BRONZE Age cities archaeologists say could be the precursor of Western civilisation are being uncovered in excavations on the Russian steppe.

Twenty of the spiral-shaped settlements, believed to be the original home of the Aryan people, have been identified, and there are about 50 more suspected sites. They all lie buried in a region more than 640km long near Russia's border with Kazakhstan.

The cities are thought to have been built 3500-4000 years ago, soon after the Great Pyramid in Egypt. They are about the same size as several of the city states of ancient Greece, which started to come into being in Crete at about the same time.

If archeologists confirm the cities as Aryan, they could be the remnants of a civilisation that spread through Europe and much of Asia. Their language has been identified as the precursor of modern Indo-European tongues, including English. Words such as brother, guest and oxen have been traced back to this prototype.

"Potentially, this could rival ancient Greece in the age of the heroes," said British historian Bettany Hughes, who spent much of the northern summer exploring the region for a BBC radio program, Tracking the Aryans.

"We are all told that there is this kind of mother tongue, proto-Indo-European, from which all the languages we know emerge.

"I was very excited to hear on the archeological grapevine that in exactly the period I am an expert in, this whole new Bronze Age civilisation had been discovered on the steppe of southern Siberia."

She described driving for seven hours into the steppe grasslands with chief archeologist Gennady Zdanovich. "He took me to this expanse of grass; you couldn't tell there was anything special. Then, as he pointed to the ground, suddenly I realised I was walking across a buried city," she said.

"Every now and again you suddenly notice these ghostly shapes of fortresses and cattle sheds and homes and religious sites. I would not have known these had he not shown them to me."

The shape of each of the cities, which are mainly in the Chelyabinsk district, resembles an ammonite fossil, divided into segments with a spiral street plan. The settlements, which would each have housed about 2000 people -- the same as an ancient Greek city such as Mycenae -- are all surrounded by a ditch and have a square in the middle.

The first city, known as Arkaim, was discovered in 1989, soon after the soviet authorities allowed non-military aerial photography for the first time.

The full extent of the remains is only now becoming apparent. Items that have so far been dug up include many pieces of pottery covered in swastikas, which were widely used ancient symbols of the sun and eternal life. The Nazis appropriated the Aryans and the swastika as symbols of their so-called master race. Ms Hughes believes that some of the strongest evidence that the cities could be the home of the Aryans comes from a series of horse burials.

Several ancient Indian texts believed to have been written by Aryans recount similar rituals. "These ancient Indian texts and hymns describe sacrifices of horses and burials and the way the meat is cut off and the way the horse is buried with its master," she said. "If you match this with the way the skeletons and the graves are being dug up in Russia, they are a millimetre-perfect match."

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