Gobekli Tepe Skull Cults Among the Jaredites?

In November 2020, I published a theory that the “great tower” of the Jaredites was Gobekli Tepe (You can read that here.) Built and maintained by hunter-gatherers from around 9700 BC to 8000 BC in what’s now Turkey, Gobekli Tepe is the world’s first known temple. It’s an amazing site. Look it up.

Most believers in the Book of Mormon speculate that the Jaredites left their great tower around 2600-2100 BC, but I think this is just an assumption based on little to no evidence. I think the date should be around 7,000 years earlier. I’ve already proposed 37 points of potential evidence to support a Gobekli Tepe great tower for the Jaredites, and today I’d like to propose my 38th piece of possible evidence. It has to do with heads. Human heads. Severed human heads. Apparently, severed human heads were a thing at Gobekli Tepe and an important part of the Jaredite story too.

38. The Jaredites may have gotten their decapitation-obsessed secret combinations from Gobekli Tepe

In 2017, researchers published a paper about a possible “skull cult” at Gobekli Tepe. Sounds ominous, right? From the 691 human bone fragments found at Gobekli Tepe, 408 (58%) of them come from skulls. 9.8% of these skull pieces “carry cut marks from defleshing activities”–meaning that someone there was taking skin off of dead peoples’ heads. The archaeologists who wrote the paper focused on special skull fragments from three separate individuals which highlight some interesting behavior going on at the world’s first temple. All three skulls show signs of tampering or modifications that were probably made shortly after death. From the markings on these skulls, it appears that they were hung for display at Gobekli Tepe. But why?

The authors propose two reasons for why the heads were on display. The first–and the one most people seem to favor–is that it was a form of “ancestor veneration”. Grandma died, and we loved her, so let’s chop off her head, deflesh her skull, and hang it from the rafters for us to remember her. I know that’s morbid, but I’m trying to give an example here of how it might have gone down. Some of the artwork at Gobekli Tepe may support this, as it shows birds holding possible human heads (circles), and flying them off into the sky to rest in heaven. Also holes have been found in the walls of Gobekli Tepe that are just big enough for heads to go through, possibly suggesting that after death, the head, which contains the soul, would pass through these apertures on its way to the afterlife.

The second and alternative reason the authors propose for the head hanging is for “the display of dispatched enemies”, or what they term negative “branding”, to show these individuals were different “in a negative way.”  This interpretation may also be supported by artwork at Gobekli Tepe and finds from contemporary sites nearby. The authors point out that at the site there are “comparatively frequent finds of carved human heads removed by force from larger statues”, and there were findings of numerous depictions of headless bodies or body-less heads. Another Neolithic site in the Levant called Tell Qarassa holds “deliberately mutilated facial skeletons” that have been “interpreted as an expression of postmortal punishment,” or as an example of “negative funerary rites”. Perhaps these skulls were from vanquished enemies, and were on display as a sign of triumph or warning to others. Maybe their punishment was to die, lose their heads, and have them hang for all to see. 

Whether it was for honoring their ancestors or punishing their foes, it’s pretty gruesome, right? In addition to the artwork present at Gobekli Tepe mentioned above, there’s also a headless man carved into a pillar in enclosure D, as well as a statue they’ve dubbed the “gift bearer”, described as “a kneeling figure carrying a human head in its hands”. We’ll come back to the gift bearer later on, but for now, let’s talk a bit about an episode in the Jaredite story that has to do with cutting off human heads. You’ve probably read this story in the 8th and 9th chapters of Ether. It’s about king Omer, his son Jared, and Jared’s future son-in-law, Akish. There might be a connection between this Book of Mormon tale and Gobekli Tepe. 

Possible reconstruction of what one of these skulls on display might have looked like. The cord would have helped it hang.

The head chopping secret combination of Jared and Akish

Jared was sad because he lost the kingdom to his father, Omer, and so Jared’s daughter came to him and said, “Whereby hath my father so much sorrow? Hath he not read the record which our fathers brought across the great deep? Behold, is there not an account concerning them of old, that they by their secret plans did obtain kingdoms and great glory?” (Ether 8:9)

Now, we’re not told any explicit details about the secret plans that were done by “them of old”, but we are told Jared’s and his daughter’s plan: To get this guy named Akish to cut off “the head of [Jared’s] father, the king,” and to bring it to Jared as a gift (Ether 8:12, my emphasis).

Akish agreed to obtain the head of Omer, the king. But he needed a team to do the deed, so he gathered together some friends and asked them to swear unto him to be faithful and do as he said. And then they all swore by God, heaven, the earth, “and by their heads” that they would do as Akish asked. And they pledged that anyone among them who screwed up “should lose his [own] head.” (Ether 8:14, my emphasis)

Well, as the story turns out, Omer was able to keep his head, but Jared ended up losing his. Having been jealous of Jared, Akish “applied unto those whom he had sworn by the oath of the ancients, and they obtained the head of [Jared]”, his now father-in-law, “as he sat upon his throne” (Ether 9:5).

Now, my question is: Was all of this head chopping and oath making among the Jaredites inspired by the stories of decapitated heads on display at the great tower, Gobekli Tepe? Is the skull cult at Gobekli Tepe at all related to the “secret plans” and the “oath of the ancients” that were written down and brought across the ocean to America by the Jaredites? Here are 8 reasons why I think this violent soap-opera-like episode in the Book of Ether could help support the Gobekli-Jaredite hypothesis:

1st–There’s evidence that the secret plans included something about obtaining peoples’ heads

First, let’s talk about the nature of the secret plans. The main idea contained in the secret plans very well could have been as simple as getting your brethren to do your bidding and keep your secrets. Maybe the head chopping was a creation of Akish. But, is there any indication that part of the actual ancient plans specifically had to do with acquiring the heads of your enemies? The answer, it seems, is yes.

Ether 8:17 makes it clear that Jared’s daughter inspired Jared to look up the old plans; then Jared gave the plans to Akish; and then Akish “administered [the plans] unto his kindred and friends”. And what was the plan that Akish administered unto his buddies? Their plan was to get heads and to swear by heads. 

Jared’s daughter evokes the old plans and suggests that Jared ask Akish for Omer’s head. Jared later agrees to give his daughter in marriage to Akish on the condition that Akish bring him Omer’s head. And then Akish recruits his friends to help him get Omer’s head, making them swear by their own heads to stay loyal. Heads, heads, heads. Heads everywhere.

Ether 9:5 seems to suggest that all of the swearing by heads done by Akish was “the oath of the ancients”–or that all of the head stuff done by Akish was part of the ancient oaths.

Secret combinations being connected to head chopping has deeper roots in scripture than this account in Ether 8. If you read Moses 5, you’ll find the very first recorded instance of secret combinations among men on this earth. And surprise, surprise, it has to do with heads (my emphasis):

29 And Satan said unto Cain: Swear unto me by thy throat, and if thou tell it thou shalt die; and swear thy brethren by their heads, and by the living God, that they tell it not; for if they tell it, they shall surely die; and this that thy father may not know it; and this day I will deliver thy brother Abel into thine hands.

30 And Satan sware unto Cain that he would do according to his commands. And all these things were done in secret.

So while we still don’t know the exact details of the plans, it does appear from the text of Ether and Moses that the secret combination inspired by the records of “them of old” across the sea had to do with swearing by your own head and cutting off other people’s heads. It’s possible that the skull cult at Gobekli Tepe was a similar form of secret combination. 

2nd–”Them of old who also sought power” does not refer to Cain, but to someone else

For most of my life, when I read this story about the decapitation activities of Akish, I assumed the plans of old were straight from Cain, the original secret combinations guy himself. But if you read Ether 8 closely, you see that the truth is more complex than that.

15 And it came to pass that thus they did agree with Akish. And Akish did administer unto them the oaths which were given by them of old who also sought power, which had been handed down even from Cain, who was a murderer from the beginning.

The plans and oaths did originally come from Cain, yes; but “them of old who also sought power” were not Cain. It’s clear that the people of old to whom Jared’s daughter was referring–the ones who “by their secret plans did obtain kingdoms and great glory”–were not Cain, but that these plans “had been handed down even from Cain” to them. They were inheritors of Cain’s oaths. This means that there were people in time between Cain and the brother of Jared’s voyage to America that used these secret plans to chop off people’s heads. The great tower was chronologically after Cain and sometime before (or during) the time of the original Jaredite departure. We know there was head chopping going on at Gobekli Tepe, but could these secret combinations have also been present at the Jaredites’ “great tower”? 

3rd–All secret combinations were inspired by the same being who inspired the building of the great tower

While abridging the book of Helaman, Mormon came upon the origin story of the Gadianton robbers and therefore had to write about secret combinations. He wrote how Satan was the one who inspired our first parents to eat the fruit, the one who plotted with Cain to murder Abel, and the one who gave the “secret oaths and covenants” to Gadianton to start his secret band (Helaman 6:26-27). Then Mormon goes on to say:

“And also it is that same being who put it into the hearts of the people to build a tower sufficiently high that they might get to heaven. And it was that same being who led on the people who came from that tower into this land; who spread the works of darkness and abominations over all the face of the land, until he dragged the people down to an entire destruction, and to an everlasting hell.”

Helaman 6:28

According to Mormon, Satan was the one who inspired the building of the Jaredites’ great tower, as well as the one who led on the Jaredites through “works of darkness” to destruction (starting with Akish’s secret combinations). Although we do not know from the text if these secret oaths of head chopping were being practiced at the great tower, we do know that the “the record which [the brother of Jared’s party] brought across the great deep” (8:9) contained information about these secret oaths. The first generation of Jaredites were aware of secret oaths of head chopping somewhere in their past. Were those stories of secret oaths from the great tower itself–the tower from which the first Jaredites “came forth” (see Title page of the BOM)? If you recall, the brother of Jared was reluctant to elect a king among them, saying, “Surely this thing leadeth into captivity”; and we know the secret plans he brought across the sea helped “them of old … obtain kingdoms and great glory”. I wonder if this explains his disdain for kings— because the kings he knew of became such through secret combinations? They were bad news.

Tradition pegs Nimrod as the builder/instigator of the Tower of Babel. The book of Ether mentions there was a valley named after Nimrod, the mighty hunter, near the brother of Jared’s location–possibly near the tower itself (Ether 2:1). Tradition also puts Nimrod in a negative light, saying he was wicked. Joseph Smith’s translation of Genesis seems to support this view, changing Nimrod’s description as “a mighty hunter before the LORD” to “a mighty hunter in the land” (see Genesis 10:9 cf. Genesis 10:5 JST). Nimrod might’ve been a bad dude, and he might’ve wanted to build the great tower for a bad purpose. Mormon tells us the tower was built under the direction of the devil. Perhaps Nimrod was inspired by secret combinations to build it. Maybe he built it to administer secret combinations in a temple-like atmosphere. We’re never told in the Book of Mormon why God scattered the people at the great tower. Could it have been because of secret combinations? That would explain how information concerning the secret oaths made it into the records brought over with the brother of Jared.

We don’t know if the great tower and Gobekli Tepe were the same thing, but we do know that the former was inspired by the same being who inspired head-chopping among the Jaredites, and the latter had a skull cult with possible enemy heads on display.

4th–The secret plans are had among all people + many nations have ties back to Gobekli Tepe

Around 400 AD, while abridging the story of Akish’s dark deeds of decapitation, Moroni added, “I … do not write the manner of their oaths and combinations, for it hath been made known unto me that they are had among all people, and they are had among the Lamanites.” (Ether 8:20). It sounds like he came upon this information through revelation. Let’s go through some examples of head chopping activities (cults?) throughout the world. It’s not a comprehensive list by any stretch. Just a quick compilation from the interwebs. It’s also pretty gruesome, so I apologize in advance.

Old World: We know there was a skull cult at Gobekli Tepe (9700-8000 BC). Tell Qarassa (9500 BC) in Syria held a “cranial cache” of “mutilated facial skeletons”. Plastered human skulls which “could be linked to the practice of head hunting” or “trophies” have been found in the Levant (9000-6000 BC). Cayonu Tepesi (8630-6800 BC) has a “skull building”, and apparently human sacrifice was practiced there. And someone after Cain but before the Jaredite sea voyage was doing head stuff, as we’ve noted. 

Americas: Cain swore by his throat and swore his brethren by their heads. We’ve talked about Akish obtaining his enemies’ heads and making his henchmen swear by their heads. The oldest documented evidence for a ceremonial decapitation in the Americas comes from Brazil, dating to ~7000 BC. “Ritual beheading” occurred in Florida around 6000-4000 BC. Signs of decapitation, including that of children, have been found at Cuello, Belize (~1200 BC). Some contend that the giant stone Olmec heads “represented the severed heads of opponents who probably were losers in ritual battles”. At Los Mangeles (1000-400 BC) in Guatemala, mounds and burial sites have been found replete with “adult male crania that have been interpreted as trophy heads” and sacrificial victims. A site in El Chalchuapa in El Salvador yielded trophy heads and at least one headless skeleton. Among the Maya, captive enemies would be forced to play the Mesoamerican ball game where “the loser would be beheaded and the victor would … keep his head as a trophy and confirm victory in order to establish his city’s dominance.” Enemy kings who were captured would also be ritually beheaded. In Mayan art, decapitation is emphasized in the Popul Vuh. The Feathered Serpent Pyramid (150-200 AD) at Teotihuacan contains graves of high social status warriors decked out in bracelets made of human jaw bones and necklaces made of human teeth–all of which probably came from the heads of their enemies. At a site in Mexico were found a mass grave of decapitated individuals (600 AD). And numerous headless male skeletons were found at the Temple of the Moon near Machu Picchu, Peru. 

And I’m sure there are many other examples of violent and unfriendly decapitations from all over the world. I found a 2017 paper by Jon R. Haskell where he compared similar bird and V-shaped symbols etched onto head figurines and human skulls from various locations and time periods around the world, saying, “It is highly probable the symbol is associated with a ritual within the global so-called Skull Cult.” I don’t know for sure if a global skull cult did exist, but as we can see, many cultures all over the world adopted weird, deadly, and mysterious practices having to do with human heads. 

And this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. We’re a violent species that tends to fight with our neighbors. But is it possible that the global idea of head hunting came from Gobekli Tepe? I think so. There’s evidence that many nations stem from Gobekli Tepe. It was the birthplace of agriculture and religion, and from there, hunter-gatherers and farmers spread out and settled the rest of the world (see #4 & #5 on the original Gobekli-Jaredite post). It’s not too hard to believe that some of the Gobekli Tepe skull cult ideas traveled around the globe with them. In the case of the Jaredites, we know they actually did carry the idea of head-collecting secret oaths with them as they left their great tower. Makes you wonder… Makes you scratch your head a little maybe (sorry I couldn’t resist).

5th–Nations that embrace secret combinations are destroyed

In his podcast, scholar Avraham Gileadi points out that all nations that become okay with secret combinations are destroyed. That intrigued me, so I did some digging in the scriptures to verify it. He was right.

Akish, with the prodding of Jared, started a secret combination among a portion of the Jaredites, which culminated in a war which destroyed everyone in the kingdom except for 30 people (Ether 9:6, 12). Heth “embrace[d] the secret plans again of old”, which eventually brought a “great dearth upon the land” plus an infestation of poisonous serpents that killed many people and broke up the kingdom (Ether 9:26-12). In the days of Com, a bunch of robbers surfaced who “adopted the old plans, and administered oaths after the manner of the ancients”; and not too long afterward there were wars, contentions, and many famines and pestilences, insomuch that there was a great destruction, such an one as never had been known upon the face of the earth” (Ether 10:33-11:7). In the days of Moron, we again see the rise of “that secret combination” to get power (11:15,20-22). Later, some men rose up and “sought to destroy Coriantumr by their secret plans of wickedness”, which ultimately led to the complete destruction of the Jaredites (13:15,18, 14:8-10,25). And then, in illustration of the final result of these secret oaths among the Jaredites, Coriantumr secures his title as the last Jaredite king by “[smiting] off the head of Shiz”, whose own brother, Lib, was a definite member of the secret society (15:31). How fitting it is that a civilization whose downfall began with cultic head chopping ends with a severed head.

The Nephites were nearly destroyed multiple times by their tolerance of the Gadianton robbers (Helaman 2:13). And in the end, the Nephites actually were destroyed after they “began again to build up the secret oaths and combinations of Gadianton” (4 Nephi 1:42-46). At least in the Book of Mormon, if you embrace secret combinations, you’re toast.

The Tower of Babel was destroyed somehow. Tradition says the tower was destroyed by winds or sky gods. Gobekli Tepe, once thought to be buried intentionally, is now showing more evidence to suggest some sort of landslide destroyed and covered the structure (see #19 on Gobekli-Jaredite post). There are two facts here that should be of importance: 1) There was a mysterious skull cult at Gobekli Tepe; and 2) Gobekli Tepe was destroyed and abandoned. Was it destroyed and its people scattered for the same reason that all other people are destroyed in the Book of Mormon–for embracing the secret combinations? 

Fawn Brodie accused Joseph Smith of plagiarism when he wrote about Jared’s daughter dancing to get Omer beheaded in Ether 8 because the same thing happens in the Bible when Herodias’s daughter danced to get John the Baptist’s head. You have to admit that the two stories are similar (compare Ether 8 with Matthew 14). But when you consider that head hunting might be connected with the secret oaths handed down from Cain, and that these oaths are among all people, and that all those who use these secret plans are destroyed, the theory of Joseph plagiarizing this story weakens. Instead, the possibility emerges that decapitation for gain and vengeance isn’t a biblical thing, but a secret combination thing that has roots deep in humanity’s past. It doesn’t talk about it in the Bible, but do you remember what happened to the kingdom of Jerusalem? It was destroyed about 40 years later. This follows the pattern: hunt for peoples’ heads secretly/allow for secret combinations >>> get destroyed openly.

6th- The Gift Bearer

Near the beginning of this post, I mentioned the statue found at Gobekli Tepe that they’ve called the gift bearer. It’s a guy holding out a human head in his hands, presumably offering it as a gift. Interpretation of this figure is open, but given what we’ve talked about, I feel that the gift bearer is a representation of something sinister. Remember how Jared wanted Akish to bring him Omer’s head in exchange for his daughter’s hand? It would have been a gift or an offering to in turn receive what Akish desired. John the Baptist’s head was brought on a platter. I guess it’s all about the presentation. 

The Gift Bearer statue found at Gobekli Tepe. Hard to tell, but he’s holding a head. “The gift bearer holds a human head in his hands (height, 26 cm). Credit: Dieter Johannes, Göbekli Tepe Archive, DAI.”

When you win a tournament or do well at your job, you sometimes get a trophy. These heads at Gobekli Tepe, at sites throughout the world, and in the scriptures could all be trophies—trophies of those head hunters initiated into the secret oaths designed to get gain, revenge, power, and influence.

7th–Where are the skull cults at the Babylonian Ziggurats?

I think most members of the Church assume the Jaredites’ great tower was a ziggurat in Mesopotamia or what’s now modern-day Iraq. I’ve been told the great tower could have been Eridu (5400 BC), or the Anu ziggurat at Uruk (4000 BC), or Tepe Sialk (3000 BC). There are a lot of problems with these–I believe–which we won’t go into here, but most importantly for this discussion is they don’t show any signs of skull cults or decapitations at these temples. At least, my cursory internet search didn’t yield any secretive, branded, violently procured heads on display. Now, there is evidence of beheading or some kind of head-related beliefs in Mesopotamia, notably the Sumerian Stela of Eannatum (~2450 BC), which “presents severed heads being picked apart and carried aloft by vultures” and may represent “the dis-integration of a once-powerful enemy.” This evidence needs to be considered—and is notably similar to the birds carrying heads at Gobekli Tepe several thousand years earlier—but I’m still waiting for some severed human heads at Eridu, Anu, or Tepe Sialk to get me interested in those places as the great tower.

As we’ve covered, Gobekli Tepe has heads. If we’re bold enough to put “skull cult/severed heads” on the list of requirements for the Jaredite great tower, Gobekli Tepe gets that check mark. The Mesopotamian ziggurats do not, to my knowledge. If you know more about those than I do and can provide evidence of head hunting there, please let me know.

8th–Go at the head of them

And finally, my eighth point is more for fun than anything. If Gobekli Tepe really is the great tower, then the Lord may have been making a pun when He first gave instructions to the brother of Jared. “Go at the head of them down into the valley which is northward,” He said; and if you can imagine the brother of Jared communing with the Lord while in a circular enclosure at Gobekli Tepe, where there are modified human skulls hanging from the ceiling or T-shaped pillars… well, then it makes a dark situation a little brighter, in my opinion. 

Conclusion

We don’t know exactly what the Gobekli Tepe skull cult was all about. It could’ve been a benign way to exalt their ancestors, or it could’ve been an evil way to dispatch their enemies. From the text of the Book of Mormon, it appears the secret plans of “them of old” had something to do with heads, and the great tower might’ve had a problem with such secret oaths and combinations. It seems like all cultures everywhere have headhunters, and many of these cultures probably have distant ties back to Gobekli Tepe, the world’s first temple. Did knowledge of the Gobekli skull cult make it into these nations? Did it make it into the Jaredite nation?

Of course there’s a lot of speculation here, but I think the secret combinations in Ether might be a fun/disturbing clue that the Jaredites came from Gobekli Tepe around 10,000 years ago, not from some ziggurat in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago or less.

You can read more about the Gobekli-Jaredite Theory here.


Sources and Notes

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