The ways archaeological evidence has been used to reconstruct the economy and the evidence for food production at Çatalhöyük (Turkey).

The Neolithic Near East was a region of vast social, cultural and economic change. Through the establishment of agriculture and exchange-based societies, settlements grew and thrived in the region. The most complex of these societies was Çatalhöyük in Turkey (Figure 1). 1.pngWhat first started as a grouping of nucleated settlements quickly formed into a vast complex of nested dwellings occupying a large alluvial plain. Driven by various social pressures as the settlement grew, an economy based upon an intensive agricultural model and exchange of non-local goods soon formed in an effort to sustain the population. By exploring the methods employed by archaeologists to examine these economic and food production drivers, it becomes possible to discuss whether this evidence has been used effectively and answers the questions which they are setting. As I will attempt show, while much has been learned by archaeologists about Çatalhöyük’s economy, until further research has been conducted, it will be impossible to form a clear and concise picture of this early and unique society.

Once these societies evolved into house-based settlements (Figure 2),it is possible to study the spatial organisation of these sedentary groups in order to understand the development of the various modes of production that form the basis of their


Figure 2. A daily meal

socioeconomic lifestyle (Twiss et al. 2009, 885). From the study of what has been classified as ‘Building 52’ (Figure 3), members of the Çatalhöyük Research Project have been able to examine the role of a domestic economy through the aperture of an individual private dwelling (Twiss et al. 2009, 885). As Twiss et al. states, “Building 52 is one of over 200 houses uncovered so far,” and it represents “a house-based society, with economic production centred on the household unit (Twiss et al. 2009, 885).” Twiss et al. further states that, “integrating botanical and faunal data sets enables us to investigate how plants and animals, food and non-food materials, and wild and domestic taxa were configured spatially,” thus allowing for an economic interpretation of the material as it relates to a base Neolithic social unit (Figure 5) (Twiss et al. 2009, 885). Although the process of sedentism appears to have been influenced by the gathering of people and practices into a permanent culture,


Figure 3. Plan of building 52

it is not overly clear what the primary driver was for the complexities associated with it (Hodder 2007, 107). One theory is that due to the intensification of economic strategies of production and exchange, it was advantageous for these early sedentary societies to nucleate and form over time (Hodder 2007, 107). A theory supported by Fairbairn, who states that “food exchange may have been one of the social mechanisms by which the aceramic sites fused into the single large site of the main phase (Fairbairn 2005, 205).”


While lacking in the typical communal-style structures that are associated with south-eastern Anatolia (Figure 4), Çatalhöyük’s primary occupation phase is represented through a multi-faceted and complex sociocultural and building tradition


Figure 4. A view of the settlement

(Fairbairn 2005, 204). Additionally, as Hastorf states, there is “little evidence for hierarchy or movement toward aggrandizement, both sexes and all age grades at the same foods and in the same quantities, with a few rare exceptions (Hastorf 2013, 81). Perhaps this is due to the evidence which illustrates that while it is clear that there is some form of complex ritualistic and symbolic material culture that was vital to Çatalhöyük’s society, there is no clear indication of leadership, external food surplus or economic specialisation (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 339).



Figure 5. Summary of in situ plant and animal deposits in building 52

By studying the preparation and cooking of food, as well as the practices associated with it, such as procurement and eating, it is possible to examine the socio-cultural dynamics of the Çatalhöyük households and establish an understanding of the economies that were driving the cohesion and stability of the settlement (Hastorf 2012, 66 – 69). Fairbairn theorises that this complexity led to the development of cultural and economic stability that when fused with the other facets of the early society, formed into persistent settlement that we study today (Fairbairn 2005, 204). The Çatalhöyük Research Project aims to use the distribution patters of food remains assemblages to determine the nuances of residential life at Çatalhöyük (Atalay & Hastorf 2006, 384). The competing socioeconomic requirements of Çatalhöyük are reflected through the agricultural practices which impacted both environmental and the community’s social conditions (Fairbairn 2005, 198). This intensification into a larger settlement would have required alternate subsistence strategies if Çatalhöyük were to persist (Fairbairn 2005, 205). It is likely, that as a result, Çatalhöyük would have relied on exchange from periphery settlements in order to sustain their population and stabilise food supplies that would otherwise have proven inadequate to their needs (Fairbairn 2005, 205). Roberts and Rosen suggest that it is likely that Çatalhöyük sought the exchange of food within a network of contemporary Neolithic sites that were located within a 3-day walk of the site (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 399). This is reflected in the diversity of non-local goods represented in the context of the settlement which consist of plant and animal foods, obsidian, white marble, seashells and salt (Atalay & Hastorf 2006, 293). While it is possible that some of these items were introduced to Çatalhöyük through the wanderings of its residents, it is far more likely that they arrived via the exchange network that helped support the settlement (Atalay & Hastorf 2006, 293). This network of exchange could have ultimately provided Çatalhöyük with the ability to absorb some of these territories into its own sociocultural entity (Fairbairn 2005, 205).

Despite this, agricultural production was the primary economic driver for Near Eastern societies in the Neolithic, however the techniques applied to maximise the produce may vary from site to site (Fairbairn 2005, 2007).


Figure 6. Production & procurement-related activities

Archaeobotanical data examined in context (Figure 6) suggests that both intensive and extensive agricultural methods could be and likely were applied, further pushing the economic evolution of the settlement beyond that of other small-scale prehistoric societies (Fairbairn 2005, 207). However this does not explain how or why Çatalhöyük corrected the logistical issues implied by the general lack of on-site viability (Fairbairn 2005, 207). Fairbairn theorises that these early agriculturalists must have not only extended their cropping radius beyond the 5km boundary of the site (Figure 7), but also pushed local production far beyond its means leading to growing


Figure 7. Map of soil distribution

tensions and a greater need for negotiations within the local and greater communities (Fairbairn 2005, 208). While these negotiations would have helped ease these tensions, it is likely that this intensive and unsustainable form of agriculture likely assisted with the end of Çatalhöyük’s main phase of occupation (Fairbairn 2005, 208). Unfortunately, as Fairbairn explains, there is still much more geoarchaeological work to be conducted on the site before an accurate model for the interpretation of Çatalhöyük’s agricultural methods can be fully interpreted, thus leaving archaeologists with an incomplete picture based more on assumption than underlying fact (Fairbairn 2005, 208).


In conclusion, what evidence there is to study does allow for a rudimentary reconstruction of both the economic as well as ecological foundations for Çatalhöyük (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 400). By combining geoarchaeological data and phytolith analysis, it is possible to determine that Neolithic Çatalhöyük was actually located on a seasonal floodplain (Figure 8) that surrounded the settlement mound every spring for approximately two months each year (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 400). This vast alluvial wetland not only allowed for the clay for wall plaster, but access to club rush tubers, wildfowl and a direct connection to the Çarsamba River (Figure 9), which further facilitated the exchange networks that helped to support Çatalhöyük’s growing population (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 400). With recent soil map studies suggesting that the agricultural land used at Çatalhöyük was of a better quality than previously determined,


Figure 8. River flood regime

it is easy to assume that agricultural production was the primary part of the society’s economy despite the evidence for the use of wild foods consistent with other Neolithic sites (Fairbairn 2005, 198 – 200). As Roberts & Rosen state, “these wild resources ended up back at Çatalhöyük and included wild hackberries, wood timber, acorns, deer, and so on. Additionally, many nonbiotic resources such as ground stone and salt were exchanged and transported on a systematic basis over distances of hundreds of kilometres to reach Çatalhöyük (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 399).” However some data suggests that many of settlement’s crops were in fact, as Roberts & Rosen states, “dry-farmed in nonalluvial soils located too far from Çatalhöyük to have been visited on a daily basis,” thus supporting Fairbairn’s theories of extending the crop radius beyond the 5km boundary of the site (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 400). Therefore, as Roberts & Rosen state, “the ecological footprint of Neolithic Çatalhöyük was spatially extensive as well as locally intensive (Roberts & Rosen 2009, 400).” This serves to illustrate how the production, exchange and use of food comprises the most studied practice by archaeologists, but is also often the most controversial with as many theories as there are arguments on how these early sedentary cultures lived (Atalay & Hastorf 2006, 383 – 384).


Figure 9. Geomorphological map of the western Konya Plain, Turkey _6200 BC

Neolithic Çatalhöyük emerged through a complex network of exchange and subsistence strategies which would ultimately prove to be unsustainable. The vast size of the settlement had to compete for resources in an economy based upon an almost individualised gathering and storage of food goods which restricted their use over time. Without a clearly defined form of leadership, a settlement such as Çatalhöyük would likely fracture and splinter into smaller groups as their subsistence strategies failed. While geoarchaeological and archaeobotanical evidence do not clearly express the primary driver for their decline, it does at least help establish the basis of the economy. Without the ever-growing amount of data being recorded about Çatalhöyük at this spatial and contextual level, it would be virtually impossible to determine what if any economy existed in Çatalhöyük. This inter-disciplinary approach to the site has allowed archaeologists to employ a variety of methodologies in an effort to understand the relationship between the sociocultural and economic aspects of the settlement so that it may be possible to examine how this may have shaped the behaviour of these early sedentary people. This is reflected in the association of the assemblage of material represented in the context of the site that has a non-local origin to that of what the settlement itself was producing, as well as the potential network nodes that may have facilitated them through exchange and intensive forms of agriculture. However it is also the absence of material and the need for further study, particularly on a geoarchaeological scale, that makes it more difficult to evaluate the impact and importance of these subsistence strategies in an archaeological context at Çatalhöyük, thus illustrating the point that we as archaeologists still have much more to do.


Atalay, S., Hastorf, C. 2006. Food, Meals, and Daily Activities: Food Habitus at Neolithic Çatalhöyük. In: American Antiquity 71, 2. 283 – 319.

Bogaard, A., Charles, M., Twiss, K.C., Fairbairn, A., Yalman, N., Filipovic, D., Demirergi, G.A., Ertung, F., Russell, N., Henecke, J. 2008. Private Pantries and Celebrated Surplus: Storing and Sharing food at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Central Anatolia. In: Antiquity 83. 649 – 668

Fairbairn, A. 2005. A History of Agricultural Production at Neolithic Çatalhöyük East, Turkey. In: World Archaeology 37, 2. 197 – 210

Hastorf, C. 2012. The Menial Art of Cooking. Colorado: University Press of Colorado

Hodder, I. 2007. Çatalhöyük in the Context of the Middle Eastern Neolithic. In: The Annual Review of Anthropology 36. 105 – 120.

Roberts, N., Rosen, A. 2009. Diversity and Complexity in Early Farming Communities of Southwest Asia: New Insights into the Economic and Environmental Basis of Neolithic Çatalhöyük. In: Current Anthropology 50, 3. 393 – 402

Russell, N., Martin, L. 2012. The Menial Art of Cooking. Colorado: University Press of Colorado

Twiss, K., Bogaard, A., Charles, M., Henecke, J., Russell, N., Martin, L., Jones, G. 2009. Plants and Animals Together: Interpreting Organic Remains from Building 52 at Çatalhöyük. In: Current Anthropology 50, 6. 885 – 895


Atalay, S., Hastorf, C. 2006. Food, Meals, and Daily Activities: Food Habitus at Neolithic Çatalhöyük. In: American Antiquity 71, 2. 283 – 319.

Fairbairn, A. 2005. A History of Agricultural Production at Neolithic Çatalhöyük East, Turkey. In: World Archaeology 37, 2. 197 – 210

Hastorf, C. 2012. The Menial Art of Cooking. Colorado: University Press of Colorado

Shillito, L., Ryan, P. 2013. Surfaces and Streets: Phytoliths, micromorphology and changing use of space at Neolithic Catalhoyuk (Turkey). In: Antiquity 87, 337. 684 – 700

Twiss, K., Bogaard, A., Charles, M., Henecke, J., Russell, N., Martin, L., Jones, G. 2009. Plants and Animals Together: Interpreting Organic Remains from Building 52 at Çatalhöyük. In: Current Anthropology 50, 6. 885 – 895








About The Archaeological Anarchist

I am an Archaeologist from jolly old England, a father, Renaissance man, blogger & Indiana Jones wannabe. View all posts by The Archaeological Anarchist

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