By mastering new ways of procuring food, ancient people were freed from the dependence on natural factors, causing their numbers to grow exponentially
The concept of the Neolithic Revolution was introduced by legendary Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, one of the founders of the contemporary version of the prehistory of mankind. He was a convinced Marxist and even sympathized with the Bolshevik experiment in the USSR. When he last visited Moscow and Leningrad in 1956 after Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement of Joseph Stalin at the 20th CPSU Congress, he gained a new perspective on the Soviet reality and the condition of science in the USSR, a country he had considered the only alternative to capitalism.
Disillusioned, Childe returned to London where he wrote a bitter letter to leading Soviet archaeologists, speaking about the hopeless backwardness and political motivation of Soviet science. He voluntarily resigned as the director of the Institute of Archaeology in London and went back to Australia, his homeland. There he climbed atop a 70-metre-high rock, left his glasses on a parapet and jumped off the cliff. His suicide was a tragic consequence of his deep disillusionment with Marxist the dogmas that he had upheld throughout his life. Yet his concept of the Neolithic Revolution lived on. Rather than being instantaneous, this revolution unfolded over the course of several millennia and represents a turning point in the history of humanity in which ancient people began to gain independence from their natural environment.
The Neolithic Revolution was a transition from food procurement by means of hunting, fishing and gathering to food production by means of agriculture and animal husbandry. This important event, which divides history into two great eras (procurement economy and production economy), is called Neolithization or the Neolithic Era.
In earlier periods, population growth was constrained by natural factors—primarily limited access to naturally occurring food sources. By mastering relatively nature-independent and efficient ways of obtaining food, mankind freed itself from the yoke of natural limitations, enabling its exponential population growth. As a result of the Neolithic Revolution, the Earth’s population has increased 1,000-fold in the past 5,000-7,000 years.
Production agriculture (farming and animal husbandry) emerged some 10,000 years ago in the Near East. It came to Europe (and in particular Ukraine) through the Balkan Peninsula. However, the process was preceded by significant natural and climatic changes.
Natural and social preconditions
In the Ice Age, warm humid air from the Atlantic did not move across Europe as it does now, but rather traversed the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Near East, making these regions more humid. When the Scandinavian glaciers melted away 10,000 years ago, the Atlantic cyclone belt moved northward to Europe, stripping North Africa and West Asia of oceanic humidity and leaving vast deserts there — Moroccan, Libyan, Sahara, Arabian and Judeaen. Unfavourable climatic changes depleted the flora and fauna, forcing ancient hunters to improve their weapons in order to provide their communities with enough food. The spread of bows and arrows further depleted the population of game animals and led to a hunting crisis. Primitive communities were forced to seek alternative methods of food procurement.
A large part of the diet in the Eastern Mediterranean consisted of wild wheat and barley, lentils and vetch, which were found in large quantities in mountain valleys in the Near East. As they gathered wild cereals, women acquired skills in working the land and gradually began cultivating crops in a primitive form of hoe agriculture.
In conditions of food shortage, male hunters had to make more efficient use of their spoils. Wild baby goats and lambs were kept in special pens until they grew large enough to be killed and consumed. In this way, cereal gathering and hunting led to the emergence of two types of production agriculture in the Near East – cattle breeding and farming.
Cooking cereals required heat-resistant waterproof utensils. Moreover, containers were also needed to preserve grain until the new crop. Thus, early crop growing was accompanied by a massive spread of earthenware, which even became an archaeological marker of the Neolithic era.
By focusing their efforts on farming, formerly nomadic hunters adopted a more sedentary lifestyle as crop fields required constant care and protection. Improved nourishment and a sedentary lifestyle led to drastic increases in the human population. Population density in early hoe culture communities was 50-100 times that of hunter-gatherers.
The fundamental change of lifestyle and diet in the Neolithic era also had some negative consequences. Crowded settlements had worse sanitary conditions and often suffered from epidemics. The amount of food in farming communities increased, but its quality was greatly inferior to the meat ration of hunters. The crop diet consisted largely of carbohydrates, while protein, amino acids and vitamins were lacking. This sapped energy from the human body, making it an easy target for various diseases. It is believed that the degradation of teeth and gracilization of the skeleton (weakening of the bones) were caused by the transition from a meat-rich hunter’s diet to a farming ration largely consisting of carbohydrates.
The demographic explosion in the Near East created a population surplus that was unable to obtain enough food in its indigenous lands, forcing it to migrate to neighbouring territories with sparse hunting communities. The far more developed Neolithic newcomers brought along production agriculture, cultivated crops (barley, wheat and peas), domesticated animals (goats and sheep), and their lifestyle, culture, language, and beliefs. The settlers implemented their economic model in new lands, leading to new demographic explosions. Together with soil depletion, this stimulated migration to even more remote fertile lands. Scientists have calculated that the demographic wave of early farmers spread out from the Near East at about one kilometre per year.
Farming and animal husbandry came to Europe some 8,000 years ago from the Anatolian Peninsula (modern Turkey). The bulk of Neolithic settlers moved from the Near East across islands in the Aegean Sea to eastern Greece and from there northwards to the territories along the Danube. Some colonists proceeded along the Danube river valley to Central and Western Europe, while others crossed Transylvania to reach the territory of modern Ukraine.
In Europe, the earliest Neolithic cultures emerged in Thessaly, a region in eastern Greece, from the late 8th to 7th century BC. The wild ancestors of domesticated animals (sheep and goat) and cultivated plants (wheat, barley, lentil and pea) can still be found in the Near East, which points to the origins of the Neolithic culture of the Balkans. The settlers’ material culture and Near Eastern (Armenoid) anthropological type provide further evidence of their origins.
In the late 7th century BC, early farmers reached the northern boundary of the Balkan Peninsula, giving rise to the Criş culture that represented a large Mid-Danube Neolithic community. Its members advanced far to the east to the basins of the Prut, the middle Dniester and the Southern Buh. These influences shaped Ukraine’s earliest Neolithic culture, known as the ‘Buh-Dniester culture’, around 5700 BC.
A new stage in the Neolithic colonization of Europe began in the mid-6th century BC when early farmers advanced from the middle Danube to the north of the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains. The Criş culture gave rise to the Linear Pottery culture in what is now Hungary. Its members quickly spread westwards to the Paris Basin and eastwards to southern Poland, Volhynia, the Dniester region and Moldova. Colonization of the forested area of Central Europe was made possible by the implementation of the slash-and-burn agricultural technique.
Trypillian culture. Clay figurines (1, 3 and 4), bull’s head made of bone (2) and earthenware (5-10)
The agricultural colonization of Europe stopped at the southern frontier of the Middle European Plain: the North German lowlands, the Polish Plain and Polissia. Abounding in sands, clays and marshes left behind by a glacier and overgrown with impenetrable forests, this territory was not attractive to farmers. This is why it remained home to Europe’s aboriginal forest-dwelling hunters. However, due to the intensive use of bows and arrows in hunting, the numbers of forest ungulates (aurochs, elk, deer, roe and wild boars) declined sharply. A crisis of the hunting economy forced European hunters to first adopt earthenware from Neolithic colonists and then learn farming and cattle-breeding skills.
Thus, two parallel ancient worlds took shape in Europe around the 5th century BC. Europe’s southern part was inhabited by Neolithic farmers and cattle-breeders from the Near East. The forests in the north continued to be populated by hunters and fishers. These were distant descendants of near-glacial communities that hunted mammoths, bison and moose, and ancestors of the contemporary European people. The skills of production agriculture were disseminated through the forest belt much later than in the Balkan Peninsula and the Danube region. Neolithic innovations were borrowed by the indigenous forest population from their southern neighbours together with words of Near Eastern origin.
The border between the two cultures also cut across Ukraine. Hunting and fishing would predominate in Polissia and Eastern Ukraine for a long time to come, while Right-Bank Ukraine, which was close to the Danube region, quickly adopted hoe agriculture and cattle breeding.
The conversion of Ukraine, much like Central Europe, to production-based Neolithic culture took place under influences that originated in the Balkan Peninsula and filtered through the Danube region. From the 7th to 5th centuries BC, four powerful waves of migrants came from the Danube region: the Grebenyky culture (Odesa region) and the Neolithic Criş, Linear Pottery and Cucuteni-Trypillian cultures. The arrival of Cucuteni-Trypillian farmers who settled in the forest-steppe zone between the middle Dniester and the southern part of the Kyiv region in the late 6th century BC resulted in the final triumph of the production economy in Right-Bank Ukraine.
Who were the Trypillians?
More than 100 years ago, Vicenty Khvoika conducted excavations near the village of Trypillia in the Kyiv region, thus initiating the study of this significant phenomenon in Ukraine. However, contrary to popular belief, Khvoika was not the first to discover this ancient culture. Even before he made his finds, the same culture was known to Polish and Romanian archaeologists as the ‘Painted Ceramics’ culture and the ‘Cucuteni’ culture, respectively.
The culture took shape in present-day Romania and Moldova on the basis of several cultural expressions of the Balkan-Danube Neolithic era. Moving eastwards, the carriers of the Cucuteni culture crossed the Dniester in the late 6th millennium BC and reached the Dnieper at a point between Kyiv and Cherkasy around the middle of the 4th century BC.
The economy of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture in the territories of modern-day Romania, Moldova and Right-Bank Ukraine revolved around growing wheat, barley and peas and breeding cattle, goats, sheep and pigs. When land was depleted, the Trypillians moved eastward, gradually colonizing all chernozem (black soil) lands from the Carpathians to the Dnieper that were suitable to their farming system.
Trypillian rectangular wattle and daub homes are a typical example of the Balkan tradition of house construction. Numerous clay vessels and figurines of women that have been found in Trypillian settlements are also convincing proof of the Balkan origins of this culture. The Mediterranean anthropological type of the Trypillians provides further evidence. It has been reconstructed based on rare skeletal remains of Trypillians themselves and through anthropological studies of Neolithic burial places in the Balkan Peninsula and the Danube region.
Trypillian agriculture reached a peak and was on the verge of becoming a civilization complete with cities, a writing system and a state, but ultimately failed to develop these aspects. Huge settlements (Maidanetske, Talianky, Dobrovody, etc.) with up to 3,000 inhabitants and the area of 200-400 hectares did not have urban structure. In other words, these were large rural-type settlements, not cities. A Trypillian state and a Trypillian writing system are topics that have not been raised even by the boldest researchers.
Proto-cities and an elaborate system of signs suggest that the Trypillian culture can be viewed as a proto-civilization that was emerging concurrently with the earliest states in the Near East. However, the Trypillians ultimately failed to cross this threshold because of deficiencies in their economy and natural calamities that befell them in the late 4th century BC.
The Trypillians were able to complete agricultural colonization of the forest-steppe zone in Right-Bank Ukraine stretching from the Prut to the Dniester owing to a warm humid climate in the 6th to the 5th centuries BC. The extensive system of hoe agriculture caused black-soil depletion in Right-Bank Ukraine, and the economic potential of the region was exhausted. The increasingly dry climate and the advancing steppe delivered the final blow to the Trypillian agricultural economy, causing it to disintegrate around 3,000 BC.
Areas populated by the earliest Neolithic farmers in Europe, 7th-5th centuries BC
The “nationality” of the Trypillians
Some scientific data, primarily from archaeological sources, permits genetic attribution of the Balkan Neolithic era (including its Ukrainian form, the Trypillian culture) to specific ethnic communities in the Near East. The primary suspects are the Hatti from Southern Anatolia and the Hurrians, a related people that lived in the upper Tigris and Euphrates. Because the Neolithic colonization of the Balkan Peninsula and the Danube region began precisely from Anatolia, which was home to the Hatti and partly to the Hurrians, it is no surprise that the Balkan Neolithic culture exhibits a powerful Hattic-Hurrian influence. The Neolithic cultures of the Danube region and Right-Bank Ukraine have distinct parallels to Asia Minor, according to archaeological, anthropological and paleolinguistic data.
The genetic connection between the Balkan Neolithic culture—and through it the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture—with the South Anatolian (pre-Hattic) centre of Neolithization suggests that, ethnolinguistically, the earliest farmers in the Balkan Peninsula, the lower Danube and Right-Bank Ukraine were most likely related to the pre-Hatti people. This is also true of the Trypillian culture in Right-Bank Ukraine as the northeasternmost manifestation of the Balkan Neolithic proto-civilization.
Therefore, the Neolithization of Ukraine took place under influences coming from the Balkan-Danube region in the 6th to 5th centuries BC and followed a typical Central European scenario. Early farmers (including Trypillians) came to Right-Bank Ukraine from the Danube Region. Through the Balkans and the Danube, they had a genetic connection to the earliest centres of the Neolithic Revolution in the Near East, particularly southern Anatolia. Their entire cultural and economic complex was essentially Near Eastern in nature. The northern neighbours of the Trypillians were the indigenous hunters and fishers of Polissia and the Dnieper region who borrowed Neolithic innovations from their southern neighbours 1,000-2,000 years later.
The advance of the steppes and their drier climate led to the collapse of the Trypillian culture and the spread of free-range animal husbandry in the late 4th century BC. In the 3rd century BC, former Trypillian lands in Right-Bank Ukraine came to be populated by the earliest cattle-breeders of the ‘Yamna’ and ‘Corded Ware’ cultures which are believed to be ancestors of the Baltic and Slavic people. In this way, the connection of the Trypillians with the subsequent generations that inhabited the territory of present-day Ukraine was severed, which rules out their direct involvement in the genesis of the Ukrainian people.
Leonid Zalizniak is Head of the Department for Stone Age Archaeology at the NANU Institute of Archaeology. He represents Ukraine in the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences as a member of a commission on the Paleolithic period. He has authored several books, including Narysy starodavnioyi istoriyi Ukrainy (Outlines of the Ancient History of Ukraine, 1994), The Swidrian Reindeer Hunters of Eastern Europe (1995), Vid sklavyniv do ukrainskoyi natsiyi (From Sklaveni to the Ukrainian Nation, 1997), Naidavnishe mynule Ukrainy (Ukraine’s Most Ancient Past, 1997), Peredistoriya Ukrainy X-V tys. do n.e. (The Prehistory of Ukraine, 10th to 5th millennium BC, 1998), Finalnyi paleolit pivnichnoho zakhodu Skhidnoyi Yevropy (The Northwestern Region of Eastern Europe in the Late Paleolithic Era, 1999), Pervisna istoriya Ukrainy (The Earliest History of Ukraine, 1999), Pokhodzhennia ukraintsiv: mizh naukoyu ta ideolohiyeyu (The Genesis of the Ukrainian People: Science vs Ideology, 2008) and others.