5 lost civilisations you've never heard about

Large ancient statue covered by sand
Even some of history's most powerful civilisations have faltered and been lost in the annuls of time | Image: Shutterstock

Think of the phrase ‘lost civilisations’ and the likes of the Maya or the Aztecs will probably come to mind. But there are many other, lesser known cultures, kingdoms and empires that have come and gone across the long history of humanity. Here are five others that you need to know about.

The Kingdom of Aksum

“There are four great kingdoms on Earth,” wrote the 3rd Century Persian prophet Mani. “The first is the Kingdom of Babylon and Persia. The second is the Kingdom of Rome. The third is the Kingdom of the Aksumites. The fourth is the kingdom of the Chinese.”

Mani’s third pick referred to a civilisation that was one of the mightiest of the 1st millennium AD, but which has fallen into relative obscurity in the centuries since. Arising in what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Kingdom of Aksum came to dominate the Red Sea coast, forming a key part of the trade route between Asia and Europe. Ivory, jewels, frankincense and live animals were exported, while silks, spices and glassware were brought in.

We know there were violent periods in its history, notably a series of territorial battles against the Persian Empire. The Kingdom also became the first sub-Saharan state to embrace Christianity. Today, visitors to the ancient capital of Aksum in Ethiopia can still see relics of this lost civilization, including mighty, towering obelisks that mark burial chambers. The city is also home to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, which was founded by the Aksumites and is widely believed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.

The Caral civilisation

Thousands of years before the golden age of the Maya in Central America, another civilisation flourished further south in what is now Peru. Existing between the 4th and 2nd millennia BC, it is generally thought to be the oldest-known civilisation in the whole of the Americas.

There are some distinctive aspects to this mysterious, lost world. Unlike other ancient civilisations, the Caral people seemed to have absolutely no visual arts culture and did not use ceramics. Archaeologists have found no paintings, sculptures, or signs of pottery being used to store food. On the other hand, the Caral people were apparently keen on music, if the flutes fashioned from animal bones are any indication.

They were also hugely accomplished architects. The capital of the civilisation, known as the Sacred City of Caral-Supe, still bears the signs of their accomplishments, including the remains of vast pyramids, sunken plazas, a circular amphitheatre, and residential properties.

Exploration of the Caral civilisation, which only began in earnest in the 1990s, has fundamentally re-written the history of humanity in the Americas, proving that complex societies go back for longer than experts originally imagined.

The Nabataeans

Emerging as a homogenous civilisation in the 4th century BC, the Nabataeans originally existed as a nomadic tribe in the Arabian Desert. Over time, they established a kingdom that wielded immense power in the region. Having control over territory used by traders travelling between Arabia and the Mediterranean made the Nabataeans enormously wealthy, but they were also formidable fighters.

One celebrated story recounts how they slaughtered thousands of Macedonian troops, (led by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, no less) who had designs on their territory.

The Nabataean capital was named Raqmu and is today called Petra. Located in Jordan, it’s a remarkable monument to a vanished society, accessible only through a narrow gorge called the Siq. Walking this craggy, winding path takes visitors into the heart of Petra, where ornate buildings have been carved straight out of the sandstone rock faces. Among them is the most iconic Nabataean landmark of all, the Al-Khazneh temple, which was famously featured as the hiding place of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The Cucuteni–Trypillia culture

Thriving between the 6th and 3rd millennia BC, the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture, often simply dubbed Trypillia, played an important role in the evolution of European civilisation. Their territory encompassed modern Moldova as well as swathes of modern Romania and Ukraine, where the Trypillia people mastered agriculture and the keeping of livestock.

They also showed particular skill in the art of textile making and pottery. Sophisticated kilns were used to produce pots, bowls and other artefacts with distinctive, swirling designs. They also fashioned ceramic ‘goddess’ style figurines which presumably had religious and spiritual significance.

Curiously, the Trypillia people had a habit of destroying their own settlements every 60 to 80 years. Evidence suggests they would literally burn their dwellings to the ground and rebuild them, for reasons that continue to be debated among historians and archaeologists.

It may be that the ritualistic destruction and resurrection of buildings served a symbolic purpose, mimicking cycles of life and death in nature. They may even have thought of their dwellings as having a life force of their own. The ‘burned house horizon’ is the evocative name given to the geographical zone in Europe where these mysterious acts of arson took place, so long ago.

The Sanxingdui civilisation

In 1986, the discovery of treasure-filled pits in Sichuan province would fundamentally alter our understanding of China’s past. Jades, gold treasures, elephant tusks and vast, startling bronze artworks provided evidence of a long-lost civilization that had existed within a walled city. This location, Sanxingdui, was located around 800 miles from the historic heartland of the Shang dynasty, which existed in the 2nd millennium BC and was officially the oldest confirmed Chinese dynasty.

In other words, the excavations in Sanxingdui tell us there was another, independent society that existed far away from where Chinese civilisation was supposed to have originated.

Flourishing at around the same time as the Shang dynasty, the Sanxingdui people are now perhaps best known for their remarkable bronze masks and sculptures. These depict strange faces with protruding eyes, giant ears shaped like wings and other flamboyant features that mark them out as unique in Chinese culture.

Inevitably, some have excitedly theorized that these artworks depict ancient aliens who may have visited the region. Meanwhile, mainstream historians believe these are, in fact, exquisitely-wrought depictions of ancient rulers and deities, to be used in rituals whose details we’ll never know for sure.