Around 6,000 years ago in the forest steppe region northwest of the Black Sea (now part of Ukraine and Moldova), massive settlements began emerging as part of the Trypillia culture. Known as megasites, some of these earliest farming communities sprawled across up to 320 hectares, with populations of around 15,000 people.

Experts believe these were the largest settlements in the world at that time, and likely the oldest cities in Europe pre-dating those of Mesopotamia by half a millennium.

How were such enormous populations able to feed themselves using the Neolithic technology of the time? This has long puzzled archaeologists who thought subsistence farming supported smaller settlements.

However, new research from the University of Kiel provides answers. They found the residents had an extremely sophisticated system of managing food crops and livestock. According to paleoecologist Dr. Frank Schlütz, intensive farming of peas and grains supported the communities, with livestock manure fertilizing pea fields.

Peas, long overlooked by science, were actually very beneficial to human nutrition due to their high protein content. Even the earliest Trypillia farmers over 6,000 years ago relied heavily on a diet of grains and peas, reducing their need for meat.

Johannes Müller and his team of Ukrainian, Moldovan and German archaeologists determined this through isotope analysis of hundreds of samples over 10 years. Isotopes in carbonized peas, grain, and animal and human bones revealed farming practices like penned cattle and sheep.

Pea hulls were likely fed to livestock on pastures, creating a close relationship between agriculture and animal husbandry.

This sustainable system allowed communities to feed themselves sufficiently without extensive meat production. The settlements, comparable to early agricultural cities, were occupied by mainly farmers for around 500 years in their peak between 4150-3650 BCE.

Their immense planned layouts featured neighborhood districts and communal houses for social participation. However, rising social inequality led to tensions and decentralization as people moved to smaller settlements by 3000 BCE, signaling the decline of the Trypillia culture.

Through interdisciplinary research, scientists have uncovered how neolithic “proto-cities” supported populations that dwarfed anything else at that time.

The Trypillia people thrived for centuries by mastering sustainable farming practices, underscoring humanity’s long history of ingeniously balancing the demands of civilization with living in harmony with nature.


Sources

Kiel University | Schlütz F, Hofmann R, Dal Corso M, et al., (2023) Isotopes prove advanced, integral crop production and stockbreeding strategies nourished Trypillia mega-populations. PNAS (120). DOI 10.1073/pnas.2312962120


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