February 15, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

Powerful Cultures That Totally Disappeared


Lost Civilizations

They have been many incredibly powerful civilizations. Groups of people who controlled more land, more soldiers, and built more impressive works than anyone else on Earth. But, despite their wealth and power, these civilizations each crumbled to dust. 

But what does it take to destroy a superpower?

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The Aztecs Lived In Mexico City

Where Mexico City stands today there was once a beautiful lake surrounded by cities—but the greatest of them was the Mexica city of Tenochtitlan, which floated on the lake itself.

This was the center of the Aztec Empire.

Tenochtitlan, view of the city shows the pyramids and various islands on which the people lived.Travis, Flickr

They Farmed On The Lake

When the Mexica arrived in the Lake Texcoco region, the only land left for them was a marshy island on the lake itself. But the Mexica were resourceful and inventive. They built artificial islands out of reeds and farmed directly on Lake Texcoco itself. 

What followed was abundance and prosperity.

Painting of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco on Lake TexcocoGary Todd from Xinzheng, Wikimedia Commons

The Aztec Empire

Before long the Mexica, once newcomers on Lake Texcoco, dominated all the other city states in the region. By 1519, the Aztec empire spanned 80,000 square miles, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent, TeotihuacanDiego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Their Empire Was Enormous

The Aztecs ruled a population of around six million people—and it all centered around the wondrous city of Tenochtitlan.

Templo Mayor (Great Temple) TenochtitlanGary Todd, Flickr

They Were Venice Before Venice

Tenochtitlan was a sprawling metropolis, seemingly floating in the middle of the lake. An intricate network of canals wove through massive temples, thriving marketplaces, a luxurious palace, gardens, zoos, and even an aquarium, while three grand causeways connected the city to the mainland.

Tenochtitlan, the front steps of the old pyramid.Travis, Flickr

It Was A True Metropolis

At its height, Tenochtitlan held 200,000 to 400,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world—five times the size of London at the same time.

Exterior Of The Templo Mayor (Tenochtitlan)MartinRivasOrtega, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Thought It Was A Dream

When Spanish conquistadors first laid eyes upon the sprawling lakebed metropolis, some of them thought they were dreaming. But if it was a dream, it ended up as a nightmare.

Templo Mayor of TenochtitlanSam Kelly, Flickr

They Were Vicious

The Aztecs didn’t build a massive empire by asking nicely. They were a vicious, warlike culture—and the blood didn’t stop spilling when their battles ended. Human sacrifice was an integral part of their culture.

Ruins of Tenochtitlan, Mexico CityJan Zatko, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Cut Their Victims’ Hearts Out

The Aztecs built enormous temples from which they carried out human sacrifice en masse. Victims would be brought to the top of the temple, where a priest would cut their heart out, place it in a bowl, then throw the body town the temple’s massive stairs.

The Aztec Pyramid at St. Cecilia AcatitlanMaunus, Wikimedia Commons

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They Sacrificed Thousands

Some sensationalist reports from after the Spanish Conquest claim that the Aztecs once sacrificed 80,000 people in the span of four days. Though that number is likely an exaggeration, even conservative historians estimate that the Aztecs sacrificed 20,000 people annually at the height of their power.

View from Pyramid of the Moon, TenochtitlanMollySVH, Flickr

They Didn’t Make Many Friends

The Aztecs were an incredibly fierce people. Every male Aztec received military training, as the Aztecs maintained their power in the region by subjugating nearby people, extracting tributes by force, and sacrificing victims from the cities they conquered en-masse. 

This came back to bite them in the end.

Remnants of TenochtitlanGobierno CDMX, Wikimedia Commons

It Wasn’t The Spanish

The Aztec Empire was large, but the people it subjugated jumped at the chance to bring it down. When Conquistador Hernán Cortés brought down the Aztec Empire, the vast majority of his force consisted of Indigenous peoples with an axe to grind.

Portrait Painting of Hernán CortésUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Canals Ran Red

In 1521, with the help of thousands of Indigenous warriors, Cortés conquered Tenochtitlan after a long siege. According to stories, tens of thousands of Mexica bodies floated in the city’s canals by the time the fighting had stopped.

 Fall of Tenochtitlan by Spanish Conquistador Hernán CortésUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

They Erased The City

As soon as he had control, Cortés set about leveling Tenochtitlan, building Mexico City upon the ruins. Within a decade, Spanish attempts to control flooding had completely drained Lake Texcoco, and it would never reappear. 

It wasn't long before the Aztecs, and their beautiful city in the middle of a shining lake, were nothing but a distant memory.

Templo Mayor of TenochtitlanSam Kelly, Flickr

You Couldn’t Read This Without Phoenicians

Beginning in the Levant on the east coast of the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians were history’s first great seafaring civilization. Their mastery of the waves made them extremely rich through trade, and led to innovations like the first-ever alphabet. 

But like today, their homeland was a treacherous place.

Ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Motyab.roveran, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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They Began From Three Great Cities

The main Phoenician cities were Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos—all of which still exist today. But as the Phoenicians maritime dominance grew, so too did the vicious Assyrian Empire to the east.

Byblos Ancient Ruins, Phoenician City Of Byblos, LebanonVyacheslav Argenberg, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Were In A Dangerous Location

Assyrian warlords demanded hefty tributes, and there wasn’t much the people of Tyre could do but pay up. But, as the Phoenicians' maritime dominance grew, they built colonies all over the Mediterranean.

One of those colonies soon grew quite large and powerful—and importantly, it was in North Africa, far away from the Assyrian armies. This was Carthage.

Tyre, mosaic, the island city of Tyre was heavily fortified (with defensive walls 46 m high) and the mainland settlementArian Zwegers, Flickr

They Set Off On Their Own

Located in modern-day Tunisia, Carthage started as an important stopping point between the rich mines of Spain and the cities of the Levant. But by the 7th century BC, Carthage had left the Levant behind and become the dominant force in Phoenician culture.

Ruins Of Carthage an ancient city on the eastern side of the Lake of TunisLudmiła Pilecka, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

Most empires rise to prominence through warfare. The Carthaginians did it through trade. By the 4th century BC, they were arguably the most powerful civilization in the Mediterranean. And that made their capital city of Carthage unbelievably rich.

The Archaeological Site of Carthage, TunisiaWyoming National Guard, Flickr

They Set Off On Their Own

The city of Carthage was a sight to behold. Built on a piece of land jutting out into the Mediterranean, the huge metropolis boasted massive walls that stretched for nearly 40km. And looking down on all of it was the formidable Byrsa, a citadel on a hill in the middle of the city.

Ruins of the house in Carthage National MuseumSzymon9, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

Naturally, for such a maritime culture, the most impressive sights in Carthage were their two great, manmade harbors. The first was for mercantile trade—but deeper in the city lay the war harbor, which housed over 200 warships from Carthage’s fleet.

Antonine Baths Ruins, CarthageAymen, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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They Set Off On Their Own

Like any self-respecting rich people, the Carthaginians knew how to live large. Wealthy merchants built verdant estates in the nearby countryside and enjoyed delicious foods from all over the Mediterranean.

But there was a dark side to their culture as well.

Punic port, Carthage, Tunisia.Neil Rickards, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

One aspect of Carthaginian culture was so twisted that historians thought for years that it must have been an exaggeration: The people of Carthage practised wide-scale child sacrifice.

And believe it or not, it’s even worse than it sounds.

Maison Punique Byrsa, CarthagePradigue, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

The city of Carthage contained a sacred area called the Tophet. When archaeologists first started investigating the site, they made a chilling discovery: The vast majority of the remains in the Tophet were those of children.

Tophet Salambo Carthage TunisieGIRAUD Patrick, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

Various peoples, such as the Greeks and the Romans, wrote that the Carthaginians sacrificed children. Since these cultures were great rivals of Carthage, historians generally assumed this was just propaganda. 

The Carthage tophet tells a different story though. 

Archaeological Site of Carthage (Tunisia)Christian Manhart, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

Though historians have yet to agree on what role child sacrifice actually played in Carthaginian society, it was definitely far more common than once believed.

Archaeological Site of Carthage (Tunisia)Christian Manhart, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

Most of the children in the tophet were only a few weeks old, and they were seemingly sacrificed to the Phoencian gods as thanks for blessing the parents.

Archaeological Site of Carthage (Tunisia)Calips, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Set Off On Their Own

Though its become clear that they sacrificed children in Ancient Carthage, we still don’t know exactly why—and we probably never will. We have Rome to thank for that.

The Ruins of the Antonine Baths - Carthage, TunisiaKirk K, Flickr

They Set Off On Their Own

The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage are still studied today, and Hannibal Barca’s legendary crossing of the Alps remains perhaps the most legendary accomplishment by any Carthaginian—but it doesn’t matter if you’re the loser in the end.

Punic Ruins, Carthageupyernoz, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Lost 

When Rome finally triumphed in the Third Punic War, they did their best to wipe Carthage off the face of the earth. Though it’s most likely a myth that they literally salted the earth, they razed the city and banned anyone from resettling the region.

Tunis was eventually founded nearby, but it took nearly a century before people returned.

Area of Punic Necropolis and Roman Baths at CarthageInstitute for the Study of the Ancient World, Flickr

Sumer Was The First Civilization

The region of Sumer in modern-day Iraq was the first civilization in human history, beginning as early as 5000 BC, though because it was so long ago, the stages of their development are hard to pin down exactly.

White Temple Ziggurat In Uruktobeytravels, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

We Don’t Know Where They Came From

The Sumerian language is unlike any other language in the region, so historians believe they originally arrived at Sumer from somewhere else, likely West Asia or North Africa.

Some of the baked bricks used in the construction of the Sumerian ziggurat at EriduDavid Stanley, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Black-Headed People

The Sumerians called themselves the “sag̃-gíg”, or the “Black-Headed People”.

Sculpture of the head of Sumerian ruler GudeaMetropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

Sumer Was The First Civilization

The Sumerians had the Euphrates and Tigris rivers of ancient Mesopotamia to thank for their development. The regular flooding of rivers allowed them to develop advanced irrigation techniques for the first time in history, vastly increasing their food surplus and leading to urbanization and specialization.

Ziggurat of Kish, The largest ziggurat of the ancient Sumerian city of KishDavid Stanley, Flickr

Ur

One of the greatest Mesopotamian city-states was Ur, founded at the mouth of the Euphrates. It was founded ca. 3800 BC. That means that when the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, Ur was already well over 1,000 years old.

Ziggurat of Ur with bright blue sky and clouds in backgroundمجتبى حميد (Mojtaba Hamid), CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Writing

Being the first civilization, the Sumerians invented a LOT of things, but the most important advancement has got to be writing. Using wedge shaped styli on soft, clay tablets, cuneiform was the first writing system ever developed—and it means, despite the age of the Sumerian civilization, we actually know a lot about them.

Sumerian Cuneiform Clay TabletGary Todd from Xinzheng, Wikimedia Commons

Uruk

Uruk (different from Ur) was probably the height of Sumerian culture. At its peak around 2800 BCE, it was the largest city in the world, with broad, defensive walls unlike any that had been built before and a population of up to 80,000 people.

Parthian Temple of the GareusDavid Stanley, Flickr

The List Of Kings

Thanks to cuneiform, we have a detailed list of Sumerian kings—and even one queen. Unfortunately, this is not exactly a reliable, historical text. One of the kings on the list was said to have lived for over 40,000 years.

Uruk King priest feeding the sacred herdMarie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Loved A Brewski

Perhaps unsurprising given their affinity for agriculture, the Sumerians loved beer. They called it the key to a “joyful heart and a contented liver” and even had their own goddess of brewing, Ninkasi.

Early Writing Tablet Recording The Allocation Of BeerBabelStone, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Ruined The Soil

The Sumerians were some of the first large-scale farmers on Earth, which means they didn't realize the effect that constant plowing, planting, and harvesting could have on the soil. By the early 2nd millennium BC, Sumerian soil was so salty that they could barely grow anything. 

More powerful cultures like the Babylonians and Persians came to dominance, and all knowledge of Sumer was eventually lost until the 19th century.

Temple of Enlil temple of the Sumerian wind godDavid Stanley, Flickr


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