Prehistoric settlement in Turkey shows signs of modern woes

The people of Catalhoyuk dealt with violence, overcrowding, disease and environmental decay, similar to modern cities

A researcher excavates the ruins of Catalhoyuk, a prehistoric settlement located in south-central Turkey that was inhabited from about 9,100 to 7,950 years ago, in this photograph released from Istanbul, Turkey,  June 17, 2019. Scott Haddow/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
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Overcrowding. Violence. Infectious diseases. Environmental degradation. It may sound like the worst of modern mega-cities.

But people encountered these very same problems when the first large settlements were being established millennia ago as humans began to swap a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence for a lifestyle centred on farming, scientists said on Monday, based on findings from a prehistoric site in south-central Turkey.

Researchers examined 742 human skeletons unearthed at the prehistoric ruins of Catalhoyuk, inhabited 9,100 to 7,950 years ago during a pivotal time in human evolution, for clues about what life was like at one of the earliest sizeable settlements in the archaeological record. At its peak, 3,500 to 8,000 people lived there, with the researchers calling it a "proto-city".

The residents experienced a high rate of infections, as seen in their teeth and bones, probably caused by diseases spreading in crowded conditions amid challenges to proper hygiene, the researchers said. Overcrowding may have contributed to interpersonal violence. Many skulls showed evidence of healed fractures to the top or back of the head, some with multiple injuries.

The shape of these injuries indicates they may have been caused by hard clay balls found at Catalhoyuk that researchers suspect were used as projectiles from a sling weapon.

"A key message that people will take from these findings is that our current behaviors have deep roots in the history of humankind"

"A key message that people will take from these findings is that our current behaviours have deep roots in the history of humankind," said Ohio State University biological anthropologist Clark Spencer Larsen, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The people living in this community faced challenges of life in settlements addressing fundamental issues: what to eat, who produces the food, how is the food distributed, what are the social norms for division of labour, the challenges of infection and infectious disease in settings where there is limited sanitation, the strategy of interpersonal relationships involving animosity in some instances," Mr Larsen added.

As the world emerged from the Ice Age with warmer conditions conducive to crop domestication, there was a shift from foraging to farming beginning 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

People grew crops including wheat, barley and rye and raised sheep, goats and eventually cattle. Some homes boasted wall murals and other art included stone figurines of animals and corpulent women.

Catalhoyuk's residents lived in clay brick structures akin to apartments, entering and exiting through ladders that connected living areas to roofs. After death, residents were buried in pits dug into the floors of the homes.

Measuring about 32 acres, Catalhoyuk was continuously occupied for 1,150 years and appears to have been a largely egalitarian community. It was eventually abandoned perhaps because of environmental degradation caused by humans and a drying climate that made farming challenging, the researchers said.