The First Great Settlements Ate Peas, Not Meat

New research has found that people in the earliest large settlements got most of their protein from peas rather than meat.

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The First Great Settlements Ate Peas, Not Meat
Reconstruction of the Maidanetske mega settlement. C: Susanne Beyer, Kiel University

The rural settlements of the ancient Trypillia culture, located in present-day Ukraine and Moldova, were founded more than 6,000 years ago and housed around 15,000 inhabitants. This makes them the largest known prehistoric settlements in the world.

From around 4,100 BC, some 320 hectares of Trypillia culture sites began to emerge in the forest-steppe region northwest of the Black Sea. To understand how these huge communities subsisted, the authors of the new study analyzed more than 480 human and animal bones collected from 40 different sites, as well as stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes from charred crops and soil.


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These analyses allowed the researchers to reconstruct the Trypillia diet while learning how livestock are raised and how crops are grown.

“Food web models show a low proportion (about 10 percent) of meat in the human diet. The largely crop-based diet, consisting of cereals to 46 percent legumes, was balanced in terms of calories and essential amino acids.”

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Meat consumption may have played an important role in social cohesion during feasts, but peas were the primary food of most of the inhabitants, according to the researchers. The high nitrogen levels detected in ancient pea samples suggest that they were heavily fertilized with animal feces, providing enough yield to feed the entire population.

Based on isotope measurements of animal bones, the researchers suspect that cattle were probably kept in fenced pastures near the settlement. This allowed for easy collection of the large amounts of manure needed for pulse production.

The First Great Settlements Ate Peas, Not Meat 1
Maidanetske, the Trypillia culture mega-settlement in central Ukraine, covered an area of about 200 hectares. The archaeomagnetic results of a geophysical survey show archaeologists numerous streets, public buildings, squares and thousands of burnt houses. The houses were built in a very specific concentric arrangement along the main road around a central undeveloped area. This spatial arrangement was intended to provide the population with as equal access to social infrastructure as possible. C: Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, Kiel University

“We concluded that a large proportion of cattle and sheep were fed on fenced pastures, and that the excrement of animals produced there was used by humans, especially for intensive fertilization of peas,” says study author Dr. Frank Schlütz.

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According to the researchers, pea-feeding humans eliminated the need for meat production, which is usually highly resource-consuming. So the main purpose of raising cattle was to provide fertilizer for peas.

“Due to the development of a mega-economy based on pasture and legumes, including the wise management of nutrients such as nitrogen, the development of Trypillia mega-settlements did not lead to excessive consumption of natural resources.”

Nevertheless, Trypillia settlements were abandoned around 5,000 years ago.

Dr. Robert Hofmann, author of the study, says that the collapse of these mega-settlements was probably not caused by economic or environmental collapse and was likely triggered by socio-political conflict.

“As we know from previous studies, social tensions arose as a result of increasing social inequality. As a result, people decided to leave large settlements and move back to smaller ones.”

Article: Schlütz, F., Hofmann, R., Dal Corso, M., Pashkevych, G., Dreibrodt, S., Shatilo, M., … & Kirleis, W. (2023). Isotopes prove advanced, integral crop production, and stockbreeding strategies nourished Trypillia mega-populations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(52), e2312962120.

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