The Surprising Discoveries of One of the First Modern Cities

Catalhoyuk was one of the first large cities in ancient Turkey and it faced a number of problems that cities today have to overcome.
Trevor English
Excavation at CatalhoyukCatalhoyuk Project/Flickr

Around 9,000 years ago there existed a town by the name of Çatalhöyük, located in modern day Turkey. The population of the town was somewhere between 3,500 and 8,000 people and it had a lot of issues. 

Catalhoyuk was one of the first cities in the world to experience problems that we now associate with modern urban living. The city faced an onslaught of disease, violence and even localized environmental problems – ages before fossil fuels were discovered.

A recent study released in June of this year from The Ohio State University details a 25-year study of human remains that were discovered in this ancient town. 

The conclusive findings of the research group has given us new insight into what life would've been like in these early cities. 

The Surprising Discoveries of One of the First Modern Cities
Source: Catalhoyuk Project/Flickr

In the case of Catalhoyuk, the people populating the town shifted from a largely nomadic and hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one largely agriculturally based, providing the ability for a more sedentary life. 

Lead author of the study, Clark Spencer Larsen, said this about the city:

"Çatalhöyük was one of the first proto-urban communities in the world and the residents experienced what happens when you put many people together in a small area for an extended time. It set the stage for where we are today and the challenges we face in urban living."

The city is believed to have been functioning for about 1200 years, from 7100 B.C. to 5950, spanning a decent size of about 13 hectares, or 32 acres

First discovered in the 1950s, intense work began on the site in the early 2000s where researchers took a close look at the chemical structure of the remains that they found.

The citizens would've been highly focused on farming and agriculture as a means to keep the city alive. We know this as the research team analyzed specific chemical signatures of the remains found on site to discover high amounts of stable carbon isotopes. In non-scientific terms, this meant that the residents would've persisted on a diet of grains like wheat or barley as well as other plants native to the area.

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Aside from carbon isotopes, the researchers also discovered stable nitrogen isotopes, allowing them to determine which kinds of proteins would've been eaten. Nearly all of the found isotope ratios indicated that they would've primarily eaten meats from sheep and goats, common livestock of the day.

Issues Arise

While the civilization worked to handle their growing population in the early years of the city, due to a largely grain-based diet, many citizens developed tooth decay. Around 12% of all remains found on the site had dental cavities – something that wasn't easily addressed in early civilization.

Hunter-gatherer civilizations don't face tooth decay issues due to the irregularity and mix of their diets.


Another interesting aspect discovered in the remains of the city's inhabitants was the shape and size of the leg bones. Researchers saw increased cross-sections in later residents, indicating that they were walking much more than early Catalhoyuk inhabitants. With a little deduction, it was determined that this was likely due to the fact that farms would have needed to be shifted further away from the city center as it grew, and would also have needed to be larger to accommodate more end product.

The Surprising Discoveries of One of the First Modern Cities
Source: Catalhoyuk Project/Flickr

It was this expansion without an effective means of transportation that researchers believe led to the demise of the city.

"We believe that environmental degradation and climate change forced community members to move further away from the settlement to farm and to find supplies like firewood. That contributed to the ultimate demise of Çatalhöyük," said Larsen.


During the cities relatively lengthy history, the climate in the Middle East where it was located seems to have become much drier than the city in the early years. This lead to more difficult farming practices, piling on to the already stressed food supply of the city.

Aside from the food and lifestyle changes the city went through, the remains of Catalhoyuk's inhabitants demonstrated a high-rate of infection. This was likely due to growing poor hygiene in the city and overcrowding. Thirty percent of remains found indicated the humans had infections in their bones at the time of death.

Not only did the researchers study the remains of the residents of the city, but they also worked to excavate the ruins. They found that residents lived in houses that were structured like apartments with absolutely no breathing room in between. Rather than stairs, the residents used ladders to climb up and down to their spaces. Archaeologists also found traces of animal and human fecal matter on the walls, demonstrating that the hypothesis of poor hygiene in the city was likely correct.

All of this overcrowding and poor hygiene meant another thing as well: violence. 

Violence in Catalhoyuk

More than 25% of the remains studied at the Catalhoyuk site showed evidence of healed skull fractures. Twelve of the examined bodies had been victimized multiple times, some with over five injuries in their lifetime. 

One notable aspect of this violence was the makeup of men and women victims. Thirteen were women and 10 were men, with most injuries being on the backside of the heads, demonstrating surprise attacks. 

All the heightened violence, poor hygiene, and medical problems are interesting facets of the town, but researchers discovered another mystery as they examined the bodies: supposed families weren't related.

The Surprising Discoveries of One of the First Modern Cities
Source: Catalhoyuk Project/Flickr

It seems that people who lived in Catalhoyuk were buried in large pits under their homes when they died. This gave the researchers the ability to examine the relation of the bodies found buried together under the same house on site. They discovered that most of the bodies found weren't related to the others.

"The morphology of teeth are highly genetically controlled. People who are related show similar variations in the crowns of their teeth and we didn't find that in people buried in the same houses," said Larsen on the topic.

All this leads to a great mystery, how did people in Catalhoyuk come to live in the same places, and what was the family structure like in the city?

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