Around 9,000 years ago, the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey were among the earliest humans to experience some of the dangers of modern urban living. Çatalhöyük was one of the first large agricultural communities in the world and housed between 3,500 to 8,000 people at its peak.

New research shows that residents faced overcrowding, infectious diseases, violence, and environmental issues—problems more commonly associated with cities today.

Çatalhöyük has been excavated by archaeologists since the 1950s. It covers an area of 13 hectares with remains dating back over 1,150 continuous years of occupation between about 7100 to 5950 BC. At its start, it was likely a small settlement formed by a few mud-brick houses.

Excavations in Çatalhöyük / photo Scott Haddow

It grew dramatically in size and population to become a proto-urban community during its middle period between 6700 to 6500 BC before rapidly declining near 5950 BC when it was abandoned.

The inhabitants relied primarily on farming wheat, barley, and emmer along with gathering uncultivated plants for food. Chemical analysis of bones revealed they got proteins from sheep, goats, and wild animals. Domesticated livestock like sheep became more important in their diet later on.

However, their cereal-heavy diet led to dental problems—between 10 to 13 percent of adult teeth showed signs of cavities, one of the first “diseases of civilization.”

Researcher Nada Elias excavating an adult skeleton in Çatalhöyük / photo Scott Haddow

Living in such close quarters also exposed residents to high rates of infection, possibly due to overcrowding and poor hygiene. Up to a third of remains from the early period displayed bone infections. Houses were built packed tightly together with access via rooftop ladders.

Walls and floors were repeatedly plastered with clay. Despite keeping floors generally clear, traces of animal and human fecal matter were found on walls and floors.

Conditions in Çatalhöyük may have also contributed to violence. A quarter of 93 cranium samples exhibited healed fractures, with some individuals victimized multiple times receiving 2 to 5 blows in a short period.

Reconstruction of a house of Çatalhöyük / photo Stipich Béla on Wikimedia Commons

Most injuries occurred to the top or back of females’ heads, suggesting they were not facing attackers. Assaults increased during the densely populated middle period.

Another unexpected finding was that most members of the same household were not biologically related. Teeth comparisons showed variations unlike what would be expected between relatives. While buried under the houses they lived in, the connections between household members remain mysterious.

Overall, this research provides glimpses into the transition costs as humans shifted from nomadic hunter-gatherers to an agricultural sedentary society in one of the earliest urban centers.

The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük experienced many problems now seen as predominantly urban in nature due to their large crowded community, revealing how some aspects of modern city living first emerged thousands of years ago.


Sources

Bioarchaeology of Neolithic Çatalhöyük reveals fundamental transitions in health, mobility, and lifestyle in early farmers, Clark Spencer Larsen, Christopher J. Knüsel, Scott D. Haddow, Marin A. Pilloud, Marco Milella, Joshua W. Sadvari, Jessica Pearson, Christopher B. Ruff, Evan M. Garofalo, Emmy Bocaege, Barbara J. Betz, Irene Dori, and Bonnie Glencross. PNAS, doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904345116 / The Ohio State University


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