A 9,000-year-old farming settlement experienced some of the same problems that large, urban communities do today. Citizens of Çatalhöyük, located in modern Turkey, struggled with overcrowding, violence, infectious disease and environmental decline.
Çatalhöyük, which was home to between 3,500 and 8,000 people at its largest, was the subject of a 25-year study by an international team of bioarchaeologists. The team, led by Professor Clark Spencer Larsen of Ohio State University and Professor Christopher Knüsel of Université de Bordeaux, studied bones, teeth and excavated houses from the 1,150-year period when Çatalhöyük was inhabited.
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Founded around 7100 BC, Çatalhöyük was one of the earliest large agricultural settlements and the people who lived in it struggled with the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. “Çatalhöyük was one of the first proto-urban communities in the world and the residents experienced what happens when you put many people together in a small area for an extended time,” says Prof Larsen.
Çatalhöyük’s citizens suffered from having so many neighbours nearby – the entire settlement spread over only 0.13 square kilometres. Up to a third of the bones from the community’s early years showed signs of infection, most likely related to the traces of faecal matter, both human and animal, found inside many homes. There were also widespread signs of violence, with over a quarter of skulls found to have healed-over fractures.
As the ancient humans adjusted to life in a fixed community, their bodies started to show the effects of their agricultural lifestyle. The shift to a grain-based diet made their teeth susceptible to decay, with the starchy foods creating a hospitable environment for sugar-loving bacteria. Later on, as the community exhausted its nearby environment, the people had to walk further afield to find firewood and feed for their grazing animals. The shape of their leg bones changed over time to accommodate the extra distance.
Prof Larsen believes that studying Çatalhöyük can tell us about the origins of our communities. “Many of the challenges we have today are the same ones they had in Çatalhöyük – only magnified.”
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