THE MODERN STONE AGE CITY
ANNALEE NEWITZ ON “THE URBAN SPECIES”
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, www.youtube. 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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