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The rise and fall of the mysterious culture that invented civilisation

Proto-cities built from 6200 years ago in eastern Europe upend our ideas about when civilisation began and why people made the move from rural to urban living



Humans



24 February 2021

Stuart Mcreath

AROUND 6200 years ago, farmers living on the eastern fringes of Europe, in what is now Ukraine, did something inexplicable. They left their neolithic villages and moved into a sparsely inhabited area of forest and steppe. There, in an area roughly the size of Belgium between the modern cities of Kiev and Odessa, they congregated at new settlements up to 20 times the size of their old ones.

This enigmatic culture, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia, predates the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia, a civilisation that spanned part of the Middle East, and in China. It persisted for 800 years, but then, as mysteriously as it had begun, this experiment in civilisation failed. The inhabitants left the lightest of footprints in the landscape, and no human remains have been found. “Not a pinkie, not a tooth,” says palaeogeneticist Alexey Nikitin at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

This puzzling lack of evidence has fuelled a lively debate about what Nikitin calls the “Dark Ages” of European prehistory. “You talk to five Trypillian archaeologists, you get five different opinions,” he says.

But the data gap hasn’t stifled interest – quite the opposite. Several projects in recent years have tried to make sense of the Trypillian proto-cities. Despite big disagreements, what is emerging is a picture of an early and unique attempt at urbanisation. It may be the key to understanding how modern Europe emerged from the Stone Age – and even throw new light on the emergence of human civilisation in general.

Uruk and Tell Brak, which arose in Mesopotamia early in the 4th millennium BC, are usually considered the world’s first …

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