Since the earliest communities of people formed, the human skull and bones — with their implication of mortality and eternity — played an important role in humanity’s cultural, spiritual and artistic lives. Skulls have the power to attract and repel, often simultaneously. The earliest example of art involving a human skull is the Jericho skull from the Neolithic period, found in modern Palestine. Using plaster to suggest features and shells for eyes, it is thought to have been part of ancestral worship. Western paintings are peppered with images of skulls. They are present in medieval icons to symbolise the realms of hell, in the 16th-century tradition of vanitas symbolising life’s impermanence, and in most major art movements. The treatment of human remains is often an indication of a society’s regard for the living. In inhumane systems such as slavery, colonialism and apartheid, human beings were regarded as useful but highly expendable beings. Some of the earliest recorded incide...

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