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.

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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

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.  


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