The Konya Plain in central Turkey is a vast, elevated plateau covered in small farms and dusty fields, edged by dramatic mountain ranges that cast purple shadows. At night, visitors can drive into the foothills and see distant city lights, shimmering like a mirage. The view here has not changed much over the past 9,000 years—even the illuminated metropolitan skyline would look familiar to a visitor from 7,000 B.C.E. That is because the Konya Plain is one of the cradles of urban life.

Millennia before the rise of Mesopotamian cities to the south, the proto-city Çatalhöyük (pronounced “Chah-tahl-hew-yook”) thrived here. Sprawled over 34 acres and home to as many as 8,000 people, it was the metropolis of its day. People lived in this community continuously for almost 2,000 years, before slowly abandoning it in the 5,000s B.C.E. During its heyday, bonfires from the many parties held at Çatalhöyük would have been visible far across the flat grasslands.

Unlike later cities, Çatalhöyük had no great monuments nor any marketplaces. Think of it as a dozen agricultural villages that grew together, forming what some researchers call a “mega site.” People entered its thousands of tightly packed, mud-brick homes through ceiling doors, and they navigated sidewalks that wound around the city's rooftops. They planted tiny farm plots around the city. Whether they were fixing up their houses or making clothes, tools, food and art, Çatalhöyük residents spent most of their days between four walls, right next to their bed platforms—or, in warmer months, on their roofs.

This was not exactly what archaeologists expected to find when they first began excavating at Çatalhöyük in the early 1960s. Based on what they knew of other ancient cities, these investigators were primed to discover shrines, markets and priceless loot. Instead they found the remains of home decor, cookware and ritual items associated with domesticity rather than formal churches. The mismatch between expectation and reality flummoxed Çatalhöyük researchers for decades. It took a new kind of archaeologist to figure out what it all meant, piecing together what life was really like when humans were transitioning from a nomadic existence to a settled one as farmers and urbanites with a strong sense of home.

Dido's House

In 2000 archaeologist Ruth Tringham of the University of California, Berkeley, traveled to Çatalhöyük to visit a house that had not seen the light for thousands of years. Inside the structure she discovered the remains of a woman buried under a bed platform. Tringham nicknamed her Dido and returned every summer for the next several years with a team of researchers to excavate Dido's house. The group analyzed everything from the animal figurines and bones found inside to the many layers of plaster paint on its walls.

What they found was a household where everything was made from scratch—including the scratch itself, as it were. It is hard for modern people to imagine the intensity of the labor required to maintain a settled life back in Dido's day. If you wanted to cook dinner, you grew or hunted the food, built your own oven, made cooking tools such as obsidian knives, molded clay pots, then started cooking. People made their own bricks, built their own houses, wove mats for the floors out of reeds and sewed their own clothes (and made the needles, thread and textiles).

Map of Turkey and surrounding countries highlights locations of Konya Plain and atalhyk.
Credit: Mapping Specialists

Even spirituality seems to have been handcrafted. People buried their loved ones underneath the floors, perhaps as a way to keep them close, and reverently decorated their skulls with plaster and paint. Archaeologists have found similar skulls at other sites dating to the Neolithic—the time spanning 12,000 to 6,500 B.C.E. in the Fertile Crescent—such as Jericho in the West Bank. It appears to have been relatively common at this time to honor the dead by recreating their faces using plaster applied to their skulls. At Çatalhöyük, people sometimes traded these skulls with other families and reburied them at a later time. Researchers often find several skulls buried alongside one body, suggesting that these rituals linked kin to their homes over several generations.

Archaeologists have found elaborate paintings on the interior house walls that were refreshed every year in the same patterns—as if generations of inhabitants wanted to keep the original paintings intact. Some of these patterns are abstract designs of swirls or zigzags, like the ancient equivalent of wallpaper. Others invoke scenes of wild animals and hunters. There are even some wall paintings that appear to shed light on the spiritual underpinnings of the skull ritual: in one house, researchers found a wall painting of headless bodies surrounded by vultures, giving the impression that the birds are bearing people's spirits away.

Animal bones, too, adorn the homes. Nearly every household had its own wall-mounted “bucranium,” a plastered bull's skull painted deep red, its sharp horns pointing into the room. People also hid claws and teeth from dangerous animals in the mud brick of their walls in the way people today sometimes put a lucky penny into the foundation of a house.

In the 1960s archaeologists were confounded by finding these obviously symbolic, quasi-religious items mixed in with regular household garbage. One early researcher, James Melaart, thought the entire city must be a giant, mysterious shrine. But “it's only a mystery if you expect it to be something else, something bigger and more complex,” Tringham says. Melaart and his colleagues expected to find spiritual objects in grand temples, not in people's kitchens. Tringham always preferred to let the evidence speak for itself, without preconceptions.

Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who led excavations at Çatalhöyük until 2018, supported Tringham's methods. Traditionally archaeologists had studied artifacts by stealing them from dig sites and bringing them back to museums. Hodder popularized the idea of “contextual archaeology,” which suggests that we should understand artifacts not in isolation but by thinking about how they fit into the place where they were discovered. In the case of Çatalhöyük, contextual archaeology gave researchers such as Tringham a framework for interpreting why there were sacred objects in the middle of living rooms. It was because people were fashioning ritual spaces in their own homes.

In contrast to later cities, where separate spaces were built for worship, work and domestic life, Çatalhöyük residents merged them all together under one roof. That is why every house looked like a combination of temple, workshop and bedroom. Hodder believes that these multipurpose houses represent a key stage in the process of human domestication, when many people stopped leading nomadic lives and settled down to farm. At first, houses were just places to sleep and work. But over time, as Hodder puts it, people became “entangled” psychologically with their land—you might say they went from being a bunch of farmers living on Konya Plain to being Çatalites. The city was part of their identities, and they attributed a spiritual meaning to the places where they lived. In the process, houses became homes. In cities built later, there were separate spaces for worship, work and domestic life—but the idea that the city was a home, and not just a resting place, continued to endure.

Instant Soup in the Neolithic

Çatalhöyük shows what everyday life was like at a time when “home” was a radical new idea. Inhabitants had to do many jobs to keep their houses and families intact, but they spent the most time acquiring and making food. We know that they were agriculturalists, tending family farms and flocks of animals on the fertile Konya Plain, which would have afforded them the stable food supply they needed to live year-round in permanent homes. They made a variety of cooking implements, from butcher's knives to soup bowls. And now, thanks to a high-tech analysis of their stew pots, we know what they ate.

HOUSES at atalhyuk
MOST HOUSES at Çatalhöyük were decorated with animal bones such as bull skulls (1). And elaborate paintings adorned the walls (2). A recreated home shows how symbolic and domestic items merged under one roof (3). Credit: Jason Quinlan (1, 2); Laura Di Biase Alamy Stock Photo (3)

“It was like a crime story,” says archaeologist Eva Rosenstock with a laugh, as she describes how she and her colleague Jessica Hendy used forensics methods to extract telltale molecules from ancient food stuck to the inside of cooking vessels. Rosenstock is a research associate at the Einstein Center Chronoi in Berlin, and she has been studying foods and health during the Neolithic for most of her career. She met Hendy a few years ago at a conference, where Hendy was explaining how she had figured out what people ate in the Middle Ages by examining calcium deposits on their tooth enamel. Trapped inside that calcium were traces of lipids and proteins, chemicals found in all living things—including the ones we eat. Hendy could identify medieval foods by cross-referencing the molecular structures of the lipids and proteins on people's dirty teeth with those from known animals and plants.

It was a moment of inspiration for Rosenstock. She had examined a few clay bowl fragments from Çatalhöyük that had a thin calcite layer on the inside, “kind of like limescale in teapots,” she explained. She convinced Hendy to examine those ancient dishes for molecules that would reveal Neolithic menu items.

There was a nail-biting period when Hendy started the analysis and her first matches were with exotic aquarium fish and lotus flowers—the result of contamination of the sample with modern molecules. Luckily, further analysis showed that there were much closer molecular matches to other edibles—and these were the real deal. Rosenstock, Hendy and their colleagues discovered traces of peas, wheat, barley, goat, sheep, cattle and even some deer. But the most interesting discovery by far was that all the bowls had held milk at a time before most humans evolved the genetic mutation that allows us to metabolize milk products as adults. Indeed, the dairy remains at Çatalhöyük are among the oldest ever recovered. This does not mean Çatalhöyük diners were getting sick in the way lactose-intolerant people do now. Recent research shows that our gut microbiome—all the microorganisms that live in our intestines—can help us digest milk. The researchers had simply gotten a rare glimpse of the moment when adults began to cook with milk. Over the next several thousand years the mutation that helps people digest dairy into adulthood spread throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Rosenstock believes these milk residues also reveal an ancient laborsaving strategy. Back in the Neolithic, dairy would have been seasonal. Animals gave birth in the spring, and their milk would have dried up by winter. To enjoy milk year-round, communities all across the world invented cheese and other fermented dairy foods that could keep for a long time. In Turkey and nearby regions, people prepare a dried sour milk dish known variously as qurut or kashk. Sometimes it is molded into balls and sometimes powdered; for added flavor, the milk can be fermented with ground grains, too. People at Çatalhöyük might have been making a similar dish. “You get this super storable thing that won't go rancid for years,” Rosenstock says. “You put it in hot water, and it's like instant soup!” Perfect for a hot meal at home on a cold winter day, when nobody wants to go outside to farm or hunt.

Artifacts in houses at atalhyuk
HOME was not only where people slept but also where they worshipped and worked. Skeletons found buried under the floors attest to the spiritual aspect of home (1). Clay balls (2) may have helped heat food or keep people warm. Clay pots (3) and obsidian knives (4) evince food preparation. Credit: Jason Quinlan (1, 3, 4); Michael Ashley (2)

The Clay Ball Mystery

Crafters at Çatalhöyük had other laborsaving tricks as well. Roughly 8,500 years ago, centuries after the city's founding, fired pottery was invented—and it was as revolutionary for Neolithic cooks as microwaves were for impatient, hungry people in the 1970s. Before the rise of ceramics, cooking was a labor-intensive process. University of Massachusetts Amherst anthropologist Sonya Atalay found evidence that stews were made in watertight woven baskets. You put your water and ingredients into the basket and heated it with large stones or clay balls heated in the fire. When the balls cooled, you took them out and replaced them with hot ones. It was no doubt a tiresome process, especially after a long day of gathering food and water.

Atalay's portrait of preceramic kitchen life came from two sources of evidence. First, there are a few modern people who still cook with heated stones because it is part of their cultural traditions. And second, the settlement of Çatalhöyük is simply bursting with piles of large clay balls, about the size of grapefruits, that are covered in scorch marks from fires. Some houses have hundreds of them, scattered in and around hearths. To Atalay, it seemed obvious that these clay balls were cooking stones.

After the rise of ceramics at Çatalhöyük, people mostly stopped making large clay balls and woven cooking baskets. Because ceramic pots are heat-resistant, they could be put on stands over the fire to simmer stews all day. It must have felt incredibly luxurious to cook without constantly juggling hot clay balls.

There is just one problem with this story. When scientists analyzed these clay balls for lipids and proteins akin to the ones found on Rosenstock's bowls, they found nothing. It would appear the balls were heated and clearly used in the kitchen, but they were not ever submerged in food. So what were they for?

Lucy Bennison-Chapman, an archaeology researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, spent years analyzing the balls and made some surprising discoveries. Although she does not completely rule out their use in stews, she thinks that is extremely unlikely—they were simply too big and would have shed bits of clay and dirt into the food. She also dismisses the possibility that they were weapons. “They're different from sling missiles,” she says. “They're smaller and generally a different shape.”

Instead she thinks the large balls were heaters. In some cases, they were used to line the bottoms of ovens to hold warmth. They could also have been the Stone Age equivalent of heating trays—people might have pulled the balls from the fire, covered them in reed mats and placed food on top. There is yet another possibility, which will be familiar to anyone who has read a Charles Dickens novel where someone puts heated bricks in their bed at night. “On the Konya Plain, it gets really cold in winter. You could heat them and use them as a body warmer. Or you could wrap them in linen and put them in your bedding,” Bennison-Chapman explains. “People worked on rooftops and in the fields, so you could place heated balls in your pockets while you were outside. This would explain why they were reheated and reused so often.”

Making these multifunctional balls was incredibly time-consuming. “They would have spent a long time going over them with their hands, smoothing them,” Bennison-Chapman says. “They're covered in fingerprints.” Perhaps because it took so long to make them, the balls were used over and over, reheated in the fire until they were cracked. Most balls found at Çatalhöyük have been reduced to fragments. Some were recycled and turned into packing material in mud bricks or were placed between walls, perhaps for insulation.

Clay balls also figure importantly at Çatalhöyük for another reason. In addition to the big heaters, residents made miniature clay balls, which were occasionally decorated with dots and other patterns. These mini balls, or tokens, are the earliest examples at Çatalhöyük of “counting pieces,” named by archaeologists who believed they were for simple record keeping or tallying up resources. Bennison-Chapman cautions, however, that tokens were not purpose-built for counting—they probably served as gaming pieces, weights, ritual objects and even just decoration. Still, the tokens show that domestic life was not simply focused on cooking and staying cozy. Crafting objects at Çatalhöyük would eventually lead to counting and written language.

No Place Like Home

The Neolithic was a period of rapid change for humanity, especially when it came to defining what it meant to be at home. Before about 12,000 years ago, very few people lived in agricultural settlements year-round—most were nomadic or seminomadic, living in small groups as hunter-gatherers who moved from site to site according to seasonal changes in food availability. So when people finally did begin to build permanent houses and form larger settlements, they had to figure out new ways of living in one place, cheek by jowl with their neighbors.

Mostly they did it by building those homes together—sharing the backbreaking labor but also the joys of community. John S. Allen, an anthropology researcher at Indiana University Bloomington, is author of the 2015 book Home: How Habitat Made Us Human. “A home is a space you have an emotional attachment to, through habitual use,” he says. Humans create homes by forming an association between their community and a specific place, he adds. This might be one reason graves at Çatalhöyük lay just below the floors of homes. “A burial signifies a special place for family and friends,” Allen suggests, underscoring the idea of a home as an emotional space as well as a practical one.

When Rosenstock described all the foods that people ate at Çatalhöyük, one topic came up again and again: her intense conviction that sooner or later she and her colleagues will find evidence for beer. Partly that is because archaeologists have found evidence of beer production in other Neolithic cultures around the world. But it is also because there is so much evidence for merrymaking at Çatalhöyük. “They have massive amounts of pottery—they're creating and discarding it like crazy. You can't help but think they were eating and smashing the pots,” she says. They also threw away bones that still had meat on them, as if they were feasting and drinking.

Building a city is not all about work. It's about parties, too. Perhaps, at the dawn of city life, working and partying were two sides of the same coin: they were the tissues that knit us together in a single place we came to know as home.