The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology


The ancient site of Çatalhöyük (pronounced Chat-all-hoy-uck) lies in the Konya Plain in present-day Turkey. Today the site manifests as two large tells, or man-made hills, the earlier and larger Eastern Tell and the smaller, slightly more recent Western Tell. Within these hills lie the remnants of what is one of the earliest known cities.  Archaeologists from the 1960’s to the present day have worked to excavate Çatalhöyük, uncovering insights into lifestyle and complexity during a period of major change in human history. The site is considered extremely important as an indicator of prehistoric lifestyles, and has been named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Çatalhöyük was inhabited from approximately 7,400 BCE to 5,600 BCE, which places the city in a time period dubbed the Neolithic. This period is notable among archaeologists as one when many populations began to domesticate plants and animals on a regular basis and transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural method of subsistence. The adoption of agriculture throughout human history has often been accompanied by a more sedentary rather than a roaming or nomadic lifestyle. It is often also associated with increased population size, as many individuals came together to work specific plots of land. Increases in population size pose questions about the development of social hierarchy and complexity, and Çatalhöyük offers an ideal site to investigate such questions.

Environment & Economy
During the time of Çatalhöyük’s habitation, rich wetlands allowed for agriculture. The subsistence and economy of
Çatalhöyük seems to have been based upon this capacity for farming crops such as wheat, alongside the domestication of animals such as cattle. Wildlife, including wild herd animals, fish, and birds would have also served to supplement the Çatalhöyük diet. Technological adaptations at Çatalhöyük reflect increasing adaptation to the sedentary agricultural lifestyle, with impressively constructed stone, clay, and bone tools and utensils all having been found at the site.

Social organization
Çatalhöyük lacks any real signs of hierarchy, as all buildings that have been excavated appear to have served a domestic purpose. Houses were constructed directly next to one another, such that there was little to no space to travel between them. Ladders extended from the inside of dwelling places to exits through roofs, and movement between houses would have occurred by walking over rooftops - quite a different style of living than most of us are used to today! Over time old houses were filled in or burnt down, and when this occurred new dwellings were built directly on previously existing ones. This cycle of replacement led to the gradual elevation of the tell that we see today, and it also has allowed archaeologists to determine very distinct layers of occupation as they excavate the site - an astonishing eighteen layers have been discovered so far. While some houses seem more ornate than others in terms of size and decoration, the lack of ritualistic and social spaces suggests a relatively egalitarian society.

This equality seems to have extended to gender roles. Many skeletons have been retrieved from
Çatalhöyük, buried beneath the floors of houses. These skeletons have been investigated by bioarchaeologists, who represent a particular subfield within archaeology that focuses on the analysis of human remains. Skeletons tend to serve as a long-lasting reflection of the hardships that an individual suffers in life, and bioarchaeologists have found that the remains interred at Çatalhöyük belong to both males and females, and suggest a fairly even distribution of work and household duties between the two sexes. Soot can be found caked on the ribs of both male and female skeletons, showing that all individuals spent quite a bit of time indoors where fires were built and smoke was inhaled. The elemental components within the bones (which can be studied using specialized techniques called stable isotope analyses), indicate that males and females had access to the same types of food. Additionally men and women show fairly equal levels of work-related stress. All of this evidence has been used to argue that men and women had equal social roles, performed similar duties, and had equal access to resources. This equality between the sexes, along with the lack of ritual or hierarchical buildings, all point to an egalitarian social organization.

There is no written record from Çatalhöyük, which means that archaeologists have no direct insight into ideological beliefs. However, a large number of clues lead us to make some speculations about the worldviews of the Neolithic residents. House walls at Çatalhöyük were often ornately painted with images of both humans and animals, and were often decorated with animal skulls or horns, suggesting a rich abundance of symbolic and artistic expression. Carvings, often called Venus figurines, have also been uncovered at the site. These small statues often depict a female figure, occasionally seated next to large cats. They led early archaeologists to theorize that the people of
Çatalhöyük worshipped some sort of mother goddess; however more recently archaeologists have been much more reserved in their assumptions regarding ancient religion. Occasionally, archaeologists have found evidence that the remains of certain individuals were used for ceremonial purposes. These skeletons were retrieved some time after burial, ritually beheaded (leaving telltale cut marks on the skeletal material), and reinterred at later dates. Perhaps these individuals represented heads of family or historically notable figures, and thus held symbolic value in the eyes of the public or the individual's descendants. Such evidence of ancestor veneration thus offers clues into the perception of family structure and the afterlife.


Çatalhöyük certainly presents some interesting questions in regard to social complexity. We may refer to it as one of humanity's first cities, but can a settlement still be called a city if there are no specialized buildings or government? ​Perhaps more pressingly, is a society still complex if there are no signs of hierarchical organization? Think back to the many theories you read earlier. Which require some form of social hierarchy, and which do not? Which, if any, of the theories seem most consistent with the archaeological evidence from this ancient site?

Images on this page are provided by the Çatalhöyük Research Project on Flickr Creative Commons:



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