The Effect of Population Growth on Early Societies

Small part of the settlement at Catalhoyuk

Small part of the settlement at Catalhoyuk

Something a little bit different for you tonight. I thought I would discuss the impact on civilisations, at the point where Hunter-Gatherers settled into the life of sedentary agriculturalists, from the period of the end of the last ice age, more than 8000 years ago. The failure to adapt to the changing needs of a growing population will eventually cause that population to fail. Social and environmental adaptation will sometimes in turn promote larger populations, and in consequence, further problems. By definition it is difficult to assess what constitutes the success or failure of a civilisation. Many factors can be involved, for instance, by what time-span do we measure success? Some of the populations I have chosen to discuss are smaller in scale than others. Some by comparison were multi-cultural, such as those of the Egyptians and the Mesoamericans.

As we know, when nomadic Hunter-gatherers roamed seasonally, they existed on a diet of hunted meat, supplemented with wild berries and grains. Each year they would return to their tried and tested areas, as a result of knowledge gained, for the provisions they were likely to find. As the ice melted, some of them looked towards establishing permanent settlements, and made attempts to settle into a life of sedentary farming. Using the grains they picked wild, they formed an early system of manipulation through cross-pollenating, using the best attributes of each grain, to form larger crops, increased grain heads, and longer sustainability. They also established the first domestication of wild animals, for meat produce and other necessities. From small family groups of one or two dozen, with a life expectancy of 35 to 40 years; with a naturally occurring birth rate of one child every five years or so – to give each child a chance to reach a level of independence before becoming pregnant and therefore vulnerable with the next – these groups increased into extended families, with an eventual life expectancy which permitted for an increase in the grandparent range of age, something rarely encountered before. But initially there were problems which caused the mortality rate to shoot up, before the benefits brought by a settled lifestyle caused it to once again lower to a new level. As a result of this early sharp rise, many tribes returned to their nomadic lifestyles. This article will examine those who persevered.

Let’s start by looking at settlements in the area of the Natufians in key sites such as Shuqbuh and Eynan. In these sites dating to around 10000 BC evidence has been discovered showing not only a definitive shift to a permanently sited existence, but also significant population growth. Networks of buildings, particularly residential, based around a central focal point, in some instances a cave, which may well have served as a community building or gathering place. The cave and surrounding terrace at Shuqbah held over 100 burials, suggesting that it held importance as a place of worship or reverence. This is interesting as earlier sites have failed to show funeral practice with limited burials being uncovered. We can surmise from this, that with the growth of populous and the resulting increase in burials, the need to develop a method of disposal that kept pace was required. Further to that, introduction of burial rituals is mentioned, such as adornment of certain individuals with decorative accessories. If we look at evidence found in various settlements across the Natufians Levant, rituals involved removal of heads and subsequent reburial. This shows an introduction of worship and reverence into settlements; however, numbers of burials still did not equate to the period of occupation of these sites.

Catalhoyuk burial. See the foetal burial position and the head and cervical spine are separated

Catalhoyuk burial. See the foetal burial position and the head and cervical spine are separated

Examination of the site at Eynan revealed three phases of occupation over a period of two thousand years with the final occupation being much smaller in scale with less substantial buildings than the previous two, before the site was finally abandoned for good. This shows evidence that there was a decline in population size. This would imply a breakdown in social function within the larger community, or a lack of sustainability forcing separation into smaller groups, thus proving the need to adapt to given situations was a key factor in survival. We could also theorise that other factors had depleted numbers, such as disease and subsequent death of a large number of the population.

Another significant find were tools developed solely for certain tasks, most importantly those used for cultivation and harvesting. Sickle blades and grinding stones are among examples discovered. These tools demonstrate that the need to produce larger numbers of food, storage of harvests and new ways of preparing the food for consumption, was in evidence and show that adaptation was necessary in this particular instance.

One of the effects of this change in diet was deterioration of health. Burial excavations In Abu Hureyra have uncovered an increase in dental erosion, presence of abscesses and cavities which left untreated could have possibly been fatal. These changes can be ascribed to the increase in boiled grains in the diet, in forms such as porridge. Further declines in health were in evidence brought on by living in close proximity to other people, and also the livestock allowing disease to be spread easily. An increase in domestic and, more importantly, bodily waste with no method of adequate disposal would also contribute to higher levels of disease. Studies of excavated sites in the ancient Roman, Greek and Turkish empires, have shown this particular problem was addressed, by the introduction of early sewage systems, directly connected to Public baths and toilets.

public toilets in Ephesus. Almost next door to this area is the bath house, which is a huge structure with three or four separate rooms. A trip to the baths and public toilets would take up most of the day, and certain people visited the bath-house on certain days. This would involve taking a servant or two, some lunch and so on. Town council members would use this as their opportunity to discuss official business. I did joke to the tour guide that perhaps this was where the term "privy council" came from.... he missed the humour :D

public toilets in Ephesus. Almost next door to this area is the bath house, which is a huge structure with three or four separate rooms. A trip to the baths and public toilets would take up most of the day, and certain people visited the bath-house on certain days. This would involve taking a servant or two, some lunch and so on. Town council members would use this as their opportunity to discuss official business. I did joke to the tour guide that perhaps this was where the term “privy council” came from…. he missed the humour 😀

A good example of this innovation can be found at Ephesus in Turkey, home to Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, where the public conveniences had a gutter running around the foot area, which supplied fresh water, from a nearby fountain, and cleaning sponges. These were used and then dropped into the lavatory directly into the sewer which ran underneath and away from the city. If we stay with Turkey and examine Catalhoyuk dating to around 7300 BC we again see evidence of large scale permanent occupation suggesting that the people had moved away from a nomadic existence. Nearby are situated remains of slightly earlier, smaller settlements. However, Catalhoyuk sits on the largest of the streams of the Alluvial fan and this leads us to believe that access to water, both for day to day use and for crop irrigation, was the main impetus of the growth of this settlement, with the smaller neighbourhoods being abandoned in favour of the larger one. This obviously led to the growth of Catalhoyuk, but in turn led to problems of a social and environmental nature; How to house a growing population and how to feed them. Was the water supply adequate?

Archaeologists have uncovered a vast residential area, with rectangular houses touching each other on all four sides. Access was not possible as a result at ground level, therefore hatches in rooftops were the designated method of entry, via a ladder. Burials were under floors to one side of the house, but seem to be restricted to certain houses suggesting a social reason behind the choice as the houses were generally not occupied for the time span required for a single family to present such a mortality rate. Some houses contained as many as 68 burials, including those of children and many were interred during the building of the properties. This could indicate possible reburial from previous sites.

As each house fell into disrepair, the roof was removed, the top part of the wall was pushed in and new structures were built over the remains of the old buildings. Abandoned roofless buildings were used as dump sites by neighbours. Space was obviously an issue, much as we see in modern cities such as New York, where expanding outwards is nearly impossible so upwards is the result. It has been estimated that the population of Catalhoyuk ran into several thousand which is quite substantial both for the period and the area.

Due to the site of the settlement, flooding was a regular occurrence and as a result it has been theorised that farming took place several miles away from the town. Not only does this show that agriculture had been introduced as a means of food supply for the population, but also shows the need to adapt to ecological issues in order to maintain survival. In fact, it has been suggested that around the time of establishment of these settlements and others like them, the entire region was undergoing a period of significant climatic improvement and this led settlers to adopt agriculture as a means of supplying their rapidly expanding communities with crops. When looking at food supply as a factor of population growth we can look to ancient Egypt, for examples of how such issues were overcome by larger civilisations. It is interesting to see that the problems faced by this huge nation were tackled with innovative ideas. Problems encountered were poor nutrition and disease, how to occupy the masses and how to distribute food and wealth fairly.

As these cities and Empires grew larger and stronger, the need to for a social structure arose as a way of controlling the masses and governing the population. From small tribes with elders to make the decisions, population growth meant a development of a class system, or socially tiered hierarchy with the elite at the top of the scale and common slaves or labourers at the bottom. Although the administration of Egypt was done centrally by Pharaohs and their counsellors, responsibility for directing the population lay at the feet of local governors. There were measures implemented to counter the annual Nile floods such as irrigation, seasonal harvesting and land reclamation, and a system improvised to introduce a fair trade price across the country for everyday goods ranging from clothing to livestock, in an attempt to ensure everybody could afford the essentials, and nobody felt the need to overcharge on particular items.

Early irrigation system in Egypt. this is known as a shaduf

Early irrigation system in Egypt. this is known as a shaduf

With such a vast and widespread population, it would be highly unlikely to suggest that there would be any resulting large scale demise brought on by lack of adaptation, particularly in the urban areas, however there were problems nonetheless. And not addressing these issues would certainly have resulted in smaller fringe settlements dying out or being driven into obscurity. We have seen such examples of widespread mortality in third world countries, through drought and famine in the late twentieth century into present times.

Education and trade training were introduced to bring skills and knowledge to the masses. Port towns of Egypt were particular areas of cultural diversity, so the need to learn languages was important in order to develop and maintain trade. Health was another issue, with doctors and rudimentary dental and healthcare systems being implemented, to treat the nation and prevent the spread of diseases. Particular attention was placed on cleanliness in Ancient Egypt, as a method of keeping disease at bay. Sadly, although their agricultural irrigation system was innovative, their advances in domestic water and sewage supply were not.

These examples of how a growing society has adapted in order to survive lead us to examine in turn the civilisations that have failed to overcome social and economic pressure and as a result have died out. For this example, I have chosen to highlight the ancient civilisations in the Mesoamerican region. Much has been made of the issue of human sacrifice in the Aztec world, and the cannibalism that was also practised. Debate continues as to whether this served a religious purpose, as a method of appeasing Gods in return for rains, and a successful harvest; however, it has been suggested that the cannibalism was a result of a lack of protein in the diet, due to a lack of cows and sheep as food supply. Evidence uncovered from excavations between 1960 and 1969 at Aztec ruins in Tlatelolco in Mexico City included headless, limbless ribcages and torsos. With the remains were sharpened tools designed for possible butchery. A pile of skulls nearby presented evidence of being opened to extract brains.

This fits with accounts of limbs of defeated enemies being offered to the captors as a reward for consumption. This would explain why the Aztec warring factions went to great lengths to capture enemy states, but then had no interest in consolidating their win with new settlements. They did however choose to keep their prisoners under guard and later offer these unfortunates as sacrifices. The practice has been likened to a holding pen for livestock. If we look at their neighbours, the Mayans and the Incas, we see that human sacrifice was also in evidence in these kingdoms; however, it was practiced on a much smaller scale, perhaps a few hundred a year, compared to the thousands that were claimed by the Aztecs. Experts in the study of these cultures believe that this is due to an abundance of wild and domesticated livestock in the areas populated by the Incas and the Mayans, therefore removing the need to appease Gods or supplement diets with other meat sources.

Suggestions have been made that the practice of cannibalism was more widespread during the last glacial period, than previously thought but was removed with the introduction of livestock in most areas. It has also been implied that sacrifice in particular was a solution introduced to control population growth in this region, although disagreement states that the Aztecs chose mainly to offer their sacrifices from their enemies, and certainly evidence for cannibalism supports that.

We know that the Mesoamerican civilisations struggled with a lack of agricultural land with which to supply the population with grains. Their solution was to cut down of large areas of rainforest. This provided much needed land, but the result was an increase in temperatures by as much as six per cent. This in turn gave rise to less rainfall which resulted in drought. We are currently witnessing the same large scale deforestation in the Amazon in present times.

Inter-tribal warring and the failure to move away from old rituals and customs, and introduce new systems of self-sustenance, may have meant the Aztecs were unable to adapt to the needs of a growing populous and survive. By the time the area was taken over by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, nothing much remained of the old city states, and as much as forty per cent of the remaining population were to succumb to the smallpox epidemic that the Spaniards brought with them.

To compare with the collapse of the Mesoamerican empires I have chosen to look to a similarly native area, who despite hardships have managed to survive to the present day. Population growth has not really been an issue for tribal Africans, until the twentieth century. By studying remote areas of Africa we can see evidence that many of the population still live in small villages, where numbers have remained consistent through both ancient and modern times.

Although governed by larger capital cities, social hierarchy is maintained on a village level, for all day to day administration. Poverty is an issue in both the built up areas and the small settlements. Drought, famine, war, disease and death are well documented in recent years. However, if we go back in history, we can see that for many the overall mechanics of existence have barely changed since pre-historic times.

Day to day existence was a round of working the land and keeping livestock. Marriage was kept within tribes, unless unification with a neighbouring tribe to increase strength and trade was desired. Disease was minimal as contact with the outside world was unheard of until well into modern times when travelling traders and missionaries ventured into these unchartered territories. It was only by introducing outside issues into these small communities that problems were encountered. The need to adapt therefore does not appear to have been much of a priority for these villages, and as a result they have continued to thrive.

From this we can see that population growth brings about social and environmental problems. As we have seen from the examples above, many cultures were forced to adapt when numbers increased. Those that did not declined and became extinct as nations.


Sources available on request