A new study found evidence of a previously unknown network of societies living in Central Europe in the Late Bronze Age.
Researchers used satellite images from Google Earth to find 100 new prehistoric sites.
The ancient society was less centrally located and less hierarchical than its predecessor.
Archeologists have discovered evidence of a previously unknown prehistoric civilization spanning 3,000 square miles across Central Europe. And Google Earth helped them do it.
"When we recognized how dense this settlement network was, we realized this was something really important and new for understanding how Bronze Age societies were organized in Europe," Barry Molloy, an associate professor of archaeology at University College Dublin, told Business Insider via email.
Experts have long believed that an advanced civilization that thrived in Central Europe during the Early and Middle Bronze Age, beginning in 2200 BCE, was abandoned by 1600 BCE.
But, in a study published this month in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, a team of researchers revealed new evidence that the exact opposite may have happened — the civilization did not disappear but simply spread out into a vast, complex network of smaller societies.
A hierarchical society
Their research suggests that the central hubs, or "megaforts," of the Early to Middle Bronze Age civilization did not actually disappear in the 16th century BCE as previously thought, but rather, became decentralized.
The newly formed, interconnected settlements were less hierarchical than the preceding society, but still organized in political units, the researchers believe.
"We knew from the material that the people who lived there left behind — found in graves and hoards of metal objects, mainly — that they were an affluent, well-connected, and innovative society," Molloy said.
The larger sites had many concentric enclosures, Molloy said. "We believe this meant that movement from outside the site to its very core areas was controlled and that not everyone could simply walk freely through these areas at all times."
Yet, everyone was generally buried in a similar way, with few valuable objects included in graves. That could mean the hierarchy wasn't strictly enforced, Molloy said.
Because there were so many sites close together, the researchers knew they were "looking at a complex, well-organized society that systematically planned how the landscape was used and inhabited at a large scale," Molloy said.
They need to do more research, Molloy said, but the different types of land could have been used for specialized purposes. Flatter land could have been used for growing crops while people could have hunted and fished in the wetlands.
The Google Earth "wow" factor
The researchers used historical imagery from Google Earth and satellite data from the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 to find 100 new prehistoric sites in the Pannonian Plain, a region that includes modern-day Serbia and Hungary.
Because of the sites' proximity to the Tisza River, the researchers refer to the communities as the Tisza Site Group.
Plowing has churned up pieces of pottery, bones, and other artifacts, Molloy said. But it's also destroyed features like buildings.
"Modern farming had destroyed many of the archaeological traces we would see from the ground," Molloy said. While the sites were essentially hiding in plain sight, Google Earth helped researchers find over 100 locations, he said.
"Once we started out systematically looking for them, there was a real wow factor," Molloy said. The images also allowed the researchers to see the layout and size of the settlement.
The communities at these sites likely took advantage of a well-balanced ecosystem from 1,500 to 1,200 BCE, according to the researchers. But then the climate began to shift.
As the area became warmer and drier, the communities abandoned the sites, Molloy said. Some migrated while others may have become more adaptable to the changing seasons.
As the researchers continue to excavate the site, Molloy hopes to learn more about the communities' daily lives. He's interested in the size of their homes, for example.
"That can tell us important things like family structures," he said, including whether parents, grandparents, and other relatives all lived under the same roof.
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