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

(Continued from 10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Part One)

Artist's reconstruction of Cahokia

Artist’s reconstruction of Cahokia

4.) Cahokia – a Native American metropolis

It is often claimed that the only indigenous New World peoples to develop civilization were those of Central and South America, such as the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. There are even widely-cited theories purporting to explain why North American Natives never developed large, complex societies. Yet in southern Illinois, close to the Mississippi River, lie the ruins of what supposedly should not exist: an advanced Native American metropolis.

Engraved copper plates from Cahokia

Engraved copper plates from Cahokia

The city of Cahokia was settled sometime during the 9th century, and reached its peak between 1050 and 1200. During this time, it housed up to 40,000 people, making it one of the largest cities of the world, bigger than London at the same time. Cahokian architecture was the largest and most advanced in the New World north of Mexico, consisting of huge earthen mounds topped by multistory wooden buildings. The biggest such structure, likely a temple or chief’s palace, rose some 150 feet high. Cahokia relied on extensive agriculture, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash, and also manufactured farming equipment for sale to other population centers. It controlled trade routes extending across North America, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, and became the economic center of the greater “Mississippian culture.” During its golden age, Cahokia also possessed a thriving artistic scene, not only producing abundant pottery and jewelry, but also a technologically advanced copper workshop, which created metal artifacts of exquisite beauty.

Cahokia began to decline sometime in the 13th century, and was totally abandoned by 1400. The exact reasons for its collapse are somewhat mysterious, though resource exhaustion from deforestation and over-hunting is considered a likely theory. Nor is it known which modern Native peoples, if any, are descended from the Cahokians. The name “Cahokia” comes from a tribe which later settled the same region, but there is no established relationship between the two.

The clan mothers and chiefs of the modern Haudenosaunee Confederacy

The clan mothers and chiefs of the modern Haudenosaunee Confederacy

In any case, Cahokia was neither the only nor the last North American Native civilization to arise prior to European invasion. The Iroquois League, an alliance of Native peoples united under a common “Law of Peace,” was established during, or shortly after, Cahokia’s reign, and endures to the present day as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Iroquois League was a major player in colonial European politics, and its government, composed of two houses to which the elder women of each tribe elect representatives, seems to have been a model for that of the United States. It is supremely ironic, given the U.S.’s brutal history of conquest and genocide against Natives, that its system of government, and by extension modern democracy in general, may owe its shape to the influence of Native American civilization.

Modern thatch structure in the courtyard of Great Zimbabwe

Modern thatch structure in the courtyard of Great Zimbabwe

5.) Shona – nation builders of southern Africa

The Republic of Zimbabwe in southern Africa is a young nation, established under its present name in 1980. For the previous hundred years it was dominated by Europeans, first as a British colony and then as the white-ruled Republic of Rhodesia. The country’s name testifies to a far more ancient heritage, however. In the language of the Shona, the country’s largest ethnic group, Zimbabwe means “great houses of stone,” and refers to Great Zimbabwe, the first of several powerful kingdoms created by their ancestors.

One of the Zimbabwe Birds, prized soapstone sculptures featured on the modern Zimbabwean flag

A soapstone bird sculpture, one of Great Zimbabwe’s most prized artifacts

Shona civilization seems to have begun around 500 CE, with the advent of iron smelting technology in southern Africa. Great Zimbabwe was established as its center by the 11th century, when construction began on the titular great stone city. The city consisted of huge enclosures, walls, and towers up to 30 feet high, made out of granite stones carved and fit together without mortar. At its height, Great Zimbabwe was home to some 5,000 people, ruled over by a monarchy. The populace included skilled artisans, who worked with gold, iron, ivory, and soapstone to create ceremonial and decorative works, as well as goods for international trade. Great Zimbabwe amassed fabulous wealth through trading, a venture which brought them into contact with such distant cultures as the Middle East and China.

Colleen Madamombe (1964-2009), a prominent modern Shona sculptor

Colleen Madamombe (1964-2009), a prominent modern Shona sculptor

The Shona’s economic success did not end with the collapse of Great Zimbabwe around 1450 CE. Rather, the city’s dissolution led to the spread of Shona across southern Africa, and creation of numerous successor states. The most successful of these was probably the Kingdom of Mutapa, founded by warriors sent north from Great Zimbabwe in search of new salt mines. Mutapa spread outward to the shores of the Indian Ocean, eventually coming into contact with the Portuguese. While the Portuguese were ruthless invaders, subjugating and enslaving many coastal African peoples, the Shona of Mutapa managed to evade conquest and even use European contact to their own advantage. They hired Portuguese as advisers and interpreters, harnessed their shipping routes to trade with India, and even won their ruler an official coat of arms from the King of Portugal, remaining partially independent until 1917. Today, the Shona continue to thrive on international export, especially of stone sculpture in the stylistic tradition pioneered in Great Zimbabwe.

Flag of modern Zimbabwe, featuring a Zimbabwe Bird

Flag of modern Zimbabwe, featuring a Zimbabwe Bird

Study of Shona civilization, especially Great Zimbabwe, has been wrought with controversy, ever since the city’s “discovery” by Europeans in 1867. The ancient Egyptians, as discussed in our entry on Nabta Playa, were at the time regarded as Caucasian, and many coastal African kingdoms could be linked to the influence of Islamic culture. Great Zimbabwe, as an advanced civilization created by black Africans independently of outside influence, threatened white European assumptions of cultural and racial superiority over blacks. As such, the first few generations of white scholars to study it denied Great Zimbabwe’s connection to the Shona, instead attributing it to Jews, Arabs, or Phoenicians. As late as 1979, the white-dominated government of Rhodesia censored and even deported archaeologists who dared suggest it had been created by black people. It is now finally acknowledged by most historians that Great Zimbabwe, and its successor states, were produced by the Shona. However, the Shona civilizations’ lack of popular recognition outside Africa demonstrates that even today, they continue to threaten widespread Eurocentric attitudes and racist prejudices.

Underwater tikis off the island of Mo'orea, symbolizing the forced conversion of Polynesians to Christianity

Underwater sculptures off the island of Mo’orea, placed in memory of its inhabitants’ forced conversion to Christianity

6.) Polynesia – the people who tamed the Pacific

Polynesia, like China, is not “obscure” in the sense that few people from outside the culture know of its existence. However, only the most superficial aspects of its culture have entered mainstream international consciousness: luaus, hula dancing, and (thanks to Lilo and Stitch) the Hawaiian word for “family.” The fact that Polynesian people even exist, on remote islands in the middle of the largest and deepest ocean on Earth, should immediately point to their history as an advanced culture. Despite this, their legacy as humanity’s greatest seafarers remains sadly unappreciated.

Micronesian stick map, similar to those used by Polynesians

Micronesian stick map, similar to those used by Polynesians

The Polynesian people seem to have originated in southern China, migrating through southeast Asia and gradually spreading across the Pacific from about 900 BCE onward. Their maritime technology was primitive: wooden canoes carved from logs and fitted with sails. Their ingenuity in using it was not, however. The Polynesians refined the practice of boat-making to an art, producing numerous distinct canoe designs for different speeds, distances, and loads. Their methods of navigation were more impressive yet. The Polynesians used the positions of the stars, color of the water and sky, appearance of clouds, wildlife sightings, and the shape and direction of waves to guide their travels across thousands of miles of open ocean, and to detect signs of new land long before it became visible. They produced maps to aid them, lashed together from sticks and shells. Even so, learning to successfully navigate took many years of training, and Polynesian navigators formed powerful guilds to protect the secrets of their expertise, bringing them great social power and prestige.

Modern Maori of New Zealand in warrior's dress, with a traditional canoe

Modern Maori of New Zealand in warrior’s dress, with a traditional canoe

Everywhere they settled, Polynesians produced thriving local cultures. Among their most enduring cultural accomplishments are their many forms of song and dance, still widely performed today, and sculptures, including the wooden tiki of the Maori and colossal moai, the iconic stone statues of Easter Island. They may also have produced a written language, Rongorongo, preserved only on Easter Island and so far undeciphered. If Rongorongo is indeed writing, as opposed to just decorative art, it would make the Polynesians one of just a small handful of cultures to independently develop a written language.

"Perego Man"

“Perego Man”

Polynesians ultimately conquered nearly the entire southern Pacific. To the south, they settled as far as the Auckland Islands, over 200 miles south of New Zealand in sub-Antarctic waters. To the east, they colonized Easter Island, 2,000 miles from any other habitable land, and even continued another 2,000 miles to South America. The legacy of their contact with South American Natives is evident in shared words between the two cultures, Polynesians’ use of American sweet potatoes, and Native genetic ancestry among Easter Islanders. Hawaii is generally believed to be the northernmost extent of Polynesian colonization. However, individual expeditions may have voyaged much farther yet. Maori legend tells of a commander named Ui-te-Rangiora who sailed south until he reached an ice-covered sea, making Polynesians the first humans ever to sight Antarctica (with one possible exception, covered in Part III). Some experts have identified signs of cultural exchange with Native Americans in California, and Polynesian origins have been claimed for “Perego Man,” a stone face carving discovered on Whidbey Island, Washington. Whether they mastered the entire Pacific Ocean, or just its southern half, the Polynesians are arguably the greatest seafaring culture in human history, accomplishing with just canoes and their senses what took Europeans centuries longer, and far more complicated technology, to achieve.


7.) Göbekli Tepe – Turkey’s Ice Age civilization

The Sumerian culture is traditionally cited as the first human civilization, arising around 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Since then, complex societies have arisen independently many times all across the world. However, anatomically modern humans have existed far longer, up to 200,000 years. Assuming that the first Homo sapiens had the same mental capacities as ourselves, they should have been capable of producing civilization all along. Why the sudden proliferation after 190,000 years’ delay?

gobekli_tepe04_02One possible answer is that humans did produce civilizations in the remote prehistoric past, whose ruins have for whatever reason not endured to the present. The site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey may be a key piece of evidence in proving this was the case. Consisting of stone walls, rectangular buildings, and elaborately decorated pillars up to 23 feet high and 50 tons in weight, it appears to have been the product of an advanced civilization, requiring a workforce of hundreds and a system of government to mobilize them. Yet at over 11,000 years old, Göbekli Tepe hails from the last Ice Age, predating the beginnings of Mesopotamian civilization by some four millennia.


Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014)

Göbekli Tepe has only been excavated since the 1990s, and most of the site remains unexplored. So far we can only conjecture as to its full significance in human history. Adding to the mystery is the fact that there are no signs of permanent settlement in surrounding areas, or of agriculture, which remains unknown from such ancient times. This has led researchers to believe Göbekli Tepe was a temple rather than any kind of population center. According to archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, it suggests that religion played a central role in the rise of civilization, uniting large populations together in a common purpose, and later motivating the invention of agriculture to support them. This is the reverse of traditional theories, which have long claimed agriculture as a necessary precondition for complex societies.

If people can create civilization without agriculture, it seems more likely still that cultures prior to Göbekli Tepe might have done so, although no substantial proof for this has yet been found. Nonetheless, in Part Three we will explore further the possibility of civilizations up to tens of thousands of years older than Turkey’s Ice Age culture, as hinted at in the heritage of peoples alive today.

Continue to Part Three


2 responses to “10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Part Two

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

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

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