The mystery of painted skeletons found in the world’s oldest city, Catal Hüyük

In the oldest city in the world, Catal Hüyük, skeletons painted in different colors were unearthed. What is the enigmatic meaning of a ritual practice from nine thousand years ago?

O discovery, published in Nature, It was carried out by an international team with the participation of University of Bern and revealed a disturbing detail about how the inhabitants of the “oldest city in the world” in Çatalhöyük (Turkey) buried their dead.

His bones were partially painted, excavated several times and reburied. That is, the bones of the deceased were “moved” by the community before being reburied. There is another thing, not all skeletons are painted, there are only a few, the “chosen ones”, and they had a different color gamut for men and women.

The oldest city in the world

Catal Hüyük (Central Anatolia, Turkey) is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East, with an occupation dating back 9,000 years.

Known as the oldest city in the world, this Neolithic settlement covers an area of ​​13 ha and features densely packed mud-brick buildings. The houses of Catal Hüyük present the archaeological remains of ritual activities that include intramural burials with some skeletons with traces of dyes and wall paintings.

One of the most striking figures among the Neolithic stone “venus” was found at this location. An extraordinary, just over 17 cm, of a naked woman. The piece had been carefully placed under a platform and next to a piece of obsidian.

neolithic venus

Statuette of a carved ivory Venus found at the site of Catal Hüyük.

A journey through time to a world of colors, houses and the dead.

Marco Milella was part of the anthropological team that excavated and studied the human remains of Catal Hüyük. Their job is to try to make ancient and modern skeletons “talk”. Establishing age and sex, investigating violent injuries or special treatment of the corpse, and solving skeletal puzzles are routine activities of the Department of Physical Anthropology.

The study shows that red ocher was the most used in Catal Hüyük, present in some adults of both sexes and children, and that cinnabar and blue/green were associated with men and women, respectively. Interestingly, the number of burials in a building appears to be associated with the number of subsequent layers of architectural paint.

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This suggests a contextual association between funerary deposition and the application of dyes in the domestic space. “That means: when they buried someone, they also painted it on the walls of the house,” says Milella. Furthermore, in Catal Hüyük, some people “stayed” in the community: their bone elements were retrieved and circulated for some time, before being reburied. This second burial of bone elements was also accompanied by wall paintings.

neolithic mysteries

Only a selection of individuals were buried with dyes, and only a portion of the individuals remained in the community with their circulating bones. According to Marco Milella, “The criteria that guided the selection of these individuals are beyond our understanding for the time being, which makes these findings even more interesting. Our study shows that this selection was unrelated to age or sex.” What is clear, however, is that visual expression, ritual performance, and symbolic associations were elements of long-term shared sociocultural practices in this Neolithic society.

The association between dye use and symbolic activities is documented in many human societies past and present.

In the Near East, the use of pigments in architectural and funerary contexts becomes especially frequent from the second half of the 9th and 8th millennium BC. Archaeological sites in the Near East dating back to the Neolithic have provided a wealth of evidence for complex, often mysterious, symbolic activities. These include secondary funerary treatments, the recovery and circulation of skeletal parts such as skulls, and the use of pigments in both architectural spaces and funerary contexts.

According to the study’s lead author, Marco Milella (Department of Physical Anthropology, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Bern): “These results reveal interesting insights into the association between dye use, burial rituals and living spaces in this fascinating society”. .

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