family’s house and to exhume the body months later and remove the skull. The skulls were often lined up on the floor of the house along the wall. Over time it became common practice to paint some skulls. Other skulls were molded with lime, gypsum or mud plaster to resemble a human face, using seashells for eyes. There are suggestions that some plastered skulls were also adorned with hair.

At least 90 plastered skulls have been excavated to date from widely scattered sites. The best of them are works of art as well as cult objects and the effect on the viewer is stunning. Archeologists describe the uncovering of plastered skulls as “a highly emotive experience…there are, literally, faces from the past.” I viewed two plastered skulls in the archeological museum in Ankara and was deeply moved. Such skulls most likely belonged to high-ranking ancestors, some of whom would soon break through the celestial celling and become the first gods.