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

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Hodder, a tall, bespectacled, 56-year-old Englishman, first heard about Catalhoyuk in 1969 as a student of Mellaart’s at London’s Institute of Archaeology. In 1993, after some delicate negotiations with Turkish authorities, helped greatly by support from leading Turkish archaeologists, he was given permission to reopen the site. Nearly 120 archaeologists, anthropologists, paleoecologists, botanists, zoologists, geologists and chemists have gathered at the mound near Konya summer after summer, sieving through nearly every cubic inch of Catalhoyuk’s ancient soil for clues about how these Neolithic people lived and what they believed. The researchers even brought in a psychoanalyst to provide insights into the prehistoric mind. Catalhoyuk, says Colin Renfrew, emeritus professor of archaeology at CambridgeUniversity in Britain, is “one of the most ambitious excavation projects currently in progress.” Bruce Trigger of Montreal’s McGillUniversity, a noted historian of archaeology, says Hodder’s work at the site “is providing a new model of how archaeological research can and should be carried out.” Still, Hodder’s unorthodox approach—combining scientific rigor and imaginative speculation to get at the psychology of Catalhoyuk’s prehistoric inhabitants—has generated controversy.

Archaeologists have long debated what caused the Neolithic Revolution, when prehistoric human beings gave up the nomadic life, founded villages and began to farm the land. Academics once emphasized climatic and environmental changes that took place about 11,500 years ago, when the last ice age came to an end and agriculture became possible, maybe even necessary, for survival. Hodder, on the other hand, emphasizes the role played by changes in human psychology and cognition.

Mellaart, now retired and living in London, believed that religion was central to the lives of Catalhoyuk’s people. He concluded that they had worshiped a mother goddess, as represented by a plethora of female figurines, made of fired clay or stone, that both he and Hodder’s group have unearthed at the site over the years. Hodder questions whether the figurines represent religious deities, but he says they’re significant nonetheless. Before humans could domesticate the wild plants and animals around them, he says, they had to tame their own wild nature—a psychological process expressed in their art. In fact, Hodder believes that Catalhoyuk’s early settlers valued spirituality and artistic expression so highly that they located their village in the best place to pursue them.

Not all archaeologists agree with Hodder’s conclusions. But there’s no doubt the Neolithic Revolution changed humanity forever. The roots of civilization were planted along with the first crops of wheat and barley, and it’s not a stretch to say that the mightiest of today’s skyscrapers can trace their heritage to the Neolithic architects who built the first stone dwellings. Nearly everything that came afterward, including organized religion, writing, cities, social inequality, population explosions, traffic jams, mobile phones and the Internet, has roots in the moment people decided to live together in communities. And once they did so, the Catalhoyuk work shows, there was no turning back.

The phrase “Neolithic Revolution” was coined in the 1920s by the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, one of the 20th century’s leading prehistorians. For Childe, the key innovation in the revolution was agriculture, which made human beings the masters of their food supply. Childe himself had a fairly straightforward idea about why agriculture was invented, arguing that with the end of the last ice age about 11,500 years ago, the earth became both warmer and drier, forcing people and animals to gather near rivers, oases and other water sources. From such clusters came communities. But Childe’s theory fell out of favor after geologists and botanists discovered that the climate after the ice age was actually wetter, not drier.

Another explanation for the Neolithic Revolution, and one of the most influential, was the “marginality,” or “edge,” hypothesis, proposed in the 1960s by the pioneering archaeologist Lewis Binford, then at the University of New Mexico. Binford argued that early human beings would have lived where the hunting and gathering were best. As populations increased, so did competition for resources, among other stresses, leading some people to move to the margins, where they resorted to domesticating plants and animals. But this idea does not square with recent archaeological evidence that plant and animal domestication actually began in the optimal hunting and gathering zones of the Near East, rather than in the margins.

Such traditional explanations for the Neolithic Revolution fall short, according to Hodder, precisely because they focus too much on the beginnings of agriculture at the expense of the rise of permanent communities and sedentary life. Though prehistorians once assumed that farming and settling down went hand in hand, even that assumption is being challenged, if not overturned. It’s now clear that the first year-round, permanent human settlements predated agriculture by at least 3,000 years.

In the late 1980s, a drought caused a drastic drop in the Sea of Galilee in Israel, revealing the remains of a previously unknown archaeological site, later named Ohalo II. There, Israeli archaeologists found the burned remains of three huts made from brush plants, as well as a human burial and several hearths. Radiocarbon dating and other findings suggested that the site, a small, year-round camp for huntergatherers, was about 23,000 years old.

By about 14,000 years ago, the first settlements built with stone began to appear, in modern-day Israel and Jordan. The inhabitants, sedentary hunter-gatherers called Natufians, buried their dead in or under their houses, just as Neolithic peoples did after them. The first documented agriculture began some 11,500 years ago in what Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef calls the Levantine Corridor, between Jericho in the JordanValley and Mureybet in the EuphratesValley. In short, the evidence indicates that human communities came first, before agriculture. Could it be, as Hodder tends to believe, that the establishment of human communities was the real turning point, and agriculture just the icing on the cake?

Hodder has been influenced by the theories of the French prehistory expert Jacques Cauvin, one of the first to champion the notion that the Neolithic Revolution was sparked by changes in psychology. In the 1970s Cauvin and his co-workers were digging at Mureybet, in northern Syria, where they found evidence for an even earlier Natufian occupation underneath the Neolithic layers. The sediments corresponding to the transition from the Natufian to the Neolithic contained wild bull horns. And as the Neolithic progressed, a number of female figurines turned up. Cauvin concluded that such findings could mean only one thing: the Neolithic Revolution had been preceded by a “revolution of symbols,” which led to new beliefs about the world.

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