Antiquities and Archaeology News Turkey

Exploding volcano mural could be world’s oldest landscape

Scientists have linked the eruption of Turkey’s Mount Hassan with a Neolithic painting found in the nearby proto-city of Çatalhöyük

The Çatalhöyük mural. Photo: John Swogger

New evidence could prove that a 8,600-year-old painting in central Turkey is the world’s oldest known landscape or map. The three-meter wide mural, which appears to show an erupting twin-peaked volcano above the plan of a village, has been dated to around 6600BC, and was discovered inside a mud-brick house excavated in the 1960s at Çatalhöyük, one of the world's best-preserved Neolithic sites. It is now kept in the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara, Turkey.

Occupied from 8000BC-6000BC, and covering an area of roughly 13-hectares, the proto-city of Çatalhöyük developed at a time when humans were abandoning their earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favour of farming. The site was discovered by James Mellaart, a British archaeologist working with the University of Istanbul, and excavated by him from 1961 to 1965. He uncovered a dense concentration of houses, many containing stunning wall paintings and decorative objects. It is estimated that at its height, the city held up to 8,000 people.

Though sceptics have argued that the “volcano” mural could simply show a geometric pattern below a headless leopard skin, the notion that it is the world’s first map, or the earliest depiction of a landscape, has persisted. Now, a team of scientists, led by Axel Schmitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, has added weight to the hypothesis.

In 2013, Schmitt’s team travelled to Mount Hasan, a twin-peaked volcano about 130km northeast of Çatalhöyük, searching for evidence of a local volcanic eruption during the city’s occupation. After collecting and analysing pumice samples taken from the peak and base of the volcano, they discovered that it had erupted in around 6960BC, a time when local people could have witnessed the event. With the specific date of the eruption and the painting of the mural unknown, it is possible that the two events overlapped, though it is equally possible that memory of the eruption briefly passed into oral tradition before the ancient artist decided to put paint to plaster.

Despite this new evidence, the “volcano” mural still faces competition for the title of world’s oldest map: a 14,000-year-old drawing in Spain has also been interpreted as an ancient map, as has a 25,000-year-old drawing in the Czech Republic.

The full scientific report has been published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

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