Early cities depended on fertiliser

© Susanne Beyer, Kiel University Impressie van de Maidanetske mega-nederzetting
  • Inhabitants of the megacities of the Copper Age, in what is now the Ukraine and Moldavia, had a mainly vegetarian diet.
  • Protein-rich pulses were the main crop
  • Intensive use of fertiliser was necessary for a rich harvest and grazing animals provided the necessary natural fertiliser
© Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, Kiel University. The Trypillia mega-site of Maidanetske in Central-Ukraïne covered around 200 ha. Archaeo-magnetic research at the site shows the many streets, public buildings, squares and thousands of burnt houses. The houses were concentrated in a very specific concentric pattern along a main ring-road around a central uncultivated area. This provided the entire population with convenient access to the communal infrastructure.

The provision of food in the Trypillia mega-sites is the current focus of the Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1266 at the University of Kiel. The site at Trypillia flourished around 6,000 years ago in the wooded steppes to the northwest of the Black Sea. With roughly 15,000 inhabitants, the site was at the time the largest settlement in the world. Experts believe it to be one of the oldest cities in Europe, even older than Mesopotamia. Providing food for such a megacity was obviously a mammoth task and there are many questions about how this was achieved.

It was once thought that the main source was self-sufficient agriculture and this new study, published in the scientific journal PNAS in December 2023, confirms that the provision was indeed based on very advanced food and pasture management.

© Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller, Kiel University
Ceramic vessels found by restorer Stanislav Fedorov in the remains of a house which burned down in the 4th millennium BC.

Peas: Protein source of early agriculture

Almost everyone knows the stories of Popeye the Sailor Man, the cartoon character whose strength came from his love of eating spinach. As we know today, science has long over-estimated the value of this green vegetable. On the other hand, science has long under-estimated the value of the high protein content in peas.

This recent study from the University of Kiel, led by Professor of Archaeology Johannes Müller, shows that early Trypillia farmers 7,000 years ago were aware of the food value of peas and grains, which could to some extent take the place of meat.

Analyses of carbon- and nitrogen isotopes

Because of the size of the settlement, daily life was comparable to that of other agricultural cities and the people were mainly farmers. But how could such large groups of people secure their food provision using only Neolithic technology? Prof. Müller explains: “To answer this question, the study spent 10 years examining and determining hundreds of samples of carbon- and nitrogen- isotopes.” The archaeologists measured primarily animal and human bones which they had excavated. “Then we specifically supplemented the data with isotope readings from charred peas and grains of corn from soil samples taken from various Trypillia settlements,” explained archaeo-botanist professor Wiebke Kirleis.

The isotopes could be used to determine how domestic animals were kept thousands of years ago, whether the crops were fertilised and what role plants and animals played in feeding people.

© Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller, Kiel University
During excavations in the large Trypillia-settlement of Stolniceni artefacts and building structures were accurately measured using an electronic tachymeter.

Almost entirely vegetarian

“We concluded that a large number of cattle and sheep were kept on surrounding pastures. The fertiliser from these animals was used to intensively fertilise crops such as peas,” said Frank Schlütz. Consequently peas and grain formed the most important mainstay of the human diet, which was not only nutritious but also delivered a good balance of essential amino-acids. The straw was probably used to feed the cattle in the fields. Thanks to this close relationship between crop production and stock-breeding, people in these megacities could eat healthily and in sufficient quantity. The work-intensive and resource-consuming production of meat fell very much into decline. The reasons for the collapse of the settlements were social, as archaeologist Dr. Robert Hofmann reveals: “As we know from earlier studies, social tensions arose as a result of increasing social inequality. People turned their backs on large settlements and decided to live in smaller communities.” Around 3,000 BC the Trypillia communities disappeared from the stage”.

More information

Further information about CRC 1266

Further information about the Trypillia mega-sites investigated by the CRC 1266.

Original publication:

Schlütz F, Hofmann R, Dal Corso M, Pashkevych G, Dreibrodt S, Shatilo L, Terna A, Fuchs K, Videiko M, Rud V, Müller J, Kirleis W (2023)

“Isotopes prove advanced, integral crop production and stockbreeding strategies nourished Trypillia mega-populations”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (120). DOI 10.1073/pnas.2312962120

Translation Alun Harvey


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