Current knowledge of this settlement reveals a lot about human history
Çatalhöyük was a large proto-agricultural settlement in what is now Turkey, existing from approximately 7100 BCE to 5700 BCE. At its height, the population numbered around 10,000, but all evidence is that the inhabitants lived a very peaceful and egalitarian existence. We know this is the case because Çatalhöyük is one of the most thoroughly excavated archeological sites in the world.
Excavation and research began in 1958 and was carried out by James Mellaart and his team. It is still under study today as the Çatalhöyük Archaeological Project, headed by archeologist Ian Hodder. Eighteen layers of successive buildings signifying various stages and eras of history have been uncovered. The settlement was comprised of mudbrick houses built closely together, with no streets between them. Instead, residents used the rooftops to get where they wanted to go. There were only homes, all similar in size and layout, with no public buildings in evidence.
Along with the structures themselves, a wealth of art and artifacts have also been discovered. These also help to formulate a picture of what life was like at Çatalhöyük. Painting, clay modeling of various types, as well as stonework indicate a culture rich in spiritual tradition as well as focus on decorative arts, including obsidian mirrors and textile fragments, which have been found during the excavation.
The first anthropomorphic religion, focusing on the worship of the Goddess, now evolved into a complex system of symbols, rituals, and divine commands and prohibitions, all of which found expression in the rich art of the Neolithic period. Some of the most vivid evidence of this gynocentric artistic tradition comes to us from Mellaart’s excavation of Catal Huyuk. Here, at the largest known Neolithic site in the Near East, there are thirty-two acres of archaeological remains.
Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade . HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Interestingly, Ian Hodder, the current director of the site disagrees with James Mellaart, the archeologist to first excavate at the site, and others about the existence of a goddess-centric religion, although he does agree that it was a strict system of beliefs and norms that kept such a large group together without any significant hierarchy.
However, the female figurines that have been uncovered there share many similarities with the Queen of Heaven, the primary deity in Sumer, Mesopotamia, and surrounding areas in later times. Often known as Ishtar or Inanna, she is frequently shown with two lions, as some of the female figurines found at Çatalhöyük were as well. Her consort is typically depicted as a bull, and bull iconography is found throughout the settlement also.
But whether or not the religion was centered on the Queen of Heaven, enforced egalitarianism was the norm. It wasn’t until near the end of the settlement’s existence that more hierarchical societal mechanisms come into evidence. Ian Hodder does believe that it was this highly developed system of beliefs and rituals that helped the settlement to be cohesive in the absence of leaders.
“He cautions, however, that it may not have been an egalitarian utopia. We believe people in Çatalhöyük were quite equal, but it might not have been the nicest society to live in,” he says. Residents had to submit to a lot of social control — if you didn’t fit in, you presumably left. What Çatalhöyük may show is that such a society only works with strong homogeneity. For many generations, it was very unacceptable for individual households to accumulate [wealth]. Once they started to do so, there is evidence that more problems started to arise.”
The settlement was on a wide and open plain on either side of a river, with no defensive properties and although they were the first to smelt ore to make lead, no thrusting weapons have been found. In other words, this large settlement existed for over two thousand years without defensive capabilities or weapons that could have been used to fight off invaders. This would hardly have been possible if warfare were a common part of life in that part of the world at that time.
Archeological evidence indicates that most large scale violence occurred in the world around 8,000 BCE or earlier, with a few instances that took place later, with none older than 13,000 BCE. So it was really only around the time that this part of the fertile crescent was thriving that the first vestiges of systematic violence began creeping into the human experience. By way of context, Sumer would not be established until 4000 BCE, nearly two thousand years after Çatalhöyük declined and disappeared.
It also seems highly unlikely that this large proto-agricultural society would have been able to maintain order and to enforce egalitarianism if it had evolved from a social system that came out of a dominance hierarchy. If the people had been used to chieftains, social classes and wealth disparity, it doesn’t seem possible that they would have been able to successfully embrace this very different kind of organizational structure for such a sustained period of time. It is infinitely more likely that this was a continuation of the social structure used by Paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands, who even as they grew in numbers and began to acquire more belongings still maintained the cooperative evolutionary strategy that had brought them this far.
FOR 5000 years, humans have grown accustomed to living in societies dominated by the privileged few. But it wasn’t always this way. For tens of thousands of years, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were widespread. And as a large body of anthropological research shows, long before we organized ourselves into hierarchies of wealth, social status and power, these groups rigorously enforced norms that prevented any individual or group from acquiring more status, authority or resources than others.*
Decision-making was decentralized and leadership ad hoc; there weren’t any chiefs. There were sporadic hot-blooded fights between individuals, of course, but there was no organized conflict between groups. Nor were there strong notions of private property and therefore any need for territorial defense.
I sometimes get told that we don’t know what life was like in the ancient past, but the extensive data that comes from 60 years of archeological and anthropological study of Çatalhöyük refutes that. It paints a very clear picture of a peaceful and egalitarian society, where the welfare of all of the members of the society was important and where men and women had equal status and power.
This culture was not a lone outlier in an otherwise warlike and stratified world. Rather, it was a snapshot of what the world had been like until that time, when increasing population density as well as greater personal property that came with a larger reliance on agriculture combined with natural disasters and incursions from more warlike Proto-Indo-European tribes changed the social dynamics forever.