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Reconstruction of Trypillian city Talianki c 4000 B.C.

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture and the mysterious burning of the buildings

The discovery of ancient cultures, and artifacts related to those cultures, often brings for new and surprising information about how our ancient ancestors once lived. Some cultures are discovered to have engaged in very unique practices. One of those cultures is that of the Eastern European Cucuteni-Trypillian.

One of the most striking features of this culture is the manner in which they constructed sophisticated, organized, densely-populated settlements - only to burn them to the ground every 60-80 years to relocate, and rebuild the same settlement as before.

This puzzling practice brings forth many questions as to why a culture would put such effort into creating their settlements only to burn them down. Was this a practice founded on religious principles, or was it simply an exaggerated version of death followed by rebirth? Further research is needed in order to know for certain why the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture engaged in this practice.

A scale reproduction of a Cucuteni-Trypillian village.

A scale reproduction of a Cucuteni-Trypillian village. Wikipedia, ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture inhabited Eastern Europe from approximately 5,400 to 2,700 BC. The area they inhabited extended from the Carpathian Mountains to the Dniester and Dnieper regions, in the area that is known as Moldova today. They covered a vast area of 350,000 square kilometers and created small, densely populated settlements that were 3-4 kilometers apart.

Their culture was advanced in agriculture, as they planted and harvested wheat, barley, peas, and legumes. Archeological evidence shows that they were also skilled in pottery-making, working with clay to create pottery, statues, and other figures. They also crafted jewelry and hooks out of copper.

The Cucuteni-Tripolye had a somewhat sophisticated social organization, with densely populated settlements, which were destroyed and relocated every 60-80 years. A strongly organized society would be required for such regular resettlement of the entire community. Within the culture, the women are said to have been the head of the household. They created textiles and pottery, and did the bulk of the agricultural work. The men are said to have done the hunting, made tools, and cared for the domesticated animals. They men hunted with both traps and tools such as bow and arrow, clubs, and spears, and other techniques such as camouflaging themselves and tracking animals.  The religious beliefs of the culture focused on a female deity, the Great Goddess.  

Goddess-type sculptures from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture.

Goddess-type sculptures from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. Wikimedia, ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Anthropomorphic Cucuteni-Trypillian clay figure

Anthropomorphic Cucuteni-Trypillian clay figure. Wikipedia, ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The diet of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture likely consisted mainly of grains, although they were fairly sophisticated in both agriculture and animal husbandry. They grew club wheat, oats, proso millet, rye, barley, and hemp, all which would have been baked into bread. In addition to grains, they cultivated fruits and legumes such as apricots, cherry plums, grapes, peas, and beans. As far as livestock, evidence has indicated they raised domesticated cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep. There is some evidence, which has not been substantiated, to suggest that the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture also included domesticated horses. In addition to raising domesticated animals, the men also hunted roe deer, red deer, aurochs, wild boar, fox, and brown bear for consumption. They rounded out their diets by using harpoons and hooks for fishing.

One very interesting aspect of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture is the way they treated their settlements and structures. They used stone and copper axes to cut down trees to build dwellings and structures, which consisted of wooden framing coated with clay or bran. Their structures were built both single and multi-story, with clay benches and altars. The inside floors and walls contained ornamental paintings in red and white, intended to provide protection from evil spirits. Evidence has been found of individual dwellings, temples, and public structures. These settlements were highly planned and well-constructed, so it is somewhat surprising to learn that the Cucuteni-Tripolye people would ritualistically burn down their settlements every 60-80 years, before moving on to a new area.

Top interior view of a Cucuteni-Tripolye house

Top interior view of a Cucuteni-Tripolye house (model). Wikimedia

Archaeologists and researchers have uncovered thousands of burned structures, statues, tools, vessels, and even cremated remains of humans and animals. Researcher V. Khvoika set forth a theory that these were the “homes of the dead,” perhaps tombs of sorts. However, later theories suggest regular dwellings and structures were simply burned to make room for new structures. The most widely accepted theory today is a combination of these, indicating that over time structures were burned, with tools, vessels, and animals included as a sacrifice to the ancestral spirits. The old structures and fields were left to the deceased ancestors, and those remaining would move on to a new area. Some scholars have theorized that each structure was viewed as an almost “living” entity, with its own life cycle of death and rebirth.

Archeological finds discovered in Moldova, circa 3650 BC.

Archaeological finds discovered in Moldova, circa 3650 BC. Public Domain

Characteristic example of Cucuteni-Trypillian pottery.

Characteristic example of Cucuteni-Trypillian pottery. Wikipedia, ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is difficult to imagine the culture’s process of burning its settlements to the ground and then rebuilding. While there are strong theories as to why this would take place, it seems as if such a practice would place a somewhat strong burden on the people of the civilization. With rebuilding occurring every 60-80 years, it is likely that every other generation took part in the rebuilding process. Without the tools and materials we have available due to modern technology, this rebuilding would be been a significantly burdensome process, with the need to manually cut down trees, and to erect the new structures. While this is a typical challenge faced by many cultures, the Cucuteni-Tripolye are unique in that they would intentionally destroy functional settlements and then rebuild.

Through research, it has been noted that there have been very few discoveries of funerary objects, and very few cemeteries attributed to the culture. Perhaps the burning of the settlements truly was how the Cucuteni-Tripolye “buried” and honored their dead. Rather than creating a tomb where the deceased could be interred with important objects, the home that the deceased had lived in became their tomb, and they entered the afterlife with the objects they possessed during their earthly life.

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture represents a sophisticated form of ancient life – one where building dwellings and settlements wasn’t merely done for survival, but was performed repeatedly as a cultural practice. Their sophistication as a society is highlighted by their ability to relocate and to rebuild their societies over and over. The true purpose for this conduct may never be known, although it will remain a symbol of the culture’s organized society, and the great lengths they would go to in order to preserve the symbolism of their culture.

Featured image: Reconstruction of Trypillian city Talianki c 4000 B.C. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Sources

The Trypillian People - An Ancient Culture Rich In Symbolism – Trypillian. Available from: http://www.trypillian.com/history.php

Mysterious Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture of Ukraine – Ukraine.com. Available from: http://www.ukraine.com/blog/mysterious-cucuteni-trypillian-culture-of-ukraine

6,000-Year-Old Temple Unearthed in Ukraine – Sci News. Available from: http://www.sci-news.com/archaeology/science-temple-trypillian-culture-nebelivka-ukraine-02223.html

Cucuteni-Trypillian culture – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucuteni-Trypillian_culture

The Trypillian culture. Introduction – Trypillia. Available from: http://www.trypillia.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=27:the-trypillian-culture-introduction&catid=44:introduction&Itemid=14

By M R Reese

Comments

Hm. Bedbugs, roaches, silverfish, rodents .... all sorts of reasons to periodically burn down a town. Did *every* town burn at the same time, or did they simply burn a town when it hit a certain age? [IE, every single town built in 150 BC and burnt in 100 BC, or did they have different build and burn dates.] If they scattered the timing of the burn dates, it would not be that much of a hardship, they could also start prepping for the burn date by stockpiling building materials. Any evidence for that type of behavior either?

you burn settlements to purify land so it can be used again for agriculture. after 50 years crops dont grow as well

I'm on board with this comment by A Myers, and the response from Venusdemilo. Add in rats and mice, as well as diseases such as cholera, smallpox, typhus and there's reason enough for sterilising the area. Couple it with the intensive farming of a limited growing area, to feed a dense population, and it's easy to see that fallowing of fields would not have been a widely used option for nitrogen replacement in the soils. Famine was likely another reason for periodic moves, and maybe the first dead of each famine and disease outbreak was the key to the individual events, using the bone-fires to destroy any other human remains that had built up in the interim.

I have long been interested in Cycladic sculpture and votive objects (pre-Greek inhabitants of the 'Greek' Islands and Cyclades). The sculptures are almost identical to the figures shown in 'Goddess-type sculptures from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture' above. It is said that the Cycladic sculptures were made to lay flat on their backs, and this can be verified by a close examination of the sculptures. Some pieces have been called 'star-gazers'...they seem to have been buried with the dead, perhaps as a soul image. On some islands thousands of such figures have been collected in the distant past and ritually broken...

My minor is Anthropology. The copper axes, were likely more ornamental. Copper smelting was a fairly new technology in the Late Neolithic, but copper is a poor metal to cut with, as it was too soft; they most likely used hand axes. Gender roles in farming was nothing new. That had been in existence for 1,000 years with the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer cultures. Men typically "hunted", and the women "gathered" ; neither were figurines. The idea of a "tell" settlement is poorly understood, although evidence for them is found through the European Neolithic; There are cases of tell mounds being as high as 40 feet at some sites. The rest of the article is passably fair. You may find the following text useful. Sir Barry Cunliffe is considered one of the best European historians in print. "Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD1000 " (2008, Yale U. Press)

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