9 Lost Civilizations From Ancient History

A civilization can encompass a vast empire that once stretched across the globe or a singular city of exceptional importance. To be considered truly lost, the civilization must have undergone such a transformation that its remnants and people are unrecognizable to those who experienced its heyday.

Regardless of their size, lost civilizations have left enduring legacies that continue to influence our world today. These civilizations have shaped history from small communities of a few thousand to extensive empires spanning entire continents.

In this article, we will explore the mysteries and stories of nine lost civilizations, delving into the factors that led to their decline and eventual disappearance. We will also examine their impact on human history and the lessons we can learn from their rise and fall, providing insights into the ever-evolving story of human civilization.

1. The Ancient Puebloans

The Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, was a massive civilization that spanned the modern USA’s southwest. “Anasazi” means “ancient enemy” in ancient Navajo, which has caused the word to fall out of favor in recent years.

Archeologists believe that the Ancient Puebloans emerged during the 12th century BCE and remained until The Great Draught of 1130 CE. While the people of the area survived these 300 years of climactic turmoil, less trade and communication led to the evolution of different groups that could no longer be called a single, cohesive civilization.

The evidence of the Ancestral Peubloans today includes the “great houses,” such as Pueblo Bonito, and stone art, such as that found in the “Holy Ghost panel” in the Horseshoe Canyon. Many of the first peoples residing in the southwest today claim heritage from this mighty civilization, including the Hopi, Tanoan, and Keres speakers.

2. The Rapa Nui

The Rapa Nui people are not entirely “lost,” with around eight thousand inhabitants of the island still from this ancient people. Known more generally by the English-speaking world as “Easter Islanders”, the Rapa Nui have a long culture based on the mythology of birds, complex tattooing, and complex stone sculptures. These sculptures include the world-famous Moai (or “Easter Island Heads”), which represented deified ancestors.

The Rapa Nui likely came from nearby islands, and there is evidence that they quickly prospered. While there is a controversial theory that over-population and destruction of the environment would have eventually led to the demise of the people, modern researchers believe the civilization would have only continued to prosper without their discovery by Europeans in the 18th century. 

In 1862, Peruvian slavers arrived and kidnapped many while introducing the island nation to Smallpox. When the first missionary, Eugène Eyraud, died of Tuberculosis, he started a pandemic that killed over a quarter of the population, while other European settlers took advantage by buying up the lands from the family of the deceased. 

While there is a small resistance movement (both peaceful and violent), the remaining society of Rapa Nui almost entirely lives in the small fishing village of Hanga Roa.

3. The Indus Valley civilization

Also known as The Harappan (after one of its largest cities), this expansive empire was one of the three key early civilizations besides Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Lasting from 3300 BCE to approximately 1900 BCE, this bronze age civilization was known for its urban planning, metallurgy, sewerage systems, and early writing.

Because of the success of the cities within the Harrapan, and the great agricultural success of those towns surrounding them, art flourished in this culture, producing jewelry containing lapis lazuli, finely detailed sculptures, toys, and musical instruments.

The Indus Valley’s decline was a slow one, lasting across the Iron Age. While early cities fell due to poor crops and changing climate, new ones arose in the east, forming the early stages of what is now known as the Vedic Period. While cities like Pirak survived the expansion of the Greek empire, Harrapa itself was by then abandoned. 

4. The Moche

The Moche, or Mochica culture of Peru, was relatively small geographically, but might still be one of the most important lost civilizations in human history. With significantly complex irrigation systems, elaborate gold work, and cultural ceremonies full of pomp and circumstance, the legacy of the Moche can still be recognized today.

The Moche involved three valley “centers” which had independent ruling systems but close trade and military ties. At Pampa Grande, the Huaca Fortaleza remains the tallest ceremonial structure ever built in Peru despite being built sometime around 800 BCE.

It is unsure why the Moche civilization collapsed, but some scholars suggest it may have been caused by a “Super El Nino event” and consequential warring for resources.

5. The People of Nabta Playa

100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt sits a basin that was once the hub for what might have been humanity’s earliest civilization. As well as an organizational circle of ceremonial stones that some believe may be a calendar, excavations of the area have uncovered early versions of grain storage, the penning of animals, and organized housing.

The excavations of Nabta Playa have been dated as far back as 7500 BCE, five thousand years before the Great Pyramid at Giza. It is unknown what may have happened to the people at Nabta Playa, though it may be the drying of a great lake that existed during this ancient period in time.

6. Cahokia

Cahokia was a pre-Columbian city on the Mississippi River. Named at discovery after the Cahokia peoples, they were likely only one of the descendants of the great population that would have been a part of the city.

Cahokia, at its peak in 1100 CE, would have been made up of around 120 earthen mounds containing buldings, ceremonial grounds, and military works. Believed to be established in 600 CE, the city was known for its construction of tools and weapons that it would train for food from outer areas and for being a center of religious and educational experience. 

Cahokia likely fell to waste after a series of floods in the 11th and 13th Centuries, but, at its peak, it held a population larger than either London or Paris at the time.

7. Catalhöyük

Catalhöyük was a “proto-city” in modern-day Turkey that existed nearly nine thousand years ago. The settlement was created on a massive, artificially created mound and, between it and another mound city, ran the river Çarşamba. 

Catalhöyük was only discovered relatively recently, in 1958, and its excavations have been mired in controversy surrounding fake artifacts and unconventional archeological techniques. Despite these issues, we have been able to learn a little about the city; it had a population of over ten thousand in number, was without public buildings (and possibly had communal governance), and houses were connected by holes in their walls rather than streets between buildings. This final strange feature has made it stand out as the site of a civilization that may have worked quite differently from others.

The people of Catalhöyük would bury their dead under their houses, and all their art focuses on worshiping the female. The making of statuettes was popular, with over 2000 pieces having been recovered from the site of the city so far. 

What caused Catalhöyük to fall is unknown – there is no evidence of warfare, and the river continued to run by the mound for years after it was lost to history. In this way, the Catalhöyük are truly lost and one of the greatest mysteries in ancient history.

8. Minos and the Minoans

For a surprisingly long time, the stories of King Minos, his labyrinth, and his mighty kingdom were considered just that – stories. However, in recent times it has come to light that the ancient city of Knossos was more than just the capital of the Island of Crete, but the central seat of an empire larger than Greece itself – the Minoans.

The Minoan civilization is today known as “the first link” in European empire-building. It started in approximately 3500 BCE and collapsed around 1100 BCE. During that time, however, its navies ruled the northern coastline of the Mediterranean. It had a regular trade route with the Pharaohs and created a palace complex so massive and complicated that it would eventually be called “a labyrinth.” Crete itself was written as one of the “Secret Lands of the North of Asia” at the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III.

The Minoan civilization was eventually “conquered” by the Greeks (the story of which would then be immortalized in the tales of Theseus). However, the archeologists of today believe the first problems occurred after the eruption of the volcano at present-day Santorini around 1500 BCE. The earthquakes and ash clouds lay waste to many of the Cretan cities and caused considerable economic depression for hundreds of years.

9. Thonis

Also known as Heracleion, this ancient port city in Egypt was once the most important city in their empire. It was built on the Nile Delta, using multiple islands, and was home to the temple of Khonsou, son of Amun. Khonsou would end up with many names throughout history, and today we know him as Hercules. Thonis was said to be built in the twelfth century BCE, but its true origins are unknown. 

People would come to Thonis from around the world, believing that the gods in their temples could heal them. However, over time more and more traders would choose nearby Alexandria to deposit their goods, and the city became more important to tourists and worshipers than the economy of Egypt.

Finally, in the second century BCE, after a number of floods and tsunamis, the ground beneath the city literally liquefied, something that occasionally still happens in that delta today. The city was washed entirely into the sea. With contemporary looters and treasure hunters unable to access it, the city soon went from capital to myth. It is only in the 21st century that it has been rediscovered, and archeologists have been able to learn more about what life was like thousands of years ago.

Conclusion

As we have “lost” each civilization, we have gained new ones. Those who escaped the flooding of Thonis profoundly impacted Alexandria, just as the Harrapan society informed the Vedic and even modern Indian society.

While cities have been lost to the ages, no people have fully done so. Even on Easter Island, in a small fishing village, a small part of civilization survives.

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