The forgotten superpowers that shaped the world we know today
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History is often described as being written by the winners, which is a fair point when you consider the emphasis that is placed on the Romans, Egyptians and Greeks. However, in the ancient world there were many other cultures and kingdoms that helped form the history of the human race and add to humanity’s conquest of Earth. Originally full of bustling metropolises and unique cultures, some of these empires were unlucky enough to come into contact with the all-conquering force of the Roman legions or Greek hoplites, while others were victims of devastating natural disasters. Additionally, the fall of some of these civilisations is shrouded in mystery, with various theories as to how and why they suddenly vanished. Subsequently, much of their influence and memory have been long since forgotten.
Luckily, the modern world is full of clues that have stood the test of time, from the ruins of fallen cities through to the systems and structures that we use today. These seven forgotten civilisations may not have contributed as much to human progression as their more famous counterparts, but they remain an integral cog in the evolution of trade, architecture and warfare.
Discover the cultures that built the first aqueducts, invented the 365-day calendar, smelted the first iron weapons and even built the first zoos. Read on to meet the people who gave the Egyptians an honest run for their money and a civilisation that survived two natural disasters that shook their small remote island home, as we shine a light on Earth’s greatest lost civilisations.
Naturally fortified by a river delta, the Khmer Empire was a formidable state that helped to contour Southeast Asia
Where was it: Across today’s Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand
When did it exist: 800-1400
Strengths: Advanced water system, strong economy, natural resources
Weaknesses: Uncontrollable population, rival civilisations, overexpansion
Amazing fact: The Khmer Empire only lost one major naval battle in 600 years
Water is the life stream of all civilisations, and the Khmer Empire completely embraced it and used it to its advantage. The Khmer incorporated an extensive water network into their civilisation to allow their capital city of Angkor to flourish on the banks of the Mekong River. Briefly the largest city in the world, Angkor covered 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) and is believed to have accommodated around 1 million people.
This city grew out of the remains of the Funan and Chenla Empires, and was a similar size to many of the world’s modern cities. The advanced water system contained a network of channels and reservoirs that utilised the monsoon climate to collect water for use in the dry season. Each area of the city had channels of fresh water running through it, earning it the title of a ‘hydraulic city’ by contemporary historians. Its strong economy allowed the empire to expand into Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. This expansion brought the Khmer people into direct contact with other settlements and empires such as the Bagan and Sukhothia to the west and their greatest rivals, the Cham, to the east.
Their most famous leader was Jayavarman II, who led the civilisation to their greatest military successes against the Cham. The Khmer state was divided up into over 20 provinces and trade with China boomed. The biggest exports were wood, ivory, cardamom spices, wax, gold, silver and silk, and cash flooded into Angkor. The gradual decline of the Khmer can be attributed to three main factors: the diluting of their culture through new strands of Buddhism, a gradual weakening of their water network, and an overexpansion that brought them into conflict with the Ayutthaya Kingdom and fully exposed to military threats.
This civilisation proved you didn’t need an army to survive
Where was it: Bolivia
When did it exist: 500-900
Strengths: Good agricultural location, construction techniques, expert farmers
Weaknesses: No writing system, overuse of their farming land, no military presence
Amazing fact: Tiwanaku cities were so grand that when the Incas discovered them, they believed they were made by gods
The most prominent civilisation to come out of Peru was the Incas, whose culture flourished from approximately 1200 until the Spanish conquest of 1532. However, before the Incas came the Tiwanaku tribes, who colonised both Chile and Peru. A multi-ethnic society who settled in the upper reaches of the Andes, the Tiwanaku are remembered for their many remarkable monuments that still stand today. The most famous of these were the Kalasasaya’s Temple and the step pyramid of Akapana, which were used as a temple and observatory respectively. As well as these impressive structures, the Tiwanaku also had underground drainage and paved streets, with cities that were planned in a grid system.
Over 10,000 people lived in their capital city (also called Tiwanaku), which is believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Their society was aided by its base in the rich Titicaca basin, which had just the right mix of rainfall, food sources and land. Subsequently, the Tiwanaku became expert farmers and pioneered a method of farming known as ‘flooded-raised field’ agriculture, which used the effective system of irrigation. This well-fed population (there were over 50,000 agricultural fields in the capital) allowed the Tiwanaku to expand into many other areas of South America. The civilisation was at the peak of its powers in the 8th century, but mysteriously ended in the 9th century. No one is quite sure why the Tiwanaku disappeared but is believed that they, as well as a similar culture known as the Wari, were victims of a dramatic shift in climate which devastated the crops and caused mass starvation. As they had no writing system and never engaged in war with Spanish conquistadors, the Tiwanaku are a true forgotten civilisation.
Before the Romans, Italy was occupied by a civilisation who were just as advanced
Where was it: Central Italy
When did it exist: 800-250 BCE
Strengths: Construction expertise, iron and copper trade, urban planning
Weaknesses: Poor army, territory desirable to invaders, locality to Rome
Amazing fact:The Etruscans invented the idea of armed combat for sport, or as we more commonly know them: gladiators.
The Etruscan story begins in post-Iron Age Italy. Originally inhabiting the area we now know as Tuscany, Ancient Etruria grew in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE thanks to its rich seams of mineral ores, strong agriculture and plentiful timber resources. The civilisation reached the height of its power in the 6th century BCE when 12 city-states were allied in the Etruscan League. The main cities were Tarquinii, Vulci, Caere and Veii, whose economy was based on a thriving copper and iron trade with the Greeks and Carthaginians. Being the first real major settlement on the Italian peninsula, Etruria became the basis of the civilisations in late antiquity to follow. They were one of the first peoples to dispose of kings and be ruled by an intelligentsia of aristocrats and magistrates, and their architecture and construction techniques arguably influenced the Romans as much as the Greeks did. Their homes were made from mud brick baked in the hot Mediterranean sun mixed with wood and stone, and some even had upper storeys. These houses, which were very advanced for their time, were set into the first type of rectangular urban planning and were accompanied by roads and bridges, which used arch and vault construction techniques. Even the Latin alphabet and the Roman toga have their origins with the Etruscan people.
Etruria is also known for its maritime prowess as they explored the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, establishing colonies on Corsica, Sardinia and even in Spain. The Romans, a civilisation that owed so much to the Etruscans, proved to be their downfall. The growing Roman military juggernaut proved irresistible to Etruscan resistance as their league of city-states was annexed into the new Roman Republic in 250 BCE.
Egypt’s greatest rivals, the Hittites were masters of the chariot
Where was it: Turkey, Syria and Iraq
Dates of civilisation: Ca 1700-700 BCE
Strengths: Expert chariot makers, iron manufacture, fortified city of Hattusa
Weaknesses: Drawn-out rivalry with Egyptians, city-states had no political unity, slow economical advancement
Amazing fact: Hittite battle axes were shaped like human hands!
At its peak, the Hittite Empire rivalled the more famous kingdom of Egypt, and were such a threat that Egypt’s Pharaoh Ramesses II resorted to signing a peace treaty with the Hittites after the brutal Battle of Kadesh, history’s biggest chariot battle. However, they slipped quietly from the historical radar after being assumed into the Assyrian Empire and because their culture varied considerably between each region. The Hittites’ call to fame was their chariot building. Among the first civilisations to pioneer the manufacture of iron, their warrior-like culture thrived before being overwhelmed by the superior Assyrians.
At its largest extent, Hittites were found in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Like many other forgotten civilisations, Hittite lands were divided up into city-states with no political unity with each other. The biggest of these was the mountain fortress of Hattusa, which was heavily fortified by King Suppiluliuma. The Hittite Empire collapsed in 1160 BCE after civil war and a scramble for the throne. Scattered and leaderless, a settlement was formed between the Syro-Hittite peoples, but this was only a brief respite before they were invaded by the Assyrians in 700 BCE.
Combining a strong military ethos with huge leaps in education, the Assyrians were a force to be reckoned with
Where was it: Iran and Syria
When did it exist: 2400 BCE – 1300 CE
Strengths: Technological advances, iron weapons, emphasis on education
Weaknesses: Proximity to other strong empires, administration spread too thinly
Amazing fact: Assyria contained several zoos as one of their kings, Tiglath-Pileser, was obsessed with animals
The Assyrians shared the area of Mesopotamia (Iraq, Turkey and Syria) with the Babylonians, but they could not have differed more. While in Babylon the kingdom was ruled by the priesthood, Assyrians were ruled by kings and generals. This allowed the Assyrians to become a much larger military power and they were able to expand their empire considerably. The benefactors of the rich and fertile land on the Arbel and Nineveh Plains, the Assyrians amassed a huge population who gathered in their largest cities, Arbel, Ashur and Nimrud. They spoke Akkadian and were some of the first peoples to record writings on stone tablets and later, parchment and papyrus.
The Assyrians were pioneers of animal domestication, pottery, controllable fire and iron smelting – it was the latter technology that gave their military a huge boost. Fighting enemies armed with bronze, the stronger iron weapons allowed them to conquer the Hittites, who were roundly defeated at the Battle of Nihriya in 1245 BCE. Assyrian policy for defeated powers was to not incorporate their people into their nation but deport them to ensure there was no rebellion under their rule. Exceptions were only made if the individual or group was believed to be of use to the greater Assyrian society, such as scholars. One of the Assyrians’ greatest achievements was in education, as the School of Nisibis is believed to be the first-ever university, teaching theology, philosophy and medicine. These houses of education provided the first systematic lists of plants and animals, as well as progression in other areas, such as an early postal system.
The Assyrians are also attributed with building some of the first aqueducts and arches, hundreds of years before the Romans, and introducing the modern idea of keeping time. Pax-Assyria ruled the majority of Mesopotamia for approximately 1,800 years, where their cities were huge metropolises guarded by extensive fortifications. Unlike other settlements of the age, the Assyrians had a kingdom that was unified and not limited to separate city-states. Instead, imperial administration ruled the land as local governors reported to the central authority.
The final Assyrian demise is shrouded in mystery, but it is believed they entered a dark age in 1300 after constant wars with the Byzantine Empire. After their empire crumbled, their civilisation saw a mass influx of Jews and Arabs. Assyrians were primarily Christian, but after high taxes were put on this faith, they changed to Islam. This effectively ended the idea of being ‘Assyrian’. As the Assyrians were ethnically distinct from both Arabs and Jews, this may be a contributing factor to their slip into relative obscurity.
The Minoans flourished as expert traders and shipbuilders
Where was it: Crete
When did it exist: 3000-1100 BCE
Strengths: Bureaucratic hierarchy, shipbuilding, knowledge of metallurgy
Weaknesses: Weak military, natural disasters
Amazing fact: The Minoans had a sport that involved jumping over bulls’ horns
Of all the lost civilisations, the Minoans may be the most mysterious. Isolated on the Greek island of Crete, their society flourished with little interruption for centuries. Arguably the first European civilisation, they first settled on Crete in 3000 BCE and were later influenced by the neighbouring Greek and Egyptian civilisations with whom they frequently traded with. Minoan culture originally had no centralised government and a flexible ruling system with large, grand palaces acting as the key areas of administration. Tombs known as ‘tholos’ were the key architectural feature of the Minoans and this, along with their paved road system, running water and pottery was incorporated by the later Greek and Roman civilisations. By 2000 BCE, kings had assumed control of the island as wine, olive oil, wool and cloth exports flourished. This signalled the beginning of a bureaucratic system and social hierarchy on the island, with nobles and peasants making up an early feudal system. Women also played a large role in society, serving as administrators and priestesses, and had the same rights as men. It was this unity that made the Minoans such a remarkable people.
The Minoans had a strong maritime presence that helped them import large sums of copper, silver and gold. In around 1700 BCE, the Minoan culture was shaken by an earthquake that destroyed many of their settlements. They managed to recover from this natural disaster, but now had company on the Mediterranean; Greeks and Mycenaeans began to threaten trade interests, especially as the Minoans had now expanded to other Greek islands such as Thera, Rhodos, Melos and Kythira. Their luck got even worse when in 1375 BCE, the island’s largest city, Knossos, was devastated. Historians argue whether this was the work of an invasion force or a volcanic eruption, but either way, this crippled the Minoan people, who were dispatched by an oncoming invasion force in 1100 BCE. The people of Crete now answered to Athens. The Minoans would never trouble the history books again.
A kingdom of expert traders, this civilisation sailed the seas with no fear and colonised vast swathes of the Mediterranean
Where was it: Lebanon and Israel
When did it exist: 4000-332 BCE
Strengths: Peaceful and diplomatic city-states, maritime strength, dye and metal production
Weaknesses: Minimal military strength, no real capital city or stronghold
Amazing fact: The Ancient Olympic Games originated in Phoenicia
Before transport systems on land became popular, waterways were the best way of travelling long distances, be it for trade or conquest. The greatest pioneers of sea travel in the ancient world were the Phoenicians who made the Mediterranean their own until their demise at the hands of Alexander the Great in 322 BCE. A series of independent city-states, the biggest of their settlements were Tyre and Sidon. A peaceful people, it is believed these states never once went to war with each other, and their peaceful and diplomatic reputation helped them stave off invasion for a prolonged period, simply because their trade was too valuable to lose.
The Phoenicians’ openness to dealing with all nations they came across allowed them to trade a variety of goods. They were particularly skilled in shipbuilding (they were the first people to invent the curved hull and the galley design), glass making, jewellery and even furniture. There is evidence of Phoenician involvement throughout the Mediterranean, even reaching as far west as modern-day Spain and Portugal. There are also claims they sailed to Britain in search of the island’s rich tin seams. Equally unknown to many, they are credited with founding Carthage, a city that would become a major centre in both the Carthaginian and Roman Empires.
Phoenicia is known as Canaan in Hebrew and is named after ‘phoinikes’, the Greek word for purple, due to their production of purple dye, which would later become the colour of royalty and aristocracy in both Greece and Rome. Prior to Alexander’s conquest, the Persians invaded Phoenician lands in 539 BCE, but the Macedonian invasion was much more devastating, especially for Tyre. The majority of the cities such as Sidon submitted automatically, unwilling to cause bloodshed against Alexander’s vastly superior army. However, Tyre decided to take the invaders on at their own game but this backfired spectacularly as hoplites laid siege to the island city for seven months and massacred the population once they had overcome the fortifications. After the Macedonian decline, Phoenicia became a Roman state in 64 CE and developed a Hellenistic society and culture.
Originally printed in All About History 20