The Puzzle of Neolithic Cycles: the Strange Rise and Collapse of Tripolye Mega-Settlements

Peter Turchin


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As the readers of this blog know, a big chunk of my research focuses on why complex societies go through cycles of alternating internally peaceful, or integrative, phases and turbulent, or disintegrative periods. In all past state-level societies, for which we have decent data, we find such “secular cycles” (see more in our book Secular Cycles).

What was a surprise for me was to find that pre-state societies also go through similar cycles. Non-state centralized societies (chiefdoms) cycle back and forth between simple (one level of hierarchy below the chief) and complex (two or more hierarchical levels) chiefdoms. But now evidence accumulates that even non-centralized, non-hierarchical societies cycle. The work by archaeologists, such as Stephen Shennan, showed that various regions within Europe went through three or four population cycles before the rise of centralized societies (see, for example, his recent book The First Farmers of Europe).

These cycles were quite drastic in amplitude. For example, last month at a workshop in Cologne, I learned from archaeologists working in North Rhine that population declines there could result in regional abandonment. Several hypotheses have been advanced, including the effects of climate fluctuations, or soil exhaustion. But there is no scientific consensus—this is a big puzzle.

One hypothesis, which, for some reason, doesn’t get much attention, is the role of warfare in all this (I’ve written about this curious bias in this post and others). For example, a recent, and otherwise excellent article by Hofmann et al. on the rise and collapse of Tripolye mega-settlements (Governing Tripolye: Integrative architecture in Tripolye settlements) doesn’t mention words “warfare” or “war” even a single time! I’ll return to this article in a bit.

To fill this theoretical gap, I am starting a project in which we will model the rival hypotheses, including the one focusing on warfare, and will do a systematic empirical test of their predictions using data on several Neolithic populations.

But back to the Tripolye article. Hofmann et al. integrated the data coming from high-resolution magnetometry surveys (it never ceases to amaze me how rapidly archaeological methodology is advancing) of 19 mega-settlements and discovered that they all had large communal buildings. Here’s a map from the article of one well-studied settlement, Maidanetske:

The big red square with numeral 1 appears to be the main meeting/ritual building. There are 12 more intermediate size buildings, which are much larger than residential houses, and were also “integrative buildings” where joint decision-making meetings could take place (followed, it goes without saying, by feasting). What is particularly interesting is that we have a three level hierarchy here:

1. Usual houses (around 3,000 of them, implying total population in excess of 10,000)

2. Mid-level integrative buildings (12 of them), probably used to govern each district

3. Top level integrative building to govern the whole settlement.

At least, this is the reconstruction by the authors, which makes a lot of sense to me.

What is particularly interesting is the dynamics between 4100 BCE, when these giant settlements formed, and 3600 BCE, when they collapsed. It is schematically depicted in this figure from the article:

The mega-settlement was formed by a number of groups moving together. Each of the groups probably occupied a separate district with its own integrative building, and then they added the top-level meeting hall to work out the issues affecting the whole community. Later, however, mid-level meeting halls disappear, and only the top-level integrative building remained. And soon after that the whole settlement collapsed.

The authors argue that “the non-acceptance of this concentration of power and the decline of lower decision-making levels might be a crucial factor for the disintegration of Tripolye giant-settlements around 3600 BCE”. Perhaps. But this conclusion leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

First, why did the different groups move together in the first place? From almost any point of view, except one, this was a really poor decision. Such crowding together resulted in serious problems with sanitation and disease. Additionally, farmers had to waste a lot of time traveling to their fields, because such huge settlement required a lot of land to support it. The only reason for such population concentration that makes sense to me is collective defense.

There are many signs pointing to warfare as the primary mover behind the rise of Tripolye mega-settlements. The Tripolye people constructed elaborate defenses with not just one but two concentric rings of ditches. Another indicator of external conflict is burned houses. Of course, wooden houses can burn as a result of an accident, but note the green-colored “houses burnt (settlement 1)”. These houses are outside the ditch, and quite spread out. Enemy action is more likely as the cause of burning then accidental fire leaping from house to house. Finally, the authors note that the size of mega-settlements increases as one travels in the southeastern direction, and thus towards flatter steppe region, where defense is more difficult.

The second question is that at the end of the mega-settlement period, the population didn’t simply disperse out; there was a very substantial population collapse. Again, what was the reason for this? In historical periods the usual answer is pervasive endemic warfare. Not only war kills people, its effect on demography is even more due to the creation of a “landscape of fear,” which doesn’t permit farmers to cultivate fields, so that the local population gradually starves, has fewer babies, and is further diminished by out-migration. Such landscape of fear is not easily detectable archaeologically, because few people die violently (they keep to fortified settlements and are afraid to venture out).

As I said earlier, this internal warfare hypothesis is just one of possible explanations for the Neolithic collapses. We will get better answers by comparing model predictions to the data, and it looks like Tripolye would make a great case study in this research.


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This could be totally irrelevant or something you have already covered but that sort of reminds me of a story I heard about native tribes in the americas that would come together seasonally to hunt buffalo herds and form strict hierarchies for the hunting but then dissolve them and go off independently for other seasons. Obviously different fauna and those settlements look more than seasonal but it could be a sort of malthusian dynamic with some regional prey. Or not.

Roger Cooper

Can we connect the decline of the mega-settlements to intrusion of the Yamnaya culture? The mega-settlements may have been protective against rival Tripolye groups, but insufficient against the Yamanya/Kurgan/Indo-Europeans with horses and hereditary military caste. The victorious horse nomads would not need protective settlements of this sort.

Roger Cooper

The Wikipedia quotes Anthony that the spread of Yamnaya occured 3400-3200 BC. The Tripolye culture comes to an end around 3000BC according the the Wikipedia. So the timing and location fits for the Yamnaya destroying the Tripolye.

Ross Hartshorn

Just an idea from a few moments consideration, but the first thing that came to mind as a driver for the successive waves of consolidation and collapse was that the same thing happens today. There is a cycle in some bureaucracies where each agency has its own IT staff, then at some point the higher-up forces a consolidation into one IT department so that resources can be shared better, then only one or two politically well-connected agencies get their IT problems dealt with, and all the agencies start hiring their own IT staff again. Ten years later or more, the cycle repeats.

There are advantages to any consolidation (we can all work together on irrigation, wall-building, etc.), but once consolidated those resources get used to the advantage of those best able to influence the top chief. After long enough, the other peripheral groups find the disadvantages of having their resources sucked away to the center outweigh the advantages of cooperating with the other groups.

Of course, consolidated defense is certainly one of those needs, and this story doesn’t really conflict with yours. But, it could be not only mutual defense, but joint projects for irrigation, wall-building, planting and harvest, and anything else that drives this as well. Once you consolidate, there is the potential for the consolidated resources to be used only for the benefit of the few.

It would also be a reason for the disappearance of the mid-level meeting halls, if the chieftain didn’t like the meetings being held there (because they led to a lot of griping about his decisions), or there didn’t seem to be much point because all the decisions were being made at the center anyway.

David Vognar

4I think this case is one possible route of many. It is analytically imprecise to say that societies must always have social cohesion in order to succeed. In this case, North Korea should be a very successful society. While dictatorial management can produce results (which we see in China), it comes at the cost of better results. It is only one way among money. Diversity, pluralism, multiplicity are the better paths.


You are reaching for the conclusion you prefer. The counter argument,well reasoned, could be that diversity has been highly detrimental to economic growth. The united states, and much of the western world, had far higher growth rates prior to the deluge of nontraditional immigration beginning in the mid 60s–your diversity.

David Vognar

Growth rates have slowed in most of the developed world as mercantile countries have matured. Meanwhile, the global economy is as big as ever.


‘Meanwhile, the global economy is as bloated as ever’
Fixed that for you


The US had high grow rates 100 years ago when nontraditional immigration (of that era) flooded the US as well. What _is_ different is that birth rates have dropped throughout the developed world.


‘The US had high grow rates 100 years ago when nontraditional immigration (of that era) flooded the US as well.’

The ‘growth rates’ resulted in the Great Depression, and birth rates have nothing to do with GDP growth. If population growth determined economic health then Africa and India should be economic powerhouses.


There’s a lag with the demographic dividend as babies born now only start becoming contributing members of society about 20 years later, but you can also look at recent history. India’s economy has grown faster than the US economy every year for the past 20 years.

In fact, by 2030, India’s economy is projected to be bigger than the US economy on a PPP basis:


Your original argument was about immigration. Not birthrates. So your latest post is a non-sequitor.

Two things.

First, as it stands, India’s population is around 1.3 billion. Significantly larger than the US population. By your earlier argument of population = economic growth, India and China’s economies should be larger than that of the US.

But it isn’t and citing PPP only compounds your ignorance. PPP only works in situations where economies are comparable (i.e. both are agricultural or financial focused for example). India and US economies are structured very differently.

Secondly, Europe and the US’ per capita GDP have been higher vis a vis India’s for centuries (see: Angus Maddison’s work on macro economic history). So a large population is not a measure of economic wealth, and immigration is not a net positive.

Your disingenuous argument with regards to immigration was meant to hide the fact that not all peoples and immigrants are equal. John from earlier was right. Diversity is not a strength.

As for those projections, they are based on the assumption that growth rates will hold until 2030. They won’t. The US world order is crumbling, and when it finally falls apart, India’s growth rate will slow down. It’s already in the late third phase of the demographic transition model and it will eventually flatten out some time in the mid century.

E. N. Anderson

Indeed it is absolutely fascinating. War and invasion were proposed, way back, but opinion shifted away from that as rather little evidence was found. There may be more now. But similar cycles in (much less strongly cyclic) Native California turn out to track climate change; major changes cause resettlement, etc.

J. Daniel

Is military conquest from outside really cyclical in the usual sense of the term? External shocks can certainly destroy a society. Sometimes they might be military, other times they might be environmental change, or disease, or malthusian chaos, or …. I imagine a society that is geographically susceptible to military incursion might “cycle” based on that, while a more isolated society might “cycle” from environmental damage or malthusian effects, and so on. I’d like to say that if a society endogenously contains the seeds of its own destruction, that is cyclical (assuming an eventual recovery), but if destruction is from an external perturbation, then calling it cyclical is a little more dicey.

Mike Waller

When one considers the massive effort the construction of pre-Roman hill forts took in the UK, the warfare hypothesis looks very strong. These are generally considered to be defensive structures into which people, animals and food stocks could be withdrawn when under threat from others; not, as with Norman castles, means of controlling the local population. We might consider marauding tribes who made their living by seizing the food stocks of others to be the equivalent of fishing fleets. The more successful they are, the bigger the fleet becomes until, suddenly, stocks of their prey collapse. .

John Strate

Yes, the argument seems sound. People will live together at higher population densities if there’s value from collective defense. Presumably, the benefit of collective defense outweighs the inevitable disadvantages of living together at higher population densities including increased susceptibility to parasites and diseases and intensified competition for resources, mates, etc. I’d think that as settlements grow larger there will be more competition among the leaders of different lineages and greater difficulty holding the large political community together (i.e., better to be alpha in a little pond than a beta in a big pond). It’s the threat of external warfare that holds the large community together. If the benefit of “protection” or collective defense disappears (the external threat disappears; the larger political community is defeated in warfare) there will be fissioning.

steven t johnson

One aspect of cities that may seem at first glance to be a negative is the higher mortality. It seems to me that cities for much of history could be seen as an abattoir for excess population. Cities that could reproduce their own populations seem to be, so far as I can tell, typical of a fairly later stage in technological development. The powerful tendency to regard cities as parasitic on the good and decent folks who owned land seems to conceive of a unique parasitism that doesn’t actually reproduce the parasite. Or, to turn it around, a structural/functional aspect of farmers going long distances out to their land is that their farms are safely removed from the landless.

It is difficult to imagine regular warfare from “outside” not raiding the farms, leaving the cities hungry. In Livy’s history of Rome, he talks of such raiding. The cities coped by wars against each other, striking at the other city to deter raiding (a difficult process leading to many wars.) In the archaeology of a less technologically developed society would be not so much devastated farms but old battlefields, with spear heads, skeletons with massive wounds, etc.

Equally, it is the greater pressure of population on the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem that leads to struggles for resources, whether against outsiders or the landless insiders. (The effective owners of land would be highly unlikely to own land in the sense of modern societies. At a guess, it is the inability to simply declare one person the owner in the way we mean that would require communal redistribution…but it seems to me that equal redistribution would be at most an ideal, since land is not fungible.)

The notion that a demographic collapse would reset the cycle seems to me to be questionable. Even the relatively primitive technology of such farming would be lost in a collapse. It would be I think what happened with the west Roman empires, where advanced civilization was basically recovered by importing it from the Arabs in Spain (and later the Byzantine empire.) In the case of the Mayan civilization, the cultures never recovered, until wholly replaced after the advent of Europeans. To truly be cyclical, shouldn’t it be a matter of the same peoples restoring the same culture?

Peter van den Engel

Another theory would be the larger choice of visibal sexual partners in the community would lead to a population explosion overwelming its agricultural recourses and also creating disorder in family hierarchies traditionally ruling the community. More inequallity (chaos) would be countered by centralizing decission making leading to an adverse result and so the desertion.


“larger choice of visibal sexual partners in the community would lead to a population explosion”

Not required for population to explode. (Young) guys have a propensity to screw whenever possible, regardless of what is available, and before contraception, babies would result.

Peter van den Engel

Well, when evolution theory foretells genetic selection results in the largest surviving offspring, that’s exactly what people as no exception to the theory would do. Without thinking.
It also proves this selection method preceeds warfare, which is only of second level importance.
They very likely believed the place just meant bad luck for them, so they left it. Even without much fighting.
Not very different from current behavioral patterns of ‘tribes’ in Africa, or south America.
Perhaps evolution needs some thinking at this stage 🙂


Proto-Anatolian is supposed to have split off to the west around 4100 BC, right? I think this also correspinds to the collapse of lower Danube cultures. Seems to me that the first wave of horseback raiders caused a collapse in the plains and consolidation in the forest-steppe, while the more advanced steppe nomad society of the Yamnaya was able yo overwhelm even the forest steppe.

It’s possible that the disappearance of lower levels of authority was the result of kin groups surrendering autonomy in the interest of a stronger and more centralized authority, in response to ever growing pressure from the steppe. SE Europe could perhaps have been another cradle of civilization if the metaethnic threat wasn’t so overwhelming.


We are (smarter) chimpanzees.


not much smarter. satisfying lust and greed, better. preserving or environment, not as good.

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