Community & Kinship at Catalhoyuk

Strange things are afoot at Catalhoyuk (7400-5600 BCE), one of the earliest and most important Neolithic (i.e., sedentary and agricultural) sites known to archaeology. As I noted in Bones, Burials and Ancestors, mortuary practices at Catalhoyuk were unusual and often involved secondary burial in the floors of homes.

The assumption has always been that these were grandpa’s and grandma’s bones. Many archaeologists, including Ian Hodder, have suggested this signals a change in community structure: ancestral lineages were linked to resource ownership and social stratification.

This is in stark contrast to nomadic hunter-gatherers who place little emphasis on ancestors, presumably because resources are communally shared. There is no need to link ancestral lineages to property or power.

A recent study, however, challenges these assumptions. Marin Pilloud and Clark Spencer Larsen studied tooth morphology to test the hypothesis that the multiple burials within each home were biological kin indicative of ancestral lineages. Their findings, however, indicated otherwise:

Results indicate that inclusion for interment within a house was only minimally related to biological affinity. Moreover, the site does not appear to be organized into larger, biologically related neighborhoods of houses.

These findings suggest that Çatalhöyük may not have been a kin-based society, largely because membership within a house cemetery was not solely defined on the basis of biological affinity, such as in a family group.

Rather, it appears that social structure was centered on the house as the unifying social principle. The choice for interment location may have transcended biological lines thereby creating an alternate and more fluid definition of “kin.”

While this is surprising it is not altogether unexpected. Hunter-gatherers had long been using fictive kinship to enlarge their relations and increase group size. There is significant ethnohistoric evidence of this among the Plains Indians. Most foraging bands were composed not of close kin, but of independent households that were attracted to particular leaders or chiefs.

To take but one well known example, suppose that Crazy Horse’s large band (about 900 people) of Lakota had been buried together by virtue of some catastrophic geological event. Although a study of tooth morphology would reveal a good deal of biological kinship, many would not be so related. This does not mean Crazy Horse band members did not consider themselves kin (because they mostly did) but it would show that kinship was not a simple matter of biology. Viewed from this perspective, we should not be overly surprised by these findings from Catalhoyuk.

It is always good to be reminded that our assumptions may be wrong and that we cannot simply project modern ideas about ancestry into the deep past.


Pilloud, Marin A., & Larsen, Clark Spencer (2011). “Official” and “practical” kin: Inferring social and community structure from dental phenotype at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey. American Journal of Physical Anthropology (May 17) : 10.1002/ajpa.21520

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10 thoughts on “Community & Kinship at Catalhoyuk

  1. John S. Wilkins

    I think that Çatalhöyük is likely to be a ritual funerary place, where family members lived briefly through the grieving and burial rituals, while living elsewhere for the rest of the time. And dental morphology is a bad way to identify kinships.

  2. admin Post author

    You think? I have never heard this hypothesis. I can see it making sense, though it would have been a huge amount of work for nothing more than a mortuary place. Is this your idea or something you have read? Any references along these lines? I am interested in learning more.

  3. KRoscoe

    Who is buried beneath the floor? Why?
    Perhaps by burying a powerful enemy in your dwelling, one could take the strength and spirit of that person into oneself. In the same fashion, any person who had shown qualities in life that one wanted to gain could be interred after death in one’s home. This could be relative, non relative, friend, or powerful foe.
    This would not necessarily mean that the living persons shared no family ties.
    This sort of animist mysticism has long been known about, as extant primitive people might, for example, wear the skins of leopards to give them mystical leopard power. Ancient Celtic peoples kept heads to keep the powers those heads represented to them. In the middle ages, the bones of saints had mystic powers, and even today holy relics are honored and some are said to have special powers.
    Perhaps the more time passes, the more we stay the same.

  4. KRoscoe

    Just thought to add: on some distant future day some archaeologist will find the remains of New York City. After careful digging and sifting, at the very bottom of many buildings will be found many rat bones. Anthropologists will naturally conclude that the people who lived there practiced rituals including sacred rodents.

  5. Cris Post author

    I’ve never seen any suggestion that the buried people were outsiders or not community members. While this is possible, the skeletal morphology doesn’t suggest it and if it occurred, it would be culturally unique. Many diverse cultures in time and space have buried their dead in the floors or nearby, but none of them bury strangers or enemies under floors or nearby. In all cases of which I am aware, it’s related to ancestor veneration.

  6. Cris Post author

    With most burials, archaeologists can determine whether people were buried with items or whether those items are intrusive. Thus, I don’t think they would conclude that humans and rats in spatial proximity to one another were buried together. When items are buried together at the same time, the items (known as grave goods) usually have indicia that match them to the burial.

  7. Cris Post author

    I found it on Google images a long time ago — I’m not sure who did it but it is indeed good.

  8. Melamin

    It’s interesting… but the fact that the name of the site is misspelled on the image makes me think that other mistakes might have been made? It would be wise to either correctly spell the name of the site, or remove the image. It effects how seriously we might take this information all together.

  9. Cris Post author

    There are various (i.e., different) spellings for the site within the English language literature, and there are even more variable spellings for the site in other languages. Thus, I don’t think this particular (i.e., different language) spelling says anything about the accuracy of the reconstruction. All this aside, this image corresponds to many others I’ve seen.

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