Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities

Some early urban areas may have been spread out and socially egalitarian

Nebelivka site

Farmland in Ukraine now covers most of an ancient settlement called Nebelivka that some researchers consider to be one of the earliest known cities. Here, Nebelivka’s site plan is superimposed over where it once stood.

Nebelivka Project, produced by M. Nebbia

Nebelivka, a Ukrainian village of about 700 people, sits amid rolling hills and grassy fields. Here at the edge of Eastern Europe, empty space stretches to the horizon.

It wasn’t always so. Beneath the surface of Nebelivka’s surrounding landscape and at nearby archaeological sites, roughly 6,000-year-old remnants of what were possibly some of the world’s first cities are emerging from obscurity. These low-density, spread-out archaeological sites are known as megasites, a term that underscores both their immense size and mysterious origins. Now, some scientists are arguing the settlements represent a distinct form of ancient urban life that has gone largely unrecognized.

Megasites were cities like no others that have ever existed, says archaeologist John Chapman of Durham University in England.

For decades, researchers have regarded roughly 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian sites, in what’s now Iraq, Iran and Syria, as the world’s first cities. Those metropolises arose after agriculture made it possible to feed large numbers of people in year-round settlements. Mesopotamian cities featured centralized governments, bureaucratic agencies that tracked and taxed farm production, and tens of thousands of city dwellers packed into neighborhoods connected by dusty streets. Social inequality was central to Mesopotamia’s urban ascent, with a hierarchy of social classes that included rulers, bureaucrats, priests, farmers and slaves.

Over the last decade, however, researchers have increasingly questioned whether the only pathway to urban life ran through Mesopotamian cities. Chapman, along with Durham colleague Marco Nebbia and independent, Durham-based scholar Bisserka Gaydarska, is part of a movement that views low-density, spread-out settlements in several parts of the world as alternative form of early city life.

Illustration of assembly house at Nebelivka
An artist’s reconstruction shows what an assembly house may have looked like at Nebelivka. Communal gatherings were likely held in these structures.C. Unwin (based on data from S. Johnston), B. Gaydarska, M. Nebbia and J. Chapman/Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2020

Ukrainian megasites were built by members of the Trypillia culture between about 6,100 and 5,400 years ago. Typically covering a square kilometer or more, some of the sites are bigger in area than Manhattan.

Megasites may have been built so that people could better defend against invasions by rival villages or foreign forces. Based on that assumption, some estimates of population at these places run into the tens of thousands. But recent work by Chapman, Nebbia and Gaydarska indicates megasites in general may have had only a few thousand inhabitants.

And Nebelivka appears to have lacked a class of elites ruling over hordes of common folk who did the dirty work. Instead, excavations suggest that the site was organized to promote shared rule among groups of equal social standing. Thus, Nebelivka demonstrates that urban development doesn’t automatically split people into haves and have-nots, Chapman and colleagues argue, a common assumption among those concerned about social and economic inequality in modern societies.

Nebelivka novelty

In the 1970s, archaeologists began excavating several Trypillia megasites in fertile soil between the Southern Bug and Dnieper rivers in Ukraine. Aerial photography and geomagnetic surveys on the ground revealed outlines of buried structures. At least two dozen megasites have been located in the country since then.

Ukrainian archaeologists have excavated small parts of several of the sites. But it’s a daunting task. Researchers working at one location have unearthed about 50 houses over the last 25 years, Chapman says. “They have another 2,150 houses to go.”

At Nebelivka, Chapman, Gaydarska and Nebbia have reconstructed the megasite’s entire layout. This settlement blueprint, the first of its kind for a megasite, appears in the February Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Over six years of fieldwork since 2009, the researchers have excavated and mapped Nebelivka structures located over more than a square kilometer. Aerial photos, satellite images and geomagnetic data, supplemented by excavations of 88 test pits, identified 1,445 residential houses and 24 communal structures dubbed assembly houses. Residential houses, some intact and most in ashes after having burned, were grouped into 153 neighborhoods, a majority containing three to seven houses. Neighborhoods, in turn, formed 14 quarters, each with one or more assembly houses situated in an open area.

Nebelivka megasite blueprint dekstop
This blueprint of the Nebelivka megasite is based on excavations and geomagnetic surveys (orange lines mark the areas of those surveys). About two-thirds of houses had been deliberately burned at different times, perhaps as part of ceremonial burnings, researchers say. Purple lines denote borders of residential quarters made up of neighborhoods.Y. Beadnell (based on data from D. Hale), B. Gaydarska, M. Nebbia and J. Chapman/Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2020
Nebelivka megasite blueprint mobile
This blueprint of the Nebelivka megasite is based on excavations and geomagnetic surveys (orange lines mark the areas of those surveys). About two-thirds of houses had been deliberately burned at different times, perhaps as part of ceremonial burnings, researchers say. Purple lines denote borders of residential quarters made up of neighborhoods.Y. Beadnell (based on data from D. Hale), B. Gaydarska, M. Nebbia and J. Chapman/Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2020

During about 200 years of occupation, Nebelivka served as both a dwelling site and, oddly enough, a kind of cemetery for incinerated houses, Gaydarska says. About two-thirds of Nebelivka houses had been deliberately burned at different times, creating mounds of charred debris across the site. Sediment and pollen excavated in and around Nebelivka display no signs of wildfire, a clue that the houses were intentionally set aflame.

In 2015, the researchers built and then burned a replica of a Trypillia house, producing lumps of ashy clay residue like those found where actual Nebelivka houses once stood. Only after filling the replica with much more dry timber than had been used to build the house did the experimental conflagration reach temperatures high enough to raze the entire structure and produce Nebelivka-like residue mounds. Nebelivka’s ancient residents must have gone to great lengths to gather enough wood for what was likely ceremonial house burnings, Chapman says.

“Burning a house down in this way created a spectacle that could be seen from many kilometers away,” he says.

Nebelivka house burning
Scientists built a wooden version of a Nebelivka house and set it on fire (left) to investigate how and why ancient residents burned down many of their houses. Burned remains of the experimental house were examined in a 3-D image (right).From left: B. Gaydarska; M. Nebbia

No signs of a centralized government, a ruling dynasty, or wealth or social class disparities appear in the ancient settlement, the researchers say. Houses were largely alike in size and design. Excavations yielded few prestige goods, such as copper items and shell ornaments. Many examples of painted pottery and clay figurines typical of Trypillia culture turned up, and more than 6,300 animal bones unearthed at the site suggest residents ate a lot of beef and lamb. Those clues suggest daily life was much the same across Nebelivka’s various neighborhoods and quarters.

Although Chapman and colleagues agree Nebelivka’s city life differed from that of Mesopotamian metropolises, the researchers disagree about the details.

Chapman suspects the megasite was a permanent settlement in which, at any one time, 2,000 to 3,000 people occupied up to 400 houses. Residents likely came from 10 regional groups, known from previous investigations of smaller Trypillia villages, that had traded goods and formed some common cultural beliefs and practices, he says. Members of the 10 groups established the neighborhoods and quarters outlined in Nebelivka’s site plan, Chapman speculates. Given the need to ease inevitable tensions among groups living unusually close together, a council recruited from throughout Nebelivka may have made political decisions. Council leadership might have even shifted annually from one group to the next, he says.

Nebbia thinks it’s more likely that perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 people inhabited Nebelivka for around one month each year. During that time, people who assembled at the megasite made new contacts, shared knowledge and goods, and conducted communal activities such as house building and burning. Perhaps 100 to 150 guardians lived at and maintained Nebelivka year-round, he speculates.

Yet another possibility, favored by Gaydarska, portrays Nebelivka as a large center for religious pilgrims from throughout the Trypillia world. Over a roughly eight-month pilgrimage season, presumably scheduled for seasons when the weather permitted long-distance journeys, between 1,000 and 2,000 pilgrims per month inhabited Nebelivka. Ritual leaders from various Trypillia communities maintained the settlement and organized construction projects, she suspects, including the raising of assembly houses where religious ceremonies were held.

Middle Eastern sites for large, periodic gatherings date back at least 10,000 years and could have set the stage for similar but larger get-togethers at Nebelivka, however they were organized, Gaydarska says. While Nebelivka’s site plan can’t unveil the exact nature of social life there, it reveals a large open space in the center of the megasite where researchers previously assumed many people lived. Earlier estimates that Nebelivka housed 10,000 people or more are thus way too high, the three researchers contend.

Power sharing

As at Nebelivka, an increasing number of archaeological sites in Asia, Europe and the Americas are being classified as low-density urban settlements, says archaeologist Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney. For instance, settlements comparable in size and population to megasites, known as oppida, emerged elsewhere in Europe more than 2,000 years ago. Whether people inhabited oppida year-round or seasonally, these sites contained households of roughly equal status that participated in collective decision making, Fletcher says.

Aerial laser mapping has uncovered much larger examples of urban sprawl that date to around 1,000 years ago at Greater Angkor in Cambodia (SN: 4/29/16) and roughly 2,000 years ago at Maya outposts in Central America (SN: 9/27/18). In those cases, kings and other power brokers ruled spread-out populations that cultivated crops such as rice and maize using sophisticated irrigation techniques.

Naachtun site
Aerial laser mapping has revealed much larger examples of urban sprawl around Maya outposts in Central America than previously thought. Here, a representation of the site of Naachtun in what’s now Guatemala is shown. Yellow dots indicate ancient structures.M.A. Canuto et al/Science 2018, L. Auld-Thomas and M.A. Canuto

Though some of these sprawling sites had social inequality, egalitarian cities like Nebelivka were probably more widespread several thousand years ago than has typically been assumed, says archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London. Ancient ceremonial centers in China and Peru, for instance, were cities with sophisticated infrastructures that existed before any hints of bureaucratic control, he argues. Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics and Political Science also made that argument in a 2018 essay in Eurozine, an online cultural magazine.

Councils of social equals governed many of the world’s earliest cities, including Trypillia megasites, Wengrow contends. Egalitarian rule may even have characterized Mesopotamian cities for their first few hundred years, a period that lacks archaeological evidence of royal burials, armies or large bureaucracies typical of early states, he suggests.

Megasite mystery

Not everyone views Nebelivka as emblematic of an alternative branch of early city life.

“Nebelivka may be an interesting example of a ritual, ceremonial or defensive gathering place rather than an ‘all-purpose’ city or a distinctive pathway to urbanism,” says archaeologist Monica Smith of UCLA.

Unlike bustling Mesopotamian cities, which featured walls or other prominent structures along their borders, Nebelivka contained lots of apparently open space and was encircled by only a ditch, Smith observes. And from the start, cities brought together large numbers of people who had to cooperate with strangers and heed the edicts of political and religious leaders, Smith argues. Ancient cities typically included massive official structures and were densely occupied for thousands of years, unlike megasites that drew smaller crowds for several hundred years at most, she says. Smith reserves judgment on the nature of city life at Greater Angkor and the Maya sites, where further excavations might reveal higher-density occupations than currently suspected.

Tell Brak site
Some investigators regard densely populated Mesopotamian settlements from around 6,000 years ago, such Tell Brak in Syria, as the world’s oldest cities. The remains of a Tell Brak palace are shown.Bertramz/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Smith suggests calling permanent and temporary gathering spots — a category that, in her view, includes Trypillia megasites — “collective settlements.” In her 2019 book Cities: The First 6,000 Years (SN: 4/16/19), Smith provisionally identifies the oldest known city as Tell Brak, a roughly 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian site in northeastern Syria.

But Nebelivka and other Ukrainian megasites transcended Trypillia village life too dramatically to be classified simply as gathering places, Gaydarska argues. Trypillia people, she maintains, engaged in one of several early experiments in large-scale urban living, even if for only part of the year. It’s time to revamp traditional ideas of what makes an ancient settlement a city, she says.

For now, the next challenge is to explain why the Tyrpillia megasites arose in the first place and lasted no more than around 700 years. To get a better grip on that mystery, Gaydarska plans to excavate Trypillia villages dating to just before and after Nebelivka’s heyday. “We have nothing to compare Nebelivka to at this point,” she says.  

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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