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The Seeds of Civilization

Why did humans first turn from nomadic wandering to villages and togetherness? The answer may lie in a 9,500-year-old settlement in central Turkey

Basak, they need you in Building 42 again.”

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Basak Boz looked up from the disarticulated human skeleton spread out on the laboratory bench in front of her.

The archaeologist standing in the lab doorway shuffled his dusty boots apologetically. “It looks like something really important this time,” he said.

Building 42 is one of more than a dozen mud-brick dwellings under excavation at Catalhoyuk, a 9,500-year-old Neolithic, or New Stone Age, settlement that forms a great mound overlooking fields of wheat and melon in the Konya Plain of south-central Turkey. In the previous two months, archaeologists working on Building 42 had uncovered the remains of several individuals under its white plaster floors, including an adult, a child and two infants. But this find was different. It was the body of a woman who had been laid on her side, her legs drawn to her chest in a fetal position. Her arms, crossed over her chest, seemed to be cradling a large object.

Boz, a physical anthropologist at HacettepeUniversity in Ankara, Turkey, walked up a hill to Building 42. She took out a set of implements, including an oven baster for blowing off dust and a small scalpel, and set to work. After about an hour, she noticed a powdery white substance around the object the skeleton cradled.

“Ian!” she said, beaming. “It’s a plastered skull!” Ian Hodder, the StanfordUniversity archaeologist who directs the Catalhoyuk excavations, was making his morning rounds of the 32-acre site. He crouched next to Boz to take a closer look. The skull’s face was covered with soft, white plaster, much of it painted ochre, a red pigment. The skull had been given a plaster nose, and its eye sockets had been filled with plaster. Boz could not be sure if the skull was male or female at first, but from the close knitting of the suture in the cranium (which closes as people age), she could tell that it belonged to an older person; later testing showed it was a woman’s.

Since researchers first began digging at Catalhoyuk (pronounced “Chah-tahl-hew-yook”) in the 1960s, they’ve found more than 400 skeletons under the houses, which are clustered in a honeycomb-like maze. Burying the dead under houses was common at early agricultural villages in the Near East—at Catalhoyuk, one dwelling alone had 64 skeletons. Plastered skulls were less common and have been found at only one other Neolithic site in Turkey, though some have been found in the Palestinian-controlled city of Jericho and at sites in Syria and Jordan. This was the first one ever found at Catalhoyuk—and the first buried with another human skeleton. The burial hinted at an emotional bond between two people. Was the plastered skull that of a parent of the woman buried there nine millennia ago?

Hodder and his colleagues were also working to decipher paintings and sculptures found at Catalhoyuk. The surfaces of many houses are covered with murals of men hunting wild deer and cattle and of vultures swooping down on headless people. Some plaster walls bear bas-reliefs of leopards and apparently female figures that may represent goddesses. Hodder is convinced that this symbol-rich settlement, one of the largest and best-preserved Neolithic sites ever discovered, holds the key to prehistoric psyches and to one of the most fundamental questions about humanity: why people first settled in permanent communities.

In the millennia before Catalhoyuk’s flowering, most of the Near East was occupied by nomads who hunted gazelle, sheep, goats and cattle, and gathered wild grasses, cereals, nuts and fruits. Why, beginning about 14,000 years ago, did they take the first steps toward permanent communities, settling together in stone houses and eventually inventing farming? Afew millennia later, as many as 8,000 people gathered in Catalhoyuk, and they stayed put for more than a thousand years, building and rebuilding houses packed so closely together that residents had to enter through the roofs. “The formation of the first communities was a major turning point in humanity’s development, and the people of Catalhoyuk seem to have pushed the idea to an extreme,” says Hodder. “But we are still left with the question of why they would bother to come together in such numbers in the first place.”

For decades, it seemed that Catalhoyuk’s mysteries might never be explored. James Mellaart, a British archaeologist, discovered the site in 1958 and made it famous. But his research was cut short in 1965, after Turkish authorities withdrew his excavation permit after alleging he was involved in the Dorak Affair, a scandal in which important Bronze Age artifacts reportedly went missing. Mellaart was not formally charged, and a committee of distinguished archaeologists later exonerated him of any role in the affair. Still, he was never allowed back at the site, and it sat neglected for nearly 30 years.

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