The archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people.
One hot day in August 1999, archaeologists excavating at Çatalhöyük (pronounced "Chah-tahl-hew-yook"), a 9,500-year-old prehistoric village in south central Turkey, found two detached human skulls lying on the floor of what had once been a mud-brick house. The skulls had taken on a faint reddish color from the dense soil that had kept them hidden down through the ages. They were slightly crushed but still remarkably intact. The physical anthropologists working at Çatalhöyük took a close look at the skulls and concluded that one was that of a boy perhaps twelve years old, while the other was that of a young woman in her twenties. The skulls were lying together face to face, their foreheads lightly touching. With just a little imagination, one could picture a moment of tenderness between a mother and child or a brother and sister. Indeed, the anthropologists found that both crania shared an unusual pattern of bone sutures, a hint that they may well have been related.
When I visited the Çatalhöyük excavations about a week later, the team was still buzzing about the "finds." This is the dispassionate term archaeologists often use to refer to even the most exciting discoveries. Everyone was aware that this kind of find was rare. How often, after all, does an archaeologist dig up tangible evidence of an emotional tie between two specific human beings who lived so long ago? Almost never. One scientific specialist on the team suggested to me privately that the skulls could have rolled together by chance and just happened to touch foreheads. When I tried this explanation out on some of the excavators, they just laughed. The supervisor of that particular prehistoric house, they pointed out, was Mirjana Stevanovic, an archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley with nearly thirty years of digging experience. Mirjana herself did not really want to speculate about the skulls, but she had no doubts about what she had found. "All I know," she told me, "is that they were put that way deliberately."
I made my first trip to Çatalhöyük in 1998, as a reporter for the American journal Science, to write an article called "The Mystery of Communities." We were tackling the question of why, around 10,000 years ago, human beings began giving up their former hunting and gathering existence, invented agriculture, and crammed themselves into close-knit villages made of stone or mud brick. Archaeologists often refer to this crucial step in human development -- which took place first in the ancient Near East, then independently in several other parts of the world -- as the "Neolithic Revolution." The phrase was coined by the Australian prehistorian V. Gordon Childe in the early part of the twentieth century, although the term Neolithic (meaning "New Stone Age") was first used by the British antiquarian Sir John Lubbock in his 1865 book Prehistoric Times, one of the first works to bring archaeology to the general public. Lubbock distinguished the Neolithic period from what he called the Paleolithic, or "Old Stone Age," which preceded it.
Today archaeologists usually date the beginning of the Paleolithic to about 2.5 million years ago, when humans first began using stone tools. This date also roughly corresponds to the first appearance of the genus Homo in the fossil record. Just why our ancestors did not get around to inventing agriculture any earlier is one of the big questions archaeologists specializing in the Neolithic period, including the archaeologists working at Çatalhöyük, are trying to answer. After all, 10,000 years is not much more than a statistical blip in our long evolutionary history. The question can also be put another way: why did humans bother to invent agriculture and settle down in such close quarters, instead of continuing to romp across the landscape, hunting and gathering?
The Neolithic Revolution was a crucial turning point in human cultural and technological development. For better or worse, the first roots of civilization were planted along with the first crops of wheat and barley, and the mightiest of today's skyscrapers can trace its heritage to the Neolithic architects who built the first houses from stone, mud, and timber. Nearly everything that came afterwards, such as art and architecture, organized religion, writing, cities, social inequality, warfare, population explosions, global warming, traffic jams, mobile phones, the Internet -- in short, all the blessings and curses of modern civilization -- can be traced to that seminal moment in human prehistory when people decided that they wanted to live together in communities.
Biologist Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has even argued that today's division of the world into haves and have-nots can be traced back to the Neolithic Revolution. Those living in the right place at the right time -- such as in the Near East, where the wild ancestors of wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle made their home, or in Europe, where the agricultural revolution later spread like wildfire -- reaped the major benefits of these momentous changes, as did their descendants, while those whom the revolution passed by, including the peoples of Africa, are still suffering the consequences today, in terms of poverty and lagging technological development. While not everyone agrees with Diamond's thesis, there is little argument that the Neolithic period marked a point of departure for the entire human race.
Çatalhöyük is one of the largest and most populated Neolithic settlements ever unearthed. This enormous village on Turkey's Konya Plain, discovered in 1958 by the flamboyant British archaeologist James Mellaart, was home to as many as 8,000 people at the height of its thousand-year lifetime. Mellaart dug here for four seasons during the early 1960s before Turkish authorities ejected him from the country under somewhat murky circumstances. Mellaart's findings, which included remarkably well preserved mud-brick houses and spectacular artworks depicting leopards, vultures, bulls, and what he interpreted as "Mother Goddesses," made the site internationally famous. Today Çatalhöyük merits a mention in many textbooks of archaeology and histories of architecture as the prototypical Neolithic village.
The current excavations are directed by Ian Hodder, who spent much of his career at Cambridge University and is now based at Stanford University in California. In the early 1980s Hodder launched a controversial rebellion against traditional approaches to archaeology, which culminated in his reopening of Çatalhöyük in 1993. An international team, made up of more than one hundred archaeologists and other experts, has flocked to join him. It includes archaeologists, physical anthropologists, cultural anthropologists, paleoenvironmentalists, climatologists, botanists, architects, geologists, geophysicists, chemists, computer experts, and even a psychoanalyst. This collective expertise probably represents the greatest concentration of scientific firepower ever focused on an archaeological dig. The team wants to know what brought thousands of people together on the Konya Plain, how they went about their daily lives, what they ate, why they buried their dead under the floors of their houses, what they believed, and what they were trying to express through the dramatic paintings and sculptures that adorned the walls of their homes.
In 1999, the year after my first visit, I returned to Çatalhöyük. Ian Hodder spotted me walking across the gravel courtyard of the "dig house" and came over to greet me. "Is this a business trip or a social call?" he asked with a smile. That was a good question: why had I come? Science's news editor had expressed little enthusiasm for a follow-up article so soon after "The Mystery of Communities." No doubt I had been drawn back in part by Çatalhöyük's near-mythical celebrity and the fascination of witnessing one of the world's most important digs. Yet there was something else. The team of archaeologists at Çatalhöyük was one of the most interesting and diverse collections of individuals I had ever encountered. They were working at a site that dated from the dawn of civilization, probing some of the most fundamental questions about human existence. In the process they had formed their own community, with its own unique blend of friendships, rivalries, traditions, and rituals.
Science did end up publishing my article about the 1999 season, and several others since. And the day after Ian posed his perceptive question about why I had come, I decided to write this book. I have now been back to the site every season since that first visit. The team members have become used to my poking around and asking them personal questions about their childhoods and why they became archaeologists in the first place. One day, while consulting the dig's Web site (www.catalhoyuk.com), I was surprised to see that without my knowledge I had been designated as the excavation's official "biographer." At first I was a little concerned. I even thought about asking them to take my name off. Wouldn't being a member of the team jeopardize my reputation as an objective journalist? Indeed, I had often secretly wondered whether I kept going back to Çatalhöyük so that I could write this book, or whether I wrote this book so that I could keep going back to Çatalhöyük. But in the end, it really doesn't matter; either way, the story comes out the same.
That story begins on a cold day in 1958, when the history of archaeology, and of our understanding of our own origins, was changed forever.