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8 May 2005
The seeds of civilization

Why did humans first turn from nomadic wandering to villages and togetherness? The answer may lie in a 9,500-year-old settlement in central Turkey. Since researchers first began digging at Catalhoyuk in the 1960s, they've found more than 400 skeletons under the houses, which are clustered in a honeycomb-like maze. Burying the dead under houses was common at early agricultural villages in the Near East-at Catalhoyuk, one dwelling alone had 64 skeletons.
     Archaeologist Ian Hodder and his colleagues are also working to decipher paintings and sculptures found at Catalhoyuk. The surfaces of many houses are covered with murals of men hunting wild deer and cattle and of vultures swooping down on headless people. Some plaster walls bear bas-reliefs of leopards and apparently female figures that may represent goddesses. Hodder is convinced that this symbol-rich settlement, one of the largest and best-preserved Neolithic sites ever discovered, holds the key to prehistoric psyches and to one of the most fundamental questions about humanity: why people first settled in permanent communities.
     In the millennia before Catalhoyuk's flowering, most of the Near East was occupied by nomads who hunted gazelle, sheep, goats and cattle, and gathered wild grasses, cereals, nuts and fruits. Why, beginning about 14,000 years ago, did they take the first steps toward permanent communities, settling together in stone houses and eventually inventing farming? A few millennia later, as many as 8,000 people gathered in Catalhoyuk, and they stayed put for more than a thousand years, building and rebuilding houses packed so closely together that residents had to enter through the roofs. "The formation of the first communities was a major turning point in humanity's development, and the people of Catalhoyuk seem to have pushed the idea to an extreme," says Hodder. "But we are still left with the question of why they would bother to come together in such numbers in the first place."
     Nearly 120 archaeologists, anthropologists, paleoecologists, botanists, zoologists, geologists and chemists have gathered at the mound near Konya summer after summer, sieving through nearly every cubic inch of Catalhoyuk's ancient soil for clues about how these Neolithic people lived and what they believed. The researchers even brought in a psychoanalyst to provide insights into the prehistoric mind. Before humans could domesticate the wild plants and animals around them, Hodder says, they had to tame their own wild nature—a psychological process expressed in their art. In fact, Hodder believes that Catalhoyuk's early settlers valued spirituality and artistic expression so highly that they located their village in the best place to pursue them.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine (May 2005)

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