Between 4100-3600 BCE, ‘giant-settlements’ with thousands of buildings arranged in a very specific layout emerged in a concentrated area in the eastern part of the Trypillia area in Ukraine.

Large buildings of uncertain function — so-called ‘mega-structures’ (the term was introduced by archaeologists for a large construction that was unearthed in Nebelivka in 2012) — situated in highly visible positions in the public space of the settlements.

To investigate their function, Dr. Robert Hofmann and his colleagues from the Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine’s Institute of Archaeology and Kiel University compared the mega-structures of the giant-settlement Maidanetske to over 100 such buildings from 19 ancient settlements in the region between the Carpathian foothills and the Dnipro River.

The Trypillian giant-settlement of Maidanetske: redrawing of the plan of the magnetic survey; green and white - dwellings; light red - adjacent dwellings of the primary plaza; red - mega-structures at the primary plaza; yellow - mega-structures in the ring-corridor; blue - mega-structures at different positions of radial pathways. Image credit: Hofmann et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222243.

The Trypillian giant-settlement of Maidanetske: redrawing of the plan of the magnetic survey; green and white – dwellings; light red – adjacent dwellings of the primary plaza; red – mega-structures at the primary plaza; yellow – mega-structures in the ring-corridor; blue – mega-structures at different positions of radial pathways. Image credit: Hofmann et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222243.

“The highly public location of these structures within their settlements and the lack of evidence of permanent habitation within them led us to conclude these were public spaces,” the researchers said.

“We also documented a hierarchy of mega-structures based on their architecture and location; some were apparently well-suited to serve the entire community, while others served smaller segments of the community.”

“These lower-level structures are also observed to decline in use over the history of the settlements.”

The scientists suggest these buildings were likely used for a variety of ritual, economic, and decision-making purposes.

The hierarchy of mega-structures may indicate that sequential decision-making at various levels of society was important for maintaining structure within such large populations.

The team observed the disappearance of integrative buildings at lower and intermediate levels which is most likely the result of increasing centralization in power.

This underlying institutional loss, presumably, led to social imbalances in decision making processes and made giant-settlements unmanageable.

The 6,000-year-old ‘mega-structure’ in the Trypillian giant-settlement of Nebelivka in Kirovograd region, Ukraine. Image credit: Nataliia Burdo / Mykhailo Videiko.

The 6,000-year-old ‘mega-structure’ in the Trypillian giant-settlement of Nebelivka in Kirovograd region, Ukraine. Image credit: Nataliia Burdo / Mykhailo Videiko.

According to the archaeologists, the Trypillian giant-settlements collapsed around 3650 BCE.

“The eldest protourban megasites of Europe collapsed after some generations around 3700 BCE, during which time they flourished with up to 10,000 inhabitants and attracted surrounding communities in the Northpontic forest steppe with their extremely fertile black soils,” Dr. Hofmann said.

“Now our interdisciplinary study detected one reason for their collapse: a social imbalance in decision processes led to an increased centralization of power structures.”

“These did not allow the management of the city-like settlements any longer.”

“In consequence, these mega-cities are an example, how humans should not govern. Nevertheless, in consequence urbanism developed much later in Europe then in the Near East.”

The findings were published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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R. Hofmann et al. 2019. Governing Tripolye: Integrative architecture in Tripolye settlements. PLoS ONE 14 (9): e0222243; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222243