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

(Continued from “10 Civilizations That Will Change Your View of History, Parts One and Two“)

Gunditjmara dwelling

Ruins of stone dwellings at Budj Bim

8.) Budj Bim – farmers, artists, and explorers of ancient Australia

In the popular Western imagination, Australian Aborigines are primitive nomads, scraping out a harsh existence as they wander the Outback alone or in small bands. Until recently, most anthropologists supported this, maintaining that it was how the Aborigines always lived. From their first arrival in Australia some 60,000 years ago until European colonization, they supposedly hunted and gathered for survival, never developing agriculture, permanent settlements, or civilization.

Photo portrait of Karntuluung, modern Gunditjmara dancer (photo by Tim Kanoa)

Karntuluung, member of The Fighting Gunditjmara dance troupe (photo by Tim Kanoa)

Budj Bim, an archaeological site in southeast Australia, proves that this was not the case. For at least 6,700 years, the ancestors of the modern Gunditjmara people have lived here, along the edges of Lake Condah, in permanent dwellings made of wood, thatch, and volcanic rock. The Gunditjmara used irrigation, carving channels and damming streams to create a system of artificial wetlands at least a hundred square kilometers in area. In these wetlands, they raised eels and other fish, which they trapped in wooden baskets and used both for food and to trade with neighboring cultures. Today, Budj Bim is the only known pre-Colonial permanent settlement still in existence, thanks to the Gunditjmara’s dedication in preserving it. After nearly 200 years of combating European efforts to scatter them, at times through violent warfare, the Gunditjmara successfully won recognition for Budj Bim as a National Heritage site in 2004, and gained full legal title to their land in 2007. The discovery of ancient fish traps elsewhere in Australia, and early 19th century European accounts describing Aboriginal crop harvests and comparing the landscape to a well-tended “park,” indicate that Budj Bim may not always have been so unique. An agricultural lifestyle may have long been the norm rather than the exception.

Fish basket from Budj Bim

Fish basket from Budj Bim

Anthropologists’ longtime denial of indigenous Australian agriculture or permanent settlements is not the only way in which Europeans have downplayed the cultural accomplishments of Aborigines. For example, prehistoric burial sites and cave paintings in Europe are world-renowned, and often treated by historians as breakthroughs in human cultural evolution. However, the oldest known evidence of ritual burial actually comes from Lake Mungo, Australia, where ancestral Aborigines performed cremations and painted bones in red ochre some 40,000 years ago. The earliest rock paintings are also Australian, dating to at least 28,000 years old and so predating European cave art by a good 10,000 years.

Rock painting of seagoing boat, over 15,000 years old

Rock painting of seagoing boat, over 15,000 years old

Some Aboriginal rock paintings reveal another historical first: large boats with high prows, suitable for deep ocean voyages. Images of such vessels, created between 15,000 and 22,000 years ago in northwest Australia, indicate that prehistoric Aborigines may have been advanced seafarers. According to mainstream theories, the first people to reach Australia came by land, traveling through Asia and island-hopping across the southeast Asian archipelagos during periods of low sea level. However, images of prehistoric boats have led several researchers to argue that the first Aborigines may actually have sailed directly from Africa instead. Additional evidence for this theory includes motifs common to Aboriginal and southern African art, and the presence of certain plants (such as baobob trees) on both continents. Genetic data shows another cross-continental link: mixing with Indian populations 4-5,000 years ago. If the DNA evidence is correct, it should be possible to find cultural evidence of interaction as well, such as Sanskrit loanwords in Aboriginal languages, or Australian motifs in Hindu mythology. If the African and Indian connections can be firmly substantiated, it would show that Australian Aborigines sailed the prehistoric oceans tens of thousands of years ago, and were perhaps even the first civilization on Earth.


Huge ring-shaped ditch in the Bolivian Amazon

Huge ring-shaped ditch in the Bolivian Amazon

9.) First Amazonians – the people who planted a rainforest

For many, the Amazon Rainforest is the supreme symbol of the natural world and its riches. The planet’s largest rainforest, it is home to a tenth of all living species on Earth, and responsible for much of the world’s total oxygen production. Environmentalists often point to the Amazon’s rapid deforestation to typify the war between humans and nature. It would therefore be supremely ironic if the Amazon Rainforest turned out to have been created by humans in the first place!

Amazon geoglyphs revealed by logging, similar to the famous Nazca Lines of Peru

Amazon geoglyphs revealed by logging

Difficult though it is to believe, this may in fact have been the case. Though it has been long thought that the Amazon was sparsely populated prior to European invasion, by primitive tribes living in harmony with their environment, logging since the 1970s has revealed massive human-made structures diagnostic of complex civilization. These include long roads, protective walls, canals, artificial ponds, crop fields, and deep trenches up to 16 feet deep, which when viewed from above join to form elaborate geometric designs hundreds of yards across. The oldest such structures are more than 2,000 years old, at which time much of the land now covered in forest appears to have been dry savanna, as shown by sediment cores collected from lake beds. Others are far younger, including the ruins of settlements which housed tens of thousands of people as recently as the 17th century, long after the landscape had been overrun by jungle. It seems likely that these Amazonian cities thrived right up to the time of European arrival in South America, when the rapid spread of disease killed off nearly all of their inhabitants. If so, the isolated, seemingly “primitive” tribes living in the rainforest today may in fact be the survivors of a once advanced civilization, rather than the living Stone Age relics anthropologists have long assumed them to be.

The existence of large populations capable of reshaping the land, both before and after the rise of the modern rainforest, has led some researchers to propose that humans themselves played a major role in the Amazon’s growth. While the initial growth of lush vegetation probably owed more to increased rainfall than human intervention, humans may well have deliberately selected for specific types of plants in accord with their own interests, greatly influencing the composition of species in the rainforest today. The spread of terra preta – fertile soil artificially enriched with charcoal, bone, and manure – across much of the Amazon shows that its early inhabitants also modified the earth to increase plant growth.

Indigenous Amazonians gathered at the 2009 World Social Forum in Brazil to protest the deforestation of their homelands

Indigenous Amazonians gathered at the 2009 World Social Forum in Brazil to protest the deforestation of their homelands

At first glance, the notion that the Amazon Rainforest owes its existence partly to humans may seem deeply challenging. If grassy savanna turns out to have been its original state prior to human tampering, it certainly complicates efforts to curtail logging, at least if simply “preserving nature” is the primary rationale for doing so. On the other hand, the co-evolution of the Amazon and its native societies also illustrate an important point as to humans’ relationship with the natural world: that people are not apart from nature, but a part of it, whose actions and continued survival are intimately connected with the rest of the ecosystem. Viewed that way, what better argument could there be for care and caution in the ways we impact our environment, and efforts to prevent its reckless destruction?


Cristina Calderon, born 1928, the last living full-blooded Yaghan

Cristina Calderon, born 1928, the last living full-blooded Yaghan

10.) Yaghan – America’s Australian discoverers?

Yaghan women in the 19th century

The Yaghan, one of the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego, the far southernmost tip of South America, are extraordinary in many respects. Although they traditionally lived in dome-shaped buildings heated by fire, prior to European colonization they wore no clothing, and often slept outside despite the bitter cold of their environment. For food, they dived naked to gather shellfish in the sub-Antarctic waters. Supposedly, the Yaghan possess a body temperature a full degree higher than other people. This seems plausible given their seemingly superhuman resistance to cold, but the source of the claim is unknown, and it may be impossible to verify, for there is only a single pure-blooded Yaghan left alive today, Cristina Calderón of Chile. The Yaghan population was devastated by European diseases in the 19th century, and many of the survivors were murdered by white sheep farmers. As of 2002, only 1,685 people of Yaghan ancestry remain in Chile.

Even more fascinating than their incredible cold tolerance is the Yaghans’ cultural legacy. Astonishingly, the Yaghans’ first ancestors may have been Australian Aborigines! According to Brazilian anthropologist Walter Neves, the earliest known human skulls in South America, from 12,000 to 6,000 years old, are similar to those of indigenous Australians. They do not resemble those of the Clovis people, who crossed into North America from Siberia via the Bering Land Bridge around 15,000 years ago, and are generally considered the ancestors of all indigenous New World peoples. Circumstantial evidence that Australians may have reached South America first also includes bones painted with red ochre (like the Aboriginal Lake Mungo remains), and the rock shelters of Pedra Furada in Brazil, which contain stone artifacts dated as old as 60,000 years (roughly the same age as the first signs of human activity in Australia).

A member of the Selk'nam, another Fuegian culture, demonstrating the art of body transformation with a mask and paint

A member of the Selk’nam, another Fuegian culture, demonstrating the art of body transformation with a mask and paint

Among living South American Natives, the Yaghan and other peoples of Tierra del Fuego are the only ones to retain such Australoid features. DNA studies support Neves’ theory, showing a mixture of Siberian and Australian genetic markers among Fuegians. If Neves’ theory is correct, the implications are incredible: it means that more than 12,000 years ago, Australoid peoples either migrated through northern Asia and North America without leaving a trace, crossed the Pacific Ocean directly by boat, or island-hopped from Australia to Antarctica and then to South America. The latter two theories may seem impossible. However, as we have previously shown, Australian Aborigines had ocean-going boats at least 15,000 years ago, and may even have sailed the Indian Ocean voyaging to and from Africa and India. And if any premodern people can be imagined surviving an Antarctic migration, it would be the ancestors of the cold-resistant Yaghan.

Williams Point, South Shetland Islands

Williams Point, South Shetland Islands

The idea that they descended from seafaring Australian explorers, while incredible, is consistent with the Yaghans’ own apparent feats of navigation. Arrowheads and a Yaghan boat have been discovered in the Falkland Islands 300 miles east of the Patagonian coast, while stone tools are reported from marine sediment samples from the South Shetland Islands. The South Shetland Islands lie some 500 miles south of Tierra del Fuego, but a mere 58 miles from the Antarctic mainland at their southernmost point! It should be noted, however, that such artifacts may actually postdate European arrival, after which time Yaghan are known to have been hired or enslaved aboard their conquerors’ vessels.

If these extraordinary theories are true, the Yaghan represent the farthest outpost of the ancient seafaring Australian culture discussed previously. Their ancestors would have been some of the most daring pioneers in human history: the first people ever to sail the Pacific Ocean, discover the New World, or possibly even set foot on the Antarctic coast, tens of thousands of years before any other human group would attempt the same. As for the living Yaghan, they are a unique and fascinating people no matter their origins, whom we may hope recover from their brutal decimation by Europeans and thrive again as a culture long into the future.


Flores, Guatemala lies atop the ruins of Tayasal, the last independent Maya city

Flores, Guatemala lies atop the ruins of Tayasal, the last independent Maya city

The ten cultures we have explored represent only a small fraction of all the complex societies ever to have existed. There are many other long-overlooked civilizations deserving of recognition: the Ghana Empire, which laid the foundations for later West African kingdoms before the arrival of Islamic civilization. Norte Chico, a seafaring Peruvian civilization which predated the better-known Inca by 4,000 years. The Maya cities of Tayasal and Zacpeten, which successfully resisted nearly 200 years of Spanish attempts at conquest. The Siddis of India and Pakistan, descendents of African slaves who established independent nations of their own. Hopefully it will be possible to explore these and more in future follow-up articles.

Among the examples chosen, their vast cultural diversity should raise an important question: what exactly constitutes a “civilization” in the first place? Admittedly, many of the cultures hitherto described as “civilizations” are not widely acknowledged as such by anthropologists and historians. By mainstream definitions, a civilization is a society with features such as large urban centers, a complex social hierarchy, state-based government, agriculture, and a written language. If we accept all of these as absolute requirements, every culture but Khazaria and China should be struck from our list.

The Inca recorded information using quipu, knots tied into rope, instead of writing

The Inca recorded information using quipu, knots tied into rope, instead of writing

However, many societies traditionally accepted as civilizations actually lack one or more of these traits. Most did not possess writing in their early stages, and only a few independently developed it, the rest (including Europe) obtaining writing systems through outside influence. A few, including the Aztec and Inca, never had written language at all. It is also debated whether the Maya and southeast Asian Khmer had centralized “states.” Yet there is little debate as to any of them being “civilizations.”

Carina Ray

Carina Ray

If for the sake of consistency, we define civilization as requiring only large urban centers, a complex social order, and agriculture, then Cahokia, the Shona, Budj Bim, and the first Amazonians all clearly fit these criteria. That none of them are commonly recognized as such seems inexplicable, except as the result of deeply held European biases and vested political interests. But even if they are eventually admitted into the civilization club, why require such specific traits as the basis for a general dividing line between “civilizations” and primitive cultures? The Africanist scholar Carina Ray, responding to European claims as to the lack of African civilization in her article “Racial Politics of Writing African History,” writes,

What I find… intriguing is the underlying assumption that a human society has to be state-based, heirarchical, at least partially urban, and organized in a ‘complex’ manner in order to qualify as a civilization. … While Europe defined Africa in contrast to itself, Africanist historians have often tended to challenge this definition by documenting the historical similarities between Europe and Africa. … In neglecting aspects of African history which did not conform to European notions of advanced civilization, high culture and purposive movement, many Africanists implicitly accepted Europe as the yardstick by which Africa’s history and civilizations should be measured.

Her point can easily be extended to cultures outside Africa as well. The Polynesians colonized an entire ocean with just canoes and their senses, and Australian Aborigines and Yaghan may have done the same before them. Is this really a lesser accomplishment to building a city? The megaliths of Göbekli Tepe were likely built by nomadic hunter-gatherers. Would it be more “advanced” had they devoted their efforts to learning agriculture instead?

Accepting traditional European definitions of “civilization,” to the exclusion of cultures such as those we have explored, preserves the notion of Europe as the archetypal civilization by which all others should be measured. So long as this is the case, portrayals of world history will always be intrinsically Eurocentric. We must therefore not only reject the assumption of European cultural superiority, but reconsider the criteria used to substantiate it, in order to appreciate the full range of human civilizations and each one’s unique importance to world history.


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

  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 Two | Neon Observatory·

  3. Pingback: Did Humans Plant the Amazon Rainforest?·

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