Downfall of Ancient, Democratic Civilization Charted in Vast Megastructures at 6,000-year-old Cities

Enormous, ancient "megastructures" may hold clues to the demise of a once prosperous, democratic civilization, researchers have said. In analyzing the purpose of these vast structures, which formed the central hub of what would have been home to around 10,000 people, a team has said they have found evidence of the centralization of power—a shift that may have led to the societal collapse.

The Tripolye megasites were sprawling settlements located across what is now Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. The sites were made up of hundreds if not thousands of houses, and the society was very much based around agriculture.

A perplexing feature of the Tripolye society was that it would intentionally burn the settlements to the ground around once every 60 to 80 years, then rebuild it. It is not clear why this was done. Some argue it relates to ritual, while others say it could be a coincidence, with accidental fires spreading easily through the wooden structures.

In 2009, scientists performed magnetic surveys of the region and discovered that at the center of these sites sat a huge building—what they call a megastructure.

By analyzing the sites, researchers were looking to find out what function the megastructures served in order to get a better understanding of the society. To do this they focused on one site, known as Maidanetske, and compared it to hundreds of other ancient European settlements. Their findings, published in PLOS One, suggest these huge buildings were public spaces that were likely used for rituals, economic activities and decision making.

Study author Robert Hofmann, from Kiel University, Germany, told Newsweek that the megastructures could be over 200 feet in length and 32 feet wide. This is far larger than the "normal dwellings" of the sites. "They were positioned in the public space of settlements and show, compared to domestic dwellings, different architecture with open courtyards," he said.

Map showing the locations of the Tripolye megasites. Hofmann et al, 2019

"Megastructures for the whole community showed partly monumental dimensions and staging and were in contrast often completely roofed and in some cases positioned in from far visible positions."

The team found that the structures had a hierarchy to them. They identified at least three categories that probably related to different socio political levels. High level buildings were used by the whole community, while low-level structures appear to have just been used by segments of society. It is thought these huge communities were run in a democratic way, with decision making taking place at different levels of society.

Tripolye megasite
A plan of the Tripolye megasite Maidanetske. Researchers say the megastructures at the center (in red) would have been used as public spaces. Hofmann et al, 2019

Over time, the lower levels appear to have been used less and less. This, the researchers say, suggests that over time power became centralized—a move that would eventually lead to social imbalance that would lead to the collapse of society. The last megasite appears to have fallen around 3650 BC. The centralization of power meant the cities became unmanageable. In a statement, Hofmann said "these Tripolye megasites are an example, how humans should not govern."

Hofman told Newsweek centralization often happens where there is an increase in craft specialization, resulting in social inequality. "In Tripolye megasites, consensus-based—democratic—decision-making processes became more and more replaced by more hierarchical—more undemocratic—ones.

"This transformation was certainly favored by the large size of the population and the resulting complexity of sequential decision-making across different decision-making levels. The lack of lower levels of integrative buildings just before the end of the phenomenon of Tripolye giant settlements, indicates—in our view—the non-acceptance of the hierarchical mode the majority of the population and as a consequence its dysfunctionality."

He said that modern societies, like our own, are only possible because of a huge amount of ideological support and structure. "It seems that Tripolye was a society at a crossroads: In contrast to the Middle East, just emerging hierarchies and social inequality [were not yet] permanently established." The society, he said, paid for this with its demise.

Ulrike Sommer, Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, commented on the findings. She told Newsweek that while she finds the research "extremely interesting" the idea these megastructures were integrative buildings is "less convincing."

"As the authors point out, not all of the inhabitants of the settlement would have fitted in—while there was plenty of open space for gatherings. In addition, the finds inside the mega-structures are quite similar to domestic contents."

However, she added: "All in all, this is a fascinating and fresh re-interpretation of a hitherto quite neglected archaeological culture that hopefully points the way to further re-interpretations of prehistoric social development and political actions."

This article has been updated to include comments from Ulrike Sommer.

Tripolye megasite
Aerial view of the Tripolye megasite Maidanetske. The centralization of power, researchers say, may have led to the downfall of the society. CRC 1266