The august Egyptians had pyramids. The ancient Romans had aqueducts. The bloodthirsty Vikings had long ships. Some historical civilizations are so well-known, almost anyone with even a passing interest in the past would be able to fire off their basic backstory and list of traits.
In fact, someone with only casual experience in history may think that (because of the intense focus that some civilizations garner), the history of the world is made up of only a few powerful empires, and that everyone else is unimportant.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Oftentimes, a civilization will be incredibly influential and important, but won’t receive a lot of discussion. Normally, this is because there’s nothing left to discuss.
These vanished ancient societies leave large gaps in our understanding. History is, at best,an inexact science,and can best be imagined as a book with several pages missing. Some of the lost cultures and mysterious historical civilizations that we know the least about probably have some of the most interesting stories to tell. Instead, we’re left wanting, our minds full of curiosity and wonder.
The Maya are one of the more famous ancient civilizations, but weirdly that doesn’t mean that we know too much about them. The South American jungle setting of their culture means that much of the evidence left behind has been reclaimed by nature, leaving modern archeologists and anthropologists with more questions than answers.
We know the Mayans constructed some architectural wonders and created a truly impressive calendar, but we don’t know where they all disappeared to.The Mayan Empire appears to have collapsed about 1000 years ago, leaving behind a veritable ghost town.
Some modern theorists believe that climate change was the culprit, and in 2018, a team of researchers calculated the environmental conditions during the culture’s decline and confirmed this hypothesis. A group of PhD candidates at the University of Cambridge published their study in Science magazine.
The group studied water trapped in a mineral known as gypsum, which they found in Lake Chichancanab. The researchers measured the chemical variants of water remaining in the gypsum. The lighter isotopes tend to evaporate quicker, so gypsum left with heavier isotopes indicates a drought.
“This method is highly accurate and is almost like measuring the water itself,” said Nick Evans, one of the authors of the study.
The word “Clovis” is now nearly synonymous with one type of archaeological artifact in particular: arrowheads. This is because the Clovis people littered an entire continent with them. The Clovis appear to be the first truly dominant and expansionist civilization in North America, but very little is known about them.
They spread across the majority of North America (and parts of Central America) within a few thousand years after humans first came to the continent, leaving behind their trademark weapons but very few other clues. No one is sure exactly what happened to this culture, whether it died out or simply assimilated into future civilizations.
Rarely has a civilization gained so much fame for a single piece of art, but then again, this single artwork was replicated dozens of times. The famous “heads” (or Moai) of Easter people (which were eventually discovered to have underground bodies, which is objectively super cool), are all that is left of the mysterious people who once occupied the remote island.
Easter Island is far away from any other civilization, even by Polynesian standards. This means that one small group of ocean-faring people likely loaded into a canoe, found Easter Island, created some iconic statues, and then either left or died. Modern research suggests the island’s inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, may have destroyed their own livelihood through resource depletion.
The Nabta people were a remarkable people, described as ancient astronomers of the Nubian Desert. This civilization existed more than 11,000 years ago, and were the first culture to leave evidence behind of astronomical inquest.
They created countless stone structures meant to track the movements of the stars, which likely laid the groundwork for other ancient civilizations to pick up the study. The Nabta Playa people lived in a harsh desert environment, which helps explain why they didn’t leave much other information behind, although some believe that they were the ancestors of future Nile civilizations.
Chances are if you know anything about the Olmecs, it’s due to the gigantic stone heads they left lying around. You know, like the one that once hosted a game show or the one that famously occupies The Simpsons’ basement. The Olmec culture likely had more to it than giant, menacing heads, but it’s been hard to find out exactly what that is.
The Olmecs, who occupied the same basic area as the mysterious Mayans 1200 years before their rise, fell victim to the same reforestation that has obscured Mayan history. The Olmecs spread their empire for over 900 years, establishing the pattern that future South American empires would follow, before mysteriously vanishing around 300 BC.
Sometimes, we encounter a mysterious civilization from history that we really don’t want to know more about. Such is the case with the silla, a civilization that, despite ruling Korea for over a thousand years, left behind very few intact skeletons due to the soil on the peninsula.
One of the complete sets of bones happened to belong to a young woman with a grotesquely elongated skull, something that archaeologists believe was a natural occurrence. Maybe we don’t need to learn more about this peninsula-spanning mutant empire, after all. There are enough nightmares in the world.
As far as ancient histories go, China’s is incredibly well-documented. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few gaps left to fill the Sanxingdui were apparently a powerful empire in ancient China that left behind a surprisingly small amount of physical evidence. They appear to have been wiped completely off the map about 3,000 years ago.
Modern geological studies have shown that a massive earthquake shook their region around the time of their disappearance. This may have diverted their primary water source, leading to their civilization’s quick demise.