“Oceans rise, empires fall,” or so says Hamilton, and to flesh out the age-old diatribe one only has to look to the history of the great and flawed Roman Empire, or the rise and fall of the Mongols, or for mysterious vanishings one could search the term “Pompeii” or the fabled lost city of Atlantis on Google.
But, there are still several ancient civilizations whose mysterious disappearances baffle scientists and archaeologists around the world. These are a few famous cases.
Mayan civilization was, for a time, booming—according to NASA, some cities held upward of 2,000 people for every square mile around 900 A.D. But then the Maya disappeared, possibly because of the perfect storm of deforestation, drought and war.
They were noted for their hieroglyphic script—the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas—as well as for their art, architecture, mathematics, calendar and astronomical system.
The relics of an entire civilization are sitting underneath East St. Louis, Illinois, and according to Gizmodo, Cahokia once housed up to 40,000 people and contained about 120 human-made earthen mounds in a wide range of sizes, shapes and functions. Now, you’re probably wondering what kind of civilization would obsess itself with the size and perkiness of mounds, but then I would ask, “Have you ever seen a movie? Or TV show? Or magazine ad? Or billboard? Ever?”
Many of the mounds are still around today, and are thought by some to have been constructed for star-gazing purposes (gazing at something, for sure). Cahokia boasted sophisticated architectural and agricultural methods; archaeologists don’t know why its residents left, but have speculated that drought and social disquiet may have had something to do with it.
Cahokia was the largest and the most influential urban settlement in the Mississippian culture which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1000 years before European contact.
According to Wikipedia (the most trusted source of information on the interwebs), “Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico.”
A group of Polynesian settlers is believed to have arrived on Easter Island—or Rapa Nui—around 800 A.D., according to Smithsonian magazine. They constructed hulking stone statues, built settlements and farmed the island—which may have contributed to their mysterious demise.
What’s even more interesting, is that most common knowledge asserts that Easter Island’s famed head statues are its most impressive points of interests, but in fact many of the heads are simply the tops of much more intricate and massive sculptures buried beneath the earth.
“There are about 150 statues buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano, and these are the most famous, most beautiful and most photographed of all the Easter Island statues,” Easter Island Statue Project director Jo Anne Van Tilburg told Live Science. “This suggested to people who had not seen photos of (other unearthed statues) that they are heads only.”
The Smithsonian described a scenario in which the Easter Islanders deforested the land, which did a number on the soil, which made it nearly impossible to cultivate and opened the door to infighting.
We can’t know what happened for sure, but when the Dutch set foot on Easter Island in 1722, they found it “nearly barren.”
PBS describes the Minoans as “Europe’s first great civilization,” the first to use a written alphabet known as Linear A and to pave their roads. They inhabited the island of Crete until they vanished around 1600 B.C.
Again, according to PBS, their disappearance has long been considered a mystery, but archaeologists have hypothesized that a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera deluged Crete with a tsunami. It left the Minoans with their defenses down, an opportunity invading Greeks readily seized. They are thought to have attacked what was left of Minoan Crete, which may explain the civilization’s disappearance.