What Happened to Turkey's Ancient Utopia?

Turkey’s Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük may have been an orderly society built on tolerance and equality — until it fell apart

By Jennifer Hattam
Jul 28, 2016 12:00 AMMay 21, 2019 5:30 PM
Horns of an auroch and an enigmatic face adorn a small pot found at the prehistoric city of Çatalhöyük. Vincent Musi/National Geographic Creative


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Tunç Ilada stoops to pick up a pottery shard, one of many littering the ground at the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük. “This is from a Roman ceramic workshop that was here nearly 2,000 years ago,” I˙lada, a tour guide, says of the shard. “But for the archaeologists working here, this is practically brand new.”

Ancient Rome indeed feels like modern history compared with the finds for which this arid, dusty site in rural central Turkey is most renowned. Beginning some 9,500 years ago, in roughly 7500 B.C., and continuing for nearly two millennia, people came together at Çatalhöyük to build hundreds of tightly clustered mud-brick houses, burying their dead beneath the floors and adorning the walls with paintings, livestock skulls and plaster reliefs. Greeks, Romans and other later cultures left evidence of their subsequent presence at the site, but it’s the Neolithic residents who have captured archaeologists’ imaginations: Now, new techniques to analyze the tantalizing clues left by these first settlers may overturn our entire notion of prehistory.


The 34-acre site, at one time inhabited by as many as 8,000 people, is among the world’s largest and best-preserved early settlements. It’s astonishingly rich in artifacts: When the first digs began in 1961, British archaeologist James Mellaart “chose his excavation area based on where wall paintings had been revealed by erosion and were just sticking up from the ground,” says current excavation director Ian Hodder. When Hodder, a former student of Mellaart’s, took over the dig in 1993, his team unearthed nearly 20,000 objects that first year through surface collection alone. And although Çatalhöyük’s first inhabitants left behind no written records or other traces of the language they spoke, artifacts suggest they were connected through trade to places as far-flung as the Red Sea and the Mediterranean coast.

Mysterious, fascinating objects are still being uncovered at Çatalhöyük. The prize of the 2015 dig season was a head modeled out of plaster and adorned with obsidian eyes. Though the site’s earliest residents are known to have applied plaster and ochre to the actual skulls of their dead, an artifact like this — found “watching over” what researchers think was a storehouse — had not been seen before.

But the digs are winding down. As Hodder’s team members wrap up a 25-year excavation and make the last new finds, they’re also focusing on putting past discoveries into context.

Excavations at the site, located on the Anatolian plateau of central Turkey, are wrapping up after decades of digging. Jason Quinlan

Winning the Dating Game “Radiocarbon dating alone can only show us if one artifact’s origins are within 200 years of another,” says Alex Bayliss, a University of Stirling archaeologist on Hodder’s team. “That’s like the difference between us and Napoleon. Most people wouldn’t know what their ancestors were doing during the Napoleonic Wars.”

Bayliss’ current work aims to refine dating of the site to within a generation, to better understand relationships within the community and how it changed over time. To do so, she combines radiocarbon dating with stratigraphy — analysis of each of the layers of the 69-foot-deep site — and data gleaned from all other available material, including fragments gathered by local women sifting through sand and gravel samples with thick tweezers. Bayliss then crunches the data using Bayesian statistics, a sophisticated mathematical technique that can incorporate multiple lines of evidence.

More than 8,000 years ago, Çatalhöyük was already a city of one-room homes, accessed from the roof. Deagostin/Getty Images

“The detailed stratigraphy and the depth excavated at Çatalhöyük mean I can routinely get samples that give me a chance of getting to within [a date range of] 20 to 40 years,” Bayliss says. “This allows us to say that the people in this house knew the people in that house. It’s taking the ‘pre’ out of prehistory.”

Hodder and others on the Çatalhöyük team have hailed Bayliss’ work as among the most groundbreaking of the entire project. It’s possible to compare this new generational chronology directly against the climate record, which researchers can also measure on a finer scale by examining changes to tree rings, lake sediments and other materials. This direct comparison could establish whether important milestones, such as the introduction of domesticated cattle, were related to changes in the surrounding environment. More precise dating of the hundreds of often co-mingled human remains at the site could also indicate the relationship between, for example, a body and the plastered skull cradled in its arms at the time of burial: Were they parent and child, or was the skull a venerated ancestor, many generations removed?

Places of worship often featured bucrania, the decorative use of animal horns. Deagostin/Getty Images

This dating technique also has implications for understanding the site’s social dynamics. “If we know that two houses are exactly contemporary, we can start determining that differences between them may have been by choice, rather than just a change in the times,” Bayliss adds. “Say I have a wall painting [that I’m looking at in Çatalhöyük]. Is it of a red bull because red bulls were ‘so this season,’ or is it because it was painted by the grandchildren of the people who painted an earlier red bull, and it’s kind of a family heirloom?”

With the current excavations scheduled to wrap up this month and final data to be published over the next two years, Bayliss, Hodder and others on the team hope that this highly refined, comparative approach to dating will help unravel some big questions that remain about the site: why these people first settled in such a large community, how they lived and why things eventually fell apart.

Urban sprawl is still a reality at Çatalhöyük, millennia after it was abandoned. Separate structures protect north and south (pictured) excavation areas from the elements. Jason Quinlan

Life Without Leaders One of the enduring mysteries of Çatalhöyük is how this early society was organized: The hundreds of homes excavated thus far exhibit remarkable unity in how they were built, arranged and decorated, with no sign of any distinctive structure that could have served as an administrative or religious center. In most of the layers of successive settlement, each household seems to have had a similar amount of goods and wealth, and a very similar lifestyle. It’s primarily in the most recent uppermost layers, after about 6500 B.C., that signs of inequality begin to emerge. Hodder speculates that this uniformity, as well as a strong shared system of beliefs and rituals, kept people together in the absence of leaders. He cautions, however, that it may not have been an egalitarian utopia.

“We believe people in Çatalhöyük were quite equal, but it might not have been the nicest society to live in,” he says. “Residents had to submit to a lot of social control — if you didn’t fit in, you presumably left. What Çatalhöyük may show is that such a society only works with strong homogeneity. For many generations, it was very unacceptable for individual households to accumulate [wealth]. Once they started to do so, there is evidence that more problems started to arise.”

Some of the new evidence for this theory comes from Çatalhöyük’s human remains lab. There, Ohio State University’s Joshua Sadvari noticed something odd about one of the hundreds of skulls in the lab’s collection, the world’s largest single Neolithic assemblage. Team leaders Christopher Knüsel of the University of Bordeaux and Bonnie Glencross of Wilfrid Laurier University took a closer look.

Archaeologist Katarzyna Harabasz cleans a skull at the site’s human remains lab. Scott D. Haddow

“The cranium had a depressed fracture,” says Knüsel. “We started going through the other remains looking for more.” He and Glencross found dozens of skulls with similar wounds, all showing a consistent pattern of injury to the top back of the skull. “The pattern of the wounds suggests that most of them were inflicted by thrown projectiles, but all of them were healed, meaning they were not fatal.” They speculate that the attacks that caused the injuries were meant only to stun, perhaps to control wayward members of the group, or to abduct outsiders as wives or slaves.

In line with Hodder’s theory, the skulls with this characteristic were found primarily in later levels of the site, when more independence and differentiation between households started to emerge. Hodder speculates that, with these inequalities potentially creating new tensions among the community’s members, non-fatal violence may have been a means to keep everyone in check and prevent or diffuse full-fledged conflicts that could break the settlement apart. “The head wounds, in a way, confirm the idea of a controlled society,” Hodder says. “They suggest that violence was contained and regulated, not something that led to large-scale killing.”

Kickstarting the Anthropocene The Çatalhöyük site is divided between two low hills on an otherwise flat plain. Today’s visitors see a predominantly dry landscape stretching in all directions, but the original settlers were likely drawn there by the now much-diminished Çarsamba river — what’s left of it runs through a channel alongside a rural road leading to the site. When Çatalhöyük was first settled, however, the river’s marshy wetlands would have provided fish and water birds for food, and wet clay for building and replastering their homes.

Researchers believe the very process of digging for clay changed the river’s drainage and eventually its course, which may have contributed to the abandonment of what they call the East Mound for the nearby West Mound around 6000 B.C. It’s evidence that suggests humans at Çatalhöyük — and possibly elsewhere — were already having an impact on Neolithic ecosystems and even the climate.

Official site illustrator Katy Killackey traces red handprints, another decorative element, on an overlay for future study. Jason Quinlan

Most scientific literature holds that the Anthropocene, the period of human activities influencing the environment, began with the industrial era in the 1700s, explains Hodder. “But you could argue that this impact goes back much further, starting in the Neolithic period at places like Çatalhöyük,” he says. “Farming ends the reciprocal relationship with nature that hunters had. At Çatalhöyük, we see evidence of deforestation, of extensive burning, of erosion and of large-scale grazing transforming the environment.” The trend of reworking the landscape, first begun in Neolithic times, continues today: Heavy use of irrigation has turned the area into one of modern-day Turkey’s agricultural centers.

Hodder’s team planned additional soil coring of the area around Çatalhöyük this summer. Their hope is to find more details about how the local environment changed during roughly two millennia of settlement, and how those changes may have affected people’s behavior, perhaps even contributing to the site’s eventual dissolution circa 5500 B.C.

Ruminating on Technology Farmers in the Fertile Crescent, more than 200 miles east of Çatalhöyük, began domesticating cattle around 8000 B.C. By 6500 B.C., the practice had moved to parts of Turkey’s Central Anatolia, Çatalhöyük’s general neighborhood. But evidence of domesticated cattle at Çatalhöyük is scarce until after the move to the West Mound. Compared with their neighbors, the people of Çatalhöyük appear to have been “late adopters” of that era’s hottest new innovation: domesticated cattle.

“Every domesticated animal is a hugely complex new technology that offers great potential for change, but also requires great investments,” says Katheryn Twiss, an associate professor of archaeology at Stony Brook University and co-director of Çatalhöyük’s faunal analysis laboratory. “If you have cattle, you can start to plow, but you also have to be able to get enough water and graze, and to keep them healthy and safe from predators. There may have been reasons to resist adopting this technological advance.”

Some 3 million animal bones have been found at Çatalhöyük — primarily from sheep and cattle, but also goats, horses, dogs, boar, fox, deer, hare and other species. Twiss’ team has been analyzing them to determine when, and why, the settlement transitioned from hunting to herding. Ongoing research may link the arrival of domesticated cattle with emerging inequality between households, and increasingly individualistic behavior among Çatalhöyük residents.

Questions of Gender Roles Site discoverer James Mellaart and other archaeologists believed that Çatalhöyük was a matriarchal society — these early theories were based in part on clay figurines found in the settlement and believed to represent a “mother goddess.” Although researchers have since largely dismissed the idea of a matriarchy, some intriguing evidence suggests relatively high levels of gender equality.

Researchers have found more than 500 individual human skeletons on site, most interred below the plaster floors of Çatalhöyük’s homes. Some remains were subsequently disinterred and their skulls reburied with other bodies, possibly as a form of ancestor worship. Analysis of the site’s remains has not shown significant gender-based differences in how the dead were buried, including their grave goods or which skulls were later removed and placed with other individuals. Studies of the Neolithic residents’ teeth likewise reveal no major gender discrepancies in wear patterns, as would occur, for example, if men had more regular access to meat than did women.

Conservation team leader Ashley Lingle prepares to remove a wooden object from a burial site of four individuals, including three juveniles. Scott D. Haddow

“Teeth are usually really well-preserved and can tell you so much about diet and health, in addition to genetic relationships and social structure,” says Marin Pilloud of the University of Nevada, Reno, who studies the size and shape of teeth as part of her work in Çatalhöyük’s human remains lab.

The relatively warm climate at Çatalhöyük and contamination issues from the previous generation of digs have made it difficult to analyze genetic material, so Pilloud uses teeth as a proxy for DNA. “Sixty to 80 percent of the variation in tooth size and shape can be attributed to genetics,” she says. Her research thus far has shown greater variation among female teeth than those from males, suggesting more women than men married into the community.

Analysis of bone development has also revealed some subtle differences between men and women in terms of manual labor. Says excavation director Hodder: “Women seem to have been more involved in activities related to grinding grain, while men were more active in throwing” — a movement linked to hunting with spears.

Hodder cautions, however, against drawing too many conclusions about a society so distant from our own. Current theories about Çatalhöyük’s level of gender equality may one day seem as quaint as Mellaart’s belief that its residents were goddess worshippers. “Interpretations will change, different ideas will come along,” Hodder says. “What’s important is leaving a detailed set of data that people can play with, test new hypotheses against, and mine endlessly.”

Unearthing a Mystery

1958: Çatalhöyük site is discovered by British archaeologists James Mellaart, David French and Alan Hall.

1961: First excavations begin under Mellaart’s leadership, quickly uncovering a wealth of wall paintings, burials, figurines and ornamental livestock skulls called bucrania.

1965: Mellaart’s excavations end amid a dispute with the Turkish government.

1993: New 25-year excavation cycle begins under direction of Ian Hodder.

1998: Large hoard of painted ceramics is found in a later part of the site, suggesting greater significance was given to pottery as the settlement moved out of the Neolithic and toward the Bronze Age.

2004: Plastered skull painted red is found in the arms of an intact skeleton buried under the floor of a house, raising new questions about kin relations at the site.

2011: Analysis of dental remains from 266 skeletons reveals that individuals buried together under the same house were likely not biologically related.

2012: Çatalhöyük is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

2013: A piece of linen woven with flax believed to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean is found at the site, the first indication that textiles may have been traded over long distances during the Neolithic.

2016: Final season of excavations scheduled to conclude in September.

2017-2018: Final data from Hodder’s excavation due to be released.

[This article originally appeared in print as "Paradise Lost."]

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