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Europe Earliest City Dwellers Kept Cattle but Not for Food?

By keeping animals in fenced pastures, their manure served as a natural fertilizer, enhancing crop yields.

Research sheds light on the surprising dietary habits of Europe’s earliest urban societies. It suggests that these civilizations, far from relying heavily on meat, flourished on a foundation of plant-based staples.

Analysis of settlements like the Trypillia culture, dating back around 6,000 years in present-day Ukraine and Moldova, reveals a focus on peas, lentils, and cereal grains. These mega-sites, dwarfing contemporaneous settlements, housed populations estimated at 15,000. Sophisticated food management, essential for such large communities, was achieved through a system prioritizing vegetable production.

Intriguingly, while cattle, sheep, and goats were present, their primary role wasn’t meat production. Analysis led by paleoecologist Frank Schlütz indicates these animals were valued more for their contribution to soil fertility. Their manure served as a natural fertilizer, enriching the soil and promoting crop growth. This focus on plant-based sustenance, alongside the crucial role of animals in fertilization, likely contributed to the remarkable expansion of these early urban centers.

When crops and soil are nourished by manure, biological turnover is increased, resulting in higher nitrogen isotope levels overall.

This is how scientists determined that the crop yields of pea seeds and broad beans, found in the soil of Trypillia sites, were probably improved with “high levels of manuring, over long periods, on small plots close to houses and stables.”

In its heyday, Trypillia culture was one of a kind. Its settlements, which dot Ukraine and Moldova to this day, were designed in concentric circles, with rows of houses lined up along ‘ring corridors’, encircling an open central place.

Analysis of their mega-sites, significantly larger than contemporary settlements, reveals unusually high nitrogen isotope values compared to smaller locations. This signifies a highly developed system of “sophisticated dung management.”

Cattle manure appears to have been the primary fertilizer. Researchers believe hundreds of cows were likely “extensively pastured” near these mega-sites, even potentially far from the main settlements. Sheep and goats were also incorporated into the system, albeit on a smaller scale.

This system formed a self-sustaining cycle. Some mega-sites endured for over 150 years, providing a stable environment for generations of farmers. Researchers credit the enduring success of this society to the “wise management of nutrients,” ensuring they did not deplete their natural resources.

The cause of the Trypillia culture’s decline around 3000 BCE remains a mystery. Several theories exist, including forceful destruction or political instability. Alternatively, some experts posit a shift towards a colder and drier climate as the culprit.

Interestingly, the discovery of this advanced, ecologically sound agricultural system strengthens the notion that the demise of the Trypillia wasn’t driven by economic factors. The evidence suggests social or political forces may have been the deciding factor.

This discovery highlights a fascinating truth: even a thriving society built on a sustainable, plant-based diet can’t guarantee immunity to the challenges of human interaction. Archaeologist Robert Hofmann, also from Germany’s Christian-Albrechts-University, offers his perspective:

“Previous studies indicate social tensions arose due to growing social inequality. People may have chosen to abandon the large settlements in favor of smaller communities once again.”


After 500 y of colonizing the forest-steppe area northwest of the Black Sea, on the territories of what is today Moldova and Ukraine, Trypillia societies founded large, aggregated settlements from ca. 4150 BCE and mega-sites (>100 ha) from ca. 3950 BCE. Covering up to 320 ha and housing up to 15,000 inhabitants, the latter were the world’s largest settlements to date. Some 480 δ13C and δ15N measurements on bones of humans, animals, and charred crops allow the detection of spatio-temporal patterns and the calculation of complete agricultural Bayesian food webs for Trypillia societies. The isotope data come from settlements of the entire Trypillia area between the Prut and the Dnieper rivers. The datasets cover the development of the Trypillia societies from the early phase (4800–4200/4100 BCE), over the agglomeration of mega-sites (4200/4100–3650 BCE), to the dispersal phase (3650–3000 BCE). High δ15N values mostly come from the mega-sites. Our analyses show that the subsistence of Trypillia mega-sites depended on pulses cultivated on strongly manured (dung-)soils and on cattle that were kept fenced on intensive pastures to easy collect the manure for pulse cultivation. The food web models indicate a low proportion of meat in human diet (approximately 10%). The largely crop-based diet, consisting of cereals plus up to 46% pulses, was balanced in calories and indispensable amino acids. The flourishing of Europe’s first mega-populations depended on an advanced, integral mega-economy that included sophisticated dung management. Their demise was therefore not economically, but socially, conditioned [Hofmann et al., PLoS One. 14, e0222243 (2019)].

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