Residents of one of the world’s oldest cities dyed the bones of their dead
The sprawling ruins of Çatalhöyük – a vast, ancient human settlement in what we now call Turkey – look very much like a precursor to today’s modern metropolis. Yet, in 9,000 years, times have certainly changed.
Çatalhöyük, often described as one of the oldest cities in the world, was one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Anatolia, hosting up to 8,000 people at its peak, after it was founded around 7100 BCE.
But while this sprawling city of the past shares many similarities with modern urban centers, stark contrasts are also apparent.
One of the most obvious: Çatalhöyük had no streets. Dwellings were built directly next to each other, so the only way to enter the buildings was to descend into them from the roof.
Once inside, even though there was no one there, you weren’t alone. The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük buried their dead inside their houses, under the ground.
“Adults were most often placed in a flexed position, located under the north and east platforms of the central hall,” explains a team of researchers, led by first author and archaeo-anthropologist Eline Schotsmans of the University of Bordeaux in France. new study analyzing the burial practices of ancient Çatalhöyük.
“Perineums, newborns and infants were buried in more variable locations in the home.”
Funeral placement was not the only unusual custom by our modern Western standards. Çatalhöyük skeletons were sometimes ritually painted before burial, although much remained unknown about the specifics of the pigments used – and the symbolism of their colorings.
In the new study, Schotsmans and fellow researchers examined the skeletal remains of ancient Çatalhöyük individuals, more than 800 of which have been excavated since the early 1990s; the team also analyzed the pigments used on these (or associated grave goods) with an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.
Ultimately, only a small minority of Çatalhöyük dead (about 6% of individuals studied here) were directly treated with pigments, while 11% had pigments on grave goods buried with the deceased, such as seashells. stained, bowls, baskets and bone objects. .
Pigments applied to skeletal remains were always red in color (usually on the skull), with red ocher being the most commonly used pigment. More men than women received direct treatment with pigments, and adults were also slightly more likely than children to be painted.
Less common pigments appear to have reflected the social identity of the deceased, the researchers observe, with cinnabar (a red form of mercury sulfide) reserved largely for men, and either painted directly onto the bone or absorbed by the red headbands that men wore when they were alive. or when buried after death.
During this time, blue and green pigments on grave goods were only restricted to women and children.
“These colors have sometimes been associated with concepts of growth, fertility and maturity, which are abstractions that could be related to the transition to agriculture,” the researchers write, although they note that the limited size of the dye samples found so far limits our ability to interpret the findings.
What is clear, however, is that there is some sort of connection between the number of burials in a dwelling and the layers of paint found on the walls above the tomb.
“That means: when they buried someone, they also painted on the walls of the house,” says lead researcher and anthropologist Marco Milella from the University of Bern in Switzerland.
Aside from the pigment issue, not everyone in Çatalhöyük was buried equally, or perhaps not buried at all. Of the human remains found in the ancient city, some have never been disturbed since Neolithic times, while others have been disturbed by later Neolithic activity, with evidence of disarticulated skeletons or isolated bones.
This could potentially mean that skeletal items were sometimes unearthed in ancient Çatalhöyük, with the bones of deceased individuals playing a symbolic role in the community, only to be reburied later.
“Other individuals, as complete bodies or as loose skeletal elements, remained in the community,” the researchers write.
“These circulating skeletal elements were ultimately deposited in secondary or tertiary depositional contexts, which may also have been indirectly linked to the creation of architectural paintings.”
As to what it was used for, it is impossible to know for sure, but the researchers say that the continued use of excavated human remains within the community could have been a way to keep the memory of these people alive, by somehow.
“According to sociocultural anthropologists, collective memory is transmitted from generation to generation through the repetition of past actions and through direct object-memory association,” explain the researchers.
“Intramural burials may have been part of memory retention processes, with each burial contributing to common memory by keeping the deceased close to the daily rhythm of repeated household activities.”
The findings are published in Scientific reports.