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What Happened to Turkey’s Ancient Utopia?


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.

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