The story of urbanism traditionally begins in what is today southern Iraq. There, around 5,500 years ago, the Sumerian settlement of Uruk developed on the banks of the Euphrates River. At its peak, some 50,000 people, including nobles, artisans, merchants, and slaves, are thought to have lived within the city’s mudbrick walls, which enclosed two square miles. This large urban population existed thanks in part to an agricultural surplus managed by a centralized bureaucracy that tracked economic transactions on cuneiform tablets. But a few hundred years before Uruk emerged, some 1,700 miles to the northwest in the forest-steppe of central Ukraine, farmers with no written language were already living in settlements so large they sprawled over an area up to 1.5 square miles, and were home to perhaps as many as 20,000 people. In age and size, these so-called Trypillia megasites rivaled the earliest cities of Mesopotamia. But that’s where the similarities end.
While imposing central temple complexes anchored cities such as Uruk, a typical Trypillia megasite featured an empty space in the middle surrounded by thousands of identical homes arranged in oblong concentric rings. Archaeologists believe that the farmers who lived in these huge settlements thrived without rulers, without monuments, and without wealth disparities, all elements that were present at Uruk and other early cities. “We’re sure that they’re not cities in a classic sense,” says John Chapman, a Durham University archaeologist. “They’re probably egalitarian, but that sort of idea is really new to urban studies. Whoever heard of an urban center that’s not run by a strong hierarchy?” Understanding these contradictions offers a real challenge for archaeologists working at Trypillia sites.
In the last decade, Chapman and a team from Germany’s Kiel University have joined efforts led by researcher Mikhail Videiko of Borys Hrinchenko Kyiv University to explore how people came together to live in such unusual arrangements, and why, after 500 years, the megasites’ inhabitants seem to have left the settlements for good. Using noninvasive techniques such as magnetic surveys combined with modern excavation methods, the archaeologists have been steadily discovering new elements of the megasites, including some of the largest structures ever built in prehistoric Europe. In so doing, they are questioning long-held assumptions about what forms urban life may have taken in an era before cities as they are understood today spread across the globe.
THE PEOPLE WHO LIVED in the megasites belonged to a larger culture known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia, which flourished in the region northwest of the Black Sea during the Copper Age (ca. 5000–2800 b.c.). Archaeologists first learned about the Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture in the late nineteenth century when farmers in the region plowed up ceramics decorated with swirling patterns as well as the charred remains of clay building materials imprinted with wood. Since then, more than 5,000 Cucuteni-Trypillia sites have been found, ranging from small farmsteads to the megasites, over a large swath of present-day Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania. Scholars discovered that the people living at these sites harvested cereals and kept livestock, and that they were linked by shared traditions of pottery making, copper toolmaking, production of clay figurines, and construction— and eventual burning—of wattle-and-daub dwellings.
The megasites are concentrated at the eastern end of the region occupied by the Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture, in the mostly flat, fertile land between the Southern Bug and Dnieper Rivers in Ukraine. In their early phases, Trypillia settlements were small, rarely covering more than seven acres, but around 4100 b.c., giant sites began to emerge. Little evidence of widespread violence or warfare has been discovered at the sites, suggesting people did not gather in such huge groups as a defensive strategy. However, new technologies, such as animal sledges and wheeled wagons, also emerged in the region around this time. These may have allowed people to transport harvests quickly over great distances, perhaps facilitating the growth of these large population centers.
By the late 1940s, Soviet archaeologists had excavated about 200 houses at a megasite called Volodymyrivka. But the full scale of Trypillia settlements was only appreciated once they could be observed from the air. In the 1970s, Soviet aerial surveys and subsequent investigation on the ground revealed that at least 10 of the Trypillia settlements covered an area of four-tenths of a square mile or more and contained as many as 1,000 dwellings each. Up to 40 megasites have so far been identified. The largest, Taljanky, measures nearly 1.5 square miles.
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