Ancient graves suggest that family didn't really matter 9,000 years ago

Çatalhöyük is one of the world's most ancient settlements, founded in what is now Turkey around 7,500 BCE. New analysis of the village's dead reveals something strange about this ancient village: nobody cared very much about family ties.

First discovered in the 1950s, Çatalhöyük was once home to about 10,000 people and covered roughly 100,000 square meters. It represented the most dramatic departure yet for humans from the nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence that had defined our species and our evolutionary ancestors for millions of years. The agriculturalists of Çatalhöyük lived in mud-brick houses, all of which were crammed tight together without any streets in between. Instead of doors, residents would climb ladders and then enter the houses through the roof.

As you might imagine, these houses were a defining aspect of the lives of their various residents, who decorated the walls with elaborate artwork and buried their dead under the floor, with each house containing about thirty corpses beneath them. It's those bodies that drew the attention of US military anthropologist Marin Pilloud and Ohio State's Clark Spencer Larsen, who set about trying to determine just how the corpses were related.

After nearly a hundred centuries, there's no DNA evidence left to tie the various bodies together, but Pilloud and Larsen hit upon the next best thing: teeth. Generally speaking, family members will share similar features in their teeth, and in the absence of other means can be used as a way to establish in a general way who was related to who. And that's where things get weird - according to their analysis of 266 corpses, people generally weren't buried with their relatives. Only a single house from Çatalhöyük defied that rule, with every other building a mishmash of unrelated corpses.

This is particularly intriguing because strong family ties are often considered the defining characteristic of hunter-gather societies, a way of life that Çatalhöyük residents had only relatively recently left behind. Pilloud explains:

"It speaks a lot to the type of social structure that they might have had. It doesn't look as if there was a strong genetic component to determining who would be buried together. I'm not trying to argue that biological relationships would not have been perhaps meaningful to the people at Çatalhöyük. [It] wasn't the sole defining principle much like we presume it was in the hunter-gatherer era."

This new research offers some of the most persuasive evidence yet for a particularly interpretation of how society was organized at Çatalhöyük. Instead of arranging people in terms of blood relations, the houses were defined in terms of what tools and food resources its members could claim ownership. In this view, the houses were divided into several homes, and while these smaller units might have been organized as families, the house as a whole was more concerned with who was best equipped to handle various tasks, regardless of biological relationship.

Pilloud continues:

Before you were hunters and gatherers, in loose groups that were very highly mobile. Now you're all tied together, and you're all living in close quarters. They might have called on other groups of individuals, outside of their biological family, to do things like take the herd to the pasture or to help with the harvest, things that might have required more people."

Stanford archaeologist Ian Hodder, who has directed excavations at Çatalhöyük since 1993, says this is evidence that the shift to a more complex agricultural society required the village's inhabitants to rely on stronger bonds that mere biological kinship:

"Membership of the house was not based on biological kin but on a wide range of processes by which people could join the house. What distinguishes each entity is their co-ownership of a series of resources. I think that as society becomes more sedentary and complex that kinship itself doesn't seem to be sufficient to hold it together. This is suggesting that they've got [a] sufficiently complex level that they needed something more complex than kinship."

Via LiveScience. Image via.