Crania with mutilated facial skeletons: a new ritual treatment in an early pre-pottery Neolithic B cranial cache at Tell Qarassa North (South Syria)

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2012 Oct;149(2):205-16. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22111. Epub 2012 Jul 11.


The removal of crania from burials, their ritual use and their disposal, generally in cranial caches, are the most particular characteristics of the funerary ritual in the transition to the Neolithic in the Near East. Despite the importance of this ritual, detailed studies of cranial caches are rare. This funerary ritual has traditionally been interpreted as a form of ancestor-veneration. However, this study of the cranial caches found at the site of Tell Qarassa North, South Syria, dated in the second half of the ninth millennium BC, questions this interpretation. The 12 crania, found in two groups arranged in two circles on the floor of a room, belonged to male individuals, apart from one child and one preadolescent. In 10 of the 11 cases, the facial skeletons were deliberately mutilated. In the context of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, when the symbolism of the human face played a vital role in ritual practice, this mutilation of the facial skeleton could be interpreted as an act of hostility. In the absence of indicators of social stratification or signs of violence that might indicate more coercive forms of society, the veneration of ancestors has been explained as a mechanism for social cohesion, which would have been necessary in a context of rapid growth in the population of settlements. However, data on the negative nature of some funerary rites, of punishment or indifference rather than veneration, should make us question an over-idealized view of the first Neolithic societies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Archaeology*
  • Burial / methods*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mandible / anatomy & histology
  • Mandible / pathology
  • Paleontology*
  • Skull / anatomy & histology*
  • Skull / pathology*
  • Syria