Trypillia Mega-Sites Avoided Wealth Inequalities between Individual Households, Archaeologists Say

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The Trypillia culture flourished in western/central Ukraine, Moldova and eastern Romania for over two millennia from the end of the Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age (5400-2700 BCE).

Reconstruction of the Trypillian giant-settlement Maidanetske, Ukraine. Image credit: Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Reconstruction of the Trypillian giant-settlement Maidanetske, Ukraine. Image credit: Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Trypillia culture is a Neolithic European culture that arose in Ukraine between the Seret and Bug rivers, with extensions south into modern-day Romania and Moldova and east to the Dnieper River, in the 5th millennium BCE.

Also known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, it is characterized by advanced agriculture, developed metallurgy, pottery-making, sophisticated architecture and social organization.

Trypillian society was matriarchal, with women heading the household, doing agricultural work, and manufacturing pottery, textiles and clothing. Hunting, keeping domestic animals and making tools were the responsibilities of the men.

“Between c. 4200 and 3600 BCE, the so-called Trypillia mega-sites were established on the northern limits of the Pontic Steppe,” said Dr. Robert Hofmann and his colleagues from the University of Kiel.

“With sizes of up to 320 ha and around 10,000 inhabitants, they are among the largest prehistoric communities in Europe.”

“These settlements were built in a partially open forest-steppe landscape with very fertile loess-based soils.”

“They were agricultural settlements inhabited all year round, with an economy based on the cultivation of cereals and pulses and on intensive and extensive animal husbandry centred on cattle.”

Distribution of surveyed Trypillia sites by region with sample sizes and Gini coefficients. Image credit: Hofmann et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2024.18.

Distribution of surveyed Trypillia sites by region with sample sizes and Gini coefficients. Image credit: Hofmann et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2024.18.

To explore changing levels of inequality across the three geographical regions of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, the archaeologists used variability in the sizes of 7,000 houses at 38 settlements.

“We assume that the new social organisation of the mega-sites enabled the population to actively participate in political decision-making processes,” Dr. Hofmann explained.

“Such a reformist character at the time could have been the trigger for the enormous appeal of these settlements, as a result of which a large number of people joined these communities.”

“We used the variability of house sizes in 38 Trypillia settlements to calculate how the level of inequality has changed in the three geographical regions over 2,000 years using the Gini coefficient,” said Dr. Nils Müller-Scheeßel, an archaeologist at the University of Kiel.

“The results of the analyses show little variability in house sizes between 4300 and 3800 BCE.”

“We can deduce that Trypillia mega-sites between 4300 and 3800 BCE exhibited a low level of social inequality.”

“There must have been effective mechanisms to prevent social inequality in the Trypillia communities,” said University of Kiel’s Professor Johannes Müller.

“This may have included mechanisms to balance interests and redistribute surpluses.”

“The development of differences in house sizes and political institutions suggests that the opportunities to participate in political decision-making processes deteriorated over time and that the original egalitarian principles of the settlement founders were gradually abandoned.”

“This resulted in increasing social differentiation and growing differences in prosperity.”

“In our opinion, this was a decisive factor in the later gradual disappearance of the large mega-sites,” Dr. Hofmann said.

“The phenomenon of mega-sites is thus part of a series of historical examples that show that an increase in the complexity of societies does not necessarily go hand in hand with an increase in vertical social differentiation.”

“Rather, the emergence and disintegration were based on democratic political decisions made by the individuals and communities who lived in these huge settlements and eventually decided to leave them.”

The team’s work was published in the April 2024 issue of the journal Antiquity.

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Robert Hofmann et al. 2024. Trypillia mega-sites: a social levelling concept? Antiquity 98 (398): 380-400; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2024.18

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