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Hundreds of skeletons found in the world's oldest city show how violence and disease ravaged civilization

About 9,000 years ago, a Neolithic colony in central Turkey began to develop. The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük had moved from food to agriculture and the population of what was to become one of the first cities in the world was growing.

In a study published in the journal PNASScientists have been studying the impact of this change on the people who live there and how the shift to urban lifestyles has led to an increase in violence and disease.

Çatalhöyük, in Anatolia, was founded around 7100 BC. Archaeologists discovered the site in the 1950s and quickly realized that it was a cultural center in the Neolithic era. Since then, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, providing important evidence of how people have moved from life in small villages to larger urban environments.

The site has been occupied for more than 1,000 years, with a population reaching a peak of between 3,500 and 8,000 around 6,500 BC. However, after a rapid decline, it was abandoned a little over 500 years later, in 5950 BC.

To understand the social changes in Çatalhöyük, the researchers examined the remains of 749 people. The team, led by Clark Spencer Larsen of Ohio State University, notes that this sample includes the entire population, from neonates to seniors. The bodies were normally buried under houses in funerary pits, suggesting a sense of community.

By examining skeletal changes during the occupation period, the team was able to deduce some of the changes that occurred. "Çatalhöyük was one of the first proto-urban communities in the world and residents experienced what was happening when you brought together many people in a small area for an extended period," Larsen said in a statement.

The team found that the population grew rapidly during the middle period (6700 to 6500 BC). The analysis of the mud houses shows that at its height, the inhabitants were extremely overpopulated. Residential dwellings have been built as flats and are accessible only by the roof, ladders. Traces of animal and human fecal matter have been found on the walls of houses: "They live in overcrowded conditions, with garbage pits and animal pens right next to some of their houses." infectious diseases, "said Larsen.

Burial of Çatalhöyük
The headless skeleton of a young woman and her unborn child from Çatalhöyük.
Çatalhöyük / Jason Quinlan research project

Residents have kept sheep and goats – the first is home to several human parasites. Living very closely in very small conditions could have contributed to public health problems: about a third of residents lived with bone infections, the analysis revealed.

The team also found an increase in interpersonal violence. Of the 93 skulls in the sample, more than a quarter had suffered fractures. The shape of the injury suggests that people were struck in the head with round objects and hard – potentially clay balls that were also found on the site. More than half of the victims were women and many of the beatings appeared to have been inflicted when the victims turned away from their attacker.

Researchers believe that the increase in violence coincides with the changing size of the population: "An argument can be made for increased stress and conflict in the community," they wrote. "This discovery corresponds to that of many current and past contexts, confirming the link between violence and demographic pressure."

The bone analysis revealed that the residents' diet was heavy in wheat, barley and rye. This may have caused tooth decay – the results revealed that between 10 and 13% of the population was suffering from cavities.

During the tenure period, it was found that residents had walked a lot more towards the end of the occupation compared to the beginning. This indicates that people had to travel greater distances to find and cultivate fertile soils, suggesting a deterioration of the environment on the site. This, coupled with the drier climate that could have dried up, could have contributed to the city's demise, researchers said.

Larsen believes that understanding what happened in Çatalhöyük could help address the challenges we face today as the population grows and our cities are increasingly overpopulated. "We can learn more about the immediate origins of our lives today, our organization in communities, and many of the challenges we face today are the same as the ones they've experienced." in Çatalhöyük – only amplified, "he said.

View of Çatalhöyük, the Neolithic archeological site of Turkey.

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