Over 6,000 years ago, huge settlements featuring enigmatic mega-structures of obscure function arose between the Carpathian foothills and the Dnieper River

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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-dollar 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 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.

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.”