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One of the oldest cities in the world had surprisingly modern problems



Recent excavation work at the Turkish site Çatalhöyük.
Photo: Scott Haddow

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük, an ancient city founded more than 9,000 years ago in present-day Turkey, faced many urban problems, including overcrowding and interpersonal issues Violence and hygiene problems.

At the peak about 8,500 years ago, an estimated 3,500 to 8,000 people lived in Catalhoyuk (pronounced Cha-tal-Hoo-Yook). This Neolithic agricultural settlement, located 40 kilometers southeast of Konya in southern central Turkey, was an extraordinarily large community in its time. Archaeologists see it as a proto-urban city that emerged only a few thousand years after man's transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture.

Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that Catalhoyuk was a sign of the future, both in terms of human social organization and the problems of living in big cities caused. The residents of Çatalhöyük have "learned what happens when you bring many people together for a long time in a small space," said Clark Larsen, chief author of the new study and anthropologist at Ohio State University, in an OSU press release. In fact, the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük, like today's city dwellers, were struggling with infectious diseases, overcrowding, violence and environmental destruction.

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Çatalhöyük appeared around 7100 BC U. Z. and grew rapidly from its humble beginnings as a small community of peasants who lived in mudbrick houses. The settlement flourished between 6700 and 6500 BC. Followed by a rapid decline in which the city in 5950 BC. Leaving was, as the researchers describe in their work.

Çatalhöyük was excavated in 1958 for the first time by archaeologists. It is located on the South Anatolian Plateau, is 32 acres in size and has up to 18 settlement stretches spanning more than 21 meters. The city was continuously occupied for 1,150 years. Çatalhöyük was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. The last excavation project ended two years ago and formed the basis for the new study.

This headless adult woman was buried in Çatalhöyük with her unborn fetus (indicated by a black arrow in the middle). The pre-funeral cranial removal was a common burial practice in the area at that time.
Picture: Research project Çatalhöyük / Jason Quinlan.

The authors of the new study examined not only the remains of plants and animals, but also the remains of 742 humans between 7100 and 5950 BC. The isotope analysis showed that the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük ate a lot of wheat, barley, rye, some wild plants, sheep, goats and some wild animals. This Anatolian community had introduced a Neolithic diet rich in vegetable carbohydrates and foods such as bread and porridge – but this led to a fairly well-known problem: tooth decay. 13 percent of adult skeletons had dental cavities.

Over a third of skeletons had evidence of infectious disease. Life in close proximity had a lot to do with it, but the spread of disease was also related to living near cattle, especially sheep – a staple diet of the Çatalhöyük diet, but an animal that harbored dangerous parasites.

"They live in very crowded conditions, with landfills and animal sheds right next to some of their homes," said Larsen. "So there are a whole range of hygiene problems that could contribute to the spread of infectious diseases."

Fascinatingly, the skeletons showed more wear even in the late settlement period. Especially in the late period, the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük went much more than their predecessors. The authors of the new study said that this is proof that over time the agricultural land moves further and further away from the city. The region also began to dry out, which did not help.

"We believe that environmental degradation and climate change have forced community members to move further away from the settlement to find agricultural products like firewood," Larsen said. "This has contributed to the final sinking of Çatalhöyük."

Life in Çatalhöyük was rough. It is possible that "overcrowding has led to increased stress and conflict within the community," said Larsen. Skeletal analysis revealed signs of interpersonal violence as evidenced by a variety of head injuries. Of 93 skulls analyzed, 25 had evidence of healed fractures. Twelve skulls showed signs of trauma, which was caused several times. These injuries were observed on both male and female skulls, and the injuries tended to occur at the back of the head, suggesting that the victims were being hit from behind.

Of course, life in Çatalhöyük was not completely dark. Archaeological excavations have produced murals, clay figures, obsidian mirrors and reliefs on the walls. This was a culturally vibrant, close-knit community.

Interestingly, the new study has led to a mystery. The residents of Çatalhöyük had a funerary practice burying dead people under the floor of their home. However, a genetic analysis of these remains shows that most of the individuals buried together were not biologically related. This was an unexpected finding worthy of further investigation, the authors noted.


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