Rise of Tyranny in Prehistoric Ukraine May Have Killed Off Its Mega-settlements

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Aerial view of the 200 hectare-large settlement area of the Tripolye mega-site Maidanetske with excavation areas.
Aerial view of the Tripolye mega-site Maidanetske, Ukraine, with excavation areas.Credit: Hofmann et al, 2019
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Over 6,000 years ago, huge settlements featuring enigmatic mega-structures of obscure function arose between the Carpathian foothills and the Dnieper River in Ukraine. Unique in European prehistory, these gargantuan settlements, which may have housed tens of thousands of people apiece, seem to have coalesced by the merger of smaller, independent hamlets.

Throughout, the million-hryvnia question has been how exactly prehistoric villages of gargantuan dimensions were managed. Now a team of archaeologists is postulating that mega-structures detected in these villages were community centers, which indicate the gradual development of a central authority, Prof. Robert Hofman of Kiel University and colleagues report in PLOS One.

That central rule, if such it was, would last centuries. But then something happened. No obvious trigger has been found, but by the year 3,600 B.C.E., these prehistoric settlements had disintegrated and vanished.

To be clear, prehistoric Ukrainians weren’t the first early urbanizers. Thousands of years earlier, in the pre-pottery Neolithic stage (PPNB), even bigger settlements coalesced in the Fertile Crescent, from eastern Turkey to Iraq. Intriguingly, these prehistoric monster villages also tended to survive for only some centuries and then to disintegrate, for equally mysterious reasons, Hofman tells Haaretz.

But now our eyes are now cast on the Trypillya region in Ukraine, where archaeologists had begun to realize not only that the mega-villages - up to 320 hectares (790 acres) in size - had mega-structures, that were centrally located but showed no sign of habitation; and moreover, they realized the mega-structures were of three types.

The hierarchy of the mega-structures may shed light on social structure and even indicate the rise of a sort of democracy, thousands of years before Greece.

Democratic on the Dnieper

It’s one thing to manage one’s 10-person group. A club and trained wolf could do the trick. Managing a community of thousands is a whole other kettle of fish, and guesses for the population of these prehistoric settlements ranges from around 10,000 to over 30,000.

Maidanetske: Red: Central mega-structure. Yellow: Mega-structures in the ring-corridor. Blue buildings: Mega-structures at different positions of radial pathwaysCredit: Hofmann et al, 2019

Empirical anthropological research suggests that with rising population agglomeration, political institutions become necessary, the archaeologists write.

Apropos of population agglomeration, when does a mega-settlement become a town? A town generally has a certain central function, such as agricultural hinterland, Hofman explains. This cannot apply to the huge prehistoric settlements of Trypillya.

So, the paper focuses on the mega-settlement, not town, found at Maidanetske. It had about 3,000 houses, which is all we can say six millennia later about its population.

Like the other huge settlements concentrated in the area of the southern Bug-Dnieper interfluve, the whole thing was structured in concentric circles. The centripetal arrangement has to be the result of town planning, Hofman says: “I think this is absolutely clear. They decided to come together at a place, and planned it exactly from the get-go.”

Wondrously, the archaeologists did not find indicators of wealth inequality, social stratification, or hierarchies in prehistoric Trypillian societies – not within the villages, and not at the regional level between neighboring villages. The houses seem quite standard. Non-stratified societies tend to be associated with integrative architecture or facilities such as public squares: places where the people would come together, for whatever purpose – to talk, play, feast, worship. Enter the mega-structures.

Though all would have been prominently in the public’s eye, the mega-structures of Maidanetske were not standard, and their three categories may reflect developing levels of socio-political integration and decision-making.

The “lowest” category of Trypillian mega-structures were situated in the outskirts of the settlements, or in the radial streets leading to the center of the settlement.

The “intermediate” category was built in the so-called ring corridor – a public street that encircled the settlement. “We think this street was somehow crucial in that settlement,” Hofman says.

Prof. Robert Hofman (pink shirt) talking with Mykhailo Videiko at the site of the Maidanetske mega-settlement, UkraineCredit: © Sarah Jagiolla / Christia-Al

In other words, there were two lower sorts of mega-structures meticulously located in these mega-settlements, distributed roughly equally. As we said, these proto-towns were planned.

At the highest level in this hypothetical hierarchy, the archaeologists detected a mega-structure that stood solo in the main plaza. There were no others like it. “It exists only once. It may have consisted of two or three buildings but they were next to one another,” Hofman says, adding that possibly different buildings comprising that central mega-structure operated in different times.

That central “highest level” of building would have served the whole community while the “low-level” ones could have been local meeting places.

“Based on our results we are interpreting that these buildings were used for various ritual and non-ritual activities, joint decision-making, and the storage and consumption of surplus,” the team writes.

The rub is that the low-level integrative buildings, for public use, gradually lost their importance from the late fifth millennium B.C.E. to the first half of the fourth millennium B.C.E. How do we know? They shrank in size and gradually disappeared.

This indicates, Hofman suggests, that power previously distributed across the community was transferred to a central institution that operated out of that one single stand-alone central mega-structure.

We do not know what triggered the prehistoric peoples of Trypillya to come together and create the biggest settlements in prehistoric Europe, bigger than anything observed in Moldova or Romania. Nor do we have clues as to their collapse around 3,600 B.C.E.

It seems plausible to postulate that they actually began with a sort of distributed power; that they developed an early sort of democracy, with sequential decision-making – where everybody would be consulted before big decisions were made.

“But then we observe, in the sequence of sites, that the lower levels of the mega structures became less and less important and the main institution became more important. Power became centralized,” Hofman posits. Before they vanished, the lower levels of mega-structures were all but gone.

Absent the vox populi, it seems the prehistoric proto-city became unmanageable. Over the centuries, the system simply became dysfunctional, and the huge sites failed. “These Trypillya mega-sites are an example, how humans should not govern,” Hofman remarks.

Several hundred years later the whole area would be run over with Yamnaya peoples migrating in from the east.

Today not even ruins remain of these vast villages where prehistoric Ukrainians may have developed a proto-democracy. The mega-structures were detected using magnetometry, which may have overheard the whispers of a civilization long gone, who had been gagged by power-hungry prehistoric despots.