Climate change and inequality led to this ancient city’s demise. What can we learn from looking back?

The 10,000-year-old urban settlement of Çatalhöyük still has lessons to teach about dealing with growth challenges.

By Eric Jaffe

Birds eye illustration of the site

The village of Çatalhöyük—one of the earliest urban settlements, dating back to the 9th millennium BC—thrived for more than 1,000 years, in large part thanks to its strong neighborhood networks.


Over the holiday break, down a rabbit hole of city research, I found myself reading the 2016 book Killing Civilization by University of Toronto anthropologist Justin Jennings. Despite its title, the book is not a whodunit thriller about a vengeful band of urban misanthropes (though I would also read that book). It is instead a careful academic analysis of “early urbanism and its consequences.”

But some parts are still thrilling! I particularly enjoyed a chapter on Çatalhöyük, an “aborted” city of 10,000 years ago that’s been closely studied by urbanists like Jane Jacobs since its excavation in the 1960s. Çatalhöyük provides an invaluable window into the origins of urban life — specifically, how people adapt to the challenges created when lots of us try to settle peacefully in the same place.

What makes Çatalhöyük even more relevant today is that its demise came at the hands of two problems facing modern cities: climate change and inequality. Join me down the rabbit hole.

The birth of density

Çatalhöyük emerged as a village in (what’s today) central Turkey in the 9th millennium BC. At that point in human existence, villages were a relatively novel construct. It had been only a couple thousand years since the shift away from hunter-gatherer packs, and most villages remained quite small — maybe a few hundred people strong.

Çatalhöyük was different. Around 7400 BC, for what Jennings calls “unknown reasons,” a bunch of nearby villages joined up with Çatalhöyük, and the population surged. At its peak, some 3,500 to 8,000 people lived within the area, which Jennings puts at roughly 25 acres and others say spanned about 38 acres.

At either end of both these estimates, that’s a very dense place. Archaeologists debate whether Çatalhöyük was truly a city or merely a very large village, but semantics aside, it clearly had a lot of people living close together. There’s even a wall painting from this period that (arguably) shows a packed “urban plan”:

The more urban Çatalhöyük got, the more its residents had to adapt. Village life had its advantages over hunting life; you didn’t have to move around so much, often with many children in tow. But it came with lots of challenges, too. Not moving around or hunting as much meant farming for food, which in turn meant more hands to help out with the labor, which in turn meant more people. More people meant more homes to maintain, more food to compete over, more space to share, more waste to dispose of, more need to cooperate — in short, more of the growth issues cities still face today.

Again, the mere fact that Çatalhöyük residents tried to stick it out was unusual. It was far more typical in that era for settlements to split off into smaller new villages once they reached a certain size. But instead of splitting off, these early city settlers found an innovative way to get along: they formed neighborhoods.

The rise of neighborhoods

Initially, writes Jennings, Çatalhöyük residents kept to themselves as often as they could.

They built homes right beside each other, making little provision for public space. They didn’t gather on streets or even have street-level doors. Instead, people walked atop the tightly packed roofs, entering their own homes via ceiling ladders. They devoted parts of the home to cooking (they had ovens), storage (mostly grains and nuts), or collecting obsidian (used for tools). They redecorated their walls over and over with fresh layers of plaster, hanging up the skulls of bulls or rams, the beaks of vultures, the tusks of boars.

In short, writes Jennings, it was a “house-centered society.” This inward focus reduced social interactions, and thus community tensions. It also created a culture of independence: everyone understood that the home was the center of life, and respected each household’s psychological (if not physical) distance.

But the collective primacy of the private home wasn’t enough to address all the challenges of urban growth in Çatalhöyük — particularly when it came to food. The more mouths there were to feed, the more organized methods they needed for gathering provisions. No single household could hope to harvest crops, herd sheep, collect fruits, and manage the home. It took a village, within the village.

Together, Çatalhöyük residents created a network of subsistence that stretched “dozens of kilometers.” They built dams to manage river flooding and grow crops. They penned in herds. They hunted wild animals and organized feasts to share in the conquests. A small feast might be held in the main room of a house; a larger feast might take place in an abandoned home that served as an open gathering space.

Over time, they started to meet outside for more frequent interactions — their sidewalk ballet being more like a rooftop medley.

The result of this cooperation was the emergence of what Jennings calls “neighborhood clusters” roughly 200 people in size. Basically, the people of Çatalhöyük tried to balance the benefits of a large population with the need for both community and individuality — just as city residents do today. The combination of a strong home life and a capable neighborhood network enabled them to maintain a “fierce egalitarianism” even as the city grew. Here’s Jennings:

Çatalhöyük therefore survived in large part because its residents found a way to live both separately and together.

The fall of an almost city

For a long while — a thousand years or so, archeologists believe — the increasingly urban environment of Çatalhöyük thrived. But in the 7th millennium BC, things began to break down.

It started with climate change. Once characterized by seasonal flooding, the region around Çatalhöyük became significantly drier. That expanded the amount of suitable farm land, making it easier for households to grow food close to home. It also reduced the need for collective action around building dams and other types of shared agricultural infrastructure. Domesticated cattle meant fewer big hunts — and fewer communal feasts.

“Families still needed to do many things together,” writes Jennings, “but climate change meant that residents were no longer as dependent on a much broader cooperative group for survival.”

These environmental changes then gave way to social ones, in the form of “rising inequality.” As the importance of group rituals like feasts waned, people who once held prominent social roles demonstrated their status in more material ways. It’s around this time that archaeologists date the arrival in “dominant homes” of more exotic types of obsidian, mined from remote regions and manufactured into more specialized blades. Here’s Jennings:

With ties across Catalhoyuk weakening, it appears that the dominant households may have tried to position themselves as the most important brokers to the outside world.

As this early globalization occurred, homes themselves got larger. Some Çatalhöyük residents began building “large, multiroomed complexes that dwarfed the houses made during the preceding periods.” These ancient McMansions not only represented a loss of the traditional modest home life that had bound neighbors together — they also undermined the “tight spatial clustering” that enabled close-knit neighborhoods to form.

Ultimately, writes Jennings, Çatalhöyük became a “more hierarchical” society than most residents were willing to accept. It was finally abandoned around 6000 BC, splitting into the more traditional arrangement of small, separate villages that residents had sought to graduate beyond.

Two lessons for today

It must be said there were many factors beyond strong neighborhoods involved in Çatalhöyük’s rise, and many factors beyond climate change and inequality involved in its fall. The book provides much more detail and nuance, as well as additional sources for those seeking a more complete story. That story also keeps evolving with new archaeological evidence: Just last summer, a new study of human remains found that disease and malnutrition also hastened the settlement’s demise.

Despite this complexity, and despite the obvious limitations of drawing parallels between ancient cities and modern ones, a couple enduring lessons emerge from Jennings’s work.

One is the powerful role of inequality to upset the urban environment. That wasn’t just the case in Çatalhöyük. Jennings found a similar story in many of the other early urban settlements he explores. Here’s Jennings:

In all of our case studies, group leaders would eventually seek to secure elite prerogatives and to restructure the political economy in an attempt to buttress their positions. In each case, residents pushed back, maintaining as best they could the more horizontal and fragmented relations that were currently in place.

Sometimes these bottom-up social structures kept the peace. Other times they couldn’t. One of the most important factors in the downfall of Cahokia — a 12th-century city near what’s today Missouri — was “the population’s resistance to what it rightly perceived as an increasingly hierarchical and centralized society,” writes Jennings.

So if there’s a real murderer in Killing Civilization, it’s inequality. And it’s still lurking in the divided economic foundation of today’s cities. It’s not hard to imagine a future Çatalhöyük-like scenario where climate change tips the scale against stability — causing a coastal city’s population to move inland, putting unsustainable new pressure on rents, home prices, and labor markets, until the social fabric tears in some unsalvageable way. That makes it all the more urgent for real estate developers and local governments to pursue inclusive approaches to urban growth.

Which leads to another lesson worth drawing from Çatalhöyük: the need for cities to evolve, and quickly, in the face of pressing growth challenges. That’s not a new insight; cities have long been the source of humanity’s most important innovations, largely because complex urban environments demand brilliant new solutions. But the story of Çatalhöyük, toppling after 1,000 years of success, shows that this need to innovate never ends.

“In the space of just a few decades, people in places like Çatalhöyük needed to fundamentally change their way of life,” writes Jennings. For a while that fundamental change held firm, with the rise of neighborhoods balancing collective needs with individual desires. But when pressured to change yet again — this time by a rapid external event like climate change — the people of Çatalhöyük couldn’t keep up.

This need for rapid fundamental change remains as true today as ever, given the pressures of climate change and social equity. There will be costs to this adaptation, both cultural and economic, but places that don’t find a way to evolve despite these costs could go the way of Çatalhöyük. Let’s hope our current thriller ends better than that one did.

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