The Mysterious House-Burning of the Forgotten Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture
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 found to have engaged in very unique practices. One of these is the 7,000-year-old Eastern European Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, who constructed sophisticated, organized, densely-populated settlements, only to burn them to the ground every 60 to 80 years, before relocating and rebuilding the same settlement all over again.
Pottery from the Cucuteni–Trypillian culture depicting a female goddess and kept at the National History Museum of Moldova. (Cristian Chirita / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Uncovering the Advanced Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture
The Neolithic Cucuteni-Trypillian culture inhabited Eastern Europe from approximately 5,400 to 2,700 BC. Once living in a vast area of 350,000 square kilometers (135,136 sq mi) covering parts of modern-day Moldova, Romania and Ukraine, they created small and densely populated settlements that were located three to four kilometers apart. This particular civilization has been defined by its high quality clay pottery.
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The first related discoveries were actually made as recently as the 1880s. Known as “Cucuteni” in Romania and “Trypillia” in the Ukraine, its name comes from the places where artifacts were first discovered: the village of Cucuteni in Romania, where the folklorist Teodor Burada first came across ceramic fragments in 1884, and Trypillia in the province of Kyiv Oblast in the Ukraine, where Vikentiy Khvoyka discovered a vast Neolithic site which was announced in 1897. Years later, these finds were recognized as belonging to the same culture.
View of Neolithic Trypillia by Vsevolod Ivanov. (Fair Use)
“Surely one of the most impressive civilizations of Neolithic Europe, and by some measures totally outdid the famous first cities of Mesopotamia,” explained Dan Davis History . Nevertheless, very few people have heard of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. According to BBC Travel , excavations to date of Cucuteni-Trypillian settlements have unearthed “one of the earliest known examples of urbanization and suggest a population that exceeded one million people.”
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 using enormous and advanced kilns and then decorating them with colored patterns.
It’s hard to overstate the quality of the pottery made by the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. “With all our modern methods, traditional craftsmen are trying to reproduce Cucuteni ceramics, but with inferior results,” stressed Constantin Preotasa in Radio România Internaţional . They also crafted jewelry and hooks out of copper.
Map depicting the Eneolithic cultures of Southeastern Europe, including the main archaeological sites. (Caliniuc / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Piecing Together the Lifestyle of the Cucuteni-Trypillia
Despite the late discovery of this forgotten culture , historians have been able to piece together the clues left behind to try to understand the way this Neolithic culture function. Within the Cucuteni-Trypillian 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, hunting with both traps and tools such as bow and arrow, clubs, and spears, and other techniques such as camouflaging themselves and tracking animals. Based on female idols discovered during excavations, it appears that their religious practices focused on a female deity, the Great Goddess.
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.
The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture built advanced mega settlements. This is a reconstruction of a Trypillian city known as Talianki, in the Ukraine, dating back to circa 4,000 BC. (Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Evidence of Ritualistic Burning of Cucuteni-Trypillian Settlements
Messy Nessy reported that the evidence points to their “intentionally and repeatedly” burning their settlements down. This puzzling practice has raised 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, but several hypotheses have been put forward, ranging from dealing with extensive termites to ritual cremation. What is clear is that a strongly organized society would be required for such regular resettlement of the entire community.
In creating their settlements, 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. Their advanced construction methods allowed for unusually large buildings, with remains of structures that were up to 700 meters squared (7535 sq. ft.) in size. Archaeologists have also claimed that these settlements were amongst the largest being built anywhere on Earth at the time. 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 to 80 years, before moving on to a new area.
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.
Controlled recreation of the burning of a Cucuteni-Trypillian house, which would have required a great deal of fuel to coincide with the burnt remains left behind. ( Public domain )
Why Did They Regularly Burn Down their Settlements?
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 to 80 years, it is likely that every other generation took part in the rebuilding process.
Without the tools and materials that we have today, this rebuilding would have 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 people of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture 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 could have been their tomb. In this way they would have entered the afterlife with the objects they possessed during their lifetime on Earth.
Reproduction of a Cucuteni-Trypillian village. (CristianChirita / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Hidden History - Silencing the Cucuteni-Trypillian Civilization
Unfortunately, research of the forgotten Cucuteni-Trypillian culture has been hampered by the Soviet Union. According to a BBC documentary , although the Soviet enthusiastically funded projects when the discoveries were first made, making parallels between unearthed remains and ideals of primitive communism .
Mykhailo Videiko, a Ukrainian archaeologist included in the documentary, explained that as excavations continued and began to contradict this idea of a “classless utopia,” the official attitude changed and “researchers who challenged the official propaganda were deemed enemies of the state.” Combined with the fact that they left behind no written records, this can to some extent explain why the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture remains almost unheard of today.
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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.
Top image: Legedzine in the Ukraine is home to the remains of remnants of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. Every year it hosts a festival organized by the Trypillian Culture State Historical and Cultural Reserve. Source: Александр Водолазский / CC BY-SA 4.0
By M R Reese
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