20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About

Steve - November 2, 2018

Ancient civilizations and cultures provide the bedrock of our own modern societies and nations, imparting knowledge and histories which have shaped and defined the world around us. Beyond this incalculable, if often invisible, impact upon our lives, these civilizations offer valuable lessons for their descendants that should unquestionably be taken to heart. However, despite often having heard about and rendered assumptions regarding many ancient peoples, beyond the popular favorites of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, it is surprising how little we actually truly know about many of these archaic civilizations and cultures.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Whilst we know much about the history and culture of the Ancient Romans, including of the Colosseum, we know surprisingly little about other distant civilizations. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 20 incredible ancient civilizations and cultures that we actually know surprisingly little about:

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
El Castillo, at Chichen Itza. Wikimedia Commons.

20. Although extremely well heard of, our understanding of the Maya remains surprisingly limited in both scope and detail

Despite being popularly familiar, with notable depictions in modern movies and video games ranging from Apocalypto to Civilization respectively, our understanding of the ancient Maya civilization remains surprisingly limited, with much of our knowledge built on little more than speculation and hypothesis. Although we know more about the conditions of the Maya politic than many other peoples appearing on this list, developing from a loose confederation into a divine kingship, and enjoy archeological wonders left behind by the culture which provide insights into the lives of the ancient people, debate and confusion still reigns over many important historical details.

What we do know is that the Maya inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula and the territory of modern-day Guatemala for many thousands of years, likely introducing agriculture and settlements during the Archaic period; emerging into more complex settlements from 2000 BCE, the first Maya cities followed around 750 BCE. We know that the Maya subsisted primarily from the cultivation of crops, that they constructed their historic edifices inscribed with their famed Long Count after 250 CE, that they discovered and occupied the even more ancient city of Teotihuacan, and that their period of greatness – the so-called “Classic Period” – in which they were governed by a hereditary theocratic dynasty lasted until about the 9th century.

Yet in spite of all of this information, painting a somewhat detailed if a nonetheless fuzzy picture of an ancient and unique culture, we still do not know perhaps the most important detail of all: why the Maya civilization collapsed. In a remarkable period of rapid decline, during the 9th century the once great and powerful empire suddenly imploded. Within only a couple of generations the preponderance of central Maya territory had been depopulated, both of its capitals were abandoned, monuments ceased to be raised, and the Long Count calendar vanished with the last known date carved in 909 CE; squatters even inhabited the abandoned royal palaces, whilst trade routes diverted to circumvent the Petén Basin in the heartlands of what had been Maya territory. The reasons behind this apocalyptic seismic shift are unknown, with the “Classic Maya Collapse” speculatively attributed to a wide array of possibilities including internal conflict, environmental factors such as an intense drought, or the unstable condition of the divine kingship.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Whilst we understand in abundance the creators of the Great Pyramids of Giza, we know very little about the ancestors who laid the foundations of the Egyptian Civilization. Wikimedia Commons.

19. Whilst we know much regarding Ancient Egypt, our understanding of the ancestors of this great civilization – the inhabitants of Pre-Dynastic Egypt – remains limited and speculative

Whilst our understanding of the Egyptian civilization from the ancient period all the way through to the modern age remains detailed, if not complete, we cannot say the same concerning the “Pre-Dynastic” era. Beginning approximately 10,000-8,000 years ago, and extending until about 3100 BCE when Pharoah Narmer or Hor-Aha unified the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt to usher in the “Early Dynastic” period, the current historical record of pre-dynastic Egypt contains significant gaps in knowledge limiting our appreciation of the ancient culture.

Whilst the lands of what would become Egypt was inhabited by humans likely before 40,000 BCE, it is generally believed that it was not until the 11th millennium BCE that agriculture was introduced to the Nile Delta; archeological evidence has suggested wild grain harvesting employing the world’s oldest grain-grinding techniques was begun in approximately 10,500 BCE by the Qadan culture, resulting in the increased migration of people to the Nile region and the establishment of permanent settlements by 8000 BCE. However, between 9000 and 6000 BCE the historical record suffers a three thousand year lapse in knowledge, with the domestication of certain animals and the introduction of cereal likely occurring at some point in this broad gap, and little to no archeological remains dating from this period are available to understand the ancient civilization during this time.

Our comprehension of the more recent millenniums of the pre-dynastic period, although still extremely limited, is aided by an increase in Egyptian innovation, with the Merimde culture, who resided at the edge of the Western Nile Delta, producing simple pottery and the El Omari culture near modern-day Cairo offering an abundance of rudimentary stone tools; additionally, rock art dating from 6000 BCE depicts single-sail ships whilst the Maadi culture of Lower Egypt enjoyed access to metal-working via the archaeological discovery of crude copper devices. Through the slow march of progress these many disparate communities advanced and gradually grew closer in the course of commerce and conquest, until eventually being forcibly unified into a single cohesive nation to become Ancient Egypt.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
A mural (c. 618-712 CE) depicting the Chinese mission of Zhang Qian to the Yuezhi in 126 BCE. Wikimedia Commons.

18. The Yuezhi were a nomadic people who resided in the territory of modern-day China, spending most of their history waging war in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to independently survive

The Yuezhi were an ancient civilization who, during the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE, resided in an arid grassland region of the modern-day Chinese province of Gansu. Almost all of our knowledge and understanding of the Yuezhi comes from surviving Chinese accounts written many decades after the events described, with limited archeological evidence creating a highly speculative and incomplete account of the ancient culture.

One of the earliest Chinese descriptions of the Yuezhi, “The Book of Han”, depicts the “the Great Yuezhi” as “a nomadic horde” who “moved about following their cattle, and had the same customs as those of the Xiongnu. As their soldiers numbered more than hundred thousand, they were strong and despised the Xiongnu. In the past, they lived in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian.” This noted antagonism with the Xiongnu would be the ultimate downfall of the Yuezhi, who would suffer defeat at the hands of Xiongnu in 176 BCE after the unification of China and Xiongnu between 221-209 and their subsequent combined invasion of Yuezhi lands in 207; in the aftermath of the loss of their ancestral home, the Yuezhi would split, with the Lesser Yuezhi migrating south and being later assimilated into the Qiang, Jie, and Zhao cultures.

The Greater Yuezhi would fare little better, forcibly migrating northwest into the Ili Valley through conquest before being displaced themselves in 132 BCE by the Wusun; fleeing south, the Greater Yuezhi eventually fragment into five major separate tribal entities in approximately 128. Eventually, around 30 BCE one of these five – the “Kushanas” – would unite the divided tribes through conquest to form the Kushan Empire; this new entity would survive until 375 CE, at which point it too would fragment into a loose confederation of semi-independent kingdoms who would in turn gradually fall to neighboring rivals and be subsumed into other civilizations.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Moai facing inland at Ahu Tongariki. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Apart from their creation of the Moai statues, the construction of which scarce details are known, very little is understood about the history of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island

The Rapa Nui are the aboriginal inhabitants of Easter Island, most famed for their historic creations of the celebrated “Moai” statues. However, reflecting the lack of information available concerning the Moai themselves, with even the manner of construction a matter of persistent speculation, our understanding of the Rapa Nui people is highly limited. A Polynesian people and culture, the Rapa Nui are believed to have settled Easter Island at some point between 300 and 1200 CE; radiocarbon dating suggests an arrival date towards the latter end of this broad timescale.

It is unknown from whence the Rapa Nui originally came from, apart from the wide oceanic area of Polynesia, or their purpose in settling the uninhabited Pacific island. According to their own mythology, Easter Island was first settled by an expedition embarking from Hiva – the legendary origin of the Polynesian people prior to expansion across the Pacific – and led by Hotu Matu’a between 300-800 CE in a deliberate migration using canoes. It has also been suggested, particularly by early European sources upon discovery of the island in 1722, that later migration occurred causing a multi-ethnic society; these claims are unverified, but it is entirely possible South American natives arrived at a later date to Easter Island and interbred with the Rapa Nui.

Best known for the creation of the Moai, despite being their defining historical feature only limited information is known even about these constructs. Carved between 1250-1500 CE, these 887 giant stone edifices were transported via unknown means to face inland until between 1722 and 1774 the vast majority were toppled; likely a product of internal conflict between rival tribes, by 1838 only one small group remained standing on the island.

Surviving the arrival of Europeans better than many “New World” natives, the Rapa Nui were almost eradicated as a result of a series of devastating environmental events most likely of their own making. Due to the rapid and near-total deforestation of the island during the period of moai-construction, the island’s eco-system became far less inhabitable and resulted in a dramatic population decline through decreasing crop-yields; today, just 48 different types of plants exist on Easter Island, with at least 22 extinct kinds verified to have once flourished, whilst a similar decline is observable among the remains of birds and other animals.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
“Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore” by Arman Manookian (1929); a depiction of the style of travel employed by the Austronesian people of early Madagascar. Wikimedia Commons.

16. The Austronesians of Madagascar crossed almost 5,000 miles of ocean, for reasons unknown, to settle the uninhabited African island

The island of Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world and located off the southeastern coast of Africa, was impressively and bizarrely first settled by Austronesians from Borneo between 350-550 CE. Traveling the almost 5,000 miles across ocean via canoe, it is unfathomable as to why these migrants elected to embark on such a journey and to reside so far from the remainder of their cultural and ethnic group, typically inhabitants of Southeast Asia and Oceania; it has been speculated that an early spice trade route may have existed via the African coast, but this is unverified conjecture in an attempt to justify their puzzling settlement of Madagascar.

The manner in which these early inhabitants lived is relatively unknown, but evidence of slash-and-burn agriculture suggests a combination of farming and hunting; some animal species, including the Malagasy hippopotamus, and fauna are known to have been made extinct during this time due to said practices. By 600 CE it is believed that settlers had moved inland to higher ground, although there is no archaeological evidence for human occupation in the highlands until around 1200, and had introduced the cultivation of rice, which would become a significant means of island subsistence a millennium later. Sharing the cultural traditions of other Austronesians, including Taiwan and Indonesia, the customs of these early inhabitants of Madagascar are better understood; these practices included the burying of the dead at sea in a canoe and the performance of music using traditional Austronesian instruments such as the “Antsiva” conch or “hazolahy” drum”.

The arrival of migrants from the 7th century sounded the end of the isolated civilization, with Omani Arabs first establishing trading posts along Madagascar’s northwest coast in the 7th century. Believed to have been refugees from the civil wars following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, these Arab migrants introduced Islam, the sorabe alphabet, and astrology among other cultural imports; these introductions resulted in the gradual decline of the native culture and the end of a distinct Austronesian civilization on the island, with Marco Polo detailing that “the inhabitants are Saracens, or followers of the law of Muhammad” during his 13th century voyages.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Olmec Head No. 3, from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan (1200-900 BCE). Wikimedia Commons.

15. The Olmecs were the first Mesoamerican civilization before they suddenly vanished in the 4th century BCE

The Olmec were the first known major civilization in Mesoamerica, located predominantly in the Gulf lowlands and inhabiting this area from 1400-400 BCE. Emerging as a distinct culture at some point between 1400-1200 BCE, the founding of the Olmec city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, not to be confused with the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, during this time is often considered the formal beginning of the fledgling civilization; aided by rich soil and the transportation opportunities afforded by the Coatzacoalcos River Basin, the Olmecs flourished in a manner comparable to other ancient civilizations residing on the banks of the Nile or Indus.

Atypically for an ancient civilization, this agricultural productivity enabled densely concentrated populations in large cities, with Tenochtitlán believed to have housed a population in excess of 10,000; this, in turn, created sufficient demand for artistic culture, resulting in the creation of the luxury objects which define the Olmec civilization today. Notable among these cultural artifacts, the Olmecs fashioned masks of jade, believed to have been used as symbols of status by the ruling classes, and carved colossal heads from single blocks of volcanic basalt; in total 17 such heads have been discovered, with the largest 11 feet in height and weighing 55 tons. The purposes of these heads, the characteristic image of the Olmec civilization, remains unclear, with the accepted theory that they represent great rulers and perhaps even were believed to capture the souls or emotions of these acclaimed individuals.

Like the Maya after them, it is unknown why the Olmec civilization suddenly entered into a period of rapid decline; this decline occurred in two stages. Beginning in around 950-900 BCE, the great city of Tenochtitlán was abandoned by the Olmec and much of its culture lost; it is believed internal conflict or changing environmental conditions might have contributed to the abandonment of the greatest city in the region. The remaining Olmec population relocated to La Venta, home to the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time – “The Great Pyramid” – until when between 400 and 350 BC the population of the eastern half of Olmec territory dramatically depopulated. Archeologists have speculated this depopulation was the product of “very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuited for large groups of farmers”; among the possible variables capable of creating such a seismic shift in environment, it has been suggested tectonic activity, the silting up of rivers, or volcanic eruptions.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, located in Sindh province of modern-day Pakistan. Wikimedia Commons.

14. The Indus Valley Civilization was the most widespread of the three “cradles of civilization”, yet we still understand only fragments and their language remains indecipherable

The Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization, was a Bronze Age civilization located in the northwestern regions of South Asia, spanning from modern-Afghanistan and Pakistan to northwest India. Believed to have existed from approximately 3300-1300 BCE, with its peak during 2600-1900, the civilization ultimately faded and its estimated 5,000,000 population dispersed across Asia to create countless successor nations. Although excavations of this ancient civilization began in the 1920s and continue to this day, with a total of 1,022 cities and settlements discovered as of 2008 – 406 in Pakistan and 616 in India – we still do not truly understand this formative culture. Most crucially, despite decades of effort we have been unable to translate the Indus written language; with no bilingual accompanying inscriptions like that of Hieroglyphics, it is possible we may never be able to fully comprehend this influential early civilization.

An industrious and innovative civilization, the Indus Valley Civilization was responsible for several landmark technological advances including metallurgy, smelting and producing objects made from copper, bronze, lead, and tin, baking bricks for the construction of houses, and the use of drainage and water supply systems; interestingly, the civilization appears to be one of an immensely peaceful predisposition, with few weapons uncovered during excavations in comparison to an abundance of ornaments and toys. It is believed the Indus Valley Civilization engaged eagerly in trade, with evidence suggesting that they exchanged goods as far away as southern Mesopotamia; despite this, there is scant record of the civilizations formal composition, rulers, or religion, resulting in only unverified theories and speculation on these subjects.

The civilization is believed to have entered into a period of decline from approximately 1900 BCE, with many cities abandoned within less than two hundred years; coinciding with this decline, several neighboring civilizations are known to have emerged at this time, including the Jhukar and Rangpur. Many theories have been suggested for this deterioration, with the predominant hypothesis revolving around the effects of man-made climate alterations; supported by archeological evidence demonstrating an increase in internal violence in cities and infectious diseases such as leprosy, it is generally believed that the push for urbanization resulted in the overuse of limited water supplies which in turn led to the aridification of the region and ultimately the premature collapse of the civilization.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Panorama of Caral Site. Wikimedia Commons.

13. Caral, believed to be the oldest known city in the Americas, was inhabited by a seemingly devout and peaceful civilization fond of music and culture

The Caral Civilization, also known as the Caral-Supe, was a pre-Columbian American city located in the modern-day Norte Chico region of north-central coastal Peru; dating from between 3000-1800 BCE, the settlement is most likely the oldest discovered city in the Americas. Encompassing an area of more than 370 acres, Caral is believed to have been inhabited by approximately 3,000 people during its peak, with its location enabling the settlement to utilize three major rivers to maximize population size.

Discovered in 1948 by Paul Kosok, it was not until 1975 the ancient city received archeological attention; in spite of this lack of initial interest, subsequent investigations have uncovered the existence of an extensive urban area which later served as a model for future Andean civilizations, complete with residential buildings, a temple complex measuring 150 meters long, 110 meters wide, and 28 meters high, and an amphitheater. Whilst little is definitively known about the Carol, the centrality of religion to the lives of its people is beyond doubt, with 19 additional temple sites located across the 35 square mile area of the Supe Valley. It remains entirely unknown why the civilization faded into obscurity.

Among the most impressive discoveries unearthed at Caral, archeologists identified a knotted textile artifact called a “quipu”: a rudimentary tool later used by the Inca as a binary system of recording logographic information. Musical instruments, including 37 cornetts crafted from deer and llama bones, were discovered and dated to roughly 2200 BCE. Akin to the Indus Valley Civilization no trace of violence or war has been identified among the Carol, with the city possessing no fortifications, weapons, or murdered remains; instead, archeological opinion is that the settlement thrived through peaceful co-existence.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Sanxingdui bronze heads with gold foil masks. Wikimedia Commons.

12. The Sanxingdui was an ancient culture in modern-day China, challenging the traditional narratives of Chinese settlement and expansion

The Sanxingdui was a Bronze Age culture dating from the 12th-11th centuries BCE and located in the modern-day Sichuan Province of China; in this capacity, the city challenges traditional narratives of the Chinese civilization as spreading from the central plain of the Yellow River and instead suggests “multiple centers of innovation jointly ancestral to the Chinese civilization”.

Initially discovered in 1929, when a farmer accidentally discovered a stash of jade antiquities, it was not until 1986 further discoveries were made by archaeologists: two sacrificial pits containing thousands of gold, bronze, jade, and pottery artifacts. The items recovered ranged from the practical, such as knives, belts, tables, and axes, to the ornate, including rings, masks, and decorative animals, and provided an original artistic style previously unidentified in mainland China.

The precise history or relationship of the civilization with its neighbors is unclear, with some archaeologists identifying a close connection with the nearby Kingdom of Shu, itself little more than a legend. It remains unknown what happened to the inhabitants of the ancient settlement, however the site to this day suffers persistently from flooding. The walls of the city of Sanxingdui were surrounded by canals, measuring 20-25 meters wide and 2-3 meters deep, and it has been speculated they served as much as a flood defense as for the purposes of irrigation or defense; it has been suggested an earthquake might have caused major environmental shifts in water supply, prompting the depopulation of the ancient city.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About

11. A land of “incense, ebony, leopard skins, elephant tusks, and boomerangs”, the Kingdom of Yam was an ancient and lost civilization that sought to rival the Egyptians

Extremely little is known about the ancient Kingdom of Yam, believed to have existed at some point during the 23rd century BCE as a rival to the Old Kingdom of Egypt and located approximately several hundred miles from the Nile; whilst the precise location is unclear, hieroglyphs discovered 430 miles southwest of the Nile confirm the existence of a trade route between Yam and Egypt and indicates the kingdom to have most likely resided in the northern highlands of modern-day Chad.

The preponderance of information available on Yam is derived from surviving Egyptian documentation, in particular an account inscribed upon the tomb of Harkhuf, Governor of Upper Egypt during the 6th Dynasty under Pharaohs Merenre and Pepi II. According to the so-called “Autobiography of Harkhuf”, the Egyptian statesman claimed to have made four expeditions into Nubia during his lifetime and in the course of each visited the Kingdom of Yam; the distance was sufficiently far it took seven months to reach, and for his efforts Harkhuf returned with many gifts for which he was “very greatly praised”. His first, second and fourth trips were at the behest of the Pharaoh and for the purposes of trade, whilst on the third Harkhuf interceded in a regional conflict and claims to have forestalled a war between Yam and Temeh; on his return the Egyptian governor also states to have brought the soldiers of Yam on a visit to Egypt, an account corroborated by other surviving contextual accounts.

Alas, the information provided by Harkhuf’s funerary inscription offers insufficient evidence to locate the lost kingdom amidst vast areas of now-barren desert, with the civilization placed by various scholars in locations ranging from “the desert west of Upper Nubia, to the most likely region of Chad, or even further south, precluding any serious archaeological search at this time.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
The last king of Silla, King Gyeongsun (r. 927-935). Wikimedia Commons.

10. Silla was one of the “Three Kingdoms of Korea”, conquering and unifying the Korean nation before fragmenting into three kingdoms once more

The Kingdom of Silla was a Korean kingdom, located in the southern and central areas of the modern-day Asian peninsula between 57 BCE and 935 CE. Founded by Hyeokgeose of Silla and beginning as a chiefdom within the Samhan confederacies, Silla later expanded to form one of the three Kingdoms of Korea along with the kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo; Silla also ended the period of the Three Kingdoms by conquering its two rivals in the 7th century, defeating and absorbing Baekje in 660 CE and Goguryeo in 668 CE.

Much of the history of Silla is speculative, with a severe lack of surviving archaeological evidence impeding verification, but it is believed that between its founding the mid 4th century CE Silla underwent gradual political change from a small clan into a distinct state before finally adopting a centralized monarchy under Naemul in 356; previously, a rotational power-sharing system is likely to have existed. A Machiavellian state, the Kingdom of Silla allied with the Kingdom of Goguryeo in the late-4th century CE to stem the rise of the Kingdom of Baekje, before siding with Baekje in the mid-5th century to forestall advances by Goguryeo; in the mid-6th century, Silla subsequently betrayed this 120-year alliance with Baekje to seize control of the Han River area that they had jointly driven the Kingdom of Goguryeo from. In the mid-7th century, in an alliance with the Tang dynasty of China, Silla successfully conquered its rival Korean kingdoms, before waging a decade-long war against the Tang to preserve the integrity of the newly unified Korean Peninsula. During the last century of Silla, constant internal conflict diminished the authority of the king; it is believed in 935 CE the kingdom briefly fragmented, before being reunified under the Kingdom of Goryeo.

Beyond this brief historical outline, little information remains regarding the Kingdom of Silla. It is thought the state converted to Buddhism during the early or mid-6th century CE, that the Three Kingdoms period of Korea laid the foundations of the historic “Silk Road” trading network with Iran, and that Silla society was divided into strict classes delineating clothing, permitted house size, and marriage availability.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Warpalawas II (right), King of Tuwana during the 8th Century BCE, venerating the Weather God on a relief near İvriz. Wikimedia Commons.

9. The lost Kingdom of Tuwana was a surviving relic of the ancient Hittite Empire, existing for likely less than a century before being conquered

Tuwana was an ancient kingdom of the Iron Age, specifically existing during the 8th century BCE, and located in the southern Anatolia region of modern-day Turkey; one of the many Syro-Hittite states which emerged from the collapse of the Hittite Empire during the 12th century BCE, the name derives from the city of Tuwanuwa which had belonged to the “Lower Land” of the Hittites. Whilst the ultimate fate of the Tuwana remains uncertain it is likely the lost civilization was conquered by the emerging Neo-Assyrian Empire, as was common for surviving Hittite city-states and to whom it is broadly accepted Tuwana paid tribute; it has also been suggested that since traces of the Tuwana vanish after both the Kingdom of Phrygia and the Kingdom of Urartu were defeated by the Cimmerians, that it too might have been conquered by the Indo-European people of Iran.

Extremely little survives concerning Tuwana, in part due to its short independent existence, but it is believed to have had a turbulent political history with five separate rulers recorded during the 8th century; among these kings, only the dates of the longest-serving, Warpalawas II, are known, ruling from 740-705 BCE. Tributaries of the Assyrian Empire of Tiglath-Pileser III, Tuwana also seems to have been closely connected to King Midas of Phrygia; both Assyrian and Phrygian inscriptions and artifacts have been uncovered at archaeological sites, with it seeming likely the small city-kingdom was frequently influenced and even abused by its more powerful neighboring rivals.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
A sketch from the walls of the mortuary temple of Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, depicting the landscape of Punt. Wikimedia Commons.

8. The People of Punt

The Land of Punt, sometimes referred to contextually as “Land of the God” by the Ancient Egyptians, was a revered kingdom of Africa whose dates of existence and even precise location is unknown; modern speculation centers the civilization as being situated somewhere in the region to the southeast of Egypt, most likely in the coastal areas of modern-day Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, or northeast Ethiopia.

As with the Kingdom of Yam, the indeterminate Land of Punt is known only via Egyptian trading records and the few surviving accounts of these travelers; among the goods exported to ancient Egypt, the most notable were gold, resins, ebony, and wild animals. Punt gold is known to have existed in Egypt as early as the time of Pharaoh Khufu of the Fourth Dynasty, demonstrating the existence of the fabled land at least during the 26th century BCE, whilst subsequent organized expeditions during the Sixth through Eighteenth dynasties provide evidence of considerable longevity for the Punt people; this trade continued during the start of the 20th dynasty of Egypt but was terminated prior to the end of the New Kingdom, at which time Punt became “an unreal and fabulous land of myths and legends”, offering an indication as to the eventual terminus of the Kingdom of Punt.

Most detailed among the accounts is that of Queen Hatshepsut, who constructed a fleet to bring valuable goods into Egypt and in 1493 BCE dispatched her Chancellor, Nehsi, to Punt on her behalf. “Accompanied by at least five shiploads of marines”, Nehsi found Punt ruled by a King Parahu and Queen Ati – the only known rulers of the lost land.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
Clovis spear points from the Rummells-Maske Cache Site, Iowa. Wikimedia Commons.

7. The Clovis People of North America were perhaps the oldest indigenous inhabitants of the continent, dating from over 13,000 years ago

The Clovis culture belonged to an unspecified prehistoric Paleo-Indian civilization located in the vicinity of modern-day Clovis, New Mexico, around the end of the last glacial period; radiocarbon dating of bone and ivory tools recovered by archaeologists indicates that the civilization was active around 13,200 to 12,900 years ago, making the culture among the oldest indigenous to the Americas. Genetic testing of modern Native American population has revealed almost 80% of all living indigenous peoples are descended from the Clovis people, in addition to a strong genetic connection with the indigenous people of northeast Asia suggesting a migration across the widely-theorized ancient Bering Strait land bridge.

Discovered in the 1920s and 1930s, much of the unearthed history of the Clovis people has been in the form of distinctively shaped stone spear points: the “Clovis Point”, a bifacial and fluted design unique to the region and after which the unknown civilization is named. Through the discovery of these artifacts, it has been determined the ancient people hunted mammoths as well as mastodons, and bison, in addition to other small animals; in total, more than 125 now extinct species have been identified as being hunted by the Clovis people. In addition, in Montana in 1968 the remains of a two-year-old child was unearthed as part of an ancient Clovis burial site; this discovery has enabled significant genetic testing and has permitted a far greater understanding of the civilization.

Whilst unverified, it is broadly accepted that the Clovis people declined as a unique culture as a result of natural population expansions coinciding with a decline in the availability of megafauna, precipitating migrations and cultural differentiation; it has equally been argued that the “Younger Dryas” – a period 12,900-11,700 years ago in which temperatures suddenly and temporarily reverted to that similar to the preceding Ice Age – might have adversely affected the Clovis culture.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
The ruins of Göbekli Tepe. Wikimedia Commons.

6. The People of Göbekli Tepe were an unknown civilization responsible for the creation of the world’s oldest discovered megalithic structure

Göbekli Tepe, or “Potbelly Hill”, is an ancient megalithic site dating to between the 10th-8th millennium BCE located in the southeastern Anatolia region of modern-day Turkey; measuring 15 meters in height and 300 meters in diameter, and constructed from more than 200 pillars, each with a height of 6 meters, weighing up to 10 tons, and arranged in 20 circles atop a floor of polished lime, the Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known megalithic formation in the world. Discovered in 1963, it was not until Klaus Schmidt in 1994 reexamined the site that it was determined to be culturally significant; subsequent excavations under his oversight have produced evidence of a large complex atop the plateau, in addition to much speculation concerning the civilization responsible for the immense historic structure.

Challenging the conventional narratives of human social and cultural evolution – with hunter-gatherers transitioning into urban civilizations and then creating monuments – the Göbekli Tepe provides a counter-narrative that, in the words of Schmidt, “first came the temple, then the city”; although it remains unknown how a pre-sedentary hunter-gatherer civilization could have constructed such a complex, with the Göbekli Tepe pre-dating the inventions of the wheel, writing, and even agriculture, the discovery forces us to reevaluate our primitive assumptions concerning our ancient ancestors.

Without any evidence of habitation at the Göbekli Tepe, it has been widely theorized that the site served as a spiritual center for the surrounding civilization. Schmidt asserted throughout his decades studying the site that it was a “cathedral on a hill” and a pilgrimage destination for inhabitants as far away as 100 miles. This theory is supported by archaeological evidence of large numbers of butchered animals at the Göbekli Tepe, in addition to human remains suggesting the potential of Neolithic burials occurring at the location. Despite this early importance, for whatever reason at some point around the beginning of the 8th millennium BCE, coinciding with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry to the region, the Göbekli Tepe seemingly lost its prominent status; significantly, instead of merely being forgotten the presumed temple was in fact deliberately buried for an unknown purpose.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
An earthenware vessel, part of a beaker culture pottery collection from Ciempozuelos; made of black clay between 1970 and 1470 BCE. National Archaeological Museum of Spain/Wikimedia Commons.

5. The Beakers were an ancient culture scattered across Western Europe during the 3rd and 2nd millenniums BCE, and possibly the civilization responsible for the creation of Stonehenge

The Beaker culture, also known as the Bell-Beaker culture, was an ancient culture spread across Western and Central Europe, including regions such as Iberia, the British Isles, and the Italian Peninsula, which emerged at the start of the European Bronze Age in approximately 2800 BCE; surviving in continental Europe as a distinct culture until around 2300 BCE, the Beakers endured much later in Britain, lasting until roughly 1800 BCE. Originally isolated to the western portions of Europe, from 2400 BCE the Beakers expanded into central and eastern Europe, with their cultural influence reaching as far as Poland; whether this expansion and subsequent disappearance was a result of migration or acculturation remains a matter of speculation and debate among historians.

So-named for their unique and distinctive beakers, believed to have been designed for the consumption of alcohol as well as for the smelting of ores, these beakers were seemingly used as status symbols among the scattered culture; due to this dispersion of the civilization, immense regional variations exist with other styles notably including funerary significance.

Among the regional variants of this dispersed civilization, the Beakers are believed to have arrived in the British Isles in around 2500 BCE before declining between 2200-2100 and becoming culturally indistinct by 1700; it is most likely the migrating Beakers were assimilated into existing indigenous peoples, although the possibility of inter-racial conflict in Britain cannot be excluded. Employing a beaker style akin to those from the Rhine region, these products were typically employed in funerary practices, most notably in the barrows surrounding the ancient megalithic structures of Stonehenge and Amesbury; these sites were auspiciously constructed during the period of Beaker activty in Britain, making it entirely plausible the Beakers themselves were responsible for these creations.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
A Nok terracotta sculpture. Louvre/Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Nok people were an unknown civilization who lived in modern-day Nigeria during the Iron Age

The Nok culture was an early Iron Age civilization, existing for roughly 2 millennia between approximately 1500 BCE and 500 CE and located in the region of modern-day northern Nigeria; it is unknown what the fate of these ancient people was, or why they suddenly vanished at this time. Discovered in 1928, the unknown civilization is so-named after the village where the first distinctive terracotta sculptures which define the lost culture were unearthed.

These artifacts, made from sculpted alluvial mud, performed an uncertain function within the Nok culture, possessing almost life-sized hollow human heads and bodies and exaggerated or stylized personal features; several theories have been suggested in this regard, ranging from ancestral portrayal similar to those of the Moai by the Rapa Nui to ritualistic charms designed to appease deities concerning crops or illness. Unusually for ancient artwork, both males and females are depicted by these sculptures, reflecting a clear and non-discriminatory cross-societal role for the artifacts.

In addition to these artistic creations the Nok appears to have lived as per the standard of the Iron Age, using stone tools mixed with early uses of iron metals for the purposes of mining, agriculture, and war, as well as developing the industry of pottery; unusually, due to the highly acidic soil of the area no evidence of animal bones has been uncovered, and as such details of any domestication or hunting by the Nok remains unclear. Beyond this scarce information, little is known about the Nok civilization or culture making them one of the most curious societies on this list.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
A Nabta Playa “calendar circle”, as reconstructed at Aswan Nubia museum. Wikimedia Commons.

3. The Nabta Playa were an unknown civilization that lived in the Nubian Desert and were perhaps the first human astronomers

The Nabta Playa was a once internally drained basin in the now dry Nubian Desert, located 800 kilometers south of modern-day Cairo and home to an ancient civilization inhabiting between the 10th and 6th millenniums BCE. Whilst today a desert, it is believed that between 130,000-70,000 years ago the Nubta Playa was a savanna; beginning in the 10th millennium BCE, the region is considered to have experienced an increase in rainfall resulting in the creations of a lake and attracting human settlement to the surrounding area.

By the 7th millennium BCE, these initial settlements had grown to sufficiently large sizes to warrant the creation of technologically advanced deep wells to provide adequate amounts of water to sustain these populations. Town planning was seemingly employed to ensure maximum efficiency given the limited available resources, with houses constructed in straight lines, including both above-ground and below-ground accommodations, and planting was carefully managed to prevent the over-use of underground water; it remains disputed whether the Nabta people were early pastoralists, with evidence both for and against existing for the domestication and farming of animals.

Despite the loss of the civilization’s history and identity, the Nubta Playa people are believed to have been among the earliest known astronomers. Among the methods used by these ancient humans are included stone alignments mapping the trajectory of stars, and a “calendar circle” for the purpose of measuring astronomical distances; it has been alleged that one of the stone compositions is the earliest known depiction of the constellation of Orion, dated to between 6,400-4,900 BCE.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About
The “Lady of Vinča”, an iconic terracotta anthropomorphic figurine excavated in 1929 at the archaeological site of Vinča-Belo Brdo, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

2. The Vinča were an ancient Neolithic culture residing in the Balkans of southeastern Europe, known for advanced farming and the production of ritual figurines

The Vinča culture, also known as the Turdas culture, belonged to an ancient Neolithic civilization, dated to between 5,700-4,500 BCE and located in the Balkans of southeastern Europe. Discovered in 1908 by Miloje Vasić, and so-named for the original archaeological site’s proximity to the city of Vinča, the Vinča occupied an area of land now spanning the modern-day states of Serbia, Kosovo, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Greece.

Producing some of the largest settlements known to have existed in prehistoric Europe, with an estimated population density of 50-100 people per hectare, the Vinča were proficient subsistence farmers and are believed to have been responsible for the introduction of common wheat, oat, and flax to Europe; one of several cities with populations in excess of 1,000, the settlement of Stubline enjoyed an estimated population in around 4800 BCE of 4,000. Maintaining cultural connections through the exchange of ritual items, the Vinča produced technically impressive artwork, sculptures, and figurines, many of which were inscribed with symbols suggested by some archaeologists to be the earliest form of proto-writing; the exact purpose of these figurines remains unknown, depicting both animals and humans, but it is widely accepted they retained a religious or spiritual purpose within the Vinča culture.

Although the fate of the Vinča remains unclear, archaeological evidence suggests that the lack of firm political unification and a deterioration in regional soil fertility around 4500 BCE resulted in the culture’s decline; an alternative theory proposes that the Vinča was a peaceful and matrifocal civilization, with their disappearance the result of an invasion by Proto-Indo-European tribes from the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

20 Incredible Ancient Civilizations and Cultures That We Know Surprisingly Little About

A scene from a relief on the north wall of Medinet Habu, believed to illustrate the Egyptians against the Sea Peoples in the Battle of the Delta. Wikimedia Commons.

1. The Sea People were a seafaring civilization who preyed upon the coastline of the Mediterranean during the late-Bronze Age

The Sea Peoples were a seafaring and warlike civilization during the Late Bronze Age collapse, known to have been active between 1200-900 BCE, responsible for frequent attacks upon the ancient Kingdom of Egypt along with other territories of the eastern Mediterranean. The precise origins of the Sea Peoples remains disputed, with various ethnic and regional geneses proposed since the nineteenth century; these theories include more locally sourced peoples from Mediterranean islands or Southern Europe, including numerous lost or unaccounted for Aegean tribes, to the migratory descendants of the ruined city of Troy or as far away as Anatolia and Asia Minor.

All remaining archaeological evidence supporting the existence of this highly aggressive and piratical civilization stems from Egyptian sources – and as a result, their accuracy in detailing the lives and conditions of their mortal enemies cannot be excessively vouched for – in particular, the detailed inscriptions of the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. Nonetheless, their activities have become recognized as a major catalyst behind the Bronze Age collapse itself, with the Sea People responsible for the sacking of the Hittite capital of Hattusa among other critical historical events.

Known by their contemporaries as extremely proficient warriors, with a stela from Tanis during the reign of Ramesses II stating that “no one had ever known how to combat” the sea raiders and that “they came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them”, the Sea People persistently harassed and pillaged the Mediterranean coastline during this period.

Most notable among these encounters was the Battle of the Delta, believed to have occurred in 1175 BCE, in which the Egyptians under Ramesses III successfully repulsed a major invasion by the Sea People; according to the Medinet Habu inscriptions, thousands of Sea People attempted a coordinated amphibious invasion of mainland Egypt. After emerging victorious on land in Syria, faced with thousands more attempting to land at the Nile Delta the Pharaoh lined the shores with archers, preventing a beach landing and funneling the Sea People’s ships into the Nile wherein he had amassed a fleet in ambush. Unable to retreat, the Sea People were decimated and the battle resulted in the deaths of thousands; the Egyptians rejected the surrenders of their enemies, and those Sea People who made it to land were butchered. It is possible the ancient civilization never recovered from this fight, and hence why scarce information records their actions after this monumental and devastating event.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World”, Lynn Foster, Oxford University Press (2002)

“Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Forest Civilization”, Arthur Demarest, Cambridge University Press (2002)

“A History of Ancient Egypt”, Nicolas-Christophe Grimal, Blackwell (1994)

“The Yuezhi: Origin, Migration and the Conquest of Northern Bactria”, Craig Benjamin, Brepols (2007)

“The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC”, Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy, Cambridge University Press (1999)

“The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World”, J.P. Mallory and Q. Douglas, Oxford University Press (2006)

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, Jared Diamond, Penguin Books (2005)

“Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui”, B. Peiser, Energy and Environment (July 2005)

“A History of Madagascar”, Mervyn Brown, Markus Wiener Publishers (2000)

“Prehistoric Mesoamerica”, Richard Adams, University of Oklahoma Press (1991)

“America’s First Civilization: Discovering the Olmec”, Michael Coe, The Smithsonian Library (1968)

“The Indus Valley”, Ilona Aronovsky and Sujata Gopinath, Heinemann Publishers (2005)

“The Archaeology of South Asia: From the Indus to Asoka, c. 6500 BCE – 200 CE”, Robin Coningham and Ruth Young, Cambridge University Press (2015)

“Archaeological Site in Peru is Called Oldest City in America”, New York Times (April 27, 2001)

“Civilization Lost?”, Laurent Belsie, Christian Science Monitor (January 3, 2002)

“The Koreas”, Mary Connor, ABC-CLIO (2009)

“The Routledge Handbook of The People and Places of Ancient Western Asia”, Trevor Bryce, Routledge (2009)

“The World of the Neo-Hittite Kingdoms: A Political and Military History, Oxford University Press (2012)

“Locating Punt”, Dimitri Meeks, University College London Press (2003)

“Mysterious Lands, Encounters with Ancient Egypt”, David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke, Institute of Archaeology (2003)

“Punt and How to Get There”, Kenneth Kitchen, Orientalia (1971)

“Reflections on Travelling to ‘God’s Land’ and Punt in the Middle Kingdom”, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt (1998)

“Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture”, D.J. Stanford and B.A. Bradley, University of California Press (2012)

“Bones, Boats and Bison: Archaeology and the First Colonization of Western North America”, James Dixon, University of New Mexico Press (1999)

“Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?” Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine (November 2008)

“The World’s First Temple, Sandra Scham, Archaeology Magazine (November 2008)

“The Oxford Handbook of European Bronze Age, Anthony Harding and Harry Fokkens, Oxford University Press (2013)

“The Nok of Nigeria”, R. Atwood, Archaeology (July-August 2011)

“Neolithic Skywatchers”, Andrew Slayman, Archaeological Institute of America (May 27, 1998)

“Sites of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the context of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention: A Thematic Study”, Juan Antonio Belmonte, International Astronomical Union (2010)

“The Lower Danube in Prehistory: Landscape Changes and Human-Environment Interactions”, Steve Mills and Pavel Mirea, Editura Renaissance (2011)

“The Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean Bronze Age 1450-1100 BC”, R. D’Amato, A. Salimbeti, Osprey Publishing (2015)

“The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean”, N.K. Sanders, Thames and Hudson (1985)

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