10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Part One

Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), German, known as the inventor of movable type printing

Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), German, known for inventing the printing press.

If you grew up in Europe or any European colony (former or current), chances are that the “history” you were taught in schools was that of “Western civilization,” aka of white Europeans and their descendents around the world. If and when non-Western cultures were addressed, it was most likely in the context of colonialism, beginning with their “discovery” by Europeans and ending with their subjugation or extinction. This is the Eurocentric worldview, which portrays white Europeans as the protagonists in human history, with all other peoples relegated to the parts of villains, sidekicks, extras, or total non-entities.

Bi Sheng (990-1051), Chinese, who invented movable type printing 300 years earlier.

Bi Sheng (990-1051), Chinese, who invented movable type printing 300 years earlier.

Yet this is far from the full story of humanity. All over the world, since long before the beginnings of Western written history, people have explored their surroundings, devised technologies, built societies, sought knowledge, and recorded their own histories. That is to say, produced civilizations, whose accomplishments have often rivaled, exceeded, or predated by millennia anything Europeans have ever achieved.

In this three-part article, we will explore 10 such civilizations. Some have been sidelined in Western histories, their presence widely acknowledged, but their importance greatly downplayed. Others are scarcely admitted to have existed at all, and a few have been victims of deliberate efforts to erase them from history. All have achieved feats of great historical significance, and profoundly affected the shape of the modern world. It is time that they be recognized as such.


Nabta Playan megaliths on display outside the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt

1.) Nabta Playa – Egypt’s black forefathers

Egyptians and Nubians, painted in different shades of dark brown

Egyptians and Nubians, painted in different shades of dark brown

In general, the ancient Egyptians are one of the most thoroughly studied early civilizations. However, their racial identity remains a topic of heated controversy among Egyptologists. Since the 19th century, the dominant position among European researchers has been that the Egyptians were of Caucasian descent. More recently, Africanist scholars have rejected this view as the legacy of anti-black racism, arguing that they were of sub-Saharan African ancestry instead. The evidence does not clearly favor either position. Forensic evidence shows that Tutankhamun was probably of African descent; on the other hand, Cleopatra’s family tree shows only Greek and Persian ancestors. Certain tomb paintings portray Egyptians as pale-skinned, in contrast with darker Nubian figures. Others, however depict Egyptians and Nubians with similar coloration, while ancient Greek accounts describe Egyptians as “black with wooly hair.”

The obvious conclusion to draw from such “contradictory” pieces of evidence would seem to be that ancient Egypt was a multiracial society, composed of people from diverse and mixed backgrounds. So far this doesn’t seem to have caught on with mainstream Egyptologists of either camp, however, demonstrating the influence of racially charged political agendas over scientific reasoning. It also doesn’t answer the question of which group – Caucasians, Africans, or a mixed population – “founded” ancient Egypt in the first place.

Megalithic star map at Nabta Playa

Megalithic solar calendar at Nabta Playa

The answer lies in the Nubian Desert of far southern Egypt, where the culture of Nabta Playa began and thrived from about nine to five thousand years ago. At the time, the Nubian climate was much wetter, with heavy rainfall for at least part of the year, and the Nabta Playans grazed livestock and constructed deep wells to hold water through the dry season. They also built stone dwellings, hearths, and megalithic monuments, and possessed an advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Their solar calendars, which marked the summer solstice and seasonal transitions, were among the first in the world, predating Stonehenge by about a thousand years. In all respects, the Nabta Playans appear to have been much more advanced than their contemporaries in the Nile River Valley, and provided a template for the later Egyptian civilization to build on. The Nabta Playans’ complex social order and religion, which centered on cattle in a similar manner to the Egyptian Hathor cult, appear to have been particularly influential.

According to bone studies, the Nabta Playans were of sub-Saharan African ancestry. Perhaps this is why, despite their great historical importance, they remain so little-known. Against the long-held opinions of European scholars, and assumption of white cultural and racial superiority, the Nabta Playans show that the Africanist position is correct. Ancient Egypt – and through its influence, much of “Western” civilization – does indeed owe its origin to black Africans.

Archaeological site at Sarkel, once a Khazar fortress

Archaeological site at Sarkel, once a Khazar fortress

2.) Khazaria – Russia’s Jewish kingdom

The medieval conflicts between Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East are well-known and infamous, as are the Vikings and their ruthless conquests of northern Eurasia. Barely remembered at all, however, is the civilization caught in the crossfire between these three warlike cultures: the Khazars.

Khazar warrior on horseback, with prisoner

Khazar warrior on horseback, with prisoner

The Khazars began as a nomadic tribe native to the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas. Long subjects of more powerful empires, the Khazars rose to establish their own empire following the collapse of the Gokturks in the 7th century. After conquering many surrounding tribes, the Khazars put their traditionally warlike ways aside, and began to use their location to much greater advantage, acting as economic middlemen between the Muslim caliphates (Umayyad and, later, Abassid) and Christian Europe. For the next few hundred years, they thrived on trade, collecting tax on all goods passing through their lands, as well as exporting items of their own, including wine, honey, wax, and isinglass. So as to remain politically neutral in the violent conflicts between these two civilizations, the Khazars adopted as their state religion the ancestral faith of both Islam and Christianity: Judaism.

Khazar seal featuring the Star of David

Khazar seal featuring the Star of David

It is not known whether conversion to Judaism was widespread, or limited mainly to the ruling class and aristocracy. However, many Jewish cultural elements were widely adopted, including the Hebrew alphabet. In any case, the Khazar populace continued to practice a diversity of other religions, including Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and various pagan cults. All of these were officially respected, as shown by the composition of the Khazar Supreme Court, which included two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and a pagan. The Khazars also seem to have been multiracial, with many accounts describing both “white” Khazars with red hair and blue eyes, and “black” Khazars with dark skin. All in all, they seem to have been one of the most peacefully diverse cultures of their time, and provided refuge for Jews and other religious minorities fleeing persecution under Christian or Muslim rule.

Maintaining peace with both Christian Europe and the Islamic caliphates was always a delicate political balancing act, with many brief but violent disturbances. The balance was tipped once and for all with the rise of the Rus (Viking) Empire to the north, whose ruthless conquests led to wars with both Christian Europe and the Abassid Caliphate. The Khazars, meanwhile, attempted to trade with the Vikings, hoping to preserve their own peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, this only served to alienate their traditional allies, leaving the Khazars politically vulnerable. Between 965 and 968 CE, the Khazars lost much of their territory to Viking invasion. In 1016, Christian Byzantium joined forces with the Vikings, betraying its former ally and destroying what was left of the Khazar Empire.

Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), Jewish by birth, promoted a Khazar origin for European Jews, believing it would discredit anti-Semitism by proving Jews were not a race

Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), Jewish himself, promoted a Khazar origin for European Jews, believing it would discredit anti-Semitism by proving Jews were not a distinct race

Despite its great importance to Western and Islamic history, and unique status as the only Jewish state to arise between the fall of Judea in 135 CE and founding of modern Israel in 1948, few people today even know of Khazaria’s existence. Europe’s long history of anti-Semitic prejudice is obviously largely to blame. Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) actually banned all Soviet research on the Khazars, fearing that it would prove Russia was founded by Jews. As a result, direct archaeological studies have been possible only since the fall of the USSR in 1991. On the other hand, if Khazar refugees intermarried with European Jews, this could mean that some Jews today are actually descended from converts rather than the original Hebrews, at odds with Jewish tradition and ethnic identity. Ironically, some anti-Semites, otherwise eager to deny Jewish cultural accomplishments, have thus used the Khazars as ammunition in their attacks. As a result, some Jewish scholars have condemned study of Khazaria as anti-Semitic in itself, leaving further research on the Khazars in something of a political no-man’s land.

China fireworks

Fireworks, a Chinese invention, erupt over Beijing

3.) Premodern China – the birthplace of “Western” technology

Unlike most of the cultures on this list, China is not a little-known civilization. To the contrary, the modern Chinese nation is one of the world’s leading superpowers, and even the most myopic outsiders are generally aware that China possesses a long and rich history. Western depictions of “premodern” (aka pre-Westernized) China, however, tend to be very one-sided, focusing on such things as the tyranny of its rulers, the rigidity of its social order, and the mystical powers of its monks and martial artists. China’s art and spirituality are widely considered its greatest cultural accomplishments, even among Chinese, who have at times blamed these aspects of their culture for “suppressing” scientific or technological progress. This was the case during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, which sought to advance “modernity” by purging the influence of traditional thought systems such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

Zheng He (1371-1433), who explored the Indian Ocean as far as southern Africa

Zheng He (1371-1433), who explored the Indian Ocean as far as southern Africa

What such portrayals of Chinese culture overlook is the many other ways in which China has long been one of the most advanced and influential civilizations on Earth. Against stereotypes of Chinese political tyranny, China was in fact the birthplace of some of history’s first theories of ethical governance. Some even foreshadowed the principles of democracy: Confucius (551-479 BCE) and Mencius (372-289 BCE) both taught that a ruler only possessed the “mandate of Heaven” so long as he governed with the consent of his people, whose right it was to overthrow and replace him if he abused his power. Citizens of the “Middle Kingdom” were also great international explorers, with Chinese expeditions voyaging as far as ancient Rome, southern Africa, Indonesia, and possibly even to North America.

In Western culture, the rise of scientific thinking is often traced back to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), whose philosophy described a universe governed by physical laws. Chinese cosmologies have explained the universe in terms of natural processes for at least as long, and became widely accepted and taught by the Taoist and Confucian traditions while orthodox European worldviews still emphasized (and for many, still do) the primary influence of an intervening God. Perhaps it was China’s early acceptance of a naturalistic worldview that led it to develop so many advanced technologies hundreds or even thousands of years before Europe: seismometers, hot air balloons, helicopter prototypes, animation devices, and movable type printing presses, among others.

10th Century Buddhist portrayal of demons wielding gunpowder weapons

10th century Chinese Buddhist portrayal of demons wielding gunpowder weapons

For many of these technologies, it is disputed whether or not later Western inventors lifted their ideas from Chinese designs, or developed them independently. Perhaps the most historically important of all “European” technologies, however, is indisputably Chinese in origin: gunpowder. Gunpowder was invented in China during the 9th century CE, and the earliest historical record of firearms is in fact a Chinese Buddhist painting, showing demons with flamethrowers and grenades. Firearm technology spread through other parts of Asia, eventually making its way to Europe via either Mongol or Arab traders, where it was developed into the powerful weaponry later used to subjugate most of the world during the Age of Exploration. In other words, “European” technology actually originated in China, and the global dominance of Western civilization was possible only through the appropriation of Chinese ingenuity.

Continue to Part Two

Skip to Part Three


3 responses to “10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Part One

  1. Pingback: 10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Part One·

  2. Pingback: 10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Part Two | Neon Observatory·

  3. Pingback: 10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Part Three | Neon Observatory·

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