Throughout human history, there have been great civilizations that for some reason, literally vanished from the face of the earth; some with little of no reason. There has always been speculation as to why they died out, but not enough solid proof. The unexplained disappearance give rise to many theories, but also pave the way for modern archaeologists to find the connections from one ancient culture to another.
What we do know is that our ancestors were more technologically advanced than we give them credit for. We’ve seen examples of complex writing systems, amazing architecture, roads, artwork, and other wonderful creations that were accomplished without modern tools. Huge construction projects made of giant stones and timbers have both amazed and confused modern-day scientists as to how they were made. Wars were fought and the same lands were controlled by different groups, with each group leaving their own unique mark in the archaeological record.
Some of the most interesting unexplained disappearances are listed below, along with examples of what they left behind as a testament to their achievements. Although we are only looking at twelve examples, there are many more that could easily be added to this list.
The Olmec’s were one of the earliest known civilizations in the area we now know as Mexico. Their timeline started in the period between 1200-1000 B.C.E. They had a religion, writing (no texts exist today), art, great cities, and an agricultural system as well as human sacrifice, and a spiritual connection with the Jaguar. They are most know for the many massive sculptures of huge heads, carved without modern tools. A class system did exist, with a definitive ruling class, but the dynamics are unclear about how things actually worked.
There are no graves, fossils, or other physical indicators as to what happened. Also, no evidence of famine, war, disease, or natural disaster exists, which may be helpful to archaeologists. Some prevailing theories point toward different possibilities, but none are fact-based. These include civil war, agricultural failures due to over-farming, or that the Olmec people simply folded themselves in with later-developing societies such as the Aztec or Maya.
What we do know, is that around 400 B.C. the last great city, La Venta, began to decline and then was abandoned. But what’s strange is that once La Venta was abandoned, all Olmec culture vanished as well. Business and commerce ceased to exist, and production of the amazing artworks, carvings, and other artisan-produced products, stopped completely. There were still people who could claim to be of Olmec ancestry who still lived around the area of La Venta, but no evidence of the Olmec culture can be found to exist after 300 B.C.E.. As to what happened and why it happened, no one alive currently knows. This unexplained disappearance is one of many throughout history.
The origins of the Anasazi civilization can be traced back to 1200 B.C.E. in the Four Corners region of the United States (parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico). It wasn’t until the year 500, that agricultural advancements would seemingly propel the society forward. The early Anasazi, known only for their basket-making skills, would later become one of the most questioned civilizations in world history.
Anasazi families lived in open air settlements throughout the many canyons and agriculturally suited lands in the American Southwest. They built extensive systems of roads and villages, which were all connected. Yet, for a reason which is unknown, sometime around the year 1250, the people began building settlements that were cut into the high cliffs surrounding the canyons. And almost as soon as this cliff-dwelling phase began, it quickly vanished. Less than 50 years after moving in, some unknown life-altering event forced the Anasazi to not only flee the cliff dwellings, but to make an extensive move to the southeast toward the Rio Grande and the Little Colorado Rivers. Just what happened is, without a doubt, the greatest puzzle facing North American archaeologists today.
The area around Chaco Canyon is visited regularly as it demonstrates the amazing engineering and organizational skills of the Anasazi people. The dry, arid climate has been integral in preserving the remnants of this great culture. The overall construction is unparalleled in size and complexity for that time period. The buildings are aligned precisely with the four cardinal directions and the moon and sun. Some of the massive houses have more than 500 rooms and historical evidence has been found that demonstrated a high level of understanding of astronomy, trade, and advanced stone technology.
Modern scholars theorize that the Anasazi were forced to walk away from their great new homes for multiple simultaneous reasons. It’s believed that a lengthy drought, depleted natural resources, overpopulation, and a leadership collapse led to the people leaving the area. After this period, the civilization faded into history and never again came to a period of greatness as they had in Chaco Canyon.
Today, the term Anasazi is no longer in use by the archaeological community; scholars now call it the Ancestral Pueblo. Their descendants are today’s Pueblo Indians, such as the Hopi and the Zuni, who live in 20 communities along the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, and in northern Arizona. Many people have said that the elders know what caused the great migration, but won’t share them with anyone outside the tribal group.
The Cahokia civilization refers to an area around the Mississippi River, near modern-day Saint Louis. From 700 to 1400 C.E. a great Native American civilization prospered and one of the greatest cities in the world was the center of all things worthy and valuable. The largest of the remains is called “Monks Mound” and is assumed to have been the center of all cultural activity. It is 92 feet high, 951 ft long, and 836 ft, and covers 14 acres.
The Cahokia Mounds site, as we know the area today, is located in the area now known as Western Illinois. Discoveries of symbols carved into stones and shells have been made, but no written records, which limits our knowledge. The archaeological studies show a highly complex and sophisticated society lived in the area, with about 50 separate communities spread over 2,200 acres. They built more than 120 earth-mounds, with the tallest reaching heights of nearly 100 feet. Estimates are that more than 55 million cubic feet of earth were moved by hand to complete the structure.
During the excavation, a mass grave was discovered at site, “Mound 72”. Many believe that it was the burial site for a Cahokian chief. Directly below the tomb, archaeologists found more than 250 other skeletons, many without heads of hands. Of those, more than half were believed to have been sacrifices or ritual executions. Also, there were more than fifty young women (about 21 years of age) found in neatly-separated layers, and finally a mass burial grave with over 40 men and women who appear to have been buried alive, based on the condition of the skeletal remains.
What happened to the Cahokian people remains a mystery. Records indicate a gradual decline and it’s agreed upon that the Cahokians began abandoning their great city around 1200 C.E. and within two hundred years, they had joined the lengthy list of unexplained disappearances of great cultures. It is unknown why they left or where they went, but another tribe, the Chickasaw Nation, has claimed the site as to where their ancestors originated.
The Aksumite Empire was an ancient kingdom that existed from about 400 B.C.E. to 940 C.E. in the area we know currently as Eastern Africa. If it were in place today, the civilization would cover the land which is now Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemem and parts of Saudi Arabia. The ancient kingdom was centered around the fabled city of Aksum. Due in part to it’s geographical location, Aksum developed into a key stop along the major trade routes of the ancient days. These included routes connecting India, the Roman Empire, and all major ports of the Mediterranean Sea.
From what we know about this culture based on the archaeological remains, was that it was very wealthy, but also advanced in many other ways. The Askumites had a unique alphabet called the Ge’ez script and their own money system. They also had an organized polytheistic religion. Valuable goods from across the African continent brought high trade value and new items from across the known world. Many highly decorated ancient palaces and obelisks litter the landscape, leaving a message of power and wealth.
The empire began to decline in the 7th Century and the population fled inland, abandoning the once prosperous capital city and valuable trade routes. Scientists believe that like so many other ancient cultures, the land was unable to support such a large population and food became scarce. According to legends, internal strife cause a civil war between politicians and the culture became scattered and portions of it lost forever. Other historical records point toward an Islamic Caliphate driving the non-Muslim population away from the valuable geographies.
The Nabta Playa culture is relatively unknown except in some archaeological circles, where it’s known as the precursor to Egypt. Although the evidence to support that claim doesn’t exist, the influences that can be seen when comparing the two cultures appear obvious. Deep in the Nubian desert, about an hours drive from Abu Simbel, one of the most famous Egyptian archaeological sites lies Nabta Playa. All combined, the site covers a large area which is composed of hundreds of prehistoric tumuli, stelae, and other megalithic structures.
This culture is one of the oldest known, dating back more than 11,000 years ago. Because of this, archaeologists are limited to a greater understanding of the culture due to a lack of data. We do know that rocks played a major role in the culture. Across the area are countless numbers of tumuli (rocks and earth piled on top of a grave or burial site) which mainly had animal bones buried beneath them. Researchers discovered that these had a sacrificial connection to them, which indicates an early religion. Also stones were arranged in geometric shapes in other areas which indicates a ceremonial or other important use. These may sound unimportant, but considering that nothing else that old has every been found in Africa, makes them noteworthy.
The ongoing mystery of why the people of Nabta Playa disappeared has been connected to climate change. But where they went remains unsolved. The desert could have easily been the cause for the people to leave, but if they did, we’d expect the culture to re-emerge somewhere else, but no evidence has been found of this happening.
It’s generally believed that the people were scattered, but then came back together 400-500 years later and helped form the base of the Egyptian culture near Saqqara. There is enough evidence to suggest that at least some of the roots of ancient Egyptian beliefs, magic, and religion, originated with the people of Nabta Playa.
Unlike many of the other ancient civilizations, the Khmer empire has a great deal of information known about it. It was a very powerful civilization, located in South East Asia (modern day Cambodia, Laos, part of Vietnam, Thailand). The Khmer civilization originated in 802 C.E. and was over in 1431 C.E.. The center of the civilization was the city of Angkor.
The Khmer people built thousands of lavish monuments, hospitals, and many other beautiful buildings. But, it was the sophisticated irrigation system with its system of waterways and reservoirs, that made them legendary. This technological achievement allowed the Khmer to irrigate on a scale like never had been seen before and feed a tremendous amount of people.
The Khmer people were among the first in Southeast Asia to adopt religious ideas and political institutions from India and to establish centralized kingdoms encompassing large territories. And yet, by the 14th century, the Khmer was in decline. There are theories, but none are certain, of what happened. Religious scholars will immediately point to the religious conversions from Vishnuite-Shivaite Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism that affected all life. Others point to the non-stop internal power struggles among Khmer princes. Still others theorize invasion, disease, or a countrywide revolt of the citizenry which caused the end. With such a broad list of possible reasons for the decline, it’s just another unexplained disappearance of a great culture.
The land we call Jordan today was the home of an ancient Kingdom called the Nabatean. The Nabatean lived in the region from sometime in the 4th Century B.C.E. and the year 106 C.E. These ancient people were Arabian nomads who amassed huge sums of wealth as traders on the trade routes through and around the Negev Desert. Much of their success came from living on the trade routes – they knew every part of the way and where hidden sources of water could be found, keeping them one step ahead of any competitor.
The Nabatean civilization is best known for its capital city, called Petra. The site of Petra, which was expertly carved from the sandstone mountain cliffs was hard to reach on purpose. And even though Petra has no natural source of water, it was strategic and allowed the Nabateans to monitor the trade routes and collect taxes.
Culturally, even though no written documents still exist, it is widely known that the entire population was literate. They spoke a form of Arabic but also used Aramaic quite frequently, especially for politics; a topic to which they are considered very influential.
During the later part of the civilization, the Nabateans were at war with Rome, and the city of Petra was under siege for a long time. It was never breached, and the Roman’s were bribed to cease hostilities against them. The Kingdom stayed aligned with Rome from that point forward. In the year 32 C.E. Herod the Great attacked the Nabatean’s and after a series of military campaigns, overran the country. After that defeat, the nation slowly disintegrated and the once great traders simply faded into history forever.
The Minoans were a very powerful Bronze-Age culture that inhabited the island of Crete from 3300 B.C.E. to 1150 B.C.E.. Many historians cite the year 1900 B.C.E as the real beginning of the civilization as that was when most of the major settlements were constructed. They were traders and a seafaring culture that influenced the entire Aegean region. No one is sure what they called themselves; they were named by an archaeologist after the legendary King Minos. Scholars believe that the people originally came to the island from Asia Minor via longboats.
This culture was very advanced for their time as seen in the historical record. Surviving artworks found inside elaborate ancient palace complexes, fine jewelry, hand-painted pottery, and other Minoan crafted items demonstrate the level of sophistication these people had. Across the island of Crete, there have been multiple discoveries of local strongholds. Each area had a palace with ample evidence of ancient craftsmen working around the complex, food storage’s, wine production, connecting roads, and metal working. The absence of military fortifications also indicates the Minoans settlements got along with one another.
The Minoans developed a writing system known as Linear A, by modern archaeologist. It is still being studied today and is not fully understood, nor can anyone determine a connection between the script and a known language. It is believed that this form of writing started around the year 1800 B.C.E. and also seemed to disappear by the year 1450 B.C.E..
This thriving culture suddenly came to a halt in the later part of the 15th Century B.C.E. and scientists have been trying to figure out why the unexplained disappearance happened. It seems that all at once, the architecture was destroyed across the island, the culture underwent a dramatic shift, Linear A disappeared, and more. Many theories exist to explain this, but none concrete. Some speculate the island was invaded or that a migration of people that would be known as the Mycenae grew powerful and just took over.
Another theory is that the eruption of the volcano Santorini sometime between 1600 B.C.E. and 1625 B.C.E wiped out most the settlements and weakened them. This hurt the export trade that made the Minoans successful, but did not wipe the people out altogether, so it’s not a settled theory. Some forensic economists think that the losses were so large that the economy couldn’t generate the fund necessary to rebuild. It’s a sound theory, but it’s more likely that several things caused the culture to be lost to the annals of time, but to date no one has put that puzzle together yet.
The Mycenaean civilization was relevant in the years 1700 B.C.E. to 1100 B.C.E., peaking between the 15th to the 13th century’s B.C.E.. The Mycenae people inhabited the lands now known as Greece, the Cycladic islands, Crete and the surrounding areas. There were many great cities, but the main city of Mycenae was the epicenter. From their strategic location, trade was extended to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt.
The Mycenae were considered the first “Greek” civilization. They were sufficiently advanced, organized, and had a written language, known as Linear B. They were also known for innovations in engineering, warfare, and architecture. We know this because they left a written record which details the political, social and economic conditions during the span of the civilization.
We know that the collapse of the Minoan culture gave rise to a huge opportunity to control the trade routes, which the Mycenae capitalized on and expanded. However, they were not alone in the quest for growth and there were numerous conflicts in the region around the same time. In the year 1250 B.C.E, a series of still-unexplained events saw many large cities and fortifications destroyed or abandoned. It appears that the Mycenae tried to rebuild, but the efforts were in vain. Like so many other cultures, this one also has an unexplained disappearance. When the Bronze-Age culture collapsed, the Mycenae came to an end. Scholars have tried to explain it by citing a litany of reasons including invasion, disease, climate change, or natural disaster.
In the area known as Pakistan, one of the world’s first great civilizations existed, yet most people today have not heard about them. The Harrapan civilization arose in the Indus Valley around the year 2500 B.C.E.. The people were simple farmers and traders but were also considered much more advanced than their neighbors. Much of what we know about them comes from the archaeological remains of two Harappan cities, Harrapa and Mohenjo-daro.
Scientists have discovered the remains of large grain storage’s, which indicated the people were planners and understood the need to be prepared. The Harrapan’s were traders, but educated ones that developed a system of weights and measures to ensure fairness. Additionally, they had a working currency system. They understood irrigation and built a system to move water to agricultural areas and also developed a sewage system. They were the first known civilization to not only grows cotton, but to use it for textile production.
Around the year 1700 B.C.E., the Harrapan civilization unexpectedly disappeared. There are many theories, but none of them with enough evidence to be convincing. Some say that the climate change caused the collapse while other attribute the disappearance to invasion by the Aryans. Still others claim that a combination of factors that included the waterways being reduced due to drought leading to loss of trade revenue and then civil unrest.
We do know that the Indus Valley did see a major shift around the year 1800 B.C.E. which led to a more arid and cooler climate. Some theorize that this change was slow and the Harrapan people migrated away in small groups until nearly none remained. Within 100 years, everything was abandoned, including the once great cities.
Of all the civilizations we’ve looked at, Catalhöyük is one of the oldest, existing from 7500 B.C.E to 5700 B.C.E.. It was located in the southern portion Asia Minor, where modern-day Turkey is found. Unlike many of the other civilizations we’ve looked at, this particular one revolves around just a single settlement, which was in fact a giant building with many rooms, and at least 14 (some say 18) layers. The initial excavation, which took place in the early 1960’s, showed a highly advanced culture during the Neolithic period.
The city of Çatalhöyük was composed entirely of domestic rooms; no evidence of pottery makers or other craftsman shops, but there is evidence of arts and crafts. This seems to indicate that if they didn’t make things, they traded for them. Some of the room were extravagant, possibly used for religious purposes or by royalty. Archaeologists estimate this city had more than 10,000 people living in it, making it enormous for that time period. Researchers have speculated that people used the roof to travel between different areas of the structure as no roads have been found. Skeletal remains have been found under the floors in such a way that indicates a death/burial ritual was used by the inhabitants.
At this point, there still is much to learn about this culture, but with the age of the find being more than 10,000 years old, there may not be anything worthy left to find. No one even has put forth a theory on what happened to these people. It’s one more unexplained disappearance.
The Maya race was named after the ancient Yucatan city of Mayapan, the last capital of a Mayan Kingdom in the Post-Classical period. It was first ‘discovered” in 1840’s and has been a source of intrigue and mystery ever since. Many scholars claim the Mayans disappeared while others claim just the opposite and cite living indigenous people in modern-day Mexico as Mayan descendants.
The Mayan Empire stretched across the Yucatan Peninsula, parts of Belize and the area we call Guatemala today. There time line falls between the years 1800 B.C.E to 1524 C.E.. Like many other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans started off simply, with agriculture leading the way. As they grew, they started building great stone cities with the now-famous step pyramids and carved stone works.
Sometime around 250 C.E., the Mayans entered an age of prosperity which saw a rapid expansion. Nearly forty cities were constructed that housed anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 people each. During this period, the Mayan population was estimated at two million individuals. This period also provided modern archaeologists with examples of Mayan life. Plazas, temples, pyramids, and even sporting arenas have been excavated; each with elaborate carvings and artwork adorning them. Also during this time, the Mayans developed a method to terrace, or step-farm the mountainous regions around them.
Researchers have unearthed evidence of advancements in medicine, engineering, mathematics, astronomy, and the famous Mayan calendar, which was designed to last for 5,000 years. They made paper and published actual books using a system of ancient hieroglyphs. Evidence of mining activities for salt, precious stones, and limestone have been discovered. Additionally we’ve seen evidence of an extensive water-management system that went throughout the Empire. Everything pointed toward continual growth and domination until the late Eighth Century.
The great Mayan cities were suddenly being abandoned and by the year 900 C.E. the Mayan civilization had completely collapsed. Scientists have debated why this occurred and there are some theories, but none which everyone agrees with.
Many researchers feel that the Mayans over-farmed the land and without adequate nutrients, could not produce enough food to sustain the large population. Others use the blanket term, “climate change” and see drought as an influencing factor. Still others cite invasion or war between the different cities as a possible reason. As the Mayans moved out, a new civilization called the Toltecs, moved into their abandoned complexes. There is an incorrect belief that the Spanish Conquistadors conquered the Mayans, when in fact by the time they arrived, most of the Empire had already collapsed. The remaining Maya were defeated at the Battle of Utatlan in 1524 C.E. by Alverado, making the traditional end of this once-great civilization.
The great cities were consumed by the rain forests and the people seemingly went back to a simple agrarian life. Some descendants of the Maya still live in Central America in modern-day Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and parts of Mexico. Sixty percent of Guatemalans claim Mayan descent. Despite this lineage, the bigger questions remain about the loss of knowledge and technology. No one is sure where those skills went and why.
Conclusion – Unexplained Disappearances or Something Yet Undiscovered
We’ve looked at many different unexplained disappearances throughout history. Most seem to have enough archaeological evidence to formulate theories which are generally acceptable, but not enough to say conclusively one reason or another. What’s really tragic is the societal loss of so much knowledge.
As the field of archaeology continues to be enhanced by new technologies, we may learn more about these ancient races. The answer to our questions may still lie buried beneath an unassuming hill of sand or deep inside an unexplored cave complex. Until then, we keep digging, searching, and hoping for new clues to explain the unexplained disappearances of cultures which showed such promise on the surface.
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