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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After surveying several Neolithic sites in Europe, Hodder concluded that a symbolic revolution had taken place in Europe as well. Because the European sites were full of representations of death and wild animals, he believes that prehistoric humans had attempted to overcome their fear of wild nature, and of their own mortality, by bringing the symbols of death and the wild into their dwellings, thus rendering the threats psychologically harmless. Only then could they start domesticating the world outside. It was Hodder’s search for the origins of that transformation that eventually took him to Catalhoyuk.

By the time Catalhoyuk was first settled—about 9,500 years ago, according to a recent round of radiocarbon dating at the site—the Neolithic epoch was well under way. The residents of this huge village cultivated wheat and barley, as well as lentils, peas, bitter vetch and other legumes. They herded sheep and goats. Paleoecologists working with Hodder say the village was located in the middle of marshlands that may have been flooded two or three months out of the year. But ongoing research suggests the village wasn’t anywhere near its crops.

So where did they grow food? Tentative evidence has come from Arlene Rosen, a geoarchaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology in London and an expert in the analysis of phytoliths, tiny fossils formed when silica from water in the the soil is deposited in plant cells. Researchers think phytoliths may help reveal some of the conditions in which plants were grown. Rosen determined that the wheat and barley found at marshy Catalhoyuk were likely grown on dry land. And yet, as other researchers had shown, the closest arable dry land was at least seven miles away.

Why would a farming community of 8,000 people establish a settlement so far from its fields? For Hodder, there is only one explanation. The settlement site, once right in the middle of marshlands, is rich in the dense clays that villagers used to make plaster. They painted artworks on plaster, and they fashioned sculptures and figurines out of plaster. “They were plaster freaks,” Hodder says.

If the people of Catalhoyuk had located their village in the wooded foothills, they would have had easy access to their crops and to the oak and juniper trees they used in their mud-brick houses. But they would have had a difficult, perhaps impossible, time transporting the clay from the marshes over a distance of seven miles: the material must be kept wet, and the villagers’ small reed-and-grass baskets were hardly suitable for carrying the large quantities that they clearly used to plaster and replaster the walls and floors of their houses. It would have been easier for them to carry their crops to the village (where, as it happened, the foodstuffs were stored in plaster bins). In addition, the CarsambaRiver, which in prehistoric times flowed right past Catalhoyuk, would have enabled villagers to float juniper and oak logs from the nearby forests to their building sites.

Some experts disagree with Hodder’s interpretations, including Harvard’s Bar-Yosef, who believes sedentariness became more attractive for hunter-gatherers when environmental and demographic pressures pushed them to keep their resources together. BostonUniversity archaeologist Curtis Runnels, who has conducted extensive studies of prehistoric settlements in Greece, says that nearly all early Neolithic sites there were located near springs or rivers, but those settlers seldom decorated their walls with plaster. Runnels says there may well be other reasons that Catalhoyuk occupants settled in the marsh, even if it is not yet clear what they were. “Economic factors always seem a little inadequate to explain the details of Neolithic life, particularly at a site as interesting as Catalhoyuk,” Runnels says. “But my view is that Neolithic peoples first had to secure a dependable supply of food, then they could concentrate on ritual practices.”

But Hodder maintains that the people of Catalhoyuk gave a higher priority to culture and religion than to subsistence and, like people today, came together for shared community values like religion. Hodder sees support for that idea in other recent Neolithic digs in the Near East. At 11,000-year-old Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, a German team has uncovered stone pillars decorated with images of bears, lions and other wild animals. “These appear to be some sort of monuments, and they were built 2,000 years before Catalhoyuk,” Hodder says. “And yet there are no domestic houses in the early levels of settlement at Gobekli. The monuments appear to belong to some sort of ritual ceremonial center. It is as if communal ceremonies come first, and that pulls people together. Only later do you see permanent houses being built.”

At Catalhoyuk, the plaster-covered skull found last year testifies to the material’s significance for the people of this prehistoric village. Yet the find leaves Hodder and his coworkers with an enigmatic portrait of early human togetherness: a woman lying in her grave, embracing the painted skull of someone presumably very important to her for 9,000 years. Whatever brought our ancestors together, it was enough to keep them together—in death as well as in life.

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