Çatalhöyük; what we have recently learned about one of the key early (7100–5950 calBC) farming sites in the Old World

In this post we present extracts from some very interesting recently published papers on Çatalhöyük, Turkey, one of the key early farming sites in the Old World.


Abstract The bioarchaeological record of human remains viewed in the context of ecology, subsistence, and living circumstances provides a fundamental source for documenting and interpreting the impact of plant and animal domestication in the late Pleistocene and early to middle Holocene. For Western Asia, Çatalhöyük (7100–5950 calBC) in central Anatolia, presents a comprehensive and contextualized setting for interpreting living circumstances in this highly dynamic period of human history. This article provides an overview of the bioarchaeology of Çatalhöyük in order to characterize patterns of life conditions at the community level, addressing the question, What were the implications of domestication and agricultural intensification, increasing sedentism, and population growth for health and lifestyle in this early farming community? This study employs demography, biogeochemistry, biodistance analysis, biomechanics, growth and development, and paleopathology in order to identify and interpret spatial and temporal patterns of health and lifestyle under circumstances of rapid population growth and aggregation and changing patterns of acquiring food and other resources. The record suggests that the rapid growth in population size was fueled by increased fertility and birthrate. Although the household was likely the focus of economic activity, our analysis suggests that individuals interred in houses were not necessarily biologically related. Predictably, the community employed resource extraction practices involving increased mobility. Although oral and skeletal indicators suggest some evidence of compromised health (e.g. elevated subadult infection, dental caries), growth and development of juveniles and adult body size and stature indicate adjustments to local circumstances.


Introduction During the last few millennia of the Pleistocene, small groups of mobile hunter-gatherers in southwestern Asia began a process of transitioning from a lifeway based exclusively on hunting, gathering, and collecting non-domesticated plants and animals to one relying at least in part on the management and production of domesticated plants and animals. In this region, as elsewhere around the globe, the causes of this fundamental alteration in the manner of food acquisition, processing, and consumption involved various climatic, demographic, social, behavioral, and evolutionary factors arising during the terminal Pleistocene and into the Holocene (Düring 2013; Flannery 1972; Fuller et al. 2010; Larson et al.2014; Riehl et al. 2013; Smith 1995; Winterhalder and Kennett 2006). Once set into motion, the foraging-to-farming transition led to the development of a Neolithic package involving changes in population size, nutrition, workload, mobility, and lifestyle throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, setting the stage for alterations in health, wellbeing, and living circumstances in the millennia to follow.

The study of human remains from archaeological settings provides a powerful means to document and interpret the impact of domestication. Indeed, there is a large and growing record based on the study of skeletons from archaeological settings to show that both the foraging-to-farming transition and the early intensification of agricultural production occasioned a general increase in morbidity and compromised health, along with significant changes in activity, workload, and lifestyle (Cohen and Armelagos 1984; Cohen andCrane-Kramer 2007; Larsen 1995, 2006, 2015; Oxenham and Tayles 2006; Pechenkina and Oxenham 2013; Pinhasi and Stock 2011; Steckel and Rose 2002). Viewed within the framework of an emerging archaeological context, this human bioarchaeological record provides an essential dataset for addressing hypotheses and questions about the foraging-to-farming transition and economic intensification, specifically for those regions of the world having comprehensive skeletal series with long temporal duration and substantive contextual records of settlement, diet, living circumstances, ecology, and environment. For Western Asia, Çatalhöyük in the Konya Basin in central Anatolia is such a locality. Among the largest and best-known Neolithic sites, Çatalhöyük combines a comprehensive human skeletal record with detailed contextual documentation of ecology, resource extraction, dietary reconstruction, food-processing, settlement, habitation and housing, community and social structure, art, and mortuary practices (various in Hodder 2014a). This level of contextualization of human remains is unmatched by any other early farming setting, certainly with respect to the Old World.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the bioarchaeology of Çatalhöyük, and specifically to characterize how human health and lifestyle at the community level were impacted by changing circumstances and how the community’s inhabitants adapted to their altered natural and social environments. While largely focused on a single locality, findings based on the study of the human remains from this particular setting, illustrating how members of this particular community interacted with their environment and shaped their living conditions, serve to deepen our understanding of early farmers in the Near East and elsewhere. The bioarchaeological research program at Çatalhöyük presented in this article is motivated by the following question: What were the implications of farming and agricultural intensification, both in consumption and labor investment, increasing sedentism, and population growth for health and lifestyle in this early farming community?


Summary and Conclusions The bioarchaeological research on the human remains from Neolithic Çatalhöyük reveals the following key findings in relation to the implications that farming, sedentism, and population increase had for this community:

1. Population growth was rapid, peaking in the Middle period, and declining to the point of complete abandonment at c. 6000 BC;

2. The presence of an extraordinarily high number of neonates and young juveniles generally indicates that the population grew as a result of increased birth rates and not solely immigration;

3. Human carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis reveals the strong focus on cereal grains (especially wheat and barley) and reliance on and possibly increased consumption of animal sources of protein (especially sheep) with time;

4. Animal carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis reveals an increased diversity of diet in caprines, likely representing a geographic expansion of pastoral activities farther and farther from Çatalhöyük, possibly reflecting resource depletion;

5. Human carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios reveal a pattern of weaning that began in the second year of life and was completed by the end of the third year. If weaning was relatively early for an individual, their immune system may not have been fully developed, resulting in greater susceptibility to infection;

6. People interred within the same house have limited biological affinity, contradicting the expectation that those individuals were members of extended biological families;

7. Social structure was built around a patrilocal residence pattern whereby males tended to remain in their natal community and females traveled from other communities;

8. Individuals associated with the northern and southern areas of the site may have been from distinct social units;

9. There is a trend for change in workload and mobility over the course of the occupation of the site. Workload appears to peak in the Middle period, whereas mobility peaks in the Late period. These trends reflect alterations in lifestyle that correspond to changing resource availability;

10. Body size (stature and mass) and bone quality show a population having access to adequate nutrition and providing a picture of normal growth and development;

11. Dental caries is elevated, reflecting a carbohydrate-rich diet;

12. Infections and infectious disease were relatively elevated for young juveniles but not older juveniles or adults, likely reflecting the immature immune systems of the former but not the latter;

13. The reduction in population in the Late period and increased dispersion of population across the community resulted in reduction in prevalence of infection-related bone lesions;

14. Analysis of social context for diet and health revealed generally no association between residence location and outcome, excepting a distinctive pattern of a greater association of infection with history houses than with non-history houses;

15. The overall record does not suggest a pattern of gender or status variation in diet and health.

The results documented in this article build on earlier studies of the human remains assemblage at Çatalhöyük, both from the 1960s excavations and from earlier phases of the current project, and will also help to shape the bioarchaeological research program as excavation continues at this important site. A complex picture emerges from these studies, revealing a population not immune to the stresses commonly associated with the foraging-to-farming transition (e.g. population increase and aggregation, dental caries, infectious disease), but also one that successfully mitigated and adapted to such conditions, as shown in the record of relatively normal growth and development. As further bioarchaeological research is undertaken at Çatalhöyük and at other localities across Anatolia (e.g. Baird 2007; Duru and Özbasaran 2005; Esin and Harmankaya 2007; Lösch et al. 2006; Özbek 1995, 1997, 1998, 2009; Pearson et al. 2013) and the broader Near East, our knowledge of the human experience during the Neolithic, and the ways in which environmental, economic, technological, and social changes have shaped the human condition during this pivotal period of the human past, will continue to expand, revealing the remarkable adjustments humans make to their ever-changing landscapes.

(Source: “Bioarchaeology of Neolithic Çatalhöyük: Lives and Lifestyles of an Early Farming Society in Transition”, by Clark Spencer Larsen et al., 2015)


Abstract The analysis of lipids (fats, oils and waxes) absorbed within archaeological pottery has revolutionized the study of past diets and culinary practices. However, this technique can lack taxonomic and tissue specificity and is often unable to disentangle signatures resulting from the mixing of different food products. Here, we extract ancient proteins from ceramic vessels from the West Mound of the key early farming site of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, revealing that this community processed mixes of cereals, pulses, dairy and meat products, and that particular vessels may have been reserved for specialized foods (e.g., cow milk and milk whey). Moreover, we demonstrate that dietary proteins can persist on archaeological artefacts for at least 8000 years, and that this approach can reveal past culinary practices with more taxonomic and tissue-specific clarity than has been possible with previous biomolecular techniques.


Introduction The molecular analysis of archaeological artefacts has produced remarkable insights into culinary practices over the last 10,000 years. The analysis of lipids (fats, oils and waxes) associated with ancient pottery has been at the forefront of this field and fundamental for identifying the nature of prehistoric economies and consumption practices particularly for dairy (milk, cheese) and insect (honey, beeswax) products, that are invisible to other methods of enquiry. As such, residue analysis is now routinely used in archaeological research and has been applied globally, including to some of the world’s earliest pottery vessels. In Southwestern Asia, Africa and Europe, lipid residue analysis has fundamentally advanced our understanding of the development of early pastoral economies. Together with ancient DNA analysis, this has shown that early, and most likely lactose intolerant, farmers consumed dairy products by the time that the appearance of pottery first allows for the detection of this foodstuff. Although this research has far-reaching consequences for understanding the emergence of dairying and the subsequent evolution of cultural, dietary and economic practices, lipids often lack taxonomic and tissue specificity (i.e., which species and/or which part of the animal/plant was consumed). In addition, the resolution of lipid analysis can be diminished by the mixing of different food products and the reuse of vessels. Moreover, whilst fat-rich animal products are often readily identifiable1, there have been only a few reports of the identification of plant lipids in prehistoric pottery potentially skewing our interpretation of past resource use and culinary practice. As a consequence, our narratives regarding the development and use of early pottery in Southwest Asia and Europe have been tightly bound to wider debates concerning domestication, animal management and secondary product exploitation.

The analysis of ancient proteins offers an alternative approach for identifying foodstuffs prepared in ceramics providing the opportunity for improved tissue and taxonomic resolution. Compared to lipids, proteins are at much greater concentration in plant foods, such as cereals and legumes, thus also providing scope for identifying a greater range of products. Previously, immunological detection of proteins has been attempted for ceramic artefacts; however, this approach is confined to detecting pre-selected proteins of interest and requires the survival of specific target epitopes (regions of a protein which enable antigen–antibody binding). In the last decade, immunological methods have been superseded by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), which has been increasingly applied to archaeological materials. Such ‘shotgun’ proteomic approaches are able to reveal a wide range of proteins in a sample, can detect fragmented and denatured proteins, and are consequently less impacted by protein degradation. This approach has been successfully used to investigate food and other proteins trapped in calcified dental plaque, also known as dental calculus. However, the application of shotgun proteomics to archaeological artefacts has so far been limited to exceptionally well-preserved examples from waterlogged, cold or arid contexts. Beyond such exceptional contexts, it has not been clear whether dietary proteins would survive following long-term exposure to the burial environment, whether sampling and extraction strategies could be made more effective at recovering food proteins from vessel walls, or whether dietary proteins would survive food preparation, particularly protracted heating.

Here we apply a shotgun proteomic approach to ceramic sherds from the early farming site of Çatalhöyük (ca. 7100–5600 cal BC) in central Anatolia. Specifically, sherds derive from the West Mound, radiocarbon dated to 6000–5600 cal BC, a stage within a process of socio-economic change (beginning on the East Mound at ca. 6500 cal BC), including a shift from community to household-centred economies, changing patterns of landscape use and a greater diversification in pottery use.

Previous organic residue analysis undertaken at Çatalhöyük focused on identifying animal fats from a range of vessels from the earlier phases (6800–6300 cal BC) at the East Mound in order to investigate early animal management strategies. Here we analyze vessel sherds from the later occupation on the West Mound of the site, stemming from building infills in Trench 5 dating to a narrow time interval between 5900 and 5800 BC.

X-ray diffraction (XRD) and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyses on the archaeological sherd deposits reveal that these deposits consist of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). We apply a protein extraction methodology based on Gel-Aided Sample Preparation (GASP) to these deposits, as well as to samples of the inner and outer ceramic wall, and complement this with isotopic and molecular identification of extracted lipids. These data reveal mixes of cereals, pulses, dairy and meat products, and demonstrate the survival of food proteins on ceramic residues for up to ca. 8000 years.


Discussion Our study presents a more nuanced picture of early farming pottery use compared to previous ceramic studies that have been methodologically constrained to the identification of lipid-rich animal products. The protein evidence indicates that cereals and legumes were processed in pottery from Çatalhöyük West, but these foodstuffs were undetectable using GC-MS- and GC-C-IRMS-based approaches. It is conceivable that other pottery vessels from early farming sites in Anatolia, the Near East, Europe and Africa, also had a much wider range of uses, beyond the processing of milk and meat as often suggested by their predominance in lipid analysis. If so, the invention of pottery in the Near East at the end of the 8th millennium BC and its subsequent diffusion with the expansion of the Neolithic after the mid 7th millennium, which at Çatalhöyük corresponds to the intensification of agricultural practices may have also been driven by the need to process agricultural produce rather than simply animal products alone.

The detection of dairy proteins is consistent with previous lipid research showing that this practice dates to at least the 7th and 6th millennia cal BC in the Near East and Europe, respectively. This follows initial animal domestication more rapidly than previously thought and most probably well before the establishment of lactose-tolerant adult populations. For the first time, however, we can confirm through the identification of species-specific proteins that milking of three domesticated ruminants was practiced in Southwest Asia at broadly the same time. Moreover, protein analysis provides the first clues to the mode of early dairy production in prehistory. Peptides attributable to casein proteins were typically detected in calcified deposits, whereas milk proteins extracted from vessel walls were all derived from whey, particularly beta-lactoglobulin. Such a signal could be anticipated if curd and whey separated in these vessels—a common practice for making many dairy products—as soluble whey proteins may more easily penetrate the ceramic matrix. Processing of fresh into soured milk may not only have helped preserve milk in the absence of cooling facilities, but was likely also important in rendering milk more digestible to early Eurasian farmers who were presumably lactose intolerant6. In the only jar tested (CW22), only whey proteins were detected in both ceramic walls and calcified deposits, a result more consistent with the handling of pure whey. This was the only vessel to produce a clear dairy lipid isotopic signal suggesting a dedicated use for this purpose.

Similarly, we can also use the tissue specificity of the proteins identified to comment further on plant processing. For the cereals, the proteins derived from barley (Hordeum vulgare) and wheat (Triticum sp.) are all expressed in the grain endosperm, indicating that this part of the plant was contained in these vessels, possibly as part of a porridge or soup. This fits with evidence from scanning electron microscope (SEM) studies of amorphous charred fragments of cereal products for an increase in porridge-like products in the later phases at Çatalhöyük (6400–6000 cal BC), after an initial dominance of bread type remains in earlier phases. Comparing the proteomic results with the archaeobotanical record at Çatalhöyük West, we observed differences in the diversity and prevalence of particular plant species. One notable absence in the proteomic data is lentils (Lens culinaris), which are frequently observed in the archaeobotanical record.

Archaeobotanical remains show a diversity of plant remains at Çatalhöyük West, such as cereals (einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, new-type glume wheat, free-threshing wheat and barley), wild mustard, pulses (lentil, pea, bitter vetch, chickpea, grass pea) and fruit and nuts (hackberry, pistachio and Prunus species). Macrobotanical evidence is based on the presence of charred botanical remains, which may be unrelated to their specific culinary context. In contrast, analysis of ceramic vessels may reveal the links between food processing and material artefacts, providing more direct evidence of cooking technologies and cuisine. However, shotgun proteomic approaches are heavily dependent on reference sequence databases, and many plant species are not represented or have limited representation, resulting in potential biases towards the detection of certain plant species. For example, there are significantly fewer reference protein sequences for bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) than for wheat (Triticum aestivum), a well-studied domesticate (144,455 protein accessions–the whole proteome–in TreEMBL compared with six vetch proteins).

This study also highlights a new source of ancient biomolecules, in the form of calcified deposits lining the inside of archaeological vessels. Our data support the idea that mineral-organic binding facilitates long-term archaeological preservation of proteins and peptides, as shown with the recovery of proteins from other mineralized deposits, such as dental calculus, eggshell and bone. Such deposits are not unusual in archaeological contexts and, although the chemical and mechanical removal of encrustations in ceramic vessels are still considered good practices in archaeology, our results highlight the rich biomolecular value of these in situ deposits, and we put out a call to retain them during post-excavation processing and cleaning.

(Source: “Ancient proteins from ceramic vessels at Çatalhöyük West reveal the hidden cuisine of early farmers”, by Jessica Hendy et al.)


Abstract The transition from a human diet based exclusively on wild plants and animals to one involving dependence on domesticated plants and animals beginning 10,000 to 11,000 y ago in Southwest Asia set into motion a series of profound health, lifestyle, social, and economic changes affecting human populations throughout most of the world. However, the social, cultural, behavioral, and other factors surrounding health and lifestyle associated with the foraging-to-farming transition are vague, owing to an incomplete or poorly understood contextual archaeological record of living conditions. Bioarchaeological investigation of the extraordinary record of human remains and their context from Neolithic Çatalhöyük (7100–5950 cal BCE), a massive archaeological site in south-central Anatolia (Turkey), provides important perspectives on population dynamics, health outcomes, behavioral adaptations, interpersonal conflict, and a record of community resilience over the life of this single early farming settlement having the attributes of a protocity. Study of Çatalhöyük human biology reveals increasing costs to members of the settlement, including elevated exposure to disease and labor demands in response to community dependence on and production of domesticated plant carbohydrates, growing population size and density fueled by elevated fertility, and increasing stresses due to heightened workload and greater mobility required for caprine herding and other resource acquisition activities over the nearly 12 centuries of settlement occupation. These changes in life conditions foreshadow developments that would take place world-wide over the millennia following the abandonment of Neolithic Çatalhöyük, including health challenges, adaptive patterns, physical activity, and emerging social behaviors involving interpersonal violence.


Significance Bioarchaeological investigation of human remains from Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey, contributes to a growing body of data documenting population dynamics, health, and lifestyle of early farmers in Holocene settings in the Near East and globally. The extensive archaeological context of foodways, material culture, housing, environment, ecology, population structure and size, social interaction, and community living informs interpretation of the bioarchaeological record representing nearly 1,200 continuous years of community life. This record presents biological outcomes and comprehensive understanding of the challenges associated with dependence on domesticated plants and animals, the labor involved in acquiring food and other resources, impacts of settled community life on health and well-being, and evolving lifeways to the present day.


Introduction Çatalhöyük includes the material remains of one of the most well-known Neolithic megasite communities and is represented by a large tell measuring 13 ha with nearly 21 m of stratified deposits spanning 1,150 y of continuous occupation (ca.7100–5950 cal BCE). For Southwest Asia, in particular, and the Old World, in general, Çatalhöyük contains an extraordinarily well-contextualized record of Neolithic life, in large part owing to its comprehensive and detailed archaeological documentation, including an unprecedented record and analysis of environmentand landscape, funerary contexts, living circumstances, material culture, animal and plant remains, and associated human remains. The following builds on earlier initial bioarchaeological study of thissetting, and presents data, expansion of earlier datasets, and insights into life and living circumstances in this Neolithic setting.


Çatalhöyük Diet and Population Dynamics Analysis of an extraordinary volume of archaeobotanical remains from domestic and other settings at Çatalhöyük provides a record of production, preparation, and consumption of cereal crops, mostly glume wheat (emmer and einkorn) and other crops, including bread wheat, barley, rye, peas, lentils, and nondomesticated starches and other plant species. Cereals were the core of Neolithic foodways, in part owing to the ability to store grains and to later prepare them as a food source. At Çatalhöyük, cereals were pounded and ground and prepared into breads and porridges. Consumption of soft-textured food often promotes dental caries and periodontal infections.

A remarkably comprehensive record of animal remains shows the dominance of domesticated caprines (especially sheep, but also goats) throughout the entire history of community subsistence practices. In the later occupation, domesticated cattle were introduced, forming a part of the diet. Other nondomesticated animal sources of protein included asses, hares, deer, fish, and shellfish, with all showing evidence of butchery.

The above record of archaeobotanical and archaeozoological analysis reveals a clear commitment to production and consumption of domestic food resources.

We speculate that the increased herding range—from relatively local to farther and farther from the community—reflects a heightened preference for caprine sources of protein, or perhaps increased demands for caprine production in response to the growing size of the community, especially at peak population size during the Middle Period.

It has long been assumed that the remains of adults and children interred in house floors were relatives, with juveniles being the children of adults and grandchildren of older adults, all functioning as a social household unit. However, the diversity of diets within households, coupled with intrahouse biodistance analysis of dental phenotypic variation, indicates that social organization was likely not kin-based; individuals interred in the same house were largely unrelated. The lack of dietary and genetic patterning is more consistent with social relationships within households, in particular, and the community, in general, that are based on practical kinship and not biological kinship.

On a larger regional scale, however, analysis of dental phenotypic variation of Çatalhöyük and 2 other central Anatolian Neolithic communities—Asıklı Höyük and Musular—indicates overall similarity, suggesting regionally based variation. Moreover, within Çatalhöyük, there is a pattern of lower dental phenotypic variation in males than in females which documents the likelihood of patrilocal postmarital residence, an outcome having implications for movements of people, patterns of gene flow, and the structuring of population based on women moving into the community.


Growth and Development of Çatalhöyük Community Members: Implications for Health in Population Crowding and Nutritional Challenges The transition to and the growing dependence on farming over the course of the Holocene came with clear health costs for human societies around the world. The close proximity of people to domesticated animals and to animal and human waste and the nutritional deficiencies of diets based on plant carbohydrates created challenges to normal growth and development. Assessment of health based on growth and development of the dentition and skeleton matches the record from other archaeological settings showing moderate growth instability in response to physiological stress. That is, virtually all Çatalhöyük individuals possess linear enamel hypoplasias (LEH) on their permanent canines, suggesting that childhood episodes of physiological instability were a ubiquitous occurrence throughout the duration of the community.


Consequences of Crowding: Infection, Infectious Disease, and Pathogen Exposure Analysis of oral health in the Çatalhöyük population provides a significant record of morbidity. That is, the elevated levels of dental caries, a disease process characterized by focal demineralization of dental hard tissues due to by-products produced by bacterial fermentation of dietary carbohydrates (starches and sugars), signals a clear commitment to production and consumption of cereal crops by the majority of the community. This finding matches a pattern of increase in prevalence of carious teeth in farming populations in a wide range of settings globally, with perhaps less cariogenic properties for some cultigens than others.


Living in a Crowded Community: Assessing Violence and Interpersonal Conflict Analysis of cranial injuries from archaeological contexts provides a means for testing the hypothesis that life in crowded, sedentary communities promotes interpersonal violence.

The Çatalhöyük community presents a compelling record of elevated levels of interpersonal violence, represented by healed cranial depressed fractures in 25 individuals of the sample of 93 crania analyzed in an ongoing study. The morphology of the lesions suggests that these injuries were caused by blows to the head involving hard, round objects. A comparison of these data with archaeological findings from the site suggests that scores of hardened clay balls recovered from house and other contexts may have been the weapon of choice. Clay balls are especially well suited for sling propulsion, and their size and shape would fit the general morphology of the cranial injuries observed in the Çatalhöyük victims.

Chronologically, frequencies of cranial injuries are in line with the hypothesis of an increase in interpersonal violence during the Middle Period due to the changes in population size and density.


Conclusions The highly contextualized study of human remains from Neolithic Çatalhöyük contributes to an emerging picture of fundamental transitions in early complex societies during the Early Holocene, especially for those communities that adopted farming. The shift from a lifeway based exclusively on hunted, gathered, or collected foods to a lifeway involving domesticated plants and animals is a blink of an eye in the relative timescale of the 6 to 7 million years of hominin evolution or even of our species, H. sapiens, in the last 200,000 y. However, domestication resulted in fundamental changes in diet, living conditions, and society in the thousand or so years of the life of this Neolithic community, which ultimately formed the social, behavioral, and population characteristics that would develop into the modern world. In concert with its rich biocultural, social, behavioral, and environmental contexts, the study of human remains from Çatalhöyük provides important clues to the development of exploitative strategies during the Neolithic in the Near East and elsewhere, and changes in health, well-being, lifestyle, and behavior that contribute to the modern world. Importantly, the findings from Çatalhöyük permit an alternative perspective from which to consider the health challenges characterizing many communities today where overdependence on a limited range of foods (especially carbohydrates), elevated exposure to pathogens, the origin and rapid evolution of new pathogens, and unprecedented population expansion cause reductions in health and increases in mortality. The detailed context of Çatalhöyük and the integrative research focus applied to this site provide the opportunity to test hypotheses and to draw inferences about the biological, social, cultural, and behavioral adjustments to sedentism in modern humans and reliance on domesticated resources, health, and lifestyle. The Çatalhöyük temporal variation discussed here shows adaptations and costs of increased population, sedentism, and crowding—factors that promote growth arrest, elevated infection, and compromised development. The pattern is consistent with global behavioral adaptations and nutritional compromises in the foraging-to-farming transition and farming intensification, namely, an adaptive system that promoted fertility and population growth, while at the same time contributing to reduced quality of living circumstances and their outcome in health and well-being.

(Source: “Bioarchaeology of Neolithic Çatalhöyük reveals fundamental transitions in health, mobility, and lifestyle in early farmers”, by Clark Spencer Larsen et al.)


Abstract The early village at Çatalhöyük (7100–6150 BC) provides important evidence for the Neolithic and Chalcolithic people of central Anatolia. This article reports on the use of lipid biomarker analysis to identify human coprolites from midden deposits, and microscopy to analyse these coprolites and soil samples from human burials. Whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) eggs are identified in two coprolites, but the pelvic soil samples are negative for parasites. Çatalhöyük is one of the earliest Eurasian sites to undergo palaeoparasitological analysis to date. The results inform how intestinal parasitic infection changed as humans modified their subsistence strategies from hunting and gathering to settled farming.


Introduction As human societies shifted from hunting and gathering to farming and herding, it is thought that their risk of contracting certain diseases also changed (Cohen & Armelagos 1984; Harper & Armelagos 2010; Reinhard et al. 2013; Mitchell 2015a).

The domestication of crops and the rise of farming and herding necessitated and supported a sedentary lifestyle. Increases in food availability facilitated population expansion, resulting in the first epidemiological transition—the characteristic rise in infectious diseases associated with increased population size and mobility (Armelagos & Harper 2005). New lifeways during the Neolithic probably affected infectious disease transmission in many ways, such as through the accumulation of human waste, the alteration of plant and animal environments, increasing population size and higher population density. It has been argued that intestinal diseases, including parasitic infection, may also have altered at this time. For example, with a changing environment, the differing lifecycles of parasite species may have facilitated the spread of some parasites among humans, while hampering the spread of others (Mitchell 2013).

The Neolithic East Mound of Çatalhöyük in south-central Anatolia was occupied continuously for more than 1000 years from 7100–6000 cal BC (Bayliss et al. 2015), during the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic. On the nearby West Mound, occupation of the site continued into the Chalcolithic period until the middle of the sixth millennium BC (Orton et al. 2018). Throughout the occupation of the East Mound, the settlement pattern gradually changed from a dense agglomeration, where people lived in buildings that were constructed directly adjacent to each other with no space for streets in between, to a more open layout during the later occupation phase (Hodder 2014).

Throughout the settlement’s lifespan, buildings were clustered in neighbourhoods, often showing long-term continuity of occupation, with multiple episodes of rebuilding in the same location over several generations. Middens accumulated directly adjacent to these building clusters and within abandoned buildings, forming large areas of midden material, including ash and charcoal, animal bone, construction debris and organic waste (Shillito & Matthews 2013). Human coprolites and animal dung were occasionally found preserved in these open middens (Shillito et al. 2011a & b). In contrast, building interiors were kept remarkably clean, even at the microscale, with frequent sweeping out and re-plastering of floors and walls on a seasonal basis (Matthews 2005; Matthews et al. 2014).

While there has been research on the human skeletal remains from Çatalhöyük to investigate disease and diet in the population (e.g. Hillson et al. 2013; Larsen et al. 2015; Pearson et al. 2015), intestinal disease is not easily assessed from study of the skeleton. Instead, faecal material preserved in an identifiable archaeological context is required. In societies pre-dating the invention of the toilet in the fourth millennium BC (McMahon 2015), the best targets for analysis are coprolites (preserved pieces of human faeces) and samples of sediment from the pelvic area of burials, where the intestines would have been located during life (Reinhard et al. 1986; Mitchell 2017a). Analysis of coprolites and pelvic sediment can provide evidence for the species of intestinal parasites that infected individuals in a population and, if sample sizes are large enough, it may also provide an indication of how widespread infection was, and whether some people were more heavily infected than others.


Discussion This is the first evidence for intestinal parasite infection at a Neolithic settlement in the mainland Near East. Two of the four coprolites analysed tested positive for parasite eggs, while the pelvic soil samples from the six burials were all negative. Sterol and bile acid analysis was undertaken to identify whether humans or animals deposited the coprolites. Faecal biomarker analysis to determine which species produced a particular coprolite has become a well-established method in archaeology (see Shillito et al. 2011b; Shillito et al. 2013; Prost et al. 2017). Identification of coprolites gives important information about the host of the parasite and enables researchers to identify taxonomically parasite species that infect different hosts, but whose eggs cannot be distinguished morphologically by microscopic investigation. We did not analyse the pelvic soil samples for faecal biomarkers, as human origin would be clear from skeletal morphology. Sterol profiles of coprolite samples are indicative of carnivore, herbivore or omnivore diet, while bile acids can distinguish between omnivores, such as pigs and humans (Bull et al. 1999). In the coprolites analysed here, the high levels of coprostanol, but low levels of cholesterol and phytosterols indicate an omnivore, rather than a carnivore or herbivore signal. The bile acid analysis shows a dominance of deoxycholic acid with smaller amounts of lithocholic acids. This indicates that the faeces were of human origin and not from other omnivores, such as pigs, which might defecate on refuse areas as they scavenge for scraps. The presence of whipworm eggs in these two coprolites indicates that the faeces forming the coprolites came from humans who were infected with this parasite.


Conclusion Through analysis of both coprolites and pelvic soil from burials at Çatalhöyük, this study has investigated intestinal parasitic infection in the inhabitants of the large Neolithic settlement over 8000 years ago. The results demonstrate that a proportion of the population was infected with whipworm. While the sample size is small, we have found fewer species of parasite at this site than is the case for studies of other Neolithic sites in Cyprus and Spain. The pattern at Çatalhöyük is more representative of what would be expected at Bronze and Iron Age sites in the Mediterranean. This would suggest that the organised nature of Çatalhöyük—its housing, infrastructure, socio-cultural practices and subsistence strategies—may have reduced the diversity of parasitic infection among the inhabitants of the site, a phenomenon more normally associated with much later time periods.

(Source: “Parasite infection at the early farming community of Çatalhöyük”, by Marissa L. Ledger et al.)

South Area Excavation - 2015 Beginning

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides



One thought on “Çatalhöyük; what we have recently learned about one of the key early (7100–5950 calBC) farming sites in the Old World

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: