The Mystery of Çatal Hüyük
Prior to 1950, it was generally assumed that “civilization” began in 3,500 BCE, in Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt. Before that date, historians implied, humans were little more than hapless, grunting ape-like creatures, engaged in hunting and gathering or rudimentary agriculture. Then, in the late 1950s, James Mellaart began excavating a mound in present-day southern Turkey, known as Çatal Hüyük. What he found there was going to upend the historical timeline and force archeologists to reconsider their cherished beliefs.
To understand the importance of Çatal Hüyük, it is first necessary to take a broader look at the profound changes that were taking place globally prior to and during the Neolithic period. Around 10,000 BCE, the Earth underwent a profound shift in climate. The Younger Dryas period, which lasted around 1,300 years, was a difficult time for life on Earth. Temperatures plummeted by around ten degrees, possibly as a result of a gigantic meteor impact that spawned volcanic activity at the beginning of the era. The end of the Younger Dryas was astonishingly rapid: temperatures rose around ten degrees within about forty years, heralding the advent of the Holocene Era, whose relatively balmy weather we are still enjoying.
This warmer weather kick-started the agricultural revolution. In a number of places, including southeast Asia, New Guinea, Africa, and the Middle East, hunter-gatherers began moving from harvesting of existing plants to tending and controlling crops. Especially in the northern zones, this led to a new problem: conservation. Suddenly, the new farmers had surpluses of food, and needed a place to store it. This provided the impetus for settling in structured communities, where stores could be guarded by numbers. There is evidence that these new settled agricultural communities formed a common network, sharing seeds and stories, throughout the Middle East.
In the last couple decades, two extremely ancient sites that date from around 10,000 BCE have been excavated in Turkey: Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe. The latter is a monumental “temple,” of the stone-circle type found across western Europe and the British Isles. Its discovery has thrown archeology into disarray, as there is no evidence of a settlement nearby, and, as one researcher has said, the temple precedes the city.
In Crete, which was protected from marauders by the surrounding Aegean, the pre-Greek Minoan civilization created extraordinary artifacts, paintings, and palaces, with a curious obsession with bulls. They attained a high level of writing and art, though, famously, their Linear A script remains undeciphered.
Çatal Hüyük, near to Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe, was a thriving city from at least 7,500 BCE, or an astonishing 4,500 years before the advent of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. In other words, Çatal Hüyük flourished as many years before the Mesopotamian civilization as have passed since. It was structurally curious, consisting of houses crammed together like an anthill, with no streets between them. The dwellings were accessed through holes in the roofs, which also provided the only outlets for smoke. Though this may seem an astonishingly cumbersome way to construct a city, it had many advantages. For one thing, houses could share walls, meaning that less construction was necessary, and greater structural support was provided. For another, the relatively inaccessible nature of the city meant that it was easily defensible. The closed aspect also increased the warmth in the winters: heat from hearths would penetrate the walls. Finally, though we in our modern world would find the presence of smoke in the house impossible to countenance, it served as an excellent insect repellent. In many parts of Africa and Asia, smokes — and often scented smokes, such as burned incense — are used within dwellings to keep the insect population at bay.
One of the great delights of the excavations at Çatal Hüyük has been the gorgeous interior decoration that has surfaced. The walls of many of the dwellings were painted with scenes reminiscent of Lascaux cave art and Saharan rock paintings: aurochs and deer feature prominently, as well as human figures in various poses. The world’s first known map appears on one of the walls: it depicts the houses of the city from above, with the twin peaks of the nearby volcanic mountain Hasan Dağ a short distance away. Like the Minoan civilization on Crete, there appears to have been an obsession with bulls: bull skulls with the horns facing inward feature prominently in many of the walls of the dwellings. There is also a preponderance of small statues of female figures, leading some to suppose that the inhabitants worshiped a goddess figure.
The stone-circle “temple” at Göbekli Tepe and the bull obsession at Çatal Hüyük point to a knowledge of the precessional cycle. The bull is, of course, the reigning symbol of the Age of Taurus. Viewed in context with other Neolithic stone-circle sites, the prevalence of female figurines might indicate a reverence of Venus, which has been regarded as female since time immemorial. At the very least, it seems certain that the citizens of this ancient community were aware of the grand movements of the stars, and of the epoch in which they lived.