13 Mysterious Ancient Societies That Historians Know Almost Nothing About

The ancient Egyptians had pyramids. The ancient Romans had aqueducts. The bloodthirsty Vikings had longships. Some historical civilizations are so well-known, almost anyone with even a passing interest in the past would be able to fire off their basic backstory and list of traits.

In fact, someone with only casual experience in history may think that (because of the intense focus that some civilizations garner), the history of the world is made up of only a few powerful empires, and that everyone else is unimportant.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Oftentimes, a civilization will be incredibly influential and important, but won’t receive a lot of discussion. Normally, this is because there’s nothing left to discuss. 

These vanished ancient societies leave large gaps in our understanding. History is, at best, an inexact science, and can best be imagined as a book with several pages missing. Some of the lost cultures and mysterious historical civilizations that we know the least about probably have some of the most interesting stories to tell. Instead, we're left wanting, our minds full of curiosity and wonder.

  • The Maya

    The Maya are one of the more famous ancient civilizations, but weirdly, that doesn’t mean we know too much about them. The South American jungle setting of their culture means much of the evidence left behind has been reclaimed by nature, leaving modern archeologists and anthropologists with more questions than answers.

    We know the Mayans constructed some architectural wonders and created a truly impressive calendar, but we don’t know where they all disappeared to. The Mayan Empire appears to have collapsed about 1,000 years ago, leaving behind a veritable ghost town.

    Some modern theorists believe= climate change was the culprit, and in 2018, a team of researchers calculated the environmental conditions during the culture's decline and confirmed this hypothesis. A group of Ph.D. candidates at the University of Cambridge published their study in Science Magazine

    The group studied water trapped in a mineral known as gypsum, which they found in Lake Chichancanab. The researchers measured the chemical variants of water remaining in the gypsum. The lighter isotopes tend to evaporate quicker, so gypsum left with heavier isotopes indicates a drought. "This method is highly accurate and is almost like measuring the water itself," said Nick Evans, one of the authors of the study. 

    In December 2019, archaeologists discovered a large palace they attribute to the Mayan elite buried at Kulubá in the forests of Mexico's Yucatán state. According to Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the structure is approximately 180 feet long, 20 feet tall, and was occupied from 600 to 900 AD, when the culture thrived, and again from 850 to 1050 AD, when the Maya fell.

    In June 2020, archeologists using a laser imaging technique called LIDAR unveiled a new discovery at the Aguada Fenix site at the base of the Gulf of Mexico. The sprawling complex, almost a mile in length, seems to date to about 1000 BCE, making it potentially both the oldest and largest Mayan monument yet found.

  • Clovis People

    Clovis People
    Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The word "Clovis" is now nearly synonymous with one type of archeological artifact in particular: arrowheads. This is because the Clovis people littered an entire continent with them. The Clovis appear to be the first truly dominant and expansionist civilization in North America, but very little is known about them.

    They spread across the majority of North America (and parts of Central America) within a few thousand years after humans first came to the continent, leaving behind their trademark weapons but very few other clues. No one is sure exactly what happened  to this culture, whether it died out or simply assimilated into future civilizations.

  • Easter Island

    Easter Island
    Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Rarely has a civilization gained so much fame for a single piece of art, but then again, this single artwork was replicated dozens of times. The famous "heads" (or Moai) of Easter Island (which were eventually discovered to have underground bodies, which is objectively super cool), are all that is left of the mysterious people who once occupied the remote island.

    Easter Island is far away from any other civilization, even by Polynesian standards. This means that one small group of ocean-faring people likely loaded into a canoe, found Easter Island, created some iconic statues, and then either left or died. Modern research suggests the island’s inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, may have destroyed their own livelihood through resource depletion.

  • Nabta Playa

    Nabta Playa
    Photo: Raymbetz / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    The Nabta Playa were a remarkable people, described as ancient astronomers of the Nubian Desert. This civilization existed more than 11,000 years ago, and were the first culture to leave evidence behind of astronomical inquest.

    They created countless stone structures meant to track the movements of the stars, which likely laid the groundwork for other ancient civilizations to pick up the study. The Nabta Playa people lived in a harsh desert environment, which helps explain why they didn’t leave much other information behind, although some believe that they were the ancestors of future Nile civilizations.

  • The Olmecs

    Chances are if you know anything about the Olmecs, it’s due to the gigantic stone heads they left lying around. You know, like the one that once hosted a game show or the one that famously occupies The Simpsons’ basement. The Olmec culture likely had more to it than giant, menacing heads, but it’s been hard to find out exactly what that is.

    The Olmecs, who occupied the same basic area as the mysterious Mayans 1200 years before their rise, fell victim to the same reforestation that has obscured Mayan history. The Olmecs spread their empire for over 900 years, establishing the pattern that future South American empires would follow, before mysteriously vanishing around 300 BC.

  • The Silla

    The Silla
    Photo: National Museum of Korea / Wikimedia Commons / Korean Open Government License

    Sometimes, we encounter a mysterious civilization from history that we really don’t want to know more about. Such is the case with the Silla, a civilization that, despite ruling Korea for over a thousand years, left behind very few intact skeletons due to the soil on the peninsula.

    One of the complete sets of bones happened to belong to a young woman with a grotesquely elongated skull, something that archeologists believe was a natural occurrence. Maybe we don’t need to learn more about this peninsula-spanning mutant empire, after all. There are enough nightmares in the world.