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10 Ancient Civilizations That Don’t Get Enough Credit

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

When you think of ancient civilizations, what do you think of? Surely, the Greeks and the Romans come to mind—one for their philosophical and intellectual achievements and the other for their conquering might and ability to spread an empire. Perhaps the Egyptians are top of mind for you, what with their pyramids, agricultural irrigation achievements, impressive history of pharaohs, and the like. Ancient dynasties and reigning rulers from China must be there, too, along with many of the notable achievements brought to the rest of the world from India.

But the truth is that there are far more ancient civilizations that did far cooler things than the common ones we most often tend to think about. Beyond Greece, Rome, Egypt, and China lay a whole slew of other ancient cultures that contributed important and lasting things to the world. In this list, we’ll explore the stories of ten of those empires! Here are a few ancient civilizations that achieved greatness during the height of their run but don’t get enough credit for what they did by modern humans looking back on all of it.

Related: 10 Incredible Facts about the Indus Valley Civilization

10 Elam

The Elamites – The Early History of Elam and its People (Part 1)

Elam was an ancient civilization that flourished in several periods before and during the Copper Age, broadly around 5000 BC. Centered in the west and southwest of what is now known as Iran, the Elamites were remarkably advanced for their time. Archaeologists didn’t know much about this for a long time because everything they knew about ancient Elam was told in the tales of other kingdoms that came after them or ones that flourished around them—like the Sumerians.

However, scholars started coming across tablets that were thousands of years old. And the tablets had what looked like a very complicated, very involved writing system on them. The only problem was that nobody knew how to read the tablets or what any of the long, apparently detailed messages said! Until a few years ago, that is.

In the last couple of years, archaeologists, linguists, and historians have finally decoded what they call “Linear Elamite.” That’s the surprisingly complex language that the Elamites turned into an extremely complex and involved writing system during the reign of their Copper Age civilization.

A writing system doesn’t sound like much to us in the modern age, of course. Think of how much we take for granted just writing out this list—and with you reading it without a second thought! But back then, such a complicated writing system was nearly unheard of in almost all parts of the world. Elam had it, along with their own unique, very sophisticated language, and they developed it all apparently far ahead of and in complete isolation from being involved with or inspired by other groups.[1]

9 Chavin

Unveiling Chavin: Ancient Andean Mysteries

The Chavin civilization flourished in the central Andes region of South America. It ran up and down the coast of modern-day Peru and beyond from about the 15th century BC to the 5th century BC. Those thousand years were extremely productive for the Chavin people and their culture. Still, most notably, they came into their own near the end of the period. They did this in two ways that hadn’t been replicated by others at the time that they reigned in their own little corner of the northwestern part of South America: through art, and through construction projects.

Chavin art was highly religious in its iconography and extremely advanced for its time. In fact, the Chavin people used their art—sculptures, paintings, pottery creations, etchings into stone, and more—to spread their ideas about faith and the afterlife. In turn, their religious system became the first-ever universal belief system in the Andes region.

Before the Paracas and Incas, the Chavin developed and set in stone (pun intended, considering some of their artwork!) the belief in a higher power and what that meant for how society was structured. All the Incas accomplished there came as a follow-up to the Chavin pioneers. That’s not their only major accomplishment, either.

Because of the society’s faith achievements, the main urban center (known by historians as Chavin) became a pilgrimage site for people from all over the Andes and deep into the high jungles of Peru. In turn, Chavin itself developed quickly and extensively. It remains surprisingly well-preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site even today, so archaeologists know quite a bit about it.

The Chavin people built various quarried stone buildings, constructed artificial terraces high in the hills and mountains, developed a very complicated internal tunnel and pathway system through major stone buildings, and even constructed a complicated set of vents, pipes, and drains. All that was unprecedented in South America at the time of their construction—and some of the drainage systems were unparalleled nearly anywhere else in the world.[2]

8 Sao

Sao Culture | A Forgotten African Civilization

The Sao civilization flourished in what is now modern-day Cameroon and in the riverine areas around Lake Chad in Central Africa for more than two millennia. Beginning around 2000 BC or possibly earlier, the Sao developed a series of very powerful city-states. These city-states were only loosely linked with each other. Thus, the people didn’t transition into becoming an empire like might have happened elsewhere around the world. However, each city-state was popular and very powerful.

Along with that development, very early on, the Sao were advanced and created massively well-defended walls, turrets, and other major fortifications to protect their urban centers. Even long after they were gone, without leaving any written records of what they accomplished, their turrets, moats, and other defenses remained visible. Those defenses were very advanced for the time period, allowing the Sao to flourish for centuries.

The Sao also did something else that no other Central African group of people was doing at the time, and nearly no other group of people anywhere in the world had done: They created exquisitely detailed tools, utensils, and artwork with bronze, terracotta, and even later with iron they received in trade from other cultures coming from the north. While the ancient Chinese may have perfected the terracotta sculpture game, the Sao were not far behind.

In fact, they created such well-made, strong, and detailed pieces that even today, many of their artistic artifacts have held up from decay or destruction. Though there are no written records about the Sao and their demise, archaeologists have been able to piece together quite a bit from the advanced handiwork they put forth and left as proof of their long reign in Central Africa.[3]

7 Garamantes

The Garamantes: Rome’s Neighbors in the Sahara

The Garamantes civilization flourished in the Sahara Desert in the southwestern part of what is now known as Libya, and they did it against all odds. Obviously, the Sahara Desert in that area is very, very dry. It rarely rains, and there isn’t a lot of water available—no rivers, no lakes, and nowhere to seek hydration for humans and sustenance for crops.

However, the Garamantes people, who saw the height of their desert society rise between about 400 BC and AD 400, had a unique and ingenious backup plan: aquifers. See, the Garamantes learned early on that they had access to a vast underground sandstone aquifer filled to the brim with water. And they used it, perfected their drainage methods, and built up a flourishing society because of it.

The Garamantes were among the first peoples on earth to adopt a technology of digging inclined tunnels deep into the ground. Far below the surface sand of the Sahara, those tunnels, which they called “foggara” and “qanats,” were used to channel groundwater up to their irrigation systems. They ended up digging nearly 500 miles (805 kilometers) of these underground tunnels and pumping water upward to use in irrigation.

And for a while, things went well! The Garamantes were able to use those tunnels and pump water upward for hundreds of years in a successful and sustainable manner. Just enough rainfall would come every year to refill the underground aquifers high enough so that they could use water to irrigate land and grow crops. But then, they got a little greedy.

Several low years of annual rainfall combined with the Garamantian people over-using the aquifers meant that the water levels dipped below the replacement level and past the furthest depth of the tunnels. The foggara tunnels were rendered useless, and the Garamantes civilization was suddenly in serious peril. Groups had to flee out of the desert, either to the north or south, to relocate to (literally) greener pastures.

And just like that, it was over. But they had a nice thousand-year run! They left their indelible mark on the world by being very early practitioners of groundwater irrigation in an arid climate. That’s impressive![4]

6 Tlaxcala

TLAXCALLAN – An Indigenous American Republic

The Tlaxcala civilization ruled a small but important region of what is now Mexico during the 14th century and into the early 16th century, just as the Spanish were finding the area and trying to subjugate it under colonial rule. Of course, the dominant power in the area at the time, and for a long time before that, were the Aztecs.

The Aztecs had so much military might that they managed to steamroll over almost everybody who came across their path. Other civilizations popped up in the region in the centuries before the Tlaxcala rose, like the Cacaxtla people and the Teo-Chichimeca people. But they all declined relatively quickly in their own time after being defeated by Aztec military power and political might.

Not the Tlaxcala. They were pretty much the only indigenous civilization in Mexico to successfully resist the Aztecs as the latter spread all across the region. The Tlaxcala had such skilled warriors, and they made life so difficult for the Aztecs that the Aztec leaders eventually said, “Forget it,” and moved on to conquer other areas and peoples. That left the Tlaxcala in power in their small but formidable area deep in the high jungles of central Mexico, not far from present-day Mexico City.

Then, the Spaniards came. While the Spanish incursion devastated nearly everybody in that entire region, the Tlaxcala were shrewd enough to know how to navigate it. They didn’t fight the Spaniards and lose; instead, they allied with the newcomers against the Aztecs. The Spanish were so thankful for that help and so impressed by Tlaxcala’s strength that they gave the Tlaxcala major concessions on land and sovereignty even as they began to officially colonize all of Mexico.

The Tlaxcala civilization continued for several centuries after the Spanish showed up. And while it wasn’t quite as powerful or wild as it once was, the concessions it had been given by Hernan Cortes and his mates stayed on in perpetuity. Eventually, with the formation and rise of Mexico, Tlaxcala was made its own unique administrative region.

Today, it is a standalone Mexican state—a very small one and a very densely populated one, but a state with all the pride and glory of the people who resisted the Aztecs and shrewdly side-stepped the Spanish so many centuries ago when nearly every other group fell in short order.[5]

5 Zapotec

The Zapotecs (Zapotec Civilization of Ancient Mexico)

Let’s stay in Mexico for one more civilization, shall we? This time, we’re focused on the Zapotec people. Their reign in what is now the Mexican state of Oaxaca began in about 700 BC and carried on in starts and spurts all the way to the early 16th century and the arrival of the Spanish into the area.

The Zapotec’s height of power, though, came between about 250 and 700. During that time, they ruled over nearly all of southern Mexico from their two capital cities, Monte Albán and Mitla. The Zapotecs did a couple of very interesting things that other civilizations weren’t really doing at that time, too.

For one, they developed one of the first and only standardized writing systems in the Americas at the height of their power. They created it free of influence from other writing systems elsewhere in the world, obviously, and when it rose to prominent use, it was one of the only ones known in the Western Hemisphere. Historians can still study the glyphs left behind on exquisite art pieces and complicated architectural projects.

Those architectural projects were another way the Zapotec developed far beyond any civilization in the Americas at the time. In their second capital city, Mitla, they built massive stone structures with mosaic design patterns. Nowhere else in Mesoamerica at that time did cultures build such detailed and complicated structures.

Their first capital city of Monte Albán shows off a fascinating and advanced layout, too. The angles and directions of its stone buildings and worship temples are very closely aligned with celestial events and the movement of the stars. Clearly, the Zapotec put in a lot of time and brainpower to teach themselves astrology.

Sadly for the Zapotec, as intelligent and clever as they might have been, they weren’t great warriors like the Tlaxcala. Beginning in about 1000, both the Mixtec people and the Aztecs began their incursions on Zapotec land and power. By the time the Spanish arrived in the New World in the 16th century, the Zapotecs had long since been absorbed into Aztec culture, which by then was the dominant one in all of Mexico. There are still indigenous Zapotec-related people living in the state of Oaxaca today, though, and their bloodline carries on the legacy of this impressive group.[6]

4 Sogdiana

Who were the Sogdians? The Evidence from a Sogdian Tomb (579CE)

The Sogdian people lived in Central Asia in a region known as, well, Sogdiana. The area was very fertile for agriculture, which helped their civilization flourish. And even more important than that, it was in an incredibly important strategic location.

Sogdiana sat right on the Silk Road between the three powerful empires of China, India, and Persia. So the Sogdians made do with what they had (or, more to the point, where they found themselves) and became some of the most important middlemen and traders in all of human history.

Whenever a team of merchants or traders would come across the Silk Road traveling in any direction from China to India to Persia, the Sogdians were there to offer food, rest, sustenance for animals, and goods to trade. Because of that, many Sogdians knew many different languages, including ancient Persian, Chinese, and Turkish, in addition to their own local language.

Also, because they saw travelers come through from all walks of life and all points on the map in Central, South, and East Asia, they spread these language skills to the travelers. Today, languages from cultures thousands of miles apart that share common word roots can be traced back to Sogdian influence. Language alone wasn’t their thing, though.

They were incredible traders—and they were remarkably technologically advanced and cosmopolitan. They introduced all kinds of new goods and technologies to those traveling along the Silk Road. They spread things like paper, gunpowder, and more from one disparate culture to the next. They were also the people credited with effectively spreading Buddhism from India all the way to China over a very long, very slow period of time.

Eventually, in the 8th century AD, the Sogdians began to see their localized but influential empire in Central Asia start to decline rapidly. Turks from the west, Mongols from the east, and the Arab conquest of Central Asia were all critical factors with which the Sogdians simply could not compete.

With their decline, the Silk Road trade also declined steadily. But until all that happened in the late 700s, the Sogdians were one of the most important groups of people in Asia. In fact, they may be the most important group of people you’ve never heard of—until now![7]

3 Lydia

Croesus of Lydia and the Lydians (plus Herodotus’ tale of Croesus meeting Solon) | Podcast #7

The Lydian civilization flourished in Anatolia—present-day Turkey—from roughly 1200 BC through about the 7th century BC. For a long time, they were the foremost and most impressive civilization in Anatolia, and thus, one of the most impressive civilizations in all the world during their run.

For one, the Lydians had the good fortune of finding themselves in a very critically important strategic spot. They had land that was fertile and easy to cultivate, they were along the Mediterranean coast where commerce and trade came easy, and they developed one of the region’s most prominent cultural and commercial centers.

Along the way, the Lydians became known for their craftsmanship. Specifically, they were expert metallurgists who could make incredible jewelry. But as they grew richer and their trading habits flourished, they realized they needed a better way to regulate their rising economy. So they turned to their metallurgists for a solution: coinage.

The Lydians were the first to establish a system of gold and silver coins anywhere in the world. They pressed and stamped coins and then began to use them as currency. It helped that the Lydians were also the first to establish commercial businesses and retail shops with the express purpose of selling goods. Those shops took coins as payment and offered goods in return. So, the next time you go to the convenience store, you can thank the Lydians.

The Ionian Greeks loved this new coinage system so much that they took the idea from the Lydians and adopted it for their own culture. They also adopted the use and rise of retail shops to provide goods to people throughout their empire. When the Greek commercial revolution took off in about the 6th century BC, the monetary system they had adopted from the Lydians was a critical part of that advancement in Ancient Greece.

Sadly, the Lydians weren’t around to see all that happened or understand how their influence would feel hundreds and even thousands of years later. They became so wealthy and good at building up their civilization thanks to their wealth that others couldn’t help but notice. Beginning in the 7th century BC, the powerful Achaemenid Persian Empire set its sights on taking control of the Lydian experiment. Then, in the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great led his men into the region to make war and leave with the spoils. And so, that was the end of the Lydians. But they left us coins and corner stores![8]

2 Moche

Sometimes known as the Mochica, the Moche civilization flourished on the northern coast and within the inland valleys of ancient Peru. From about the first century AD through the ninth century AD, they lived in conjunction with the Nazca civilization, which was very powerful and influential further down the southern coast of Peru.

However, because the Moche were skilled enough as warriors and shrewd enough as politicians and statesmen, they kept to themselves and grew a notable civilization without major aggression or incursion from other groups of people. Military might wasn’t the Moche’s main source of strength, though. Rather, they were incredible artisans who—like the Lydians in Anatolia that we just learned about—were amazing with their ability to craft metal jewelry, domestic tools, and other pieces.

No other South American culture had the same metallurgy skills as the Moche did when they rose and flourished. In turn, the Moche have left behind an impressive array of religious and artistic artifacts from which historians and architects can still tell much about their culture. Their art was also detailed and highly exquisite, in a way far more advanced than most South American peoples were making at the time. That suggests to experts a high level of sophistication in the Moche culture that wasn’t present in most New World groups way back then.

The capital city of the Moche civilization was also known as Moche, and it sat in a valley at the foot of present-day Cerro Blanco Mountain. According to historians, the capital city once covered as many as 7410 acres (300 hectares). It was remarkably advanced at the time, with significant urban planning being done to make it workable and livable to a very high degree.

The capital city was built with multiple levels for various buildings, gradual terraces for stepped inclines, access ramps rather than stairs that made it easier for large groups of people to move about, and even slanted roofing to deal with rain efficiently. All those traits were notably advanced for the time and place, suggesting again that the Moche had a very high level of sophistication in their culture and development.[9]

1 Jōmon

The Jomon Period — Japan Before the Japanese

The Jōmon civilization in Japan began in roughly 13,000 BC—give or take a few centuries—and lasted until just before the 1st century AD. Historians recognize it as the very start of true Japanese history as we know it today, and it was the culture that brought Japan to the forefront so many centuries and millennia later.

The Jōmon people were very notable and advanced for several reasons—one of which was their sedentary lifestyle. At a time when many civilizations were still nomadic, or at least semi-nomadic, the Jōmon had enough agricultural know-how to settle down in one place and develop roots (both literally and figuratively). Thousands of years ago, they built some of the first traditional and permanent houses anywhere on the map in all of Asia. And their sedentary lifestyle allowed them to develop other technologies, too.

The Jōmon were incredible at making pottery. And while their pieces were distinctive and thus very important from an artistic perspective, their pottery talents went far beyond that. They kneaded clay pots that were very specifically shaped and then independently learned how applying heat to the clay would harden and strengthen them.

In turn, because their pots were of such distinctive shapes, archaeologists believe they developed the wherewithal to use them to boil food when it came time to eat. They could also store food for a long time in these well-designed and strong containers. After all, that helped them live their sedentary lifestyle by guaranteeing sustenance for their people in the short- and medium-term rather than having to hunt and search for it in new regions.[10]

+ BONUS: Polynesia

The First Men to Cross the Oceans | Setting Sail (Sailing Documentary) | Timeline

While you may not have heard of many (or maybe all) of the civilizations listed here, you have heard of the Polynesians. That word refers to large groups of people across both a long period and a very disparate place on the map: the tiny islands that dot the South Pacific Ocean between Australia and Hawaii. But while the Polynesians are certainly more recognizable to the average person than, say, the Moche, the Lydians, or the Zapotecs, these islanders honestly don’t get enough credit in one major way: their sailing abilities.

Long before the advent of maps, GPS, and smartphones with satellite connections and positioning technology, Polynesian sailors had to set out from one island and, through faith and rote memorization alone, figure out how to get to the next one that was always at least hundreds and often thousands of miles away. Their sailing techniques, called “wayfinding” today, involved memorizing sun positions, moon positions, and the placement of stars in the sky.

All those pieces of knowledge were handed down from one generation to the next. And when it was cloudy, rainy, or dark without access to the stars, Polynesian mariners had to instinctively understand things like wind patterns, the subtle movements of wave swells, and the presence or absence of bioluminescent sea life to tell them where the next island might, be, and in which direction, and how far away.

Somehow, they made it. Over thousands of years, the people who became today’s Melanesians, Polynesians, and Micronesians spread out from southeast Asia, all over what is now Papua New Guinea, and across the vast open oceans. They settled on tiny specks of land in present-day Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Hawaii using outriggers and double-hulled canoes that were specifically made and remarkably sturdy. They even made it as far as the Americas!

Archaeologists today now recognize that the Polynesians were flirting with the coast of South America far to the east of their ancestral homelands long before Christopher Columbus did his thing a few thousand miles north. Incredible, isn’t it? And with no navigational knowledge beyond rote memorization and hand-me-down tips from older sailors, it was all incredibly brave![11]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen