10 Mysterious Lost Civilizations

Civilisations rise and fall What was everyday reality to our ancestors is now an unclear, intriguing fog of the past

Explorers have turned a corner in the jungle, or peeked underneath a strange rock, and uncovered previously unknown chapters of human history Even the mightiest civilisations disappear, and historians still don't know everything that happened to them Here are 10 mysterious lost civilisations 10 The Indus Valley Thousands of years before Christ, the people of the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan and northern India had numerous towns and cities, with well-planned streets and remarkably well constructed buildings

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They prospered and traded with Sumeria in the Near East However, we know very little besides that There are no paintings or sculptures of their leaders, history and religion Quite a lot of their writing survives, but none of it has ever been deciphered At some point, the great cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were abandoned

Some historians think the people were forced to move out by drought; others think they suffered great floods Some conspiracy theorists argue they were wiped out by an ancient superweapon, perhaps triggered by aliens This seems unlikely, but the truth is, we simply do not know what happened 9 The Minoans For nearly two thousand years, the civilization of Crete flourished at the centre of an empire that stretched into the Middle East

One of its rulers, King Minos, entered legend and lent his name to the civilization: the Minoans They were famed for their palaces and cities, especially Knossos, whose labyrinthine layout inspired the story of Theseus’ battle against the Minotaur They had sophisticated art and invented two – maybe even three – systems of writing, one of which was deciphered by codebreakers in 1952 (Chadwick & Ventris) The others remain a complete mystery Minoan culture eventually declined, being conquered and absorbed by the Mycenaeans from Greece

More on them later 8 The Maya The Mayan Empire peaked in the 6th century AD in the lowlands of Guatemala

The Maya were outstanding mathematicians, using their skills to construct incredible stone cities and develop sophisticated farming techniques to support the urban population They had their own heiroglyphic writing system, an astonishingly precise calendar, for which they invented the concept of zero as a placeholder They also practiced human sacrifice, using slaves and prisoners captured from other city states Nobody knows why, but from the year 900, nearly all the cities were abandoned A few, in the highlands, continued to prosper – but the majority of the Maya retreated into villages, as the rainforest reclaimed the ancient stone

When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived, the Maya civilisation’s days were numbered 7 Rapa Nui For many, Easter Island is defined by its iconic mo’ai – 900 giant stone statues It took teams of five or six men a year to hand carve each one The tallest is over ten metres high, the heaviest weighs 86 tonnes

They probably represent the ancestors of the Rapa Nui people – but though Rapa Nui still live on Easter Island, their society fell apart centuries ago Eastern Polynesians first settled on the island up to 1400 years ago, and developed their own language, culture and kingdom At their peak, there were 15,000 of them on the island, farming and fishing and crafting the great mo’ai But when European explorers arrived a century later, there were only 2,000 surviving Rapa Nui – something had nearly wiped them out Then, European disease and slave raids reduced the population to just 111 people

By the time Chile annexed the island in 1888, all the mo’ai had toppled – a fitting metaphor for the collapse of the Rapa Nui Today, the surviving descendants are still fighting the Chilean government for their rights – perhaps, like the great statues, they will rise again 6 Nabatea In 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt introduced the world to the city of Petra, hewn into the rock walls of a canyon in the middle of the arid desert The people who built it were the Nabateans, who against all odds managed to form an empire across the inhospitable deserts of North Arabia

They were known for their ingenuity: as well as their obvious masonry skills, they were able to exploit small oases so well that they could farm They used oases to form trade links between east and west Roman writers tell us they kept the origins of their trade goods and the trade routes utterly secret by disguising them in impenetrably fanciful tales Their secrets are still preserved: we know they could write, but no records survive Their civilisation declined slowly

They were conquered by the Romans, converted to Christianity, and later conquered again by Arabs who divided their lands What we can learn about them now, comes from these tourist attractions and a few stories 5 The Khmer Empire The Khmer Empire began in AD

802, when Jayavarman II declared he was king of the world At the time, it must have seemed he was right: from Cambodia, the Khmer empire ruled over almost all the mainland of Southeast Asia It’s capital was the stupendous Angkor, which was by far the largest city in the world, home to up to 1 million people, or 01% of the global population The buildings alone attest the enormous wealth, skill and artistic culture of the Hindu-Buddhist empire

Yet by the 15th century the empire was in decline After converting to Therevada Buddhism, the kings were no longer seen as divine, and their authority waned The technically advanced irrigation and canal system fell into disrepair, making the sprawling urban centre vulnerable to drought Wars and probably plague devastated the heart of the empire – but, quite frankly, historians, archaeologists and scientists disagree over how much these things had an impact, if they even happened at all The end of the Khmer empire is still an enigma

4 The Moche The Moche civilization thrived in northern Peru for about 600 years They produced great art and mud brick temples so huge they are mistaken for mountains But the Mochica people had no writing, so we know next to nothing about them Clues can be gleaned from artwork and burials

These suggest they carried out ritual battles to control the weather, particularly to bring rain The losers of the fake fight would have their throats cut and be buried in mud, as human sacrifices The Moche civilization disappeared suddenly around AD 650

Cities have been found buried in sand Climatologists analysed ice cores from the Andes mountains and found that, in the 6th century, Peru suffered a super El Nino, which caused 30 years of flooding followed by 30 years of drought They argue this killed off the Mochica Archaeologists then discovered some towns that were built after the year 650 Unlike earlier cities, these settlements are all fortresses

But there is no evidence of any invaders at this time It appears 60 years of natural disasters forced the Moche into civil war, and they gradually wiped each other out 3 Mycenae From 1600 to 1100 BC

, Ancient Greece was dominated by the city of Mycenae Once considered mythical, the citadel was identified by Francesco Grimani around the year 1700 The military stronghold was home to 30,000 people – a huge number in the Bronze Age Their religion and political system had a lasting influence over Greece, probably introducing many of the key gods in Greek mythology, like Zeus and Poseidon The poet Homer composed about their exploits, most notably their conquest of Troy, another fortress considered to be mythical until it was discovered in the late 19th century

Strangely, all the Mycenaean cities were burned down around 1200 BC, almost simultaneously It wasn’t long before the empire collapsed Explanations for the collapse include invasion, attacks by sea raiders, social revolutions, earthquakes, or all of these factors combined

2 The Kingdom of Aksum By the third century AD, the kingdom of Aksum was considered one of the four major world powers, equal to Rome, Persia and China Located in modern day Eritrea and Ethiopia, the city of Aksum’s skyline was marked by giant stelae, the tallest in the world

It was a hub of trade, as well as a centre for multiculturalism, being seen as a safe haven by Jews, Muslims and Christians The Old Testament’s Queen of Sheba is believed to have come from Aksum, and through her son the Ark of the Covenant is rumoured to rest inside the Church of Our Lady of Zion, a place where Christians gather in their thousands It is not clear what ended the empire At some point the capital city was moved to another location, but we don’t know where Two different stories say the empire was destroyed by a conquering queen – either a Jewish queen from the north, or a pagan queen from the south

Aksumite culture was not completely eradicated, but the civilisation was no more 1 The Picts The Picts are a problem: despite being Christian, and therefore literate in Latin, the only “writings” they left are a handful of indecipherable inscriptions on stones Their buildings were made of wood, and rotted away in the damp climate We don’t even know what the Picts called themselves

They remain a mystery All we can do is make an educated guess about their culture, thanks to their stunning jewellery, carvings and a few comments from writers like Saint Bede The Picts lived in eastern and northern Scotland, in a confederation of kingdoms They may have traced their kings’ right to rule through their mothers They were once wont to wear woad, which earned them their Latin name, Picti – the painted people

They spoke a language similar to what became Welsh But in the middle of the 9th century, this language, laws and customs disappeared Tradition says they were wiped out by Kenneth mac Alpin, a king of the Gaels or Scoti, whose descendants gradually created Scotland However, historian Alex Woolf says evidence suggests Kenneth mac Alpin may have been a Pict himself – in which case, the Picts were not physically destroyed, but culturally overtaken by the Gaels We just don’t know for sure – the problem of the Picts, persists

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