Beginning in the 1960s, work at Çatalhöyük (in central Turkey) has unearthed numerous levels of close-knit households where a large community of people lived during the Stone Age as humanity began to reject nomadic life.
The Konya Plain stretches for hundreds of miles across central Turkey. Almost 60 years ago, in a remote spot some 30 miles from the regional capital of Konya, a team of archaeologists began exploring two small hills. A fork in a local footpath and the two mounds themselves gave the site its modern name. Fork (çatal in Turkish) and mound (höyük) combine to form Çatalhöyük. Today the site is regarded by UNESCO as the most significant human settlement documenting early settled agricultural life.

Founded over 9,000 years ago on the bank of a river that has since dried up, Çatalhöyük is believed to have been home to an egalitarian Stone Age society who built distinctive homes, arranged back-to-back without doors or windows. They went in and out through openings in the roof. On the inside, they left wall paintings and enigmatic figurines.

These dwellings also played an important role in their funerary practices: Residents buried the dead under their homes. At its peak, the town housed as many as 8,000 people, who supported themselves through agriculture and raising livestock.

In Plain Sight Çatalhöyük sits on the Konya Plain in Turkey. Its eastern mound (right) was settled about 1,500 years before the western one (left). Much of the site has yet to be excavated.
Aside from revealing fascinating details as to what life in a Stone Age town was like, the site chronicles a critical moment in human history: when people were starting to abandon nomadic ways. Prior to the settlement at Çatalhöyük, humanity had been wanderers for hundreds of thousands of years. Çatalhöyük marks a time when people embarked on one of the earliest experiments in "urban" living.

Çatalhöyük lies at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, the area in which farming settlements first appeared at the dawn of the Neolithic period. From 13,000 B.C., the Natufian people had gathered grain and founded early villages, including a site near modern-day Jericho. Even so, historians consider that the general trend to settled farming began around 10,000 B.C.
Çatalhöyük lies at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, the area in which farming settlements first appeared at the dawn of the Neolithic period. From 13,000 B.C., the Natufian people had gathered grain and founded early villages, including a site near modern-day Jericho. Even so, historians consider that the general trend to settled farming began around 10,000 B.C.

From stone to copper

Çatalhöyük's earliest occupation has been dated to 7400 B.C., as part of the westward spread of settled farming associated with the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. Other Neolithic settlements located in Turkey include the nearby site of Hacilar, which dates to around 7500 B.C.

© Jason Quinlan/Çatalhöyük Research Project
Bearded Man This unfinished figurine appears to represent a reclining man. It was found in Çatalhöyük in 2009.
Hacilar was identified and dated in the 1950s by the British archaeologist James Mellaart. An Egyptologist, Mellaart developed a fascination for very ancient cities after working at the Tall as Sultan site near Jericho, considered to be the oldest town in the world. In 1961 Mellaart started to dig near the forked path at Çatalhöyük. The twin hills had caught his interest a few years earlier, and he became convinced they hid a secret.

His hunch paid off: After excavating the site, he knew he had stumbled on the find of his career. The time allotted to him, however, would be short but productive. Caught up in a dispute over antiquities trafficking, Mellaart's permit was withdrawn, but in his four years of work he documented 14 separate occupations in the eastern mound and many houses.
Hasan Daği
Hasan Daği, a dormant, 10,500-foot-high volcano in Turkey's central massif, was active when Çatalhöyük was inhabited.
For 25 years, between 1993 and 2018, British archaeologist Ian Hodder developed an international research project at Çatalhöyük. Renewed attention to the ancient town led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. Çatalhöyük is prized not only for revealing how people lived in its warren of neat, tidy, plastered houses, but also for its longevity, as the eastern mound was inhabited for as many as 1,500 years. Its later period coincided with the Copper Age, which began around 5500 B.C. In this later phase, the eastern mound was abandoned, and the western mound developed. Pottery decorated with colored paint, a feature associated with the Copper Age, has been found on this later, western mound.

Spirit of the hearth

Much of the economic, social, and ritual life of Çatalhöyük was organized around the home. The houses, all very similar in size, sheltered families of five to 10 people. A typical home had no windows, one main room, and two ancillary rooms for storage or domestic work. The walls were made of adobe and covered with plaster. They measured some 20 inches thick and stood more than eight feet tall.
Bone tools
Bone tools for sewing and weaving, found at Çatalhöyük. Museum of Anatolian civilizations, Ankara, Turkey
The use of clay and plaster as building materials made archaeologists' work easier. Floors, walls, and art had to be renewed continually. In some buildings more than 450 layers of fine plastering have been documented on just four inches of wall. Each of these layers provides information about the period when the building was constructed and on occasion gives subtle details about the occupants' daily lives, such as the marks left by baskets or rugs on floors.

Scholars have interpreted this mural from Çatalhöyük in several different ways.
A mural from Çatalhöyük shows a large polka-dotted shape above a series of boxes. It was once thought to depict a leopard skin, but researchers now believe the spotted form is showing a volcanic eruption. Hasan Daği, a now dormant volcano, is situated 80 miles northeast of Çatalhöyük. The mountain was a rich source of obsidian, the volcanic rock prized by Çatalhöyük’s residents. In 2013 volcanologist Axel Schmitt proved that Hasan Daği erupted nearly 9,000 years ago, which coincides with the age of the building in which the mural was painted. Schmitt believes this wall painting could be considered the world’s oldest map because it shows an overhead view of the village below.
Built back-to-back, people entered their homes through an opening in the roof. They climbed down a ladder to the main room. The oven and hearth were positioned below the entrance, which also served as a vent for smoke. Inhabitants cooked food in this part of the main room. The floors were blackened with ash and soot. Obsidian, highly prized for its smooth finish, was fashioned in this room and used to create numerous objects, including mirrors. Archaeologists also found that infants and newborns were buried in this part of the home.

Benches or platforms separated the "clean" part of the house from the dirty. The floors were free from the blackening caused by fire. It appears they were also plastered more frequently. These clean spaces were where youths and adults were buried. Later excavations at the site revealed the emphasis the residents placed on hygiene: Garbage was burned, buried, and covered with ash, a general cleanliness that may explain why forensic tests have revealed that the population was remarkably healthy.

The walls in these clean spaces were also a focal point for art. The artworks were typically painted in red or black pigments and feature geometric motifs, human hands, and wild animals. The relationship with these animals must have been a powerful element of local beliefs. Leopards, boars, and bears are all depicted. Perhaps the most important of all was the wild bull, whose horns were placed on platforms or in other parts of the home. The bones of wild animals, usually male, were deposited as offerings when a house was built or abandoned. Researchers speculate that the occupants did so in the hope of overcoming their fear of nature or to be close to its powerful spirit.

Home and away

The occupants of Çatalhöyük grew grains and legumes, kept sheep and goats, and hunted wild animals such as bison, deer, elk, boar, and birds. The surrounding countryside offered wild food sources, such as apples, almonds, pistachios, fish, and waterfowl eggs. Building materials such as plaster and mud were also readily available near the settlement itself.

figurine catalhayouk
Female Figurines: James Mellaart, who carried out the first studies of Çatalhöyük in the 1960s, unearthed corpulent figures that he believed were powerful symbols of fertility. The most famous of these is a clay sculpture of a voluptuous woman (left), perhaps in the midst of giving birth. Her hands rest on the heads of two leopards, whose tails are coiled around her shoulders. When it was uncovered, a leopard's head and the woman's head and right hand were all missing. They have been reconstructed.
Archaeologists were surprised to find that homes were not located close to their fields, which was unexpected for an agricultural community of several thousand people. According to Hodder and his team, one possible explanation lies in the high demand for plaster and clay in the village. If people lived closer to their farmland, they would have been forced to travel to get clay to build their homes. The cane baskets they used to transport it were unsuited to hauling vast quantities over large stretches of territory. It was easier to transport their harvests and store them.

Traveling was evidently not a problem, as the citizens of Çatalhöyük engaged in long-distance trade. Archaeologists found baskets of date palm leaves that originated from Mesopotamia or the Levant. Shells suggest they traded with peoples near the Red Sea or the Mediterranean. The prized obsidian came from the Hasan Daği volcano, some 80 miles away or the Cappadocia region farther to the east.

Reconstruction: This reconstruction of Çatalhöyük in 6000 B.C. shows what a typical home might have looked like. Interiors were often decorated with bull horns, and main rooms often featured a hearth, an oven, and sleeping platforms.

In the building, a platform with two pedestals features bull horns.
Some murals at Çatalhöyük reveal the relationship between wild animals and people. In one dynamic painting animals flee from hunters.
Other murals show the animals in combat with each other, as the two sparring cheetahs in this piece.
Burials of the dead are often found beneath the homes of Çatalhöyük, such as this one which features stone and bone beads next to the deceased.
To date, no monumental constructions (temples, grand communal buildings, or burial grounds) have been found at Çatalhöyük. Archaeologists believe this lack suggests a remarkably egalitarian society-at least in its earlier stages. Some buildings with more burials and more elaborate architecture have been identified, notable for the presence of bull's horns on pedestals or other elements. However, the people who lived in these homes did not control food production, nor were their burials more elaborate than others. It is thought they served to keep the historical and cultural memory of the community alive. Hodder's team dubbed these buildings "history houses."

There are also many mysteries surrounding why the site was eventually abandoned. Evidence suggests that the social system gradually broke down due to cultural shifts and climate change. In the later period, archaeologists detected an increase in the differences dividing social classes. Homes were no longer the center of ritual and social relations and became centers of production and consumption. Archaeologists are still searching for explanations. Only 4 percent of the entire surface area of Çatalhöyük has been studied, which means that there are thousands of unexcavated buildings that perhaps hold the answers to these and many other questions about the "urban" dwellers of Çatalhöyük.