Planet Earth

This Ancient Proto-City Was Plagued With Modern Urban Problems

9,000 years ago, the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük faced increased violence and declining health as they adapted to city living.

By Joshua Rapp LearnJan 6, 2023 8:00 PM
Çatalhöyük
(Credit: acsen/Shutterstock)

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Nomadic humans lived a relatively healthy lifestyle compared to early farmers and city dwellers. Being constantly on the move kept people in good shape, and the low population density meant they were less exposed to disease. But the advent of early farming and the evolution of urban living had some huge initial impacts on health and lifestyle — and not all of them were positive.  

The ancient proto-city of Çatalhöyük — a large, densely-packed village situated in modern-day Turkey from roughly 7,100 B.C. to 6,000 B.C. — has revealed some of these shifts that humans experienced in the dawn of agriculture. 

“It’s kind of a microcosm of what’s happening globally during the Neolithic, the period of first farming,” says Clark Larsen, a biological anthropologist at The Ohio State University. 

First Excavations Uncover Ancient Artifacts

Çatalhöyük was first excavated by archaeologist James Mellaart starting in the late 1950s. People had known about the huge mound at the site in south central Turkey for centuries, but the area had never been excavated before Mellaart’s team began digging. The whole site, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rises 20 meters above the surrounding plains. While the hunter-gatherer site of Göbekli Tepe in eastern Turkey dates back earlier, it isn’t as large as Çatalhöyük. 


Read more: Which Ancient City Is Considered the Oldest in the World?


Mellaart found a series of clay brick houses at Çatalhöyük, and his team continued their work. But Mellaart was later banned from Turkey due to a scandal over possible smuggled artifacts from another dig site, and some of his supposed finds, including a few at Çatalhöyük, were later questioned as potentially being forgeries.  

As a result of the controversy, work at the site ground to a halt until 1993, when archaeologist Ian Hodder began new excavations. It's continued ever since, revealing a trove of artifacts, remains and information about the people that lived at Çatalhöyük. 

Violence in the Streets for Ancient Humans

Many people were buried under the floor of the houses where they presumably lived, and while they usually weren’t interred with many artifacts, the remains themselves can tell us something about their lifestyle. Larsen has been at the site since 2013, when he and other bioarchaeologists came in to examine some of these human remains. 

One of the most striking things that Larsen and his colleagues found in their examinations was an overall decline in human health. This can be blamed in part on the relatively cramped living conditions of Çatalhöyük compared to more nomadic societies. In the most extreme cases, some of these negative health consequences were caused by violence from other humans. 

The team, headed by Larsen and Chrisopher Knüsel, found a number of remains with depressed fractures in their skull. Many of these injuries weren’t fatal due to signs of healing on the bones. Larsen says the injuries are likely due to attacks from others — including blows to the head with a stone. He says that the team believes the growing pressures of crowded urban life at the time may have given rise to heated interpersonal conflicts.

At its peak between roughly 6,800 and 6,600 B.C., Çatalhöyük was particularly dense, with up to 8,000 people living in an urban area estimated at about four football fields in area. The homes were built right next to each other, sharing walls somewhat like row houses today, while the farms and livestock that sustained the settlement were in the surrounding fields. 

“These houses are not spread apart like what we see in cities today,” Larsen says. “They are practically living on top of each other.”  

The pressures of living in close quarters might have increased psychological and social stresses due to competition for resources or personal issues. All of these factors may have triggered an increase in violence.  

Doctors and Dentistry 

This uptick in violence among the proto-city's inhabitants was paralleled by a collective decline in oral health. Larsen says that his team’s research has examined hundreds of teeth unearthed in excavations at Çatalhöyük. They have noted a general average decline in the condition of the teeth of the people in Çatalhöyük as the city developed over the centuries.  

This finding wasn't necessarily a surprise to researchers. “It’s global, that kind of decline in oral health,” Larsen says.  

Bioarchaeologists typically attribute this decline in healthy teeth to the increase in carbohydrates in human diets, as we began to rely more heavily on domesticated grains. In the case of Çatalhöyük, these included wheat, rye and barley. Some of the oral bacteria that typically live in all our mouths and help digest things like grains increase disproportionately when you eat a lot of them. Larsen says that when bacteria digest these trace materials in your mouth, it creates of acids that can eat away at your teeth more quickly than they would with low-carbohydrate diets among hunter-gatherers.  

While the large proportion of carbs doesn’t affect people’s teeth as much today thanks to modern oral hygiene practices, it certainly had an impact on people beginning with the agricultural revolution during the Neolithic era.  

Other changes in the remains revealed that over the period that people lived at Çatalhöyük, the lifestyle changed. For example, changes in femur bones of people interred in houses revealed that inhabitants moved more as the city grew — perhaps as a result of having to travel farther to get to crops or livestock, Larsen says. They also may have had to travel farther to gather the clay they fashioned into bricks for their homes.  

“They’ve depleted resources further and further from the site over time,” Larsen says.  

Ancient City Disappearance 

While it may seem quaint in comparison to metropolises today, Çatalhöyükwas a durable urban center. It lasted from 7,100 to 6,000 B.C. — more than a millennium. But resource depletion may have spelled its eventual doom. By 6000 B.C., the population was relatively small, with only a few families living at Çatalhöyük. But some of the people may have moved to a place relatively nearby called West Mound, which shows evidence of habitation from roughly 5,900 to 5,600 B.C. It’s also possible that the changed course of the Çarşamba River at the time forced people to move to West Mound.  

In any case, archaeologists have really only scratched the surface of the site's remains. Larsen estimates that Hodder and previous excavations have only uncovered only a relatively small percentage of the total area at Çatalhöyük. A Turkish archaeological team continues to uncover new findings at the site, and will undoubtedly reveal more about the way that these people lived at the dawn of farming and city living.  

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