One of the most fascinating subjects to study throughout history is the rise and fall of various civilizations. While in some cases we have an understanding of the evolution and downfall of these civilizations, the fate of others is not so clear. There have been many cases in which an entire civilization has simply disappeared without a trace, leaving few belongings behind to determine what happened to them.
So what have we learned about some of these lost civilizations, and what does it all mean? What downfalls did these civilizations experience, and why did they disappear entirely? Below, we’ll talk about nine civilizations that seemingly disappeared, with little evidence of the true cause.
1. The Maya
The Maya Empire was once located in modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. At the time, the Maya were one of the most advanced civilizations on Earth, known for their mathematical, architectural, and engineering abilities. This lost civilization contained large cities, monuments, and roads, as well as technologies that helped advance their growing communities. Between massive pyramids and terraced farms, the Maya civilization achieved some impressive feats.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Around 900 AD, the Maya civilization experienced a drastic decline. Within just a few decades, the population had been wiped out by seemingly mysterious forces. Historians suggest that this decline was probably due to significant climate change and natural disasters in the region, as well as ongoing warfare and famine throughout their cities.
Final view of the Pirámide del Adivino (Pyramid of the Magician or the Temple of the Soothsayer) as you exit the Zona Arqueológica de Uxmal, an impressive ancient Maya city, Yucatan, Mexico (Sharon Hahn Darlin / CC BY 2.0 )
2. Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Rapa Nui , known more popularly for its alternative name “Easter Island,” was once the home of a now lost civilization. This lost civilization was not particularly large in population, but was industrious and comfortable. This civilization had created the moai, the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people sometime between 1250 and 1500 AD.
Sometime after their creation, the entire civilization collapsed and vanished. Even European explorers just a few hundred years later discovered the island had few communities left, seemingly a result of the over-harvesting of natural resources such as palm trees. It is also believed that disease likely contributed to their demise over several years.
The mysterious Moai monoliths are all that remain of the Rapa Nui civilization (Voltamix / CC BY SA 4.0 )
3. The Harappans of the Indus Valley Civilization
The Harappans, also known as the Indus, were once one of the largest civilizations in ancient history. It is believed that this civilization was first established over 8,000 years ago, though the majority of its developments occurred around 2500 BC. This massive civilization was spread over nearly 400,000 square miles across modern-day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which provided many resources for them to thrive. At its peak, it is believed that the Harappans once had a population of over five million people! So, how did it become one of the first ‘lost civilizations’?
How can a civilization so advanced and widespread simply – fade away? (Avantiputra7 / CC BY SA 3.0 )
Evidence shows that the Indus Valley Civilization had developed highly advanced agricultural and sewage systems for its time. It also had a written language and accounted for 10% of the world’s population at the time of its peak. The Indus thrived until around 1800 BC when most of the population began emigrating from their cities.
While it was once believed that the Indus were pushed out by an Aryan invasion, further research reveals that was not the case. Recent research instead points towards a shift in the monsoon cycle, which would have greatly impacted their ability to produce crops. Some suggest that many of the river banks dried up before a sudden flood came through, wiping out more of the population. Other natural events such as earthquakes or epidemics may have also contributed to the Harappans’ sudden demise.
The dusty ruins of Mohenjo Dero, once the largest city of the Indus civilization. (Andrzej Nowojewski / CC BY NC 2.0 )
4. Thonis, Egypt
The civilization of Thonis was once believed to be a myth, but was discovered to be true in the early 2000s. This Egyptian city was lost underneath the waves centuries ago, and divers in the region have found various artifacts hiding in the silt off the coast of Egypt, revealing an entire lost civilization buried under the sands of time. Some of the artifacts found included pottery shards, jewelry, coins, lamps, and temple ruins.
Experts believe that Thonis (also called Thonis-Heracleion) was established around 2,700 years ago in modern-day Abu Qir Bay. Based on the artifacts found in the region, it is believed that they were a major trading port for surrounding regions. This region would have controlled the majority of maritime traffic entering Egypt from Europe to trade.
It is believed that Thonis was eventually abandoned, and other cities became the primary trade hubs after a number of natural disasters struck Thonis. These events included tsunamis, earthquakes, rising sea levels, and floods. Buildings would eventually collapse into the water due to significant structural damage. Over time, this once-standing city fell victim to the sea where it still remains to this day.
5th century limestone statue found in the murky underwater remains of Thonis-Heracleion (Jean-Pierre Dalberea / CC BY 2.0 )
Çatalhöyük is often considered one of the first urban settlements in the world. This lost civilization, located in modern-day Turkey approximately 8,000 years ago, was known for its unique architecture and engineering. Interpretation of this civilization’s architectural remains suggests that the inhabitants would walk across rooftops instead of utilizing traditional roads, as all buildings were interconnected. They also buried their loved ones under the floor of their homes, as open burial space was not utilized.
It is unknown exactly what happened to the Çatalhöyük people. Some theorize that disease wiped them out, as they did not expand as widely as surrounding civilizations. Today, their many artifacts are still being uncovered for greater insight into the lives of these fascinating individuals.
Reconstruction of Çatalhöyük mural showing a hunting scene (Omar Hoftun / CC BY SA 3.0 )
6. The Khmer Empire
The Khmer Empire was once the home of the largest temple complex on Earth. Angkor, its capital, was estimated to be as large as 402 acres and was located in the middle of modern-day Cambodia. Although impressive, it fell into sudden decline sometime after 1200 AD. There are many theories for this decline, such as environmental disaster, disease, and sudden war. Experts are not entirely certain as to what happened to this massive capital, but it is now perhaps the most famous lost civilization.
At its height, it is estimated that Angkor was once home to as many as one million people, although research is still ongoing. It is possible that the population was even larger than this, which would indicate an even more catastrophic event. Today, the portion of Angkor called Angkor Wat is one of the most famous ruins in the modern world. Archaeologists hope to keep discovering artifacts and other evidence in these ruins that can paint a clearer picture of life during the height of the Khmer Empire.
The extensive remains of Angkor Wat make the disappearance of the civilization even more mysterious (Kheng Vungvuthy / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Around 1,200 years ago, Cahokia was established as a river valley community near modern-day St. Louis, Missouri in the United States. Although not as large as other lost civilizations on this list, it was estimated to have a population of around 20,000 people, making it the largest known ancient site north of Mexico. This city was known for its buildings, plazas, and massive mounds across the region. There were approximately 120 earthen mounds across Cahokia, one of which was over 100 feet tall and required 14 million baskets of dirt to create!
Because of its location near several rivers, Cahokia was used as a trade center within the American Midwest. According to experts, the population was washed out – literally – by a massive flood sometime around 1200 AD. The region had already been completely deserted for centuries before Columbus arrived in the area.
Some researchers have questioned if flooding was the only contributor to the demise of the Cahokia civilization. Some suggest that they had overexploited their resources, or may have faced sudden disease. Others believe that the Little Ice Age fully wiped them out sometime after the flood had already decimated their population.
The astounding extent of the Cahokian civilization (Heironymous Rowe / CC BY SA 4.0 )
8. The Minoans
The Minoan civilization was established nearly 5,000 years ago on Crete. This civilization was known for being highly educated and successful, with the majority of its population being made up of artists, sailors, merchants, and warriors. In particular, sailors of the Mediterranean Sea were highly esteemed, and maritime events were significant aspects of their culture. The Minoans were also known as the first civilization in Europe to use a written language, called Linear A. Although intelligent and hard-working, they were still unable to avoid meeting a tragic end.
The Minoan civilization was not so much lost as destroyed sometime around 1500 BC, initially due to an eruption of the Santorini Volcano in Thera. The areas that were not damaged by the eruption itself faced destruction from a tidal wave resulting from the volcanic eruption. This tidal wave destroyed all the crops, ships, buildings, and other resources planted along the seaside. With no food and devastated infrastructure, the Minoans either died out or were forced to relocate elsewhere with what few members they had left.
A Minoan fresco from the palace of Knossos, Crete, circa 1500 BC (cavorite / CC BY SA 2.0 )
9. The Olmec Civilization
The Olmec civilization was located along the Gulf of Mexico around 1100 BC. They were named Olmec because they live in Olman, the “land of rubber.” The Olmec were primarily known for their architecture which included buildings and stone statues. It was also discovered that they had successfully built aqueducts within their cities, an impressive feat for that time.
Unfortunately, the Olmec civilization fell into decline around 400 BC. Both of its major cities were essentially abandoned, leaving their many buildings, statues, and other artifacts behind. Although not much evidence remains regarding the Olmecs, experts believe that a natural disaster such as a drought or volcanic eruption may have caused a drastic loss in their crops. The Olmecs may have also over-exploited their natural resources, which would have contributed to any food loss they experienced. Others say there may have been tensions between the Olmecs and other local communities, which could have resulted in bloodshed. While it’s not clear what happened, only the eerie ruins of another lost civilization remain.
One of the massive, multi-ton heads left behind by the Olmec civilization ( Public Domain )
Ancient Civilizations: Lost & Found
Though these lost civilizations disappeared centuries ago, we are still able to learn about them from the artifacts they left behind. These discoveries can help us unpack and rediscover cultures and communities that were once lost to the sands of time. With any hope, future investigations can lead us to discover more about the downfall of these once-great civilizations.
Top image: Fantasy image of a lost civilization underwater. Source: Максим Горбанев / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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