A Community With Modern Urban Problems 9,000 Years Ago

Excavations in a number of Neolithic buildings at Catalhoyuk. (Image: Scott Haddow)
Excavations in a number of Neolithic buildings at Catalhoyuk. (Image: Scott Haddow)

Some 9,000 years ago, residents of one of the world’s first large farming communities were also among the first humans to experience some of the perils of modern urban living. Scientists studying the ancient ruins of Çatalhöyük, in modern Turkey, found that its inhabitants — 3,500 to 8,000 people at its peak — experienced overcrowding, infectious diseases, violence, and environmental problems.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of bioarchaeologists reported new findings built on 25 years of study of human remains unearthed at Çatalhöyük.

The results paint a picture of what it was like for humans to move from a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle to a more sedentary life built around agriculture, said Clark Spencer Larsen, lead author of the study, and professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University, adding:

Çatalhöyük, in what is now south-central Turkey, was inhabited from about 7100 to 5950 B.C. First excavated in 1958, the site measures 13 hectares (about 32 acres) with nearly 21 meters of deposits spanning 1,150 years of continuous occupation.

Larsen, who began fieldwork at the site in 2004, was one of the leaders of the team that studied human remains as part of the larger Çatalhöyük Research Project, directed by Ian Hodder of Stanford University. A co-author of the PNAS paper, Christopher Knüsel of Université de Bordeaux in France, was co-leader of the bioarchaeology team with Larsen.

Fieldwork at Çatalhöyük ended in 2017 and the PNAS paper represents the culmination of the bioarchaeology work at the site, Larsen said. Çatalhöyük began as a small settlement about 7100 B.C., likely consisting of a few mud-brick houses in what researchers call the Early period.

Researcher Nada Elias excavating an adult skeleton at Catalhoyuk. (Image: Scott Haddow)

Researcher Nada Elias excavating an adult skeleton at Catalhoyuk. (Image: Scott Haddow)

It grew to its peak in the Middle period of 6700 to 6500 B.C., before the population declined rapidly in the Late period. Çatalhöyük was abandoned about 5950 BC. Farming was always a major part of life in the community.

The researchers analyzed a chemical signature in the bones — called stable carbon isotope ratios — to determine that residents ate a diet heavy in wheat, barley, and rye, along with a range of non-domesticated plants.

Stable nitrogen isotope ratios were used to document protein in their diets, which came from sheep, goats, and non-domesticated animals. Domesticated cattle were introduced in the Late period, but sheep were always the most important domesticated animal in their diets. Larsen said:

The grain-heavy diet meant that some residents soon developed tooth decay — one of the so-called “diseases of civilization,” Larsen said. Results showed that about 10 to 13 percent of the teeth of adults found at the site showed evidence of dental cavities.

Changes over time in the shape of leg bone cross-sections showed that community members in the Late period of Çatalhöyük walked significantly more than early residents. That suggests residents had to move farming and grazing further from the community as time went on, Larsen said, adding:

Other research suggests that the climate in the Middle East became drier during the course of Çatalhöyük’s history, which made farming more difficult. Findings from the new study suggest that residents suffered from a high infection rate, most likely due to crowding and poor hygiene. Up to one-third of remains from the Early period show evidence of infections on their bones.

During its peak in population, houses were built like apartments with no space between them — residents came and left through ladders to the roofs of the houses. Excavations showed that interior walls and floors were re-plastered many times with clay.

Neolithic burial from Çatalhöyük, Turkey, is represented by a headless young adult female with a fetal skeleton (arrow). Skull removal was a burial custom practiced in number of instances at this locality. (Image: the Çatalhöyük Research Project/Jason Quinlan)

Neolithic burial from Çatalhöyük, Turkey, is represented by a headless young adult female with a fetal skeleton (arrow). Skull removal was a burial custom practiced in a number of instances at this locality. (Image: the Çatalhöyük Research Project / Jason Quinlan)

And while the residents kept their floors mostly debris-free, analysis of house walls and floors showed traces of animal and human fecal matter. Larsen said:

The crowded conditions in Çatalhöyük may have also contributed to high levels of violence between residents, according to the researchers. In a sample of 93 skulls from Çatalhöyük, more than one-fourth — 25 individuals — showed evidence of healed fractures. And 12 of them had been victimized more than once, with two to five injuries over a period of time.

The shape of the lesions suggested that blows to the head from hard, round objects caused them — and clay balls of the right size and shape were also found at the site. More than half of the victims were women (13 women, 10 men). And most of the injuries were on the top or back of their heads, suggesting the victims were not facing their assailants when struck. Larsen said:

Most people were buried in pits that had been dug into the floors of houses, and researchers believe they were interred under the homes in which they lived. That led to an unexpected finding: Most members of a household were not biologically related.

Researchers discovered this when they found that the teeth of individuals buried under the same house weren’t as similar as would be expected if they were kin. Larsen said:

More research is needed to determine the relations of people who lived together in Çatalhöyük, he said, adding:

Overall, Larsen said the significance of Çatalhöyük is that it was one of the first Neolithic “mega-sites” in the world built around agriculture, saying:

Provided by: Jeff Grabmeier, The Ohio State University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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