Urban Civilization Dawned in Ukraine

Statuettes from the Cucuteni-trypillian culture (called ctc by archeologists) in a Romanian museum. During the fifth millennium bce, The ctc built settlements with enough housing to accommodate the population of a modern suburb. Image credit: CristianChirita, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More than six thousand years ago, in the forests and river valleys of present-day central Ukraine, prehistoric farmers built sturdy and beautifully-decorated homes in neighborhoods shaped like pie-slices around a central area that contained a huge meeting hall. Each neighborhood had its own smaller hall and was serviced by concentric series of roads. Up to 15,000 people, members of what is now known as the Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture, may have resided in some of these communities. It’s not exactly what springs to mind when we imagine a stone age settlement in northern Europe.

Why are these astonishing accomplishments so completely unknown today? One reason might be a cultural practice incomprehensible to the modern mind: After living in their lovingly-constructed hamlets for a generation or two, the Cucuteni-Trypillians generally burned the entire place to the ground. Often enough, they would eventually build another one atop the ashes and then torch it again about 60 years later.

The people who built and then incinerated these towns herded cattle and sowed wheat, supplementing their diets with hunting and gathering. They “managed to implement almost all technological innovations of their time,” archeologist Mykhailo Videiko of Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University, who excavated one of the CTC megasites, says in a BBC Travel video. Master ceramists with sophisticated kilns, the Cucuteni-Trypillians venerated women and apparently lived in what we would consider egalitarian societies.

This build-and-burn practice is only one of the reasons why we know so little about the CTC compared with ancient Egypt, which at the time was centuries behind in terms of settlement construction as well as pottery technique. Another is that the CTC peoples did not bury their dead – at least not anywhere near their populated centers. “Not a pinkie, not a tooth” has been found at any of the sites, paleogeneticist Alexey Nikitin of Michigan’s Grand Valley State University told New Scientist. So grave goods, a rich source of information about the life of any culture, are wholly lacking in the prehistoric Ukrainian archeological record.

Painted CTC pot from a museum in present-day moldova, on the western border to ukraine. The concentric circle decorations and the large female figure in the center are seen in other aspects of CTC culture as well, like urban planning and figurines that may have played a role in ctc religion. Image credit: Cristian Chirita, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet another reason may be that archeology itself is a lot more political than one might hope. According to Videiko at BGKU, in the early years of communism the Soviet Union funded a huge amount of research in Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. To the communists, evidence of decentralized, agrarian and equitable societies at the dawn of civilization bolstered their ideologically-determined belief that classlessness was the essential state of human nature.

But once researchers began discovering megasites southwest of Kyiv demonstrating what could only have been hierarchical decision-making structures, the USSR pulled its backing and even executed a lead investigator. Ukrainian archeologists based in Germany and Canada wrote books about the CTC that were banned in Ukraine itself.

As a Jew who writes fiction based on the archeology of the Middle East, I am acutely aware of the politics of my own work and its potential to be used by an Israeli government that oppresses Palestinians. And, to be completely transparent about my motivation for writing this post: I am personally and deeply moved by the war in Ukraine, where my family has roots, and want to do what I can to raise awareness of Ukraine’s special place in history.

Archaeology is a lot more political than one might hope . . . Ukrainian archaeologists based in Germany and Canada wrote books about the Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture that were banned in Ukraine itself.

Before very recently I had never heard of of Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, nor had the slightest clue that anyone in neolithic Europe could have been hundreds of years more advanced than contemporary Middle Eastern civilization. But now the mysteriousness of the CTC’s goddess-centered religion fascinates me – as does the tantalizing possibility that it may have a feathery connection to proto-Jewish thought.

The fin-like feet of the female figure in the painted earthenware above reminds me of a goddess from the western shores of the Mediterranean, Atargatis, who was also associated with Anatolia. Genetically, the CTC peoples were distantly related to Anatolian farmers, as has been discovered from a modest assortment of bodies found far from the mega-settlements in Ukraine but near other, smaller, sites. Could it be that worship of the fish-tailed female deity of Syria and the Sea Peoples had made its way that far north? Might her religion, interpreted by those who knew how temporary all human endeavor truly is in the end, have guided them toward their practice of periodic immolation?

One thing I’ve learned about CTC researchers is that there is practically no interpretation that they all agree fits the facts. But the facts speak very loudly on at least one point: Contrary to the assertions of the current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian civilization has great reason to be proud of its venerable beginnings.

The head of a female figurine from the CTC in the collection of the national history museum of moldova. Image credit: Cristian Chirita, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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