Around 9,000 years ago, a human experiment blossomed in what’s now south-central Turkey. Today, it is called Çatalhöyük — a portmanteau representing its entry point into recent history. In 1958, archaeologists discovered a fork (a çatal) in a local footpath, leading to two mounds (called höyük). Beneath those mounds was evidence of one Earth’s earliest cities.
A study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains how this human experiment eventually backfired for the people living there. For 1,150 years, it was continuously occupied until it was abandoned, around 5,950 B.C. Researchers now believe that diseases, overcrowding, and climate change eventually forced community members to move away from the settlement.
While life in Çatalhöyük was far from easy, what happened there helped set the stage for eventual worldwide urbanization. The United Nations predicts that 68 percent of the global population will live in cities by 2050, and Clark Larsen, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist at Ohio State University and this study’s lead author, believes that the events that happened 9,000 years ago in Çatalhöyük set the stage for what would become our modern life. This is why he thinks we can learn from their experiences.
“I am committed to the notion that the past predicts the present,” Larsen tells Inverse, “and we need to understand that past to understand the world we live in now.”
Larsen has had a longstanding interest in the health and lifestyle of early farmers — those who were working around the Neolithic transition from hunting and gathering to farming. So when Ian Hodder, Ph.D., an archeologist who leads the Çatalhöyük Research Project, invited him to join the project in 2004, he quickly accepted the opportunity.
This new study is based on 25 years of findings linked to the human remains found in Çatalhöyük. Dating of remains shows that the population there grew to its peak in the period from 6,700 to 6,500 B.C. and then declined rapidly. That decline is likely linked to the evidence of disease and malnutrition Larsen and colleagues found in the remains.
For example, analysis of the stable carbon isotope ratios within bones showed that the residents ate a diet high in wheat, barley, and rye. These crops indicate the role that farming played in the city — agriculture was the priority, rather than hunting and gathering. But a grain heavy diet also came with a price: Around 10 to 13 percent of the teeth of adults show evidence of tooth decay and cavities, the so-called “diseases of civilization.”
One-third of the bones also showed infections, leading the team to believe that there was a high infection rate in the city, likely linked to crowding and poor hygiene. During its peak in population, Çatalhöyük homes were packed more tightly than New York City apartments — there were no spaces between the settlements, and residents came and left through ladders that reached through the roofs. Traces of animal and human fecal matter have been found in these homes, and the bodies of the dead were buried beneath the floors of the houses.
Larsen describes life there as “challenging” and explains that it’s likely that residents “living there experienced considerable stress, exposure to disease-causing circumstances, dense crowding, and changing labor demands.” In some cases, the community was resilient — a study on the biochemical properties of residents’ leg bones showed that people who lived there in its later years walked significantly more than early residents, likely because they had to move farming and grazing farther from the growing city.
The challenges of life in Çatalhöyük also meant there was considerable violence. In a sample of 93 skulls found, 25 showed evidence of healed fractures. Twelve of these were victimized more than once, and the shape of their lesions suggest they suffered blows to the head. Clay balls were also found at the site — round objects that fit the shape of the blows found on the skulls.
“There is, of course, interpersonal violence in earlier humans beginning long before Çatalhöyük,” Larsen says. “However, Çatalhöyük is among the earliest to present a clear case of repeated violence in a community setting.”
That’s not to say that those who lived in Çatalhöyük were simply brutal people. A remarkable record of elaborate figurines and art suggests that they had a rich material culture and, while burying the dead at home could have come with its own problems, their treatment of the dead shows purposeful consideration. Life was centered around the home, each consisting of between five and 10 people, and they fashioned mirrors with obsidian. One Çatalhöyük mural — a stretch of boxes below a polka-dotted shape — is thought to depict an ancient volcanic eruption and could be the world’s oldest map.
We know from modern times that rapid urbanization and overcrowded sprawls threaten human health and wellness. The world today, Larsen says, “is living what preceded us in places like Çatalhöyük.” It experienced many of the same social, behavioral, and nutritional challenges that we see in the present. What remains to be seen is whether any of these challenges will cause modern cities to disappear as well.
The transition from a human diet based exclusively on wild plants and animals to one involving dependence on domesticated plants and animals beginning 10,000 to 11,000 y ago in Southwest Asia set into motion a series of profound health, lifestyle, social, and economic changes affecting human populations throughout most of the world. However, the social, cultural, behavioral, and other factors surrounding health and lifestyle associated with the foraging-to-farming transition are vague, owing to an incomplete or poorly understood contextual archaeological record of living conditions. Bioarchaeological investigation of the extraordinary record of human remains and their context from Neolithic Çatalhöyük (7100–5950 cal BCE), a massive archaeological site in south-central Anatolia (Turkey), provides important perspectives on population dynamics, health outcomes, behavioral adaptations, interpersonal conflict, and a record of community resilience over the life of this single early farming settlement having the attributes of a protocity. Study of Çatalhöyük human biology reveals increasing costs to members of the settlement, including elevated exposure to disease and labor demands in response to community dependence on and production of domesticated plant carbohydrates, growing population size and density fueled by elevated fertility, and increasing stresses due to heightened workload and greater mobility required for caprine herding and other resource acquisition activities over the nearly 12 centuries of settlement occupation. These changes in life conditions foreshadow developments that would take place worldwide over the millennia following the abandonment of Neolithic Çatalhöyük, including health challenges, adaptive patterns, physical activity, and emerging social behaviors involving interpersonal violence.