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.