Building large communities: Multi isotope investigations of human mobility and diet in the earliest large villages

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Archaeology Classics and Egyptology


Twelve thousand years ago, at the end of the last ice age, the mobile hunter-gatherers of southwest Asia gradually began to live in small communities of 10-100s at sites that rarely measured more than a few hectares. Around 10,000 years ago a number of these sites disappeared and at the same time a few large sites emerged. These new mega-sites measured more than 10 hectares in size with populations numbering in the thousands that required new forms of socialising. At this date these were the first of their kind and have been described by some as the world's first towns and cities. The site of Çatalhöyük, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in modern Turkey, was one of these early mega-sites. It was occupied for around 1500 years, persisting longer than many communities today and comparable in duration only to long-established modern cities such as London, England.

Early small communities were highly mobile and consumed a broad range of foods from species that were acquired through hunting, gathering and fishing. By the time the larger less mobile communities such as Çatalhöyük emerged 10,000 years ago, food came from an increasingly narrow range of species of plants and animals. Reliance on fish and birds declined in favour of a specialisation on ruminants such as sheep and cattle. These mega-sites would also have had a profound impact on partner exchange systems (akin to kinship/marriage/alliance), social practices that are closely influenced by community size. To prevent inbreeding, men and women from smaller communities would normally leave to join other communities and those smaller communities would accept outsiders. This process is unnecessary for larger communities who can support partner exchange within the community unless there are political reasons not to do so. It seems likely that transitions in partner exchange systems enabled the emergence of (and sustained) the first mega-sites.

This project focuses on reconstructing partner exchange and diet through stable isotope analysis, a technique that allows us to detect whether people died in the same location in which they were born (thereby telling us if they have moved there from elsewhere) and what plants and animals they ate for most of their lives. We will perform these analyses on adult human, animal and plant remains from the mega-site of Çatalhöyük and use the two nearby small earlier communities Boncuklu Höyük and Pinarbasi for comparison. Our project focuses on the use of stable isotope analysis to reconstruct diet and mobility because quantifying the importance of different species of plants and animals (particularly aquatic resources), in the diet of people that lived in these communities is otherwise difficult because ancient charred plants and fish bone do not survive well. Similarly, the inhabitants of these sites routinely extracted fats from bone by smashing them, which has meant that a very high proportion of animal bone (80-95%) on these sites comes from animals that cannot be accurately identified and species proportion estimates that may be incorrect. There is already some tentative evidence that outsiders exist at Çatalhöyük. Physical anthropologists have shown that inherited differences in tooth shape suggest that many women were not from local families. Strontium isotope analysis in our project will enable this to be tested on the same individuals, something which cannot be tested by DNA analysis due to poor preservation.

By reconstructing the partner exchange systems that operated in foraging versus farming communities it will be possible to establish any sex-specific patterning in partner exchange systems that accompanied the emergence of the earliest mega-sites and the diet that enabled these first large communities to survive for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Planned Impact

We have developed a framework for the communication of isotope results to non-academic audiences comprising adults and children at a local, national and international level. We have identified four major groups/subgroups of non-academic beneficiaries: 1) National/international tourists, 2) general community, 3) local women, 4) local schools. This will be delivered in collaboration with Kathryn Killackey (science illustrator), Professor Stephanie Moser (a specialist in the construction of knowledge about the past through visual images), Steve Chaddock (Boncuklu Höyük visitor centre consultant) and Dr Sonya Atalay (a specialist in indigenous and community archaeology at Çatalhöyük). All planned activities are supported by site directors Professors Ian Hodder (Çatalhöyük) and Doug Baird (Boncuklu Höyük).

Tourism is an important source of revenue for the Konya area and Turkey in general. The rich material culture, extensive excavation and international team of researchers attracted 15,000+ visitors annually to Çatalhöyük even before World Heritage listing in 2012. The national/international importance of the site is demonstrated by the use of Çatalhöyük architecture as inspiration for the Turkish Pavilion façade at Expo 2010 (Shanghai), high-profile UK visitors (Blue Peter, HRH Prince Charles, BBC broadcaster Andrew Marr), and by featuring in several recent BBC documentaries as a key site in the dawn of civilisation and the emergence of the first cities.

Data generated from scientific techniques can be difficult to communicate to non-academic audiences, but we aim to expand the archaeological knowledge base through communication of more challenging archaeological information, such as isotope data, in an accessible way using artwork, newsletters/comics, installations and performance. This is to encourage greater overall engagement with scientific elements of these excavations regardless of background education and encourage all types of visitors to view scientific information as contributing to the archaeological record in a similar way to those of objects. In particular, how chemical components in the body can give us social information about past people.

A single piece of artwork depicting diet and partner exchange systems will be commissioned and displayed at both sites, and will form part of the annual theatre performance at Çatalhöyük. Differences in diet will also be illustrated through an interactive food installation using bowls of replica food at both visitor centres. Also, visitors will be given an age-appropriate comic/newsletter that includes a short sketch/summary combining the artwork, food displays, with a map and time line and a brief narrative in layman's terms (English and Turkish).

The project will be communicated to non-academic audiences year-round through the Çatalhöyük and Boncuklu Höyük visitor centres (Pinarbasi has no visitor centre) and these centres' ongoing outreach. The local inhabitants are interested in the human remains from a moral standpoint with on-going discussions concerning their relationship to the prehistoric inhabitants. International visitors are fascinated by these early farmers and the first large urban areas. Therefore, research on the human remains, especially topics that are easy to relate to (food and 'marriage') will be of interest to the local, national and international public visitors.

Our project dissemination is specifically designed to fit into Atalay's long-term community initiatives which aim to: increase local peoples' archaeological knowledge base to ensure effective future stewardship of these sites; enhance research literacy (particularly among women); and encourage community development skills that can be applied to situations beyond archaeology. Fitting our plans for project dissemination into existing community-driven activities helps to ensure longer-term engagement and a longer-lasting impact than primarily researcher-driven approaches.


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Title Artwork displaying scientific output commissioned and completed 
Description A triptych artwork depicting the interpretation of data from two archaeological sites between which the methodology used is given in illustration form 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Artwork is awaiting installation at the archaeological site visitor centre 
Description We hypothesised that the earliest communities of small groups would have moved around as part of their kinship practices in order to prevent inbreeding within their population, whereas larger more sedentary societies would have (biologically at least) be able to support their own inter-community kinship networks. However, at present is seems as though early kinship practices were more complex and did not conform to this pattern.

Our other area of research - reconstructing diet- is still ongoing
Exploitation Route We are still in the process of writing these data up and will detail those ideas in our publications
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections