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One of the most ancient cities in the world had surprisingly modern problems



Recent excavations in inatalhöyük in Turkey. New archaeological data shows that the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük, an ancient city founded more than 9,000 years ago in today's Turkey, have been the subject of many urban problems we are familiar with today, including overcrowding , interpersonal violence and health problems.

At its peak about 8,500 years ago, hatalhöyük (pronounced cha-tal-hoo-yook) is home to about 3,500 to 8,000 people. This Neolithic settlement, located 40 km (25 miles) southeast of Konya in the southern part of central Turkey, was an extremely large community for its time. Archaeologists see it as a pro-urban city, which appeared only a few thousand years after people began to move from a hunting-gathering way of life to farming.

The new study, published yesterday in the National Academy of Sciences reports, shows that öatalhöyük is a sign of future things, both in terms of human social organization and the problems caused by life in large cities. Residents of hatalhöyük "have experienced what happens when you put a lot of people in a small area for an extended period of time," said Clark Larsen, lead author of the new study and anthropologist at Ohio State University. Indeed, as today's inhabitants of the city, residents of hatalhöyük had to fight infectious diseases, overcrowding, violence and environmental degradation.

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Beginning around 7,100 BC, hatalhöyük grew rapidly from its humble beginning as a small community of farmers who lived in brick houses. The settlement flourished between 6700 and 6500 BC, followed by a rapid decline, where the city was abandoned in 5950 BC, as the researchers described in their article.

Hatalhöyük was first discovered by archaeologists in 1958. Located on the southern Anatolian Plateau, it is 32 acre and has 18 village strata extending more than 21 meters (69 feet); the city has been continuously occupied for over 1,150 years. Hatalhöyük was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. The latest excavation project ended two years ago, laying the groundwork for the new study.

This old female headless was buried in hatalhöyük with its unborn fruit (indicated by a black arrow in the middle). The removal of the skull before burial was a common burial case in the region at that time.
Photo: hatalhöyük Research Project / Jason Quinlan

The authors of the new study, in addition to analyzing plant and animal remains, also studied the remains of 742 human individuals dating between 7100 and 5950 BC. Isotopic analysis shows that residents of hatalhöyük have eaten a lot of wheat, barley, rye, some wild plants, sheep, goats and some wild animals. This Anatolian community has adopted a Neolithic diet rich in plant carbohydrates and foods such as bread and oatmeal, but this has introduced a well-known problem: tooth decay. 13% of adult scaffolds found in place show dental cavities.

Over a third of the skeletons show signs of infectious diseases. Life in close proximity to each other had a lot to do with it, but the spread of diseases was also related to living close to livestock, especially the sheep – a major part of the hatalhöyük diet but an animal that took dangerous parasites.

"They live in very busy conditions, with trash and animal eggs right next to some of their homes," says Larsen. "So there is a whole range of issues related to sewage that can contribute to the spread of infectious diseases."

Amazingly, the skeletons also show more wear during the late part of the settlement. In particular, at the end of the period, residents of the hatalhöyük traveled significantly more than their predecessors. The authors of the new study said it was evidence that farms are moving further from the city over time. The region has also begun to dry, which has not helped. "We believe that environmental degradation and climate change have forced community members to move away from the farmhouse and find supplies like firewood," Larsen said. "This contributed to the final death of hatalhöyük."

Life in hatalhöyük was rude. Overcrowding may lead to increased stress and conflicts in the community, "Larsen said. Skeletal analysis shows signs of interpersonal violence, as evidenced by multiple head injuries. Of the 93 skulls analyzed, 25 showed evidence of healed fractures. Twelve skulls show evidence of trauma that has been repeatedly caused. These injuries have been observed in both male and female skulls, and injuries have appeared on the back of their heads, suggesting that the victims are struck at the back. Of course, life in öatalhöyük is not quite gloomy. Archaeological excavations have made frescoes, clay figures, obsidian mirrors and reliefs carved on the walls. It was a cultural and vibrant, cohesive community.

Interestingly, the new study has led to some mystery. Residents of hatalhöyük have been involved in a funeral practice where dead people have been buried under the floor of their home. However, a genetic analysis of these remains reveals that most individuals who were buried together are not biologically related. It was an unexpected discovery that deserves further research, the authors note.


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