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Animal Fat Found in Clay Pottery Reveals How Ancient People Adapted to Drought

Neolithic farmers switched from cattle to goat herding, abandoned communal dwellings for smaller households to adjust to new climate

Extreme weather events likely had severe consequences, depleting harvests and weakening humans and livestock alike (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Roughly 8,200 years ago, Earth experienced a cataclysmic period of climate change. Freshwater released by melted glaciers flowed freely across North America, spilling into the salty oceans of the Atlantic and wreaking havoc on the flow of underwater currents. Global temperatures plunged, and drought-like conditions became the norm.

In southern Turkey, home of the Neolithic-era settlement Çatalhöyük, these extreme weather events likely had severe consequences, depleting harvests and weakening humans and livestock alike. Now, a new study led by researchers from England’s University of Bristol and Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz University reveals how the people of Çatalhöyük navigated their tenuous environment.

The team’s findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest the farmers of Çatalhöyük switched from cattle herding to goat herding—as efficient milk producers and smaller animals requiring less food, goats were better equipped to handle drought—and abandoned large communal dwellings in favor of single-family households to adapt to a shifting climate.

According to Science Magazine’s Michael Price, researchers found that animal bones dating to this period of drought and global cooling were marred by a high number of cuts, suggesting that Çatalhöyük’s residents were exploiting their scarce food supplies to the fullest.

Animal fat deposits left in the site’s ancient clay pottery also showed traces of the climate event. When the team chemically analyzed the fat residue, they discovered that samples dating to about 8,200 years ago contained a high ratio of heavy hydrogen isotopes. This result aligns with previous studies that link the presence of heavy hydrogen with low precipitation rates—and represents the first archaeological evidence of the climate disaster.

Price writes, “By analyzing other fat-soaked pot sherds from sites around the world, … scientists will for the first time be able to accurately recreate climate conditions for other ancient societies.”

Ars Technica’s Kiona N. Smith reports that Çatalhöyük welcomed its first residents around 9,050 years ago. These early inhabitants successfully transitioned from hunter-gathering to agriculture, domesticating animals and planting grain crops. They chose to live in closely-connected rectangular houses—shunning streets and foot paths in favor of rooftop openings accessible by ladder—and cultivated a close-knit community based on equal resource sharing.

The ruins of Çatalhöyük’s structures reveal one of the civilization’s tactics for adapting to climate change: Large, multi-roomed communal houses gave way to smaller households, Smith writes, perhaps in an attempt to increase families’ independence and self-sufficiency. Although this new lifestyle and shifting patterns of food consumption sustained Çatalhöyük through the drought and chill, the changes may have paved the way for the settlement’s eventual downfall.

“The previously flourishing settlement rapidly shrunk,” the authors note in the study, “unavoidably leading to its relatively abrupt and sudden collapse and ultimate abandonment in 7925-7815 B.C.E.”


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