Early city dwellers wisely ate fertilized peas

The so-called Trypillia mega-settlements in today’s Ukraine and Moldova are considered to be the oldest city-like settlements in Europe. Artistic representation © Susanne Beyer/Uni Kiel

Up to 15,000 people had to be fed: around 6,000 years ago, in the first city-like settlements in Europe, sophisticated food and livestock management ensured the supply of the population, researchers report. This emerges from isotope analyzes of bones and food remains from sites in Ukraine and Moldova. The heavily vegetarian diet of the prehistoric city dwellers was based primarily on protein-rich peas. These legumes were apparently intensively fertilized with manure provided by fenced-in grazing cattle. The existence of the early large settlements was based on a healthy diet and sustainable agriculture, say the researchers.

They were among the first societies to emerge after agriculture came to Europe: around 6,800 years ago, the so-called Trypillia settlements formed in the forest steppe north of the Black Sea. The previously smaller units developed from around 4150 BC. Astonishingly large, planned protocities. Their remains can now be found in Ukraine and Moldova. It is estimated that some of these mega-settlements reached up to 15,000 inhabitants. They are considered the oldest city-like settlements in Europe and even preceded urbanization in Mesopotamia. The heyday of these Trypillia settlements lasted about 500 years. Afterwards, however, the centers were abandoned and people went back to living in smaller villages. There are indications that social tensions led to the collapse. But perhaps supply difficulties also played a role?

What formed the basis of existence of the mega settlements?

The current study by researchers led by Frank Schlütz from the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel has now, for the first time, looked more closely at the question of what the diet of the residents of these Neolithic mega-settlements was based on. To do this, they examined samples of animal and human bones as well as the remains of food plants that were found in various Trypillia settlements over the last ten years. They subjected the material to an isotope analysis. As they explain, based on patterns of carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions in the materials, conclusions can be drawn about the diet of people and animals as well as certain types of crop cultivation.

As the researchers report, the isotope analyzes of human bones revealed that the population's diet was predominantly vegetarian. Specifically, the diet apparently consisted mainly of peas followed by grain. The scientists explain that the big advantage of legumes as part of a vegetarian diet was their high protein content with essential amino acids. Ultimately, the inhabitants of the Trypillia settlements ate a balanced, mixed diet in which meat was largely avoided as a source of protein. Nevertheless, it was occasionally served on the table, as can be seen from the relics of animal husbandry. However, it is possible that this mainly served another purpose: to obtain dung for growing food crops.

Sophisticated food and livestock management

The results of the isotope analyzes showed that the peas had apparently been intensively fertilized in order to achieve high yields. “We came to the conclusion that a large proportion of the cattle and sheep appeared to be kept in fenced pastures. And the animal dung produced there was used by people to intensively fertilize the peas in particular,” says Schlütz. The resulting pea straw was then used to feed the livestock. The researchers explain that this close coupling of crop production and livestock farming apparently made it possible for the people of the mega-settlements to eat adequately and healthily. “The supply of the population of the mega-settlements was based on extremely sophisticated food and pasture management,” summarizes Schlütz.

The results therefore provide no indication that a lack of food supply played a role in the collapse of the mega-settlements after their approximately 500-year existence. The study, however, confirms previous evidence that the decline began around 3000 BC. BC was due to social problems. Co-author Robert Hofmann from the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel says: “Preliminary study results suggest that social tensions arose as a result of increasing social inequality. In the end, people turned their backs on large settlements and decided to live in smaller settlements again,” says the archaeologist.

Source: Christian Albrechts University of Kiel, specialist article: PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.2312962120

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