10 Ancient Civilizations that Vanished Without a Trace

10 Ancient Civilizations That Vanished Without a Trace
10 Ancient Civilizations That Vanished Without a Trace

10 Ancient Civilizations that Vanished Without a Trace              

There are records dating back hundreds and thousands of years documenting explorers finding huge temples encrusted with vines, and pits and caves full of untold amounts of treasure and gold. In the past, you can only imagine what these areas must have been and how they must have looked prior to being deserted. The question is, why did people completely abandon these once-thriving, and likely amazing places? In many cases, the answer is unknown.

However, it is still fun to delve deep into the mystery to see if it is possible to determine the motivation for the mass abandonment of these ancient civilizations. Regardless of if you are an explorer, or just an average, normal person, learning about the past can help teach you about the future. Knowing what caused the abandonment of these trade routes, agricultural centers, and once-thriving cities can help ensure the same fate doesn’t befall modern civilization.

There are hundreds of ancient civilizations that are no longer around. Here you can learn about a few of the most well-known, as well as a few you may have never heard of before. Learn where these ancient people lived, what their lives were like, and some speculation around what may have happened to them. While it is fun to speculate, the fact is, there is no way to know for sure. Are you ready to dive into the past? If so, read on about 10 ancient civilizations that vanished without a trace.

10The Mayan

Pyramid Maya. chief of the tribe Maya.


This is perhaps the most well-known example of a civilization that was completely lost. The amazing monuments, roads, and cities were all swallowed up by the jungles of Central America. For some reason, the people scattered to smaller villages around the region. While the traditions and languages are still around today, the peak of the civilization occurred during the first millennium AD. This is when the Mayan people achieved their greatest architectural feats and created massive agricultural projects in the Yucatan. This is the modern region that stretches from Mexico to Belize and Guatemala.

The Mayan civilization is considered one of the largest and most advanced Mesoamerican civilizations ever discovered. The Mayan people were also advanced in their knowledge, making extensive use of math and writing. The people of this civilization also created an elaborate calendar, and utilized sophisticated engineering techniques to build massive pyramids and terraced farms.

While it is thought the Mayan civilization began to decline, mysteriously, in the year 900, there are a number of signs that point to a change in the climate in the Yucatan, as well as internecine warfare that ultimately led to widespread famine and the abandonment of the city. Other theories about the abandonment of the city include that a catastrophic environmental change occurred, such as drought, or that the area could no longer support the massive population that was present.

The remaining ancestors of the Mayan people, which consists of approximately five million people in modern day Central America and Mexico, now speak approximately 70 different languages. The majority of these people are bilingual in Spanish.

9The Olmec

Olmec big basalt head – Villahermosa, Mexico

Another Mesoamerican society is the Olmec. The people of this civilization once inhabited the lowlands of south-central Mexico. In 1400 BC, the first signs of the Olmec emerged in San Lorenzo, which was the main settlement. There were two more supporting settlement centers, Potrero Nuevo and Tenochtitlan, nearby. The Olmec people were considered master buildings with all three sites containing stone monuments, large conical pyramids, house mounds, and ceremonial courts. Of course the large stone head, which the Olmec are best known for, was found near what is considered the center of the main city area.

Relying heavily on trade, the Olmec civilization was considered one of the most advanced Mesoamerican culture at this time, and they are often called the “mother culture” of all other Mesoamerican cultures.

Much like the Mayan civilization, it is thought that environmental changes played a huge role in the demise of the Olmec people. What was once a tropical area may have suffered a devastating drought, which resulted in the land being unlivable and the people moving on to find a more suitable area. By the time 400 BC arrived, the entire eastern portion of the city had become depopulated. There is also speculation that some of the people may have relocated after a volcano erupted nearby. Another common theory is that the land was invaded, but no one has a clue as to who the invaders were or where they came from.

8The Nabeteans

The Monastery, Petra, Jordan8City of Petra
Inhabiting parts of Arabia, Canaan, and Jordan, the Nabateans were considered a Semitic culture. This civilization dates back to the sixth century BC, and the society is best known for the construction of the city of Petra, which actually served as their capital. There is no question that Petra is quite the impressive city. After all, it was carved out of the side of a cliff. The crown jewel of this city was Khazneh, or the Treasury, which was a massive, Greek inspired building.

The wealth of the Nabateans was derived from being a main stop in a complex trade network, where many goods were traded including medicine, sugar, perfume, incense, gems, precious metals, spices, silk, and ivory. Due to the extent of this trade route, much of the Nabatean culture was influenced by Assyria, Arabia, Rome, and Hellenistic Greece. Unlike many of the other societies of the time, there was no type of slavery present or used, and each member of the society contributed in regard to work duties.

During the early part of the fourth century BC, Petra was abandoned by the Nabateans. There is no one who really understands the reason for this. Some archeological evidence has proven that the exodus of this civilization was completely organized and unrushed. This leads scholars to believe that they were not driven out of the city by another culture. The most common explanation for this abandonment is that the trade routes moved north, which resulted in the people no longer being able to sustain life in Petra.

7The Indus Valley Civilization

Mohenjo-daro is an ancient Indus Valley Civilization city that built around 2600 BCE and flourished till 1900 BCE. It was rediscovered in the 1920s

suronin / Shutterstock.com

Once this civilization inhabited an area similar in size to that of modern Western Europe, in what is now western India and Pakistan. The Indus Valley, often referred to as the Harappan Civilization, thrived from the periods of 3300 to 1300 BC, even though the area was initially settled as far back as 7000 BC. While this was one of the biggest ancient civilizations, there is not much known about it. This is mainly because the ancient language is one that has never been deciphered.

What scholars do know is that this civilization built more than one hundred villages and towns, including the cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, each which had a unique, organized layout, as well as a complicated plumbing system and indoor toilets. Evidence has also suggested that Harappan had no social classes, and a unified government with no evidence of an organized military, which means it is a civilization that lived in peace.

The people were skilled astronomers, and very well versed in the task of growing agriculture, with many successful crops including peas, cotton, sesame, melons, and wheat. They were also the first civilization to turn cotton into cloth and domesticate a number of animals, including elephants and cattle.

There are a number of theories regarding what happened to the Indus Valley civilization. Some believe they moved on due to changes in the environment, while another popular theory is that the Aryans invaded them around 1500 BC; however, there is no definite or concrete answer.

6The Anasazi

Cliff Palace Anasazi Indian Ruins, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

This is a Native American culture called the Anasazi, or the Ancestral Puebloans, that emerged at the Four Corners area in the United States. The Four Corners is where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. It is believed this civilization emerged around 1200 BC.

The earliest Puebloans were hunters and gatherers who constructed shallow pit houses. However, as the society developed, they begin putting their time into horticulture and started farming squash, beans, and maize. Some other items found at Anasazi archeological sites include bows and arrows, grinding stones, rabbit fur robes, reed sandals, elaborate baskets, and greyware pottery. During the Pueblo II and III eras, the people began to carve entire towns out of the nearby cliffs, similar to those at Bandelier and Mesa Verde, or construct buildings and homes out of adobe mud or stone, like Chaco Canyon. The towns hosted a number of civic events and connected to one another by miles and miles of roadways.

In approximately 1300 AD, the Ancestral Puebloans left their cliff homes and began to scatter. There are some scholars who believe that after a population surge occurred, and regional drought and poor farming methods were present, there was no longer enough food for everyone. This lack of food resulted in the Anasazi moving to the Hopi mesas or the Rio Grande, which is why many of the modern Pueblo Indians believe they are actually ancestors of the Anasazi.

5The Minoans

Scenic ruins of the Minoan Palace of Knossos.North entrance with bull fresco. Heraklion.Crete island. Greece.Europe

This civilization was named after the legendary King Minos, and it inhabited what is modern day Crete from the period of 3000 BC to 1000 BC. According to Greek mythology, Minoa was the land of the Cretan Bull and the son of this bull, which was a half-man-half-bull mythical figure. This creature was said to live in a labyrinth, killing everyone who entered.

However, in reality, the Minoans were the first known civilization formed in Europe. All that is left of this civilization today is their crumbling, long-abandoned palaces and the many artifacts the people of this civilization left inside. It is believed that this civilization developed commerce, art, and social organization. The earliest Minoans spoke a language referred to as Linear A, which was later replaced with Linear B. Both of these languages were pictograph based.

There is no evidence that the Minoans had a military, and it is believed that their power was all based on economic factors, as this was one of the wealthiest civilizations in history. Even though this civilization fell, the culture was first inherited by the Hellenistic Greeks and Myceaneans.

There are some experts who believe this civilization was eliminated by a volcanic eruption, which occurred on the island of Thera (modern day Santorini); however, there is evidence they survived. However, this would have killed all plant life, leading to starvation and damaged the ships, which would have led to economic decline. It is also believed that the Minoans may have suffered an invasion at the hands of the Myceaneans.


Beringia land bridge-noaagovThe Beringia Land Bridge: As a gif!  Cool!
The Clovis civilization dates back to 10,000 BC and is a prehistoric Native American people. Found in the central and southern plains of North America, this civilization is archeologically recognized by the chipped flint points that are referred to as Clovis points. These points were attached to the end of spears for hunting big game, such as bison and mammoth, as well as smaller game, such as rabbits and deer.

The Clovis were the first human inhabitants of the New World and considered ancestors of all the indigenous cultures in South and North America. There are some scholars who believe the people crossed the Beringia land bridge during the ice age, traveling from Siberia to Alaska and then headed south to find warmer climates.

Much like any other lost civilization, there are several theories around the Clovis culture disappearance. The first theory states that the reduction in megafauna, as well as reduced mobility in the culture led the people to branch off and form several new cultural groups, such as the Folsom culture. There is another theory that involves the extinction of the mammoth, as well as several other species, due to the animals being over-hunted, which left the Clovis without a food source. The last theory involves a comet that crashed into the Great Lakes region that seriously impacted the culture of the Clovis people. However, the actual demise of this civilization is unknown and something that is likely going to remain a mystery.

3The Cucuteni Trypillian Culture

These guys worshiped the bull too! What a coincidence?!

Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com

In the Ukraine this civilization is referred to as the Trypillians, while in Romania they are called the Cucuteni. This is a Neolithic culture that was at its peak from 5500 BC up until 2750 BC. At their peak, the Cucuteni-Trypillian society constructed the biggest Neolithic settlement in all of Europe with housing for up to 15,000 people.

One of the most thought-provoking mystery’s surrounding this culture is that every six to eight decades, they would burn the entire village and then reconstruct it on top of the old one. The civilization had a matriarchal culture, where the women were considered the heads of household, while they also handled all agricultural work and made clothing, textiles, and pottery.

The men in this culture were responsible for taking care of domestic animals, made tools, and hunted. The Great Mother Goddess was the center of the civilization’s religion, which was a symbol of agricultural fertility and motherhood. The people also worshipped the bull, which represented the sky, fertility, and strength, and the snake, which represented eternal movement and eternity.

The primary theory about the demise of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture is called the Kurgan hypothesis. This states that the civilization was conquered by the Kurgan culture. However, there is a more recent theory that actually points to a dramatic climate change as the cause that led to a drought. This was considered one of the worst in all European history, which devastated this culture that was extremely reliant on farming for survival.

2The Khmer Empire

Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia ( the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire)

Emerging in the 9th century AD, the Khmer Empire emerged from the kingdom of Chenla. Today, this region is known as Cambodia. The Khmer Empire quickly became one of the most powerful empires in all of Southeast Asia. To most people, this empire is well-known as being the one that built Angkor, which is modern day Cambodia’s capital city.

The entire culture was made of incredibly wealthy and powerful people who were open to several different belief systems, which included Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinduism. These were all considered the official religions of the empire. The power of this culture also came from the military, as they fought quite a few wars against the Chams and Annamese.

The decline of the Khmer Empire is often attributed to a combination of factors. The first is that the empire was ruled by a god king, also called a devarajo. However, when Theravada Buddhism was introduced, which teaches about self-enlightenment, the people began to challenge the government. This resulted in a lack of desire to continue working for the god king, which led to a reduction in the amount of food that was produced. Also, during the time that Jayavarman VII ruled, a complex network of roads was created to make it easier to transport troops and goods throughout the empire. However, there are some scholars who believe that this made it easier for intruders to get in, as well. As a result, some believe that Ayuthaya was able to directly access Angkor and overtook the civilization.


Monks Mound in JulyCahokia Mounds State Historic Site
A long time before the Europeans crossed over to North America, the Mississipppians had constructed a huge city that was surrounded by massive pyramids. They also created a structure similar to Stonehenge made of wood to help track the movements of the stars.

Referred to as Cahokia today, you are still able to see the remains in the state of Illinois. The height of this civilization occurred between the years 600 and 1400 AD, and the city stretched across six square miles, containing more than a hundred earthen mounds and a massive grand plaza directly in the center.

The population of this culture is thought to have reached 40,000 individuals at one point, with many people living in villages on the outskirts of the area. The people in this city were extremely smart, with many being architects and artists, while others were farmers. They created art with stone, copper, and shells, some of which is on display at museums today. They even diverted one of the branches of the local Illinois and Mississippi rivers to help suit their irrigation needs.

While it is not completely known why the people abandoned this city in the early portion of the 1200s, there are some archaeologists who claim that the area always had issues with famine and disease since there was no sanitary system present. Also, that the inhabitants of the area left for greener and healthier lands near the Mississippi River.


What many people today fail to realize is how many civilizations and cultures disappeared long before they arrived. These are the people who shaped the earth and cultures into what they are today. While the 10 civilizations listed here (along with hundreds or even thousands of others) are gone from the earth, they are definitely not forgotten. These people have left behind clues about their life, culture, beliefs, government, and more. This provides a glimpse into the past and into a world that modern people may have never known about otherwise.

Delving into the past, recovering artifacts, and seeing how the first people of modern civilization lived, is exciting. It offers a unique perspective on just how much knowledge these individuals had. Each of the ancient civilizations listed here had their own unique society and culture that thrived, yet then disappeared. While many of the reasons for the abandonment of these civilizations was environmental conditions, there are other reasons as well. War, cultural beliefs, and even natural disasters such as volcanoes caused people to flee from these once thriving, prosperous areas.

It is often fun to read about ancient civilizations that lived thousands of years in the past. However, it is also important that modern people take lessons from these cultures. See what went wrong and avoid these same issues in the future. Otherwise, modern people may find they also face a demise, having to abandon modern cultures and cities, simply because they did not take time to learn from the past.