The townspeople suffered much violence: Burial in a floor pit in Catalhoyuk about 9,000 years ago Steve Estvanik / Shutterstock

Murder in Mesopotamia, the Prequel: The Earliest Neighbors in the World Couldn’t Stand Each Other

Crowding in one of the world's first towns, Catalhoyuk, spread disease and stress, judging by the violence archaeologists detect in their remains



The first farmers in the world might be romantically thought of as joyously discovering the bounty of sowing and reaping, and sitting together in great communal meals to celebrate the bounty of tamed nature. But it seems that forced into protracted proximity, they just couldn’t stand each other.

Evidence found in excavations at Çatalhöyük, a 9,000-year-old town in south-central Turkey, found that the locals were growing grains and keeping and eating livestock — and, it seems, killing one another, scientists from Ohio State University report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Abandoning hunting and gathering and adopting farming as a lifestyle enabled the establishment of great cities and civilizations. But there had been an upside to the nomadic lifestyle: if you have a grudge against your neighbor, you can just part ways. In a farming settlement, where people were invested in land and couldn’t just move away from the pest, there was an incentive to kill.

In the terms of Neolithic communes, Çatalhöyük was immense, with somewhere between 3,500 to 8,000 people at its peak, scientists say, based on excavations of the site going back 25 years. Hunter-gatherer groups are generally not considered to have been able to exceed 50 people at the absolute most.

“Çatalhöyük was one of the first proto-urban communities in the world and the residents experienced what happens when you put many people together in a small area for an extended time,” said Clark Spencer Larsen, lead author of the study and professor of anthropology at Ohio State University. It isn’t a pretty picture.

Playing ball in the Garden of Eden

Çatalhöyük is situated 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Göbekli Tepe, the so-called first temple in the world, which is in the nation’s southeast. These Neolithic remains predate the famed Stonehenge and other European monumental sites by thousands of years.

Humankind did not suddenly abandon the arrow for the hoe, though. There were spasms at cultivation going back at least 23,000 years, accompanied by hunting and gathering. Where in fact people finally abandoned roaming for growing food is unclear; moreover, different crops were domesticated in different places and at different times.

Scott Haddow

But the sheer fact that Göbekli Tepe, with its massive stone monuments, even exists is argument that it was not built by hunter-gatherer societies but by settled farming ones starting around 11,000 years ago — hence, there is a case for southern Turkey being the area, or an area, where subsistence agriculture began.

The soil in the area was a lot more fertile than it is now, scientists from the University of Barcelona showed in 2014. Some have even postulated that this fertile, lush land might have been the inspiration behind the Garden of Eden story. The discoverer of the site himself, Klaus Schmidt, remarked that “Göbekli Tepe is not the Garden of Eden: it is a temple in Eden.”

Be that as it may, life in Çatalhöyük was apparently not paradisal.

The town existed from about 7100 to 5950 B.C.E — about 1,150 years of continuous occupation. Like all population concentrations it began small, but may have had as many as 8,500 people in its heyday.

The modern ideal involves an isolated house with a picket fence and a garden, which requires one to shout at the neighbor’s kids to get the hell off your lawn. That isn’t how it began. In Çatalhöyük, people lived in proto-row houses.

“During its peak in population, houses were built like apartments with no space between them,” note the scientists. They hadn’t invented the door yet, either: People came and left through ladders to the roof.

Living in forced close proximity never was a good idea. Out of 93 skulls from Çatalhöyük that were studied, 25 of them — in other words, over a quarter — showed evidence of healed fractures. Worse, in 12 cases the person had been beaten as many as five times, and not with mere soft fists.

“The shape of the lesions suggested that blows to the head from hard, round objects caused them — and clay balls of the right size and shape were also found at the site,” the scientists write.

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Speaking in tongues

For whatever reason, more than half of the victims were women: 13 out of 23. If and when more bodies are found, that proportion could change.

Were they killed in some ritual? Were they mugged? Or just because? The fact is that most had been bashed on the top or back of the head.

“We found an increase in cranial injuries during the Middle period, when the population was largest and most dense,” Larsen said. “An argument could be made that overcrowding led to elevated stress and conflict within the community.”

Maybe miscommunication was key. As was the norm in the prehistoric Middle East, Levant and Turkey, dead people were buried inside the house, in pits dug into the floor. Since we have no written explanations — that’s what prehistoric means — we do not know why. One theory is ancestor worship; another is some misunderstanding of what death means, and a sense that the ancestor remains part of the family. This could explain the widespread custom of grave goods.

But in Çatalhöyük, to general surprise, the scientists realized that most members of any given household were apparently unrelated. That enlightenment was based on the shape of their teeth, which is governed by genetics. “People who are related show similar variations in the crowns of their teeth, and we didn’t find that in people buried in the same houses,” Larsen said.

However, it doesn’t seem to be internecine violence that doomed the town after a mere 1,150 years of existence - note that there are towns in the Middle East, Levant and surroundings that have existed for countless thousands of years. The archaeologists have a theory of what doomed Çatalhöyük.

Isotope analysis found that the Çatalhöyük townsfolk ate chiefly wheat, barley and rye, plus wild plants, augmented by some mutton. Sheep had been domesticated in nearby Mesopotamia a couple of thousand years earlier. They also did not scorn the somewhat tougher goat, or the cow, though bovines only arrived in the late period of the town.

Transiting from hunting and gathering, and a lifestyle short on grain, has been shown to affect human morbidity if not necessarily mortality. In other words, we didn’t get sicker, but we did develop different problems.

Like in Con Co Ngua, a town in prehistoric Vietnam, it turns out that the adoption of grains rotted people’s teeth in southern Turkey as well. Somewhere between 10 to 13 percent of the Çatalhöyük adults had cavities, the paper reports. Similar findings in Con Co Ngua led one of the scientists researching the remains there to remark that bioarchaeologists tend to look at things in binary terms of a “healthy” versus “not healthy” categorization, which is “clearly not how health works in reality.”

fpolat69 / Shutterstock.com

Living so close to one another, and not in conditions of supreme hygiene — fecal matter from humans and beasts has been found in their residences, and they threw their garbage in pits by their homes — infectious disease was apparently rife. Up to one-third of remains from the town’s early time show infection lesions on the bones.

But the death knell wasn’t disease or violence: It was that the putative Garden of Eden became less than fruitful.

The people in the late period of Çatalhöyük had to walk much further than their predecessors, based on changes in their leg bone shapes. It seems they could no longer grow grain or graze their beasts close to home, which suggests they had overexploited the environment. The town’s population collapsed.

It seems, therefore, that worsening degradation of the soil combined with regional aridification finally finished Catalhoyuk 7,950 years ago, since which time we have apparently learned nothing.

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