Half an hour’s drive southeast of Konya, famous for being the city where the Persian mystic Rumi was laid to rest and Sufi dervishes whirl, a lone hill looms over the parched, pita-flat basin of a vast prehistoric lake.
For centuries, the oval-shaped rise, carpeted with grasses and Syrian rue, was known to local farmers as Çatalhöyük, Turkish for “the mound at the fork in the road.” When archaeologists began to excavate the site in the early 1960s, they realized the mound concealed the remnants of an important prehistoric community. It would prove to be the most populous site ever discovered from the Neolithic, the period when our species began to domesticate plants and animals and gather in permanent settlements. Eight and a half thousand years ago, Çatalhöyük was home to as many as eight thousand people, making it the single largest concentration of humans that had ever lived on Earth. At its peak, Çatalhöyük covered about thirty-two acres, a little larger than Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan, is today. It was also, judged by modern standards, a very odd place.
From the visitors’ parking lot next to a teahouse and souvenir stand, a sinuous path leads to the top of an archaeological dig known as the East Mound, which is as tall as a seven-story building.
A wooden frame stretched with translucent polymer—a structure that from a distance resembles the shell of an armadillo—keeps sixty years’ worth of painstaking excavations protected from the elements. In the milky, filtered light of midday, walls of clay, marl, and plaster, buttressed by sandbags and wooden support beams, glow in warm, earthen hues. A gangway following the structure’s inner perimeter offers a variety of viewpoints on the site, which reveals itself as an irregular gridwork of three-dimensional rectangles, rising in tiers. The jumble of buildings suggests a Spanish hill village, of the kind the Cubists liked to paint, albeit one whose houses have had their roofs sheared off. After a while, the attentive visitor might notice a few curious details: the presence of circular pits in many floors; the fact that there is virtually no space between the walls of neighboring houses; the complete absence of front doors.
At the base of the mound, four replica dwellings give visitors a sense of what daily life was like for Çatalhöyükans. Because the 150 or so flat-topped houses in the settlement were so tightly packed, the sidewalks were on the roofs, which is where people gathered and slept during the warmer months of the year. The narrow spaces between houses appear to have been reserved for tossing garbage. Homes were entered through ladders that leaned against rectangular holes in the ceilings, which doubled as skylights that provided the only source of natural illumination. Those circular pits in the floor were, in fact, tombs, where corpses were interred, probably after being left out- doors to be picked clean by vultures; the people of Çatalhöyük went to sleep each night on raised platforms over the skeletons of their dead. Homes were kept impeccably clean, their floors swept daily, with the walls, which were sometimes replastered monthly, providing surfaces for murals and sculptures. After seventy or eighty years, each building reached the end of its useful life-span, and was torn down. Rubble from the roofs and upper walls became the foundations of new dwell- ings, a process of stacking that explains the mound’s vertical rise over the 1,200 years Çatalhöyük was inhabited.
For decades, archaeologists have asked themselves why humans crammed themselves into this settlement on the Konya Plain. Homo sapiens emerged as a separate species as much as 300,000 years ago. Between seventy thousand and fifty thousand years ago, a small band of behaviorally modern humans, identical in intellectual capacities to people living today, struck out from northeastern Africa. For the vast majority of our species’ existence, descendants of this band spread themselves thinly over the landscape in search of food. Occasionally, we gathered at places like Göbekli Tepe—an 11,500-year-old arrangement of Stonehenge-like monoliths three hundred miles to the east of Çatalhöyük that is thought to be the world’s first temple—before scattering to continue our fruitful existence of foraging and hunting. After the last ice age ended, though, some humans decided to stay put and adapt to changes in an ecosystem rather than pull up stakes and move on when the environment changed. Some speculate Çatalhöyükans chose to settle down in order to work with obsidian, a volcanic stone from nearby Cappadocia, useful for making blades, mirrors, and jewelry, which they may have traded with the people of the Levant. Others believe they were attracted by the local soil, which provided the clay to build permanent dwellings, as well as the lime-rich plaster with which they covered the walls and floors of their homes.
One thing is certain. There was no shortage of food in the area. From the top of the mound, you can make out the tops of the trees that grow along the Çarşamba River. Twelve thousand years ago, a huge lake that had covered much of the Konya Plain drained out, and a woodland of oak trees soon emerged. By the time settlement at Çatalhöyük began, the river regularly overflowed its banks in the spring, turning this semiarid area into a wetland, teeming with ducks, geese, and coots and such small edible fish as loaches and minnows. When the Çarşamba’s waters receded, they left behind clay ideal for house-building, but also nutrient-rich fields on which the cereals that grew among the oaks could be sown for harvest in late summer. This may be the real reason why, for over a millennium, a total of 100,000 Çatalhöyükans lived their lives on this site. With relatively little work, they could benefit from a reliable supply of calories by harvesting grains, while still enjoying the challenge of the hunt and the nutritional variety offered by gathering wild plants.
The skeletons recovered from the in-home burial pits, each of which could contain the remains of up to fifty-two individuals, show remarkably few marks of violence. If they survived childhood and its attendant accidents and diseases, Çatalhöyükans tended to reach the age of seventy or eighty, living lives as long we do today. Women and men show similar levels of wear and tear on their bones, indicating that household tasks were shared, in a way they wouldn’t be in later farming societies. There were no temples or administrative buildings, and no home was appreciably larger than any other, suggesting egalitarianism was held at a premium.
“Each household,” archaeologist David Wengrow and the late anthropologist David Graeber observed of Çatalhöyük in their 2021 book The Dawn of Everything, “appears more or less a world unto itself—a discrete locus of storage, production and consumption . . . Despite the considerable size and density of the built-up area, there is no evidence for central authority.” For them, the settlement provides a counterexample to the idea that settled farming life was our first fall from grace. “Agriculture did not mean the inception of private property, nor did it mark an irreversible step towards inequality.”
According to the influential maxim of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the life of humans in the absence of governing authority was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” For the un- oppressed agriculturalists of Çatalhöyük, life on the contrary appears to have been sociable, rich, pleasant, peaceful, and long.
In one of the structures in the East Mound, the building labeled B.108, a horseshoe-shaped ridge is clearly visible in the floor. This was a hearth, which functioned like a stovetop, where glowing coals and dung would have been used to keep food hot. Next to it, in the center of the house, is a circular indentation once occupied by an oven. An archaeologists’ re-creation in the replica house shows it would have been positioned just beneath the sloping entry ladder, so smoke could escape through the hole in the ceiling. Beehive-shaped, with a rectangular slot in front, it resembles the ovens known as firins still used to bake flatbread in local villages.
Before coming to Turkey, I talked to an archaeobotanist who has studied tens of thousands of charred remains recovered from Çatalhöyük. Using a scanning electron microscope, she confirmed that naturally leavened bread was regularly baked in the site’s ovens. Seeds from stands of grasses, the wild ancestors of wheat, which thrived in the oak and juniper woodlands about seven miles from the site, were likely gathered and brought to the settlement, where some would have fallen to the ground and sprouted. This domesticated wheat growing on the floodplain of the Çarşamba River was harvested with sickles, which were made from animal horns set with blades of flint or obsidian, and then ground into flour.
Fresh-baked bread, in other words, provided the long-lived people of Çatalhöyük with a large percentage of the calories in their diet. It was made with a kind of wheat the ancient Babylonians called ziz, the Egyptians called zeia, the Hebrews referred to as kassemet, and contemporary Turks know as kavilca. In English, we call it emmer.
Along with barley, it was the first wild grass ever domesticated, put- ting it among the most ancient of the ancient grains.
According to an argument that has lately become widespread, all of the world’s problems began when small bands of hunter-gatherers gave up their nomadic existence and embraced farming and the settled, community-based existence that went with it. Inequality, war, oppression of women, rule by zealots and tyrants, epidemics, slavery, environmental degradation, and individual ill-health—all are a direct result of agriculture.
Yet Çatalhöyükans seem to have enjoyed their daily bread with- out sacrificing good health, longevity, or the challenges of gathering varied foodstuffs from the natural world. Rather than being a problem, farming was a solution. Admittedly, eight thousand years and a couple of other revolutions—industrial and “green”—later, we humans have made a mess of agriculture and, with it, the planet. Yet agriculture continues to remain the best hope for Homo sapiens. (Not to mention your only hope of getting something to eat later today.)
What we still haven’t figured out is how to do it right.
This book makes the case that the future of food lies in the past, including such lost, forgotten, or nearly vanished foods as emmer wheat. The fact that bread, the age-old staff of life, has lately come to stand for all the ills of civilization is a basic mistake and an indication of how much we need to learn—or relearn.
Don’t blame the grain, in other words. Blame what we’ve done with it.
From The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavors of the Past, written by Taras Grescoe and published by Greystone Books in September 2023. Available wherever books are sold.