The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

Issue #37 / July 2013
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The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

The city shown above – the first large human settlement after the ice age and also the most concentrated – had no government and no priesthood. And it thrived for 1400 years.

Two thousand families lived in this compact city (now called Catalhoyuk and located in central Turkey) between 7400 BC and 6000 BC, with no master and no overseer. There was no courthouse, no tax collector, no central administration of any kind.

Some of my final research on this subject involved reading a couple of books on the newest archaeological findings at Catalhoyuk. As I studied one day inside of a business, a gentleman noticed my book and asked me about it. I related to him the points made above. He got a troubled look on his face and almost barked at me, “I don’t think that’s possible.”

Regardless of how it seems, this happened. The first real human city was an anarchy. There was no one with authority over anyone else. And, as I say, it thrived for 1400 years; longer than Rome, Greece, or any of the Sumerian or Egyptian Dynasties. We have the archaeology; it stands before us to pay attention to it.


Before I start describing life in this first city, I want to address the nature of pre-historic people. My first point is this:

“Pre-historic” is a term that describes our ignorance about them, not their ignorance of their own lives. Ancient people knew all about themselves and their world, regardless of what we know.

To make my second point, here is a paragraph I wrote in late 2008, when I was immersed in this subject for some period of time:

It is an arrogance of modern man to think of himself as superior to his dim-witted and unimaginative ancestors. He is not. We are not. There have been no significant changes to the human species in 30,000 years, and perhaps not in 100,000 years. Our images of grunting cavemen are self-flattering nonsense. We are them; they were us.

So, as we look back in time 9400 years, please remember that these people were the same as you and me. Yes, their level of technology was vastly different, and yes, their view of the world differed from ours, but in every – every – fundamental way, they were us.

One other note: I am going to use references in this issue, in the form of parenthetical names:

  • (Hodder) refers to the archaeologist in charge of the Catalhoyuk dig, Ian Hodder. These passages come either from his book The Leopard’s Tail or as quoted by Micheal Balter.
  • (Balter) refers to Michael Balter, who is, more or less, the official chronicler of the Catalhoyuk project. These passages come from his book The Goddess and the Bull, or from a 1998 article in Science.


These were interesting people, leading rewarding lives. The common images of “stone age men” don’t fit them at all, as you will soon see.

We’ll start by supporting my anarchy conclusion and move forward from there:

They lived with no ruler.

There was no evidence of public spaces – such as plazas or temples – where the members of the community might have come together en masse. (Balter.)

All houses seem to have storage bins of some form, and all houses have generally similar storage capacity. There is no evidence of a scale of storage beyond the domestic scale. (Hodder.)

It is hard to imagine that 10,000 people, minimally 2000 families, were going out and doing their own thing, but that is what we see. (Hodder.)

Evidence supports an interpretation of the site as an elaborate village rather than as an urban settlement with differentiated functions. (Hodder.)

Individual houses were fairly equivalent and self-sufficient. (Hodder.)

Catalhoyuk is just a very large village – it pushed the idea of egalitarian village to its ultimate extreme. (Hodder.)

From Hodder’s modern and institutional perspective, the anarchy of Catalhoyuk was “extreme,” but the people who lived at Catalhoyuk didn’t think their lives were extreme – they simply did what made sense to them. They had no ruler because they felt no need for a ruler. And the fact that Catalhoyuk endured 1400 years, with almost no changes at all, establishes the point that this was a very natural arrangement. It was organic and stable, not “pushed.”

Again, these people were not partakers of our perspectives and felt no need to conform to what we find comfortable. They did what they thought was a good idea.

They were peaceful.

There were violent people several hundred miles to the east of Catalhoyuk (we know this from drawings near Baku), but in this place there was peace. We may guess that there was some petty crime, but we have no evidence for it.

Many images of hunting have been found at Catalhoyuk (below), but none of warfare, or of men killing men. And consider this passage from one of the reports:

Physical anthropologists who studied the bones at Catalhoyuk did not see the kind of traumatic injuries that would be expected if warfare had been a regular occurrence. (Balter.)

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

Hundreds of burials were examined, by the way, not just a few.

These peaceful people seem to have been a mixed group. Many of their habits came from the people who had gathered a thousand years prior at Gobelki Tepe, some distance to the east; the same people who appeared in Armenia at the end of the last ice age. For example, one unique habit of the people of both Gobelki and Catalhoyuk was to fill in the structures they had built before moving on.

Since these people from Armenia were spreading in many directions by the time Catalhoyuk was settled, it is almost certain that Catalhoyuk included people who had survived the ice age in other areas, most likely from the Natufian culture of the Levant.

They were cooperative.

With no big boss forcing them to obey, these people cooperated with each other. Merely living in close proximity requires cooperation, and especially so when large numbers of people share the same open roof spaces. The roofs of Catalhoyuk made almost a large, above-ground park.

In addition, it may be that all their houses were built in the same way to avoid concentrations of smoke on those roofs:

All of the mud-brick buildings had the same basic arrangement: ovens and ladders on the south wall, platforms and benches on the north and east walls, and so on. (Balter.)

The ladders that led into the houses from the roof were always on the south side. (Balter.)

It appears that they all cooperated and put their ovens, ladders and openings on the same side of their house to avoid concentrating smoke in any one place. But even if this was not their reason, all their houses being built in the same way clearly shows cooperation.

In this photo you can see archaeologists working in the remains of one of these homes:

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

Another set of cooperative activities at Catalhoyuk were large dinners. The academics like to call these “feasts,” implying some sort of centralized or mandated ritual, but there is no reason to interpret these large meals as anything more ritualistic than modern pot-luck dinners, or Amish barn raising, or even buying a dozen pizzas for your friends after they help you paint. Again, the details vary, but these people were essentially the same as us.

They were individualistic.

And aside from being peaceful, unruled, and cooperative, these people were also strongly individualistic:

Even though houses may be just a few centimeters apart, people built and maintained their own walls. (Hodder.)

There was a lot of variation from building to building in their sizes and their composition: that is, the types and proportions of sediments, clay, straw, bone fragments, and other ingredients differed markedly. Wendy and Ian concluded that each house must have been constructed by its own inhabitants. There were no centralized build contractors at Catalhoyuk. (Balter.)

Most of the [buried] bodies had been flexed tightly, knees to chest… but there were numerous exceptions to this general rule. (Balter.)

There is a remarkable lack of patterning in the specifics of how a body is laid out (for burial). Grave goods occur but they are not common. (Hodder.)

Roughly a third of the buildings seemed richer in paintings and sculptures than others. In addition, many of the more elaborate buildings featured enormous bull heads, complete with giant horns, either mounted on the walls or on special pedestals or on benches on the floor. (Balter.)

The walls of the buildings were not painted all the time. For many years at a stretch, they were blank. (Balter.)

So, in the ways people decorated their homes, how they built them, and even how they buried their dead, there were wide variations.

Some people have commented on the oddity of bull horns on some walls, but that’s often just a case of projecting modern sensibilities backward upon ancient people. First of all, they may simply have been hunting trophies, something common even today.

Second, how many Jewish or non-religious kids have been shocked to see a tortured and dying man prominently displayed in the houses of their Catholic friends? Isn’t that at least as shocking as a set of bull horns? Yet we quickly come to understand that crucifixes are meaningful to other families, and they cease to be shocking.

They were clean.

The people of Catalhoyuk repainted and re-plastered frequently, usually several times per year. When they left a house permanently, they would burn it out. Here are just a few passages:

At the end of the building’s life cycle, its people had vigorously cleaned the floors in preparation for its ritual destruction. (Balter.)

This “ritual destruction” was simply the burning out of the house before leaving it, then breaking down the upper walls and filling in the lower area as a new foundation.

The residents had completely re-plastered this wall between eighteen and twenty-two times; at least ten of these layers had been painted, mostly during the first half of the building’s life. (Balter.)

In one case, Wendy Matthews observed 450 layers of plastering on one wall. (Hodder.)

We have no evidence one way or the other on bodily washing, but we do know that these people wore jewelry (photo below) and spun cloth. They also had very finely made obsidian mirrors. So, it does seem that their concern for cleanliness was broadly based.

These were not dirty primitives; they were well-kept people.

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

They were artistic.

Catalhoyuk was filled with art. In addition to thousands of wall paintings and sculptures, Hodder lists:

Baskets, wooden containers, cloth, beads (made of stone, bone, and clay), copper, shell, amber, obsidian and geometric art. Many of these things are bright and shiny.

He goes on to say:

It has an amazing concentration of wall art. The walls of the houses were frequently re-plastered with a soft white plaster, and this plaster was frequently painted in figurative scenes as well as with geometric patterns.

The vast majority of the wall paintings could not be saved – multiple layers of 9000 year old plaster are very difficult to separate and preserve – but here is one wall painting that partially remains:

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

Clearly, art was terribly important to these people, including art made as individual as possible. For example, the common image of a human hand.

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

They enjoyed plenty.

Halbaek identified at least fifteen edible plant species, including large quantities of domesticated wheat, barley, and peas. Some of the grains were still in their storage bins…. The inhabitants also gathered nuts – such as pistachios, almonds, and acorns – and hackberries. One pile of almonds was found in an oven, as if they had just been roasted. (Balter.)

The people of Catalhoyuk ate both domesticated and wild animals, although domesticated sheep and goats made up most of the meat diet…. they had cultivated wheat and barley, as well as lentils, peas, bitter vetch, and other legumes. The regime was complimented, with an assortment of wild fruits and nuts – including hackberries, wild almonds, pistachios, plums, and acorns – as well as tubers from the club-rush plant. (Balter.)

Perkins found the remains of sheep, goats, red deer, boar, ass, dogs, and cattle. (Balter.)

The full suite of fully domesticated crops were present from the earliest phases of the site so far excavated and through the entire period of occupation. (Balter.)

Out here on the vast expanses of the Konya Plain, life had been bountiful. (Balter.)

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

Furthermore, they lived comfortably.

Each building was probably lived in by a family of 5 to 10 people. There was a main room for living, craft activities, cooking, eating, and sleeping, and there were side rooms for storage and food preparation. (Hodder.)

In addition to the inside area of their homes, their roofs were also used (though not very much during the rainy season), effectively doubling their living space.

Here is a reproduction of a typical house interior:

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

Here is a floor plan:

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

The platforms were beds; the “food preparation” areas were what we would consider a kitchen area; and the storage area is what we’d call a large pantry.

The “bench with boukranions” is simply a “bench with horns,” which was not typical. It may have meant something to the family who lived in this house, or it may have been a utilitarian thing, such as a place to hang wet shoes. Hodder, for example, mentions a horn installation he found in Sudan, where “the two horns were for holding a pot of water for washing or showering.” In another place he mentions that “in Building 1, a bin for storing lentils probably had a series of wild goat horns above.”

Men and women were equal.

Having no written records, we cannot say precisely what these people thought about male/female relations, but we do know from multiple types of chemical analysis that they lived on more or less equal terms: eating the same foods and spending about the same amounts of time in their homes.

There was no difference in diet between men and women. (Balter.)

We cannot argue that men had more of an outdoor life and women more of an indoor life. In fact, they appear to have lived quite similar lives in terms of the amount of time spent in the house. What we are seeing is a society in which whether you were a man or a woman did not determine the life you could lead. (Hodder.)

Trading and production were universal.

Long distance movement is seen, for example, in the obsidian that was obtained from Cappodocia (170 km away), in the timber from the Taurus Mountains to the south, shells from the Mediterranean, and baskets from the Red Sea. (Hodder.)

Below is a map of the obsidian trading network during this period. You will see that Catalhoyuk (circled in black) is on the western leg. There was probably more to this network than has been discovered thus far, but people from Catalhoyuk were clearly involved with this trade.

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

I say that people from Catalhoyuk were clearly involved with obsidian trade for two primary reasons:

  1. The population of Catalhoyuk declined significantly in the summer months. Part of this can be attributed to men and women tending distant fields for periods of time (the best agricultural land was seven kilometers away), but long distance trading almost certainly took people away from the city during these months, when travel was easy.
  2. The homes of Catalhoyuk were very deeply involved with the manufacture of obsidian tools and other types of tools. For example:

In every house there is at least one shallow scoop somewhere near the oven/hearth and stair entry. In these scoops are found up to 77 pieces of obsidian… These obsidian pieces are blanks or pre-forms for making a variety of tools. (Hodder.)

These caches (“scoops”) also raise the possibility that obsidian was used as a currency for trading.

As Hodder mentions at the top of this section, the people of Catalhoyuk were also involved in the long-distance trading of timber, shells, and baskets. They were also involved in all sorts of production, the work being conducted in their homes:

A wide range of productive activities took place on site – from grease processing to bead manufacture, obsidian knapping, and woodworking. The archaeobotanical evidence… suggests on-site processing of cereals. This fits with evidence… of cereal processing in houses. (Hodder.)

They exhibited tenderness.

There have been a number of striking finds at Catalhoyuk the relics of tender, loving people. For example, this is a drawing of a burial that was excavated in 1999. Here is Balter’s account:

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

One (skull) was that of a boy perhaps twelve years old, while the other was that of a 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 a child, or a brother and a sister. Indeed, the anthropologists found that both crania shared an unusual pattern of bone structures, a hint that they may have been related.

While the conclusion seemed obvious, some people on the site found ways to explain it away, saying that the two skulls may have rolled together over time. Balter asked one of the excavators, a woman with thirty years of experience. She said, “All I know is that they were put that way deliberately.”

In another case, a brother and sister were carefully buried together. In yet another, Balter describes the careful burial of a young child:

The baby had been laid to rest on a reed mat, of which only the impression was left. Two bracelets made of teardrop-shaped bone beads were found around its ankles, and its wrists bore bracelets made of bone and stone colored blue, black, and white.

In still another case, a woman in her twenties was found embracing the skull of an older person, presumably her parent.

Here are still further examples: On the left is a small sculpture of two women in a pose of friendship or sisterhood. On the right, another sculpture of embraces, or perhaps dancing:

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy


A lot has been made of the art of Catalhoyuk, with one writer going so far as to describe the city as a house of horrors.

Here, Balter asks a reasonable question:

Why did the art at Catalhoyuk seem to focus on wild things rather than domestic? Why were there no paintings of wheat and barley stalks swaying in the wind, or pastoral scenes of shepherds tending their flocks? Why was it all bulls, leopards, and wild boar? Why did the sculptures of supposed breasts have vulture’s beaks embedded in them?

He goes on to describe this last case:

Mellaart thought that these were breasts… rounded plaster wall sculptures… many had what looked like nipples… but out of them jutted the beaks of vultures, or the lower jaws of wild boars. Other “breasts” harbored the skulls of foxes and weasels. (Balter.)

Here is a photo of this painting/sculpture, with the ‘breasts’ on top:

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

First of all, this was art, and we have plenty of strange art today. Do we think everyone living in New York is monstrous because of the bizarre modern art in their city? We should not read too much into these things.

As for the breasts of this sculpture (and assuming that they were breasts), two clear possibilities present themselves, aside from a presumption of ghoulishness:

First, that this art was an attempt to teach some type of lesson or to express some kind of emotion. But without them explaining it to us, we can’t be sure what it was. In this case, we have no valid reason for jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

Second, the jawbones of boars embedded in these breasts may simply have been for support. This was fairly soft plaster and it was intended to remain in place for a long period of time; support was required, and bone would have been perfect material for it. (Modern sculptors use wires of various types, materials which these people didn’t have.)

Large, curved horns, for example, were found inside of plastered platforms. It may be that they were somehow used symbolically, but it is equally reasonable that they were used as reinforcement, for the same reasons we use rebar inside of concrete today.

Another set of “troubling images” involved vultures pecking at headless corpses, which are the most common bird scenes at Catalhoyuk.

Again, this can be considered gruesome, or could be interpreted as an almost Biblical set of images. Consider this passage from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes:

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

The “dust,” in this case, refers to man’s body decomposing after death. But Ecclesiastes also says that the spirit – the unique part of man – does not return to dust, it returns to God.

So, what if the artists of Catalhoyuk had a similar thought in mind, and wanted to express it with images? Might not they do it by separating the head – the unique part of man – and letting the vultures return the man’s body to the dust?

Another controversial set of sculptures are those of “the goddess” or the “seated woman.”

The First City Was a Peaceful Anarchy

Some people have associated these sculptures with a goddess, while others fight against that interpretation. The argument against is that most of the images found are small, and many cannot be differentiated as either male or female. We won’t examine the question in this issue, but this comment from Ian Hodder is significant:

Especially in the lower levels of the site, the image of the seated woman is powerful. There do not seem to be equivalent images of men.


After years of chronicling the work at Catalhoyuk, both Michael Balter and Ian Hodder wondered aloud as to why all of this happened at Catalhoyuk. Balter explained it this way:

One would think that if up to 8,000 people came together on the Konya Plain during the Neolithic period, they would choose the most advantageous spot to live, where the soil was the best for farming, the fruits of the forest were nearby for picking. And the grazing lands were the most appetizing for their sheep and goats. One would be wrong.

I think the answer is simple: They came for the people.

Let’s say that a group from Gobelki came to the Konya plain and picked a safe spot for trading obsidian and tools, surrounded by water and designed to be inherently defensive. Then let’s say that their fellow traders in other settlements started visiting, then building their own houses. Then people from still other trading centers began coming. It wouldn’t be many years before the population rose dramatically.

And why, exactly, did these people come? For the companionship of productive people – for art and music and ingenuity and friendship. And we do have a modern example of this:

For twenty summers – at the height of the heat – twenty to thirty thousand people have traveled to Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert, at considerable expense, to attend the Burning Man festival. Once there, they endure blistering heat in a thoroughly deadly environment. And why do they do this? To gather with other creative people under the condition of being unruled.

Likewise, it seems that people came to Catalhoyuk, not for resources, but for the new, creative and free expressions of human life that they could find there.

* * * * *

See you next month.


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