Vanished Civilization

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

For almost as long as we’ve had civilization, we’ve lost it. There are records going back hundreds of years of explorers discovering huge temples encrusted with jungle, or giant pits full of treasure that were once grand palaces. Why did people abandon these once-thriving cities, agricultural centers, and trade routes? Often, the answer is unknown.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

The Maya
The Maya are perhaps the classic example of a civilization that was completely lost, its great monuments, cities and roads swallowed up by the central American jungles, and its peoples scattered to small villages. Though the languages and traditions of the Maya still survive up to the present day, the civilization’s peak was during the first millennium AD, when their greatest architectural feats and massive agricultural projects covered a vast region in the Yucatán — today, an area stretching from Mexico to Guatemala and Belize. One of the largest Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya made extensive use of writing, math, an elaborate calendar, and sophisticated engineering to build their pyramids and terraced farms. Though it’s often said that the Maya civilization began a mysterious decline in roughly the year 900, a great deal of evidence points to climate change in the Yucatán combined with internecine warfare, which resulted in famine and abandonment of the city centers.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

Indus Valley Civilization
One of the great civilizations of the ancient world is called simply the Indus or Harappan civilization. Thousands of years ago, it may have boasted up to 5 million people, almost 10 percent of the world’s population, spread over a region that encompassed parts of today’s India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. But its grand walkways (with sophisticated roadside drainage), metallurgy shops, and massive, multistory, brick hives of houses were abandoned over 3,000 years ago. It’s likely that this ancient civilization, like the Maya, suffered from gradual changes in rainfall patterns that made it difficult for its peoples to raise enough food for their massive population.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

Easter Island
The people of Eastern Island represent another classic “lost” civilization, famed in part for its enigmatic, enormous stone statues of human heads (called Moai) lined up along the island’s coastline. How did this thriving Polynesian civilization disappear after centuries of monument-building and navigating hundreds of miles of ocean waters to go from island to island? Jared Diamond sums up what many scientists now believe in his book Collapse, which is that the Easter Islanders were incredibly sophisticated, but their methods weren’t sustainable. During the time they settled Easter Island, possibly between 700-1200 AD, they used up all the island’s trees and agricultural resources, and then had to move on.


Often called the world’s oldest city, Catalhöyük was part of a large city-building and agricultural civilization thriving between 9,000-7,000 years ago in what is today south-central Turkey. What’s interesting about Catalhöyük is its structure, which is quite unlike most other cities since. It contained no roads as we know them, and was instead built sort of like a hive, with houses built next to each other and entered through holes in the roofs. It’s believed that people farmed everything from wheat to almonds outside the city walls, and got to their homes via ladders and sidewalks that traversed their roofs. Often, these people decorated the entrances to their homes with bull skulls, and buried the bones of their honored dead beneath the packed dirt of their floors. The civilization was pre-Iron Age and pre-literate, but they nevertheless left behind ample evidence of a sophisticated society, full of art and and public ritual, that was possibly 10,000 strong at many points in its 2,000 year existence. Why did people eventually abandon the city? It is unknown.

Long before Europeans made it to North America, the so-called Mississippians had build a great city surrounded by huge earthen pyramids and a Stonehenge-like structure made of wood to track the movements of the stars. Called Cahokia today, you can still see its remains in Illinois. At its height between 600-1400 AD, the city sprawled across 6 square miles, and contained almost a hundred earthen mounds as well as an enormous grand plaza at its center. Its population might have been as much as 40,000 people, some of whom would have lived in outlying villages. The people of this great city, the biggest so far north in Mesoamerica, were brilliant artists, architects, and farmers, creating incredible art with shells, copper, and stone. They even diverted a branch of the local Mississippi and Illinois rivers to suit their needs for irrigation. It’s not entirely certain what led people to abandon the city starting in the 1200s, but some archaeologists say the city had always had problems with disease and famine (it had no sanitary system to speak of), and that people left for greener (and healthier) pastures elsewhere on the Mississippi River.

Artist's reconstruction of Cahokia

It is often claimed that the only indigenous New World peoples to develop civilization were those of Central and South America, such as the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. There are even widely-cited theories purporting to explain why North American Natives never developed large, complex societies. Yet in southern Illinois, close to the Mississippi River, lie the ruins of what supposedly should not exist: an advanced Native American metropolis.

Engraved copper plates from Cahokia

The city of Cahokia was settled sometime during the 9th century, and reached its peak between 1050 and 1200. During this time, it housed up to 40,000 people, making it one of the largest cities of the world, bigger than London at the same time. Cahokian architecture was the largest and most advanced in the New World north of Mexico, consisting of huge earthen mounds topped by multistory wooden buildings. The biggest such structure, likely a temple or chief’s palace, rose some 150 feet high. Cahokia relied on extensive agriculture, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash, and also manufactured farming equipment for sale to other population centers. It controlled trade routes extending across North America, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, and became the economic center of the greater “Mississippian culture.” During its golden age, Cahokia also possessed a thriving artistic scene, not only producing abundant pottery and jewelry, but also a technologically advanced copper workshop, which created metal artifacts of exquisite beauty.

Cahokia began to decline sometime in the 13th century, and was totally abandoned by 1400. The exact reasons for its collapse are somewhat mysterious, though resource exhaustion from deforestation and over-hunting is considered a likely theory. Nor is it known which modern Native peoples, if any, are descended from the Cahokians. The name “Cahokia” comes from a tribe which later settled the same region, but there is no established relationship between the two.

In any case, Cahokia was neither the only nor the last North American Native civilization to arise prior to European invasion. The Iroquois League, an alliance of Native peoples united under a common “Law of Peace,” was established during, or shortly after, Cahokia’s reign, and endures to the present day as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Iroquois League was a major player in colonial European politics, and its government, composed of two houses to which the elder women of each tribe elect representatives, seems to have been a model for that of the United States. It is supremely ironic, given the U.S.’s brutal history of conquest and genocide against Natives, that its system of government, and by extension modern democracy in general, may owe its shape to the influence of Native American civilization.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

Göbekli Tepe
One of the most mysterious human structures ever discovered, Göbekli Tepe was probably built in 10,000 BCE, and is located in today’s southern Turkey. A series of nested, circular walls and steles, or monoliths, carved evocatively with animals, the place probably served as a temple for nomadic tribes in the area. It was not a permanent residence, though it’s possible a few priests lived there all year. It is the first permanent human-built structure that we have ever found, and probably represented the pinnacle of the local Mesopotamian civilization of its era. What were people worshiping there? When did they come? Were they there to do something other than worship? We may never know, but archaeologists are working hard to find out.


The Sumerian culture is traditionally cited as the first human civilization, arising around 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Since then, complex societies have arisen independently many times all across the world. However, anatomically modern humans have existed far longer, up to 200,000 years. Assuming that the first Homo sapiens had the same mental capacities as ourselves, they should have been capable of producing civilization all along. Why the sudden proliferation after 190,000 years’ delay?

gobekli_tepe04_02One possible answer is that humans did produce civilizations in the remote prehistoric past, whose ruins have for whatever reason not endured to the present. The site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey may be a key piece of evidence in proving this was the case. Consisting of stone walls, rectangular buildings, and elaborately decorated pillars up to 23 feet high and 50 tons in weight, it appears to have been the product of an advanced civilization, requiring a workforce of hundreds and a system of government to mobilize them. Yet at over 11,000 years old, Göbekli Tepe hails from the last Ice Age, predating the beginnings of Mesopotamian civilization by some four millennia.

Göbekli Tepe has only been excavated since the 1990s, and most of the site remains unexplored. So far we can only conjecture as to its full significance in human history. Adding to the mystery is the fact that there are no signs of permanent settlement in surrounding areas, or of agriculture, which remains unknown from such ancient times. This has led researchers to believe Göbekli Tepe was a temple rather than any kind of population center. According to archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, it suggests that religion played a central role in the rise of civilization, uniting large populations together in a common purpose, and later motivating the invention of agriculture to support them. This is the reverse of traditional theories, which have long claimed agriculture as a necessary precondition for complex societies.

If people can create civilization without agriculture, it seems more likely still that cultures prior to Göbekli Tepe might have done so, although no substantial proof for this has yet been found. Nonetheless, in Part Three we will explore further the possibility of civilizations up to tens of thousands of years older than Turkey’s Ice Age culture, as hinted at in the heritage of peoples alive today.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

Most people have heard of the magnificent temple Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But it was only one small part of a massive urban civilization during the Khmer Empire called Angkor. The city flourished during the late middle ages, from 1000-1200 AD, and may have supported up to a million people. There are a lot of good reasons why Angkor may have fallen, ranging from war to natural disaster. Now most of it lies beneath the jungle. A marvel of architecture and Hindu culture, the city is mysterious mostly because we still aren’t certain how many people lived there. Given all the roads and canals connecting its many regions, some archaeologists believe it may have been the biggest urban site in the world at its height.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

The Turquoise Mountain
Though not every crumbling monument represents a lost civilization, some of them do. Such is the case with the Minaret of Jam, a gorgeous architectural feat built in the 1100s as part of a city in Afghanistan, where archaeological remains suggest that it was a cosmopolitan area where many religions, including Jews, Christians, and Muslims, lived together harmoniously for hundreds of years. It’s possible that the incredible minaret was part of the lost medieval capital of Afghanistan, called Turquoise Mountain.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

Now a desolate spot in the Taklamakan Desert of Xinjiang province in China, 1600 years ago Niya was a thriving city in an oasis along the famous Silk Road. For the past two centuries, archaeologists have uncovered countless treasures in the dusty, shattered remains of what was once a graceful town full of wooden houses and temples. In a sense, Niya is a relic of the lost civilization of the early Silk Road, a trade route that linked China with Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. Many groups traveled the Silk Road, from wealthy merchants and religious pilgrims to scholars and scientists, exchanging ideas and creating a complex, enlightened culture everywhere the 4,000 mile Silk Road passed. The route underwent many changes, but its importance as a trade route waned as the Mongol Empire collapsed in the 1300s. Traders afterwards preferred sea routes for trade with China.

10 Civilizations That Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

Nabta Playa
From 7000 and 6500 BCE, an incredible urban community arose in what is today the Egyptian Sahara. The people who lived there domesticated cattle, farmed, created elaborate ceramics, and left behind stone circles that offer evidence that their civilization included astronomers as well. Archaeologists believe the peoples of Nabta Playa were likely the precursor civilization for the great Nile cities that arose in Egypt thousands of years later. Though the Nabta civilization is today located in an arid region, it arose at a time when monsoon patterns had shifted, filling the playa with a lake and making it possible for a large culture to bloom.

Since the 19th century, the dominant position among European researchers has been that the Egyptians were of Caucasian descent. More recently, Africanist scholars have rejected this view as the legacy of anti-black racism, arguing that they were of sub-Saharan African ancestry instead. The evidence does not clearly favor either position. Forensic evidence shows that Tutankhamun was probably of African descent; on the other hand, Cleopatra’s family tree shows only Greek and Persian ancestors. Certain tomb paintings portray Egyptians as pale-skinned, in contrast with darker Nubian figures. Others, however depict Egyptians and Nubians with similar coloration, while ancient Greek accounts describe Egyptians as “black with wooly hair.”

The obvious conclusion to draw from such “contradictory” pieces of evidence would seem to be that ancient Egypt was a multiracial society, composed of people from diverse and mixed backgrounds. So far this doesn’t seem to have caught on with mainstream Egyptologists of either camp, however, demonstrating the influence of racially charged political agendas over scientific reasoning. It also doesn’t answer the question of which group – Caucasians, Africans, or a mixed population – “founded” ancient Egypt in the first place.

Megalithic star map at Nabta Playa

The answer lies in the Nubian Desert of far southern Egypt, where the culture of Nabta Playa began and thrived from about nine to five thousand years ago. At the time, the Nubian climate was much wetter, with heavy rainfall for at least part of the year, and the Nabta Playans grazed livestock and constructed deep wells to hold water through the dry season. They also built stone dwellings, hearths, and megalithic monuments, and possessed an advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Their solar calendars, which marked the summer solstice and seasonal transitions, were among the first in the world, predating Stonehenge by about a thousand years. In all respects, the Nabta Playans appear to have been much more advanced than their contemporaries in the Nile River Valley, and provided a template for the later Egyptian civilization to build on. The Nabta Playans’ complex social order and religion, which centered on cattle in a similar manner to the Egyptian Hathor cult, appear to have been particularly influential.

According to bone studies, the Nabta Playans were of sub-Saharan African ancestry. Perhaps this is why, despite their great historical importance, they remain so little-known. Against the long-held opinions of European scholars, and assumption of white cultural and racial superiority, the Nabta Playans show that the Africanist position is correct. Ancient Egypt – and through its influence, much of “Western” civilization – does indeed owe its origin to black Africans.

Archaeological site at Sarkel, once a Khazar fortress

Khazaria – Russia’s Jewish kingdom

The medieval conflicts between Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East are well-known and infamous, as are the Vikings and their ruthless conquests of northern Eurasia. Barely remembered at all, however, is the civilization caught in the crossfire between these three warlike cultures: the Khazars.

Khazar warrior on horseback, with prisoner

The Khazars began as a nomadic tribe native to the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas. Long subjects of more powerful empires, the Khazars rose to establish their own empire following the collapse of the Gokturks in the 7th century. After conquering many surrounding tribes, the Khazars put their traditionally warlike ways aside, and began to use their location to much greater advantage, acting as economic middlemen between the Muslim caliphates (Umayyad and, later, Abassid) and Christian Europe. For the next few hundred years, they thrived on trade, collecting tax on all goods passing through their lands, as well as exporting items of their own, including wine, honey, wax, and isinglass. So as to remain politically neutral in the violent conflicts between these two civilizations, the Khazars adopted as their state religion the ancestral faith of both Islam and Christianity: Judaism.

Khazar seal featuring the Star of David

Many Jewish cultural elements were widely adopted, including the Hebrew alphabet.
In any case, the Khazar populace continued to practice a diversity of other religions, including Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and various pagan cults. All of these were officially respected, as shown by the composition of the Khazar Supreme Court, which included two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and a pagan. The Khazars also seem to have been multiracial, with many accounts describing both “white” Khazars with red hair and blue eyes, and “black” Khazars with dark skin. All in all, they seem to have been one of the most peacefully diverse cultures of their time, and provided refuge for Jews and other religious minorities fleeing persecution under Christian or Muslim rule.

Maintaining peace with both Christian Europe and the Islamic caliphates was always a delicate political balancing act, with many brief but violent disturbances. The balance was tipped once and for all with the rise of the Rus (Viking) Empire to the north, whose ruthless conquests led to wars with both Christian Europe and the Abassid Caliphate. The Khazars, meanwhile, attempted to trade with the Vikings, hoping to preserve their own peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, this only served to alienate their traditional allies, leaving the Khazars politically vulnerable. Between 965 and 968 CE, the Khazars lost much of their territory to Viking invasion. In 1016, Christian Byzantium joined forces with the Vikings, betraying its former ally and destroying what was left of the Khazar Empire.

Despite its great importance to Western and Islamic history, and unique status as a Jewish state, between the fall of Judea in 135 CE and founding of modern Israel in 1948, few people today even know of Khazaria’s existence. Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) actually banned all Soviet research on the Khazars. As a result, direct archaeological studies have been possible only since the fall of the USSR in 1991. On the other hand, if Khazars intermarried with Jews, this could mean that some Jews today are actually descended from converts rather than the original Hebrews, this is at odds with Jewish tradition and ethnic identity. Some Jewish scholars have condemned study of Khazaria as anti-Semitic in itself, leaving further research on the Khazars in something of a political no-man’s land.

Premodern China – the birthplace of “Western” technology

Unlike most of the cultures on this list, China is not a little-known civilization. To the contrary, the modern Chinese nation is one of the world’s leading superpowers, and even the most myopic outsiders are generally aware that China possesses a long and rich history. Western depictions of “premodern” (aka pre-Westernized) China, however, tend to be very one-sided, focusing on such things as the tyranny of its rulers, the rigidity of its social order, and the mystical powers of its monks and martial artists. China’s art and spirituality are widely considered its greatest cultural accomplishments, even among Chinese, who have at times blamed these aspects of their culture for “suppressing” scientific or technological progress. This was the case during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, which sought to advance “modernity” by purging the influence of traditional thought systems such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

Zheng He (1371-1433), who explored the Indian Ocean as far as southern Africa
What such portrayals of Chinese culture overlook is the many other ways in which China has long been one of the most advanced and influential civilizations on Earth. Against stereotypes of Chinese political tyranny, China was in fact the birthplace of some of history’s first theories of ethical governance. Some even foreshadowed the principles of democracy: Confucius (551-479 BCE) and Mencius (372-289 BCE) both taught that a ruler only possessed the “mandate of Heaven” so long as he governed with the consent of his people, whose right it was to overthrow and replace him if he abused his power. Citizens of the “Middle Kingdom” were also great international explorers, with Chinese expeditions voyaging as far as ancient Rome, southern Africa, Indonesia, and possibly even to North America.

In Western culture, the rise of scientific thinking is often traced back to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), whose philosophy described a universe governed by physical laws. Chinese cosmologies have explained the universe in terms of natural processes for at least as long, and became widely accepted and taught by the Taoist and Confucian traditions while orthodox European worldviews still emphasized (and for many, still do) the primary influence of an intervening God. Perhaps it was China’s early acceptance of a naturalistic worldview that led it to develop so many advanced technologies hundreds or even thousands of years before Europe: seismometers, hot air balloons, helicopter prototypes, animation devices, and movable type printing presses, among others.

For many of these technologies, it is disputed whether or not later Western inventors lifted their ideas from Chinese designs, or developed them independently. Perhaps the most historically important of all “European” technologies, however, is indisputably Chinese in origin: gunpowder. Gunpowder was invented in China during the 9th century CE, and the earliest historical record of firearms is in fact a Chinese Buddhist painting, showing demons with flamethrowers and grenades. Firearm technology spread through other parts of Asia, eventually making its way to Europe via either Mongol or Arab traders, where it was developed into the powerful weaponry later used to subjugate most of the world during the Age of Exploration. In other words, “European” technology actually originated in China, and the global dominance of Western civilization was possible only through the appropriation of Chinese ingenuity.

Modern thatch structure in the courtyard of Great Zimbabwe

Shona – nation builders of southern Africa

The Republic of Zimbabwe in southern Africa is a young nation, established under its present name in 1980. For the previous hundred years it was dominated by Europeans, first as a British colony and then as the white-ruled Republic of Rhodesia. The country’s name testifies to a far more ancient heritage, however. In the language of the Shona, the country’s largest ethnic group, Zimbabwe means “great houses of stone,” and refers to Great Zimbabwe, the first of several powerful kingdoms created by their ancestors.

One of the Zimbabwe Birds, prized soapstone sculptures featured on the modern Zimbabwean flag

Shona civilization seems to have begun around 500 CE, with the advent of iron smelting technology in southern Africa. Great Zimbabwe was established as its center by the 11th century, when construction began on the titular great stone city. The city consisted of huge enclosures, walls, and towers up to 30 feet high, made out of granite stones carved and fit together without mortar. At its height, Great Zimbabwe was home to some 5,000 people, ruled over by a monarchy. The populace included skilled artisans, who worked with gold, iron, ivory, and soapstone to create ceremonial and decorative works, as well as goods for international trade. Great Zimbabwe amassed fabulous wealth through trading, a venture which brought them into contact with such distant cultures as the Middle East and China.

The Shona’s economic success did not end with the collapse of Great Zimbabwe around 1450 CE. Rather, the city’s dissolution led to the spread of Shona across southern Africa, and creation of numerous successor states. The most successful of these was probably the Kingdom of Mutapa, founded by warriors sent north from Great Zimbabwe in search of new salt mines. Mutapa spread outward to the shores of the Indian Ocean, eventually coming into contact with the Portuguese. While the Portuguese were ruthless invaders, subjugating and enslaving many coastal African peoples, the Shona of Mutapa managed to evade conquest and even use European contact to their own advantage. They hired Portuguese as advisers and interpreters, harnessed their shipping routes to trade with India, and even won their ruler an official coat of arms from the King of Portugal, remaining partially independent until 1917. Today, the Shona continue to thrive on international export, especially of stone sculpture in the stylistic tradition pioneered in Great Zimbabwe.

Study of Shona civilization, especially Great Zimbabwe, has been wrought with controversy, ever since the city’s “discovery” by Europeans in 1867. The ancient Egyptians, as discussed in our entry on Nabta Playa, were at the time regarded as Caucasian, and many coastal African kingdoms could be linked to the influence of Islamic culture. Great Zimbabwe, as an advanced civilization created by black Africans independently of outside influence, threatened white European assumptions of cultural and racial superiority over blacks. As such, the first few generations of white scholars to study it denied Great Zimbabwe’s connection to the Shona, instead attributing it to Jews, Arabs, or Phoenicians. As late as 1979, the white-dominated government of Rhodesia censored and even deported archaeologists who dared suggest it had been created by black people. It is now finally acknowledged by most historians that Great Zimbabwe, and its successor states, were produced by the Shona. However, the Shona civilizations’ lack of popular recognition outside Africa demonstrates that even today, they continue to threaten widespread Eurocentric attitudes and racist prejudices.

Underwater tikis off the island of Mo'orea, symbolizing the forced conversion of Polynesians to Christianity

Polynesia – the people who tamed the Pacific

Polynesia, like China, is not “obscure” in the sense that few people from outside the culture know of its existence. However, only the most superficial aspects of its culture have entered mainstream international consciousness: luaus, hula dancing, and (thanks to Lilo and Stitch) the Hawaiian word for “family.” The fact that Polynesian people even exist, on remote islands in the middle of the largest and deepest ocean on Earth, should immediately point to their history as an advanced culture. Despite this, their legacy as humanity’s greatest seafarers remains sadly unappreciated.

Micronesian stick map, similar to those used by Polynesians

The Polynesian people seem to have originated in southern China, migrating through southeast Asia and gradually spreading across the Pacific from about 900 BCE onward. Their maritime technology was primitive: wooden canoes carved from logs and fitted with sails. Their ingenuity in using it was not, however. The Polynesians refined the practice of boat-making to an art, producing numerous distinct canoe designs for different speeds, distances, and loads. Their methods of navigation were more impressive yet. The Polynesians used the positions of the stars, color of the water and sky, appearance of clouds, wildlife sightings, and the shape and direction of waves to guide their travels across thousands of miles of open ocean, and to detect signs of new land long before it became visible. They produced maps to aid them, lashed together from sticks and shells. Even so, learning to successfully navigate took many years of training, and Polynesian navigators formed powerful guilds to protect the secrets of their expertise, bringing them great social power and prestige.

Everywhere they settled, Polynesians produced thriving local cultures. Among their most enduring cultural accomplishments are their many forms of song and dance, still widely performed today, and sculptures, including the wooden tiki of the Maori and colossal moai, the iconic stone statues of Easter Island. They may also have produced a written language, Rongorongo, preserved only on Easter Island and so far undeciphered. If Rongorongo is indeed writing, as opposed to just decorative art, it would make the Polynesians one of just a small handful of cultures to independently develop a written language.

"Perego Man"

Polynesians ultimately conquered nearly the entire southern Pacific. To the south, they settled as far as the Auckland Islands, over 200 miles south of New Zealand in sub-Antarctic waters. To the east, they colonized Easter Island, 2,000 miles from any other habitable land, and even continued another 2,000 miles to South America. The legacy of their contact with South American Natives is evident in shared words between the two cultures, Polynesians’ use of American sweet potatoes, and Native genetic ancestry among Easter Islanders. Hawaii is generally believed to be the northernmost extent of Polynesian colonization. However, individual expeditions may have voyaged much farther yet. Maori legend tells of a commander named Ui-te-Rangiora who sailed south until he reached an ice-covered sea, making Polynesians the first humans ever to sight Antarctica (with one possible exception, covered in Part III). Some experts have identified signs of cultural exchange with Native Americans in California, and Polynesian origins have been claimed for “Perego Man,” a stone face carving discovered on Whidbey Island, Washington. Whether they mastered the entire Pacific Ocean, or just its southern half, the Polynesians are arguably the greatest seafaring culture in human history, accomplishing with just canoes and their senses what took Europeans centuries longer, and far more complicated technology, to achieve.

Gunditjmara dwelling

Budj Bim – farmers, artists, and explorers of ancient Australia

In the popular Western imagination, Australian Aborigines are primitive nomads, scraping out a harsh existence as they wander the Outback alone or in small bands. Until recently, most anthropologists supported this, maintaining that it was how the Aborigines always lived. From their first arrival in Australia some 60,000 years ago until European colonization, they supposedly hunted and gathered for survival, never developing agriculture, permanent settlements, or civilization.

Budj Bim, an archaeological site in southeast Australia, proves that this was not the case. For at least 6,700 years, the ancestors of the modern Gunditjmara people have lived here, along the edges of Lake Condah, in permanent dwellings made of wood, thatch, and volcanic rock. The Gunditjmara used irrigation, carving channels and damming streams to create a system of artificial wetlands at least a hundred square kilometers in area. In these wetlands, they raised eels and other fish, which they trapped in wooden baskets and used both for food and to trade with neighboring cultures. Today, Budj Bim is the only known pre-Colonial permanent settlement still in existence, thanks to the Gunditjmara’s dedication in preserving it. After nearly 200 years of combating European efforts to scatter them, at times through violent warfare, the Gunditjmara successfully won recognition for Budj Bim as a National Heritage site in 2004, and gained full legal title to their land in 2007. The discovery of ancient fish traps elsewhere in Australia, and early 19th century European accounts describing Aboriginal crop harvests and comparing the landscape to a well-tended “park,” indicate that Budj Bim may not always have been so unique. An agricultural lifestyle may have long been the norm rather than the exception.

Fish basket from Budj Bim

Anthropologists’ longtime denial of indigenous Australian agriculture or permanent settlements is not the only way in which Europeans have downplayed the cultural accomplishments of Aborigines. For example, prehistoric burial sites and cave paintings in Europe are world-renowned, and often treated by historians as breakthroughs in human cultural evolution. However, the oldest known evidence of ritual burial actually comes from Lake Mungo, Australia, where ancestral Aborigines performed cremations and painted bones in red ochre some 40,000 years ago. The earliest rock paintings are also Australian, dating to at least 28,000 years old and so predating European cave art by a good 10,000 years.

Rock painting of seagoing boat, over 15,000 years old

Some Aboriginal rock paintings reveal another historical first: large boats with high prows, suitable for deep ocean voyages. Images of such vessels, created between 15,000 and 22,000 years ago in northwest Australia, indicate that prehistoric Aborigines may have been advanced seafarers. According to mainstream theories, the first people to reach Australia came by land, traveling through Asia and island-hopping across the southeast Asian archipelagos during periods of low sea level. However, images of prehistoric boats have led several researchers to argue that the first Aborigines may actually have sailed directly from Africa instead. Additional evidence for this theory includes motifs common to Aboriginal and southern African art, and the presence of certain plants (such as baobob trees) on both continents. Genetic data shows another cross-continental link: mixing with Indian populations 4-5,000 years ago. If the DNA evidence is correct, it should be possible to find cultural evidence of interaction as well, such as Sanskrit loanwords in Aboriginal languages, or Australian motifs in Hindu mythology. If the African and Indian connections can be firmly substantiated, it would show that Australian Aborigines sailed the prehistoric oceans tens of thousands of years ago, and were perhaps even the first civilization on Earth.

Huge ring-shaped ditch in the Bolivian Amazon

First Amazonians – the people who planted a rainforest

For many, the Amazon Rainforest is the supreme symbol of the natural world and its riches. The planet’s largest rainforest, it is home to a tenth of all living species on Earth, and responsible for much of the world’s total oxygen production. Environmentalists often point to the Amazon’s rapid deforestation to typify the war between humans and nature. It would therefore be supremely ironic if the Amazon Rainforest turned out to have been created by humans in the first place!

Amazon geoglyphs revealed by logging, similar to the famous Nazca Lines of Peru

Difficult though it is to believe, this may in fact have been the case. Though it has been long thought that the Amazon was sparsely populated prior to European invasion, by primitive tribes living in harmony with their environment, logging since the 1970s has revealed massive human-made structures diagnostic of complex civilization. These include long roads, protective walls, canals, artificial ponds, crop fields, and deep trenches up to 16 feet deep, which when viewed from above join to form elaborate geometric designs hundreds of yards across. The oldest such structures are more than 2,000 years old, at which time much of the land now covered in forest appears to have been dry savanna, as shown by sediment cores collected from lake beds. Others are far younger, including the ruins of settlements which housed tens of thousands of people as recently as the 17th century, long after the landscape had been overrun by jungle. It seems likely that these Amazonian cities thrived right up to the time of European arrival in South America, when the rapid spread of disease killed off nearly all of their inhabitants. If so, the isolated, seemingly “primitive” tribes living in the rainforest today may in fact be the survivors of a once advanced civilization, rather than the living Stone Age relics anthropologists have long assumed them to be.

The existence of large populations capable of reshaping the land, both before and after the rise of the modern rainforest, has led some researchers to propose that humans themselves played a major role in the Amazon’s growth. While the initial growth of lush vegetation probably owed more to increased rainfall than human intervention, humans may well have deliberately selected for specific types of plants in accord with their own interests, greatly influencing the composition of species in the rainforest today. The spread of terra preta – fertile soil artificially enriched with charcoal, bone, and manure – across much of the Amazon shows that its early inhabitants also modified the earth to increase plant growth.

At first glance, the notion that the Amazon Rainforest owes its existence partly to humans may seem deeply challenging. If grassy savanna turns out to have been its original state prior to human tampering, it certainly complicates efforts to curtail logging, at least if simply “preserving nature” is the primary rationale for doing so. On the other hand, the co-evolution of the Amazon and its native societies also illustrate an important point as to humans’ relationship with the natural world: that people are not apart from nature, but a part of it, whose actions and continued survival are intimately connected with the rest of the ecosystem. Viewed that way, what better argument could there be for care and caution in the ways we impact our environment, and efforts to prevent its reckless destruction?

Yaghan – America’s Australian discoverers?

The Yaghan, one of the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego, the far southernmost tip of South America, are extraordinary in many respects. Although they traditionally lived in dome-shaped buildings heated by fire, prior to European colonization they wore no clothing, and often slept outside despite the bitter cold of their environment. For food, they dived naked to gather shellfish in the sub-Antarctic waters. Supposedly, the Yaghan possess a body temperature a full degree higher than other people. This seems plausible given their seemingly superhuman resistance to cold, but the source of the claim is unknown, and it may be impossible to verify, for there is only a single pure-blooded Yaghan left alive today, Cristina Calderón of Chile. The Yaghan population was devastated by European diseases in the 19th century, and many of the survivors were murdered by white sheep farmers. As of 2002, only 1,685 people of Yaghan ancestry remain in Chile.

Even more fascinating than their incredible cold tolerance is the Yaghans’ cultural legacy. Astonishingly, the Yaghans’ first ancestors may have been Australian Aborigines! According to Brazilian anthropologist Walter Neves, the earliest known human skulls in South America, from 12,000 to 6,000 years old, are similar to those of indigenous Australians. They do not resemble those of the Clovis people, who crossed into North America from Siberia via the Bering Land Bridge around 15,000 years ago, and are generally considered the ancestors of all indigenous New World peoples. Circumstantial evidence that Australians may have reached South America first also includes bones painted with red ochre (like the Aboriginal Lake Mungo remains), and the rock shelters of Pedra Furada in Brazil, which contain stone artifacts dated as old as 60,000 years (roughly the same age as the first signs of human activity in Australia).

Among living South American Natives, the Yaghan and other peoples of Tierra del Fuego are the only ones to retain such Australoid features. DNA studies support Neves’ theory, showing a mixture of Siberian and Australian genetic markers among Fuegians. If Neves’ theory is correct, the implications are incredible: it means that more than 12,000 years ago, Australoid peoples either migrated through northern Asia and North America without leaving a trace, crossed the Pacific Ocean directly by boat, or island-hopped from Australia to Antarctica and then to South America. The latter two theories may seem impossible. However, as we have previously shown, Australian Aborigines had ocean-going boats at least 15,000 years ago, and may even have sailed the Indian Ocean voyaging to and from Africa and India. And if any premodern people can be imagined surviving an Antarctic migration, it would be the ancestors of the cold-resistant Yaghan.

The idea that they descended from seafaring Australian explorers, while incredible, is consistent with the Yaghans’ own apparent feats of navigation. Arrowheads and a Yaghan boat have been discovered in the Falkland Islands 300 miles east of the Patagonian coast, while stone tools are reported from marine sediment samples from the South Shetland Islands. The South Shetland Islands lie some 500 miles south of Tierra del Fuego, but a mere 58 miles from the Antarctic mainland at their southernmost point! It should be noted, however, that such artifacts may actually postdate European arrival, after which time Yaghan are known to have been hired or enslaved aboard their conquerors’ vessels.

If these extraordinary theories are true, the Yaghan represent the farthest outpost of the ancient seafaring Australian culture discussed previously. Their ancestors would have been some of the most daring pioneers in human history: the first people ever to sail the Pacific Ocean, discover the New World, or possibly even set foot on the Antarctic coast, tens of thousands of years before any other human group would attempt the same. As for the living Yaghan, they are a unique and fascinating people no matter their origins, whom we may hope recover from their brutal decimation by Europeans and thrive again as a culture long into the future.

Flores, Guatemala lies atop the ruins of Tayasal, the last independent Maya city

There are many other long-overlooked civilizations deserving of recognition: the Ghana Empire, which laid the foundations for later West African kingdoms before the arrival of Islamic civilization. Norte Chico, a seafaring Peruvian civilization which predated the better-known Inca by 4,000 years. The Maya cities of Tayasal and Zacpeten, which successfully resisted nearly 200 years of Spanish attempts at conquest. The Siddis of India and Pakistan, descendents of African slaves who established independent nations of their own. Hopefully it will be possible to explore these and more in future follow-up articles.


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