The world’s first cities may be free of social inequality

The first human megasites may have been entirely egalitarian, with social equality helping to draw thousands of people to these vast prehistoric settlements. According to a new analysis, the eventual demise of this equality and the rise of a more stratified social order may have prompted the abandonment of these ancient metropolises.

Located on the Pontic Steppe in what is now Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, the so-called Trypillia megasites first emerged about 6,200 years ago. These Neolithic settlements quickly grew in size, expanding to areas of approximately 320 hectares (790 acres), with each site housing up to 15,000 people during the heyday of the Trypillia culture.

Despite growing into the largest prehistoric settlements in the world, these sites were largely uninhabited about 5,600 years ago. To try to determine how and why the Trypillia centers flourished so spectacularly before falling into obscurity, the authors of a new study used Gini coefficients as a way to assess inequality between households in these ancient cities.

Often used to measure income inequality within a given society, the Gini coefficient is a proven tool for detecting inequality. In this case, the researchers used the method to analyze variations in the floor sizes of approximately 7,000 houses from 38 different Trypillia locations.

“Assuming that the variability in the floor size of houses reflects differences in household wealth, we can observe a decrease in social inequality in Trypillia communities until at least 3800. [BCE],” the study authors write. In addition to the lack of difference in house sizes, the researchers also note that “the architecture of the houses (i.e. floor plan and construction) shows a high degree of standardization, as do the furnishings of the houses and the economic activities observable within them. ”

Examining the overall design of the Trypillia sites, the researchers go on to explain that the circular or oval layout of these settlements “guaranteed equal access to structural elements and infrastructure.” Meanwhile, the presence of ‘multifunctional meeting houses’ in public spaces indicates that the entire community may have participated in political decision-making processes.

“The development outlined here suggests that both an egalitarian ideology and effective mechanisms for avoiding social inequality must have existed within the Trypillia communities,” the study authors said. “It implies intra-settlement mechanisms for reconciling interests and redistributing surpluses that may have been collectively created,” they add.

Based on this interpretation, the researchers argue that social equality “may have been decisive for a time in attracting large numbers of people to these communities.” However, from about 3800 BCE the spatial layout of the Trypillian settlements began to change, possibly due to an increase in inequality and the development of a social hierarchy.

It is also around this time that the Trypillia megasites begin to decrease in size as smaller communities begin to appear in the surrounding countryside. According to the study authors, this may indicate that people decided to leave the primeval cities when the egalitarian dream began to fade.

“The demise of large Trypillian settlements and the formation of smaller communities in surrounding regions begins precisely at the moment when social inequality begins to increase again,” the researchers write. “The end of the merged Trypillia communities and megasites thus coincided with the moment when the mechanisms of social leveling and political participation began to fail and social inequality reemerged,” they conclude.

The research has been published in the journal Antiquity.

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