Blog Post #25: Lindsay Der on Human-Animal Entanglements in the Neolithic

April is Earth Day month, so here at Peopling the Past we’re featuring researchers who study human-environment relations in the past and the role of the natural world in human history.

Perhaps now, more than ever before, we are coming face to face with the way that our interactions with the environment have consequences. The global pandemic is a reminder that even in this industrial age, humans do not live in a bubble. Just as our actions affect the natural world, the natural world affects us! As an archaeologist, I do research into this very topic as it happened in the past. What kinds of relationships did people have with animals thousands of years ago?  Why do these relationships matter? And how did they transform society? Conversely, how did society transform its surrounding environment? These questions are not always easy to answer. As archaeologists, we are kind of like gumshoes. We find evidence from multiple sources and try to piece it together to make a cohesive story, “solving” the questions at hand. This evidence can come in many forms. Some archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, study human remains, while zooarchaeologists study the bones of animals, instead. Others might specialize in stone tools, pollen, soil —- the list goes on and on!

Map of modern Turkey showing the location of Çatalhöyük.
Map showing the location of the site. Çatalhöyük Research Project.

As part of the Çatalhöyük Research Project, I worked on the Figurines Team alongside Lynn Meskell (University of Pennsylvania) and Carolyn Nakamura (Leiden University). Çatalhöyük was a Neolithic town dating from 7100-5950 BCE; it existed over 9000 years ago. (Neolithic stands for New Stone Age and BCE means years Before the Common Era, a secular alternative to the notation BC, or Before Christ.) This is a period in time when the domestication of plants and animals was a relatively recent invention. It also pre-dates the appearance of urban cities and states, writing, money and private property. People lived in mudbrick houses that were tightly packed together, so much so that there wasn’t even room for ground level front doors, but they had to instead enter their homes via rooftop ladders. Despite having a population of up to 8000 people at its peak and being occupied for over 1,000 years (think about how old the cities we live in now are by comparison!), we have found no indications of a political authority, government, social classes or conflict.

The archaeological site is located in what is now present-day Turkey, about an hour’s drive away from the city of Konya. Its location is important because it gave residents access to micro-environments of parkland, woodland and steppe (grassland) and the plants and animals that populated these ecological zones. And, based on the animal bones and paleobotanical evidence, we know that the people of Çatalhöyük practiced a mixed economy: they farmed sheep and goat and cultivated wild cereals, while still gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals like deer, boar, horses and aurochs (a now extinct species of wild cattle from which modern cattle are descended). The figurines at Çatalhöyük, reflect this engagement with the surrounding landscape. Of the over 3,000 figurines that have been recovered from the site to-date, over 50% are what we have categorized as zoomorphic (in the form of animals), while less than 10% represent human forms.

Sign that says "Çatalhöyük"
Entrance to the site.

In order to drill down into the questions posed above and better understand the role of human-animal relations in society at Çatalhöyük, my research takes this data on the figurines and combines it with other types of material culture related to animals at the site. Archaeologists, contrary to what is largely portrayed by fictional characters like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, work in teams. We may each have our own specializations and research objectives, but the work done on an individual level usually feeds into an umbrella excavation so that the parts that we all individually produce can be assembled together to give a more complete picture (remember that gumshoe reference I made above?). By sharing our data, not only within our team, but by also making it available to other archaeologists and the general public, we can do archaeology in a more ethical way.

Zoomorphic figurine with horns.
Zoomorphic figurine. Photo by Jason Quinlan, Çatalhöyük Research Project.
Installation of horns plastered into a bench in a room.
Faunal installations in Building 77.  In the foreground, we can see an example of bucrania (auroch horns) plastered into a bench. The raised bump on the wall is another example of animal remains plastered into a faunal installation. Photo by Jason Quinlan, Çatalhöyük Research Project.

This team structure facilitates an integrated approach, so that I am able to synthesize the data on the figurines with other datasets on faunal installations (the term we use for the skeletal remains of animals that were then embedded and plastered into wall, bench and pillar features within houses), structured faunal deposits (animal remains likely related to ritual practices such as bones found in platforms, burials, pits or the foundations of houses), iconography like plastered wall reliefs of animals and wall paintings, stamp seals and pottery. By analyzing the spatial (where animal expressions are found at the site and in what context) and temporal (over time) patterning, we can shed light on our research questions. Changes in the depositional patterning of animal expressions, as well as the types of expressions and the media that was used for these expressions, tells us that relations between humans and animals did not stay the same, but shifted and transformed throughout the lifespan of the town.

Relief of two leopards facing one another that is plastered and painted onto a wall
Painted and plastered wall relief of leopards. Photo by Ian Todd.
Photo of people excavating the south area of the site.
Excavations in the South Area of the site. This photo shows the size of the houses and how tightly packed together they were at the settlement. It also shows archaeologists working as a team.

For instance, beginning from the mid point of the settlement’s occupation, there is a clear move away from permanent animal art (wall paintings, faunal installations and plastered reliefs) toward more portable types (pottery and stamp seals). In the animal bones, we see a decrease in the wild species that were hunted and an increase in the selection for domesticated sheep, goat and even cattle; before this time cattle were only hunted, not farmed. Concurrently, we start to see motifs of human domination over animals in the art, such as figurines of humans astride animals. In the earlier half of the occupation, people treated wild animals and conducted rituals with their remains in a way similar to humans. In the later half, we see evidence that these animals became increasingly commodified. Household independence grew and communal and shared practices (like multiple households tending to herds of sheep and goat together) fell off. In sum, as people’s relationships with animals changed and animals became more like commodities, society itself was also transformed, setting the scene for emergent social inequality.

Stamp seal of a bear.
Stamp seal of a bear. Photo by Jason Quinlan, Çatalhöyük Research Project.

Archaeology reminds us that for as long as humankind has inhabited Earth, we have not simply coexisted with the other organisms who also live here, but that they shape our world, just as we shape theirs. It is humbling to think how our intervention, as humans, has even created entire new species of plants and animals! At the same time, these plants and animals alter our lives. Çatalhöyük is just one example among many of this multi-faceted relationship. As stewards of the environment, we would do well to remember that what we do, big or small, affects all living things on this planet.

Additional Resources

Der, L. 2020 Living with Animals: Human-Animal Relations and Society at Çatalhöyük. Near Eastern Archaeology: 83(3), pp. 136-145.

Hodder, I. 2011 Çatalhöyük, the Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Turkey’s Ancient “Town”. London, Thames & Hudson.

Hodder, I., Meskell, L. 2011 A ‘Curious and Sometimes a Trifle Macabre Artistry’: Some Aspects of Symbolism in Neolithic Turkey. Current Anthropology 52 (2): 235-263.

Martin, L., Meskell, L. 2012 Animal Figurines from Neolithic Çatalhöyük: Figural and Faunal Perspectives. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22 (03): 401-419.

Learn more about the site, see multimedia and explore the raw data: Çatalhöyük Research Project

Virtual symposium hosted by Tel Aviv University in June: Animals of the Past: Human-on-Human Animal Interactions and the Ancient Near East

Especially fitting for Earth Day month: New York Times article: Humans Dominated Earth Earlier Than Previously Thought

The original journal article referenced in the above NYT article: ​

Stephens, L., et al. 2019. Archaeological Assessment Reveals Earth’s Early Transformation Through Land Use. Science: 365(6456), pp. 897-902.

Image of Dr. Der leaning against a wall.
Dr. Lindsay Der

Lindsay Der is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Community, Culture and Global Studies and a Principal Investigator of The Negative Heritage Project in the AMP Lab at The University of British Columbia. She is a researcher with the Çatalhöyük Research Project and founding member of the Landscape, Symbolism and Human-Nature Relationships in Ancient Anatolia Collective Research Project. Her research interests include human-animal relationships, cultural heritage, ritual and symbolism, archaeology and ethics and public archaeology. She is co-editor of The Archaeology of Entanglement (Routledge, 2015) and currently holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grant for her new project: Disruptive Technologies and Negative Heritage: Evaluating the Social and Economic Impacts of the 3D Printed Triumphal Arch of Palmyra. You can follow her work at: https://archaeologie.weebly.com.

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