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Catalhöyük: an example of true gender equality?

The Ascent of Woman confronts the unspoken suspicion that maybe the long-held second class status of women reflects a biological reality rather than social prejudice. To do that, the series had to do more than simply show some of the great women outliers, it had to explore the origins of gender inequality. For episode one, ‘Civilisation’, the starting point is the agricultural revolution, when humanity exchanged the hunt for the plough, and went from a nomadic lifestyle to settled communities.

Dr Amanda Foreman
Thanks to Catalhöyük, we can say with confidence that there is nothing natural about patriarchy or matriarchy.
Dr Amanda Foreman


To explore these earliest beginnings I went to Catalhöyük in southwest Turkey, the site of the largest (and one of the oldest) neolithic settlements in the world. Today Catalhöyük is located in a rocky desert, hostage to an unforgiving climate. But nine thousand years ago the dry scrubland surrounding the settlement was a grassy plain that teamed with life and was generously supplied with water. In about 7500 BC a band of hunter gatherers settled by the banks of the river and built themselves permanent dwellings out of mud and plaster. The town slowly grew until it had 8,000 residents living in some 2000 houses. They had primitive agriculture, domesticated sheep, dedicated tools, and a culture that produced both art and religious iconography. But in other ways, Catalhöyük was nothing like a modern town. It had no streets; people walked on the roofs. The houses had no doors; people entered via a ladder from the roof. It had no tombs or cemeteries, the dead were buried beneath the floors, often with their heads missing, possibly taken by the occupants when they moved to new dwellings.

At the site I met with Professor Ian Hodder, the leader of Catalhöyük's international team of archaeologists since 1993. I had one question for him: what does the settlement tell us about gender differences at the dawn of time; were women the rulers, the equals, or the subordinates of men?

The Mother Goddess theory

The question was motivated by more than just plain curiosity. Catalhöyük has a special, even profound, significance for anyone interested in women’s history. It is the lynch pin in the Mother Goddess argument. According to this theory, which was first propounded in the 19th century, Stone Age society was matriarchal, peaceful, spiritual rather than materialistic, and sexually uninhibited. Women were respected for their life-giving powers, and the feminine mysteries were worshipped. The idea gained traction after Friedrich Engels argued in ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’, that patriarchy began its inexorable rise with the success of agriculture and the invention of private property. Men claimed ownership over the soil, animals and women, leading to the ‘world historical defeat of the female sex.’

In the early 1960s, the swashbuckling archaeologist James Mellaart found at Catalhöyük one of the most powerful representations ever made of female divinity. Known as the ‘Seated Woman of Catalhöyük’, or more popularly the ‘Mother Goddess’, it is a clay figurine of a corpulent woman sitting on a throne, flanked by two large leopards, who appears to be giving birth. As he continued his excavations Mellaart unearthed a treasury of female imagery and figurines that share a distinct resemblance to other Stone Age art going back 19,000 years – such as the famous ‘Venus of Willendorf’. That four-and-a-half inch figure, one of the oldest images of the human body yet found, was discovered in Austria near the Danube River. She too has exaggerated female features: pendulous breasts, a large belly and wide hips.

For Mellaart, and many others, more important than the physical and symbolic links to older Stone Age sites, was the confirmation they sought for the Mother Goddess theory. Catalhoyuk was proof that patriarchy was no more ‘natural’ than the pyramids. The fact that a golden-age of women had once existed put paid to the entrenched belief that women are, and always have been, inferior.

Where true gender equality flourished

When Professor Hodder took over the site, it wasn’t his intention to be controversial. Nevertheless, his findings have been revolutionary. His team dug through 18 levels, covering about 1,200 years of uninterrupted habitation. They found no evidence to support the claim that Catalhoyuk was a matriarchy or that female fertility was worshipped over and above that of phallic or animal spiritualism.

But, Hodder insists, the question should never have been posed as an either-or issue. He argues that his team’s discoveries are so much more significant than anything previously imagined. Catalhoyuk was a place were true gender equality flourished. An examination of male and female skeletons show that both sexes ate the same diet, performed the same work, and spent the same amount of time outdoors. In life, they inhabited the same physical space; in death they were given the same kind of burials. There is no evidence for either a patriarchal or matriarchal system. In Catalhöyük a woman’s biology was not her fate.

People have long accepted that political power is man-made rather than god-given. But it’s been different for female inequality. History, religion, science, everything in fact, has seemed to condemn feminism for being against the natural order. Thanks to Catalhöyük, we can say with confidence that there is nothing natural about patriarchy or matriarchy. Society can take many forms and shapes. Sex is genetic, but gender is cultural.

Episode 1 of The Ascent of Woman takes a historical approach to a whole host of issues, from the three thousand year origins of the veil, to why do some cultures sequester women inside the home and others allow them to take part in public life. Catalhöyük goes to the heart of the contemporary debate about why there aren’t more women in positions of power. It’s a reminder that for change to happen, we don’t need a miracle, just will power.