Çatalhöyük was a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia, which existed from approximately 7100 BC to 5700 BC, and flourished around 7000 BC.

The deceased in this village where bonded closely together and placed in a hole under the sleeping area. Dr. Amy Bogaard explains this was so the living could live with their ancestors.

As a part of ritual life, the people of Çatalhöyük buried their dead within the village. Human remains have been found in pits beneath the floors and, especially, beneath hearths, the platforms within the main rooms, and under beds. Bodies were tightly flexed before burial and were often placed in baskets or wound and wrapped in reed mats. Disarticulated bones in some graves suggest that bodies may have been exposed in the open air for a time before the bones were gathered and buried. In some cases, graves were disturbed, and the individual's head removed from the skeleton. These heads may have been used in rituals, as some were found in other areas of the community. In a woman's grave spinning whorls were recovered and in a man's grave, stone axes. Some skulls were plastered and painted with ochre to recreate faces, a custom more characteristic of Neolithic sites in Syria and at Neolithic Jericho than at sites closer by.
Wikipedia page on Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük has also been covered in "The Story of God with Morgan Freeman" series SE01 EP03 where Dr. Amy Bogaard explains (around 9:40) that the graves would be opened for ritual purposes and to add new bodies. Youtube link 2:30

My question is what happened when the burial holes were full and no more room was in the house?

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    It is a long time since i last read about Catalhöyük and I don't feel self confident enough to clearly answer. You can try and find a publucation about secondary burial practices there, but beware of second hand speculations. It may though be that the data does not allow or support a clear answer to "... what happened after ...". Sorry for not being more helpful.
    – user43870
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 17:09
  • @a_donda Do you happen to remember what the publication or book was called? And any help is always welcome, big or small I appreciate it all!
    – Tom Sol
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 20:13
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    I have my lecture notes on the Neolithic from back in the day. But they are probably outdated and Asia Minor was only one part. I fear you must live with the search terms "skull retrieval", "secondary burial practices", and the name of the site, of course. If it was easy, i'd tackle an answer myself ;-) Catalhöyük finds also mention in other publications an Anatolian early Neolithic.
    – user43870
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 21:39

1 Answer 1


The question here may be based on some assumptions, relating the culture of the distant past to that of today. the simple-seeming question

What happened when the burial holes where full and no more room was in the house?

Is probably answered by a simple-seeming answer: They buried them somewhere else.

The issue is that we assume the burials might be related to that of those we are associated with, those of our parents or family members. Research at Çatalhöyük showed discrepancy with what we expect to be normal. From an article at LiveScience, No Family Plots, Just Communal Burials In Ancient Settlement (emphasis mine)

They found that the people buried beneath the floor of each house were, in general, not related to each other. With the possible exception of one building, this occurred throughout the entire site for as long as the settlement existed.

This article cites Ian Hodder, who has lead the site excavation since 1993. You can take in several lengthy lectures by Hodder on Youtube (links to follow). One presentation at the British Institute discusses the same study on the distribution of burials timestamp 26:35. There is also a graphic at that point showing the uneven distribution of discovered burials. They are not found under every structure.

So the concept of 'burying ancestors under the floor' is not well understood at all, but it was probably had a much different meaning for those residents of this city 10,000 years ago than for us today.

(Though the following lectures are lengthy, they give an overview of the scale of scientific inquiry going on at Çatalhöyük, how much we are learning and how much we still don't know)

Some Ian Hodder lectures to enjoy:

The leopard changes its spots: recent work on societal change at Çatalhöyük - Prof Ian Hodder-The British Institute

Ian Hodder | What we learned from 25 Years of Research at Catalhoyuk - the Oriental Institute


Another video showed up on my recommended list today, which is very specific and reveals quite a bit concerning the problems associated with drawing conclusions from remains found. The presentation is by two members of the human remains team at Çatalhöyük , Christopher Knüsel and Eline Schotsmans. The video is House Societies, Ancestors, and Burials at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, and discusses the layers of burials, terminology difficulties with describing remains conditions, and problems trying to draw conclusions by comparing what is observed to observations from more recent behaviors.

Two sections may be of interest here, at 25:46 there is a discussion concerning an individual that was the 'last' to be buried under a specific platform.(No light is shed on what happened next, however, since we have no way of knowing.)

A later segment discusses difficulties in understanding a definition for how these individuals might have been considered 'ancestors', with a slide showing various interpretations of what that might have meant.

  • Excellent answer, Thank you! The video in your update explained it perfectly and clearly. And thank you for giving me some interesting videos to bingewatch!
    – Tom Sol
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 15:34
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    I'm glad it helped. There have even been interesting developments since the first Ian Hodder presentation to the more recent one. (The population estimate has been severely downgraded for one.) But yes, bottom line these presentations show a fascinating array of scientific disciplines coming into play to try and understand this ancient culture,and how easy it is the get into trouble trying to associate ancient behaviors with modern norms.
    – justCal
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 15:47
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    the other videos answered some questions I was planning on putting on HSE. I noticed that I did have a lot of modern assumptions about death and the handling of death in the neolithic. Also the amount of disciplines required to put together the entire story was very impressive! Thanks again
    – Tom Sol
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 10:58

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