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Working shot of excavation in Building 77. (Çatalhöyük/CC BY NC SA 2.0) Insert: Collection of Neolithic Pottery.

Washing Up Wasn’t Enough: Evidence of 8.2 ka Climate Event Found in Çatalhöyük Cooking Pots


Neolithic cooking pots can tell you a lot about life in the culture that used them; if you have the right tools on hand. New research on such pottery by the University of Bristol has uncovered how early farmers were adapting to climate change 8,200 years ago.

The study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ( PNAS), centred on the Neolithic and Chalcolithic city settlement of Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia, Turkey which existed from approximately 7500 BC to 5700 BC.

A well-documented climate change event 8,200 years ago occurred during the height of the city's occupation, which resulted in a sudden decrease in global temperatures caused by the release of a huge amount of glacial meltwater from a massive freshwater lake in northern Canada. The result was drier summers and a slightly cooler climate year round in Çatalhöyük.

By the time the climate shifted, Çatalhöyük was a bustling settlement where people had built big, communal houses, domesticated cattle, goats, and set about producing some grain crops. How were they going to adapt to the new weather patterns? Archaeological material such as skeletal remains in graves, animal bones, stone tools, the remains of hearths and homes, and countless pottery fragments would tell their tale.

Çatalhöyük south shelter panorama. (Scott D. Haddow/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Çatalhöyük south shelter panorama. (Scott D. Haddow/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Sheep and Goats

By examining the animal bones excavated at the site, scientists concluded that the herders of the city turned towards sheep and goats at this time, as these animals were more drought-resistant than cattle. Any cattle bones which were found showed signs of malnutrition. “Livestock was severely impacted at Çatalhöyük, and the early farming community had to show resilience and adaptability in a period of abrupt climate change,” the scientists wrote in their paper.

A study of cut marks on the animal bones informed on butchery practices: the high number of such marks at the time of the climate event showed that the population worked on exploiting any available meat due to food scarcity and had improved their butchering skills.

The authors also examined the animal fats surviving in ancient cooking pots. They detected the presence of ruminant carcass fats, consistent with the animal bone assemblage discovered at Çatalhöyük. For the first time, compounds from animal fats detected in pottery were shown to carry evidence for the climate event in their isotopic composition.

In situ pottery at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük. (Çatalhöyük Research Project)

In situ pottery at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük. (Çatalhöyük Research Project)

Pottery and Precipitation Patterns

Indeed, using the "you are what you eat (and drink)" principle, the scientists deducted that the isotopic information carried in the hydrogen atoms (deuterium to hydrogen ratio) from the animal fats was reflecting that of ancient precipitation. A change in the hydrogen signal was detected in the period corresponding to the climate event, thus suggesting changes in precipitation patterns at the site at that time.

The paper brings together researchers from the University of Bristol's Organic Geochemistry Unit (School of Chemistry) and the Bristol Research Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment (School of Geographical Sciences). Co-authors of the paper include archaeologists and archaeozoologists involved in the excavations and the study of the pottery and animal bones from the site.

Close up of horn core installation on pedestals in Building 77. (Çatalhöyük/ CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Close up of horn core installation on pedestals in Building 77. (Çatalhöyük/ CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Dr Mélanie Roffet-Salque, lead author of the paper, said:

“Changes in precipitation patterns in the past are traditionally obtained using ocean or lake sediment cores. This is the first time that such information is derived from cooking pots. We have used the signal carried by the hydrogen atoms from the animal fats trapped in the pottery vessels after cooking. This opens up a completely new avenue of investigation -- the reconstruction of past climate at the very location where people lived using pottery.”

Çatalhöyük pots. (Verity Cridland/CC BY 2.0)

Çatalhöyük pots. (Verity Cridland/CC BY 2.0)

Co-author, Professor Richard Evershed, added:

“It is really significant that the climate models of the event are in complete agreement with the H signals we see in the animal fats preserved in the pots. The models point to seasonal changes farmers would have had to adapt to -- overall colder temperatures and drier summers -- which would have had inevitable impacts on agriculture.”

Changing Climate, Changing Homes

As the weather changed, so to did the style of living. The paper describes that people first changed their housing to “light shelters with large open space”, then to a central living space surrounded by small work and storage rooms, when the climate altered. It seems they also made an unexpected change from living in multi-family dwellings to independent housing.

But all the changes to housing, food, and lifestyle weren’t enough to keep Çatalhöyük going, as the authors wrote in their paper, “They proved to be unsustainable, and the previously flourishing settlement rapidly shrunk, unavoidably leading to its relatively abrupt and sudden collapse and ultimate abandonment in 7925-7815 cal BC.”

Top Image: Working shot of excavation in Building 77. (Çatalhöyük/CC BY NC SA 2.0) Insert: Collection of Neolithic Pottery. (Çatalhöyük/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

The article, originally titled, ‘How Neolithic people adapted to climate change,’ was originally published on Science Daily. It has been edited for style and length.

Source: University of Bristol. "How Neolithic people adapted to climate change." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 August 2018.


Mélanie Roffet-Salque, Arkadiusz Marciniak, Paul J. Valdes, Kamilla Pawłowska, Joanna Pyzel, Lech Czerniak, Marta Krüger, C. Neil Roberts, Sharmini Pitter, Richard P. Evershed. Evidence for the impact of the 8.2-kyBP climate event on Near Eastern early farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201803607 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1803607115

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