Pasatiempo - - STEP LIVELY -

Near the end of the Ne­olithic era, some 9,000 years ago, i n what i s now south­ern Turkey, emerged the an­cient world’s first proto- city — Çatal­höyük. At its peak, up to 7,000 peo­ple called the Late Stone Age city home — a stun­ning achieve­ment when vir­tu­ally all of hu­man­ity clus­tered in small set­tle­ments of ex­tended clans that rarely ex­ceeded 200 in­hab­i­tants. Çatal­höyük lasted for more than a mil­len­nium be­fore be­ing aban­doned around 5,700 BC, its res­i­dents dis­persed once again to the tiny clus­ters of vil­lages that made up the known world.

“It was a very pop­u­lar place for a thou­sand years, then it was aban­doned,” said writer An­nalee Ne­witz in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo, “so peo­ple went back to liv­ing in tiny vil­lages for the next sev­eral cen­turies.”

Ne­witz, who has made sev­eral treks to the Turk­ish site, be­lieves the an­cient city holds in­sights for our own era of megac­i­ties. Though not an ar­chae­ol­o­gist her­self, she fits the pro­file of thinkers that the Çatal­höyük site has con­tin­ued to at­tract since it was first ex­ca­vated in the 1960s. The tech cul­ture editor at the web mag­a­zine Ars Tech­nica, she is also an ac­com­plished jour­nal­ist and sci­ence-fic­tion writer whose works ex­am­ine the in­ter­sec­tion of tech­nol­ogy, class, ur­ban­iza­tion, and cul­ture. Her much-cel­e­brated 2013 book, Scat­ter, Adapt, and Re­mem­ber: How Hu­mans Will Sur­vive a Mass Ex­tinc­tion (An­chor Books/ Pen­guin Ran­dom House), blends the in­sights of pa­le­on­tol­ogy and the fore­sights of sci­ence fic­tion to imag­ine al­ter­na­tives for long-term hu­man sur­vival in the face of on­go­ing global dis­as­ters.

On Mon­day, Feb. 29, Ne­witz de­liv­ers a talk, “The Ur­ban Species: How Do­mes­ti­cated Hu­mans Evolved,” at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter as part of the Santa Fe In­sti­tute’s Com­mu­nity Lecture Se­ries. Us­ing Çatal­höyük as a ref­er­ence, the writer looks at how ur­bani za­tion and agri­cul­ture t rans­formed hu­mans, both bi­o­log­i­cally as well as cul­tur­ally, through al­ter­ing their be­lief sys­tems and so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion. The talk will also be live-streamed and archived on SFI’s YouTube chan­nel, com/santafe­inst.

“We were hu­man be­fore agri­cul­ture, but agri­cul­ture changed us bi­o­log­i­cally. Any time an an­i­mal be­comes do­mes­ti­cated, they change. Well, the same is true of hu­mans,” Ne­witz said. “For in­stance, we be­came able to me­tab­o­lize milk, which has be­come very com­mon in the West, not as much in East Asia, where lac­tose in­tol­er­ance is quite com­mon.”

To be­come suc­cess­ful city dwellers, the in­hab­i­tants of Çatal­höyük had to be­come suc­cess­ful farm­ers as well, cul­ti­vat­ing

Do we ac­tu­ally have a so­cial and political struc­ture that will al­low this sys­tem of cities to sur­vive and last? It’s pos­si­ble we don’t. Af­ter all, the model of life in Çatal­höyük never took hold any­where else.

— writer An­nalee Ne­witz

crops and breed­ing do­mes­ti­cated live­stock. For all their farm­ing, though, th­ese Stone Age res­i­dents clung tight to the egal­i­tar­ian prac­tices of their hunter-gath­erer fore­bears.

Çatal­höyük, in Ne­witz’s phras­ing, “had a lot of weird char­ac­ter­is­tics.” For starters, the city had no roads. “Peo­ple got from house to house by walk­ing along roofs. There were doors you en­tered through the ceil­ing,” Ne­witz said. In pho­tos, the stacked cells of the city’s mud-brick hous­ing bear a pass­ing re­sem­blance to the An­ces­tral Pue­bloan dwellings that can be seen near Santa Fe at Ban­de­lier Na­tional Park.

But the most pro­found dis­cov­ery at Çatal­höyük is its egal­i­tar­ian hous­ing struc­ture. Nearly all the rooms and house cells are uni­formly iden­ti­cal in size, with no pub­lic or wor­ship build­ings, or even a site des­ig­nated for food stor­age or pro­duc­tion. In a sense, Ne­witz said, the ar­chi­tec­ture sug­gests that there were lit­tle to no mark­ers of so­cial class. Bio­chem­i­cal analy­ses of hu­man re­mains at the site in­di­cate that men and women ate the same di­ets and quan­ti­ties of food.

Writ­ing had not yet been in­vented at the time of the city’s pre-em­i­nence. “They did leave be­hind a lot of art, much of it very ab­stract and geo­met­ric,” Ne­witz said. “We’re not yet re­ally sure what mean­ing it holds.”

There were also no ceme­ter­ies. The dead were buried be­neath house floors, though af­ter a cer­tain num­ber of years, the skele­tons were ex­humed and their skulls were de­tached to be or­nately dec­o­rated and swapped among res­i­dents in a tra­di­tion com­mon to many Ne­olithic civ­i­liza­tions. It is a prac­tice far re­moved from our longestab­lished Western tra­di­tion of bury­ing the dead in ceme­ter­ies near other de­ceased fam­ily mem­bers and/or a church. It sug­gests that Çatal­höyük so­ci­ety may have been or­ga­nized on an axis far dif­fer­ent than the nu­clear fam­ily, and that the spir­i­tual rituals of its res­i­dents un­folded in the same or­di­nary rooms where peo­ple slept, ate, and car­ried out daily ac­tiv­i­ties.

Sev­eral cen­turies later, when cities re- emerged in Me­sopotamian civ­i­liza­tion — Uruk and Eridu, among oth­ers — th­ese cities op­er­ated un­der a so­cial script that was fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter. “There is deep so­cial strat­i­fi­ca­tion. Some peo­ple live in shit. Some peo­ple live in palaces,” Ne­witz said. Th­ese cities were noted for their zig­gu­rats, mas­sive ter­raced tem­ples cor­doned off from ev­ery­day res­i­dents to pro­vide fortress-like se­cu­rity for the re­gion’s religious and political elite.

In our own epoch, Ne­witz be­lieves that the global rise of megac­i­ties like Mum­bai and Mex­ico City, among sev­eral oth­ers, has cre­ated a revo­lu­tion­ary turn­ing point in both hu­man evo­lu­tion and ur­ban­iza­tion. “Do we ac­tu­ally have a so­cial and political struc­ture that will al­low this sys­tem of cities to sur­vive and last? It’s pos­si­ble we don’t. Af­ter all, the model of life in Çatal­höyük never took hold any­where else. We’re en­ter­ing into a pe­riod in the de­vel­op­ment of hu­man civ­i­liza­tions where we have lots of megac­i­ties with over 15 mil­lion peo­ple. Are we go­ing to be able to sur­vive this way, or will fu­ture gen­er­a­tions look back at our era and our way of life in cities and say that was the Be­ta­max of ur­ban civ­i­liza­tion?”

The Be­ta­max anal­ogy is fit­ting. While Çatal­höyük had the req­ui­site tech­nol­ogy to leapfrog into a new era of ur­ban­iza­tion, its cit­i­zens may have lacked an en­dur­ing cul­tural struc­ture or so­cial con­tract that would have al­lowed this new­found ex­per­i­ment in city life to en­dure and be copied by other civ­i­liza­tions. In­stead, the proto-city seemed in many ways like a beau­ti­ful, flawed ex­per­i­ment al­lowed to ex­pire on its own terms.

“Çatal­höyük out­grew the be­lief sys­tems of the peo­ple liv­ing in it,” Ne­witz said. “They didn’t have a be­lief sys­tem that would sup­port so many peo­ple liv­ing to­gether in one place.”

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An­nalee Ne­witz

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