Ritual and Religion in Prehistory: Unit 7 Ancestor cults
Some of the burials in the Palaeolithic period raise the possibility of very early forms of ancestor cults. About 60,000 years ago, at Kebara Cave in Israel, the corpse of a Neanderthal man was placed in a pit on his back, his arms folded over his chest and abdomen. Some time later, the grave was reopened and the skull was removed. Among ancestor-worshipping societies today, this is relatively common practice. The head is considered to be the seat of the soul, and is kept in a special place. The skulls embody the supernatural essence of powerful ancestors, and are used to convey that power to living descendants.
Ancestor cults became widespread in the Neolithic period, especially in the Near East. Of the numerous burials found among the houses in Jericho, many had both their skull and jaw missing. At other sites in the region there are plenty of examples of burials that were reopened in order to remove the head; caches of human skulls were then buried in small, shallow pits within the settlement.
Follow these links to find out more about the material culture possibly associated with ancestor cults in the Neolithic period of the Near East:
‘Plastered skull’, The British Museum, London
‘Lime plaster statues’, The British Museum, London
‘Mask’, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
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