When most people cast their minds back to antiquity, they tend to imagine the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. However, the ancient world was populated by a myriad of other fascinating civilizations that rarely receive the popular limeligh they deserve.
These lesser-known ancient civilizations have been cloaked in obscurity for several reasons. They are rarely the focus of mainstream media attention in the form of either documentaries or films with a historical setting, and therefore only grab the attention of a niche audience of historians.
In some cases, these civilizations were eclipsed or conquered by their neighbors. In other cases, the historical and archaeological records may be too sketchy to build a comprehensive picture of their achievements. Whatever the reasons, these enigmatic ancient cultures deserve closer inspection and are owed their own fascinating chapters in the history books.
The Kingdom of Kush
The Kingdom of Kush – also referred to as the Kushite Kingdom – was an ancient Nubian civilization that flourished in the Nile Valley between c. 1070 BC and c. 550 AD on the southern border of the Egyptian civilization. The Kushites inhabited parts of what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt.
The Kingdom of Kush originated in the city of Napata and later moved to Meroe, which was where the Meroitic language was spoken. At its peak, Kush extended over 1,000 kilometers from the northern part of Sudan to the Blue Nile Region and persisted for over 1,000 years.
Archaeologist David Edwards theorizes that the Kushites first rose to prominence as an ancient civilization by projecting their military might and trading with other peoples.
Like the Egyptians, the Kushites were great builders of tombs and pyramids. In fact, according to National Geographic, the Kushites built 255 pyramids, more than twice the number constructed by their northern neighbors.
In c. 747 BC, the Kushites conquered Egypt and ruled as pharaohs for nearly a century. By incorporating Upper Egypt, Lower Egypt, and Kush into a single political entity, the Kushites created the largest Egyptian empire since the New Kingdom which ended in 1069 BC.
The Olmecs were an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that inhabited what is now the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco in Mexico between 1200 BC and 400 BC.
The name for the Olmecs is itself a modern historiographical term derived from the Aztec word Olman meaning “place of rubber” used to refer to the region where archaeological traces of the Olmec civilization are found.
The hallmark of the Olmec culture was their artwork, especially the colossal heads which can reach up to 3 meters (10 feet) tall. The Olmecs were also capable of crafting intricate figurines and statuettes, quite often depicting human subjects in a naturalistic style.
Little is known about the social structure of the Olmecs. Some archaeologists assume that the colossal heads depict Olmec rulers but there is little direct evidence for this. The debate also continues between historians as to whether they practiced ritual bloodletting like subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations. The reasons for the decline of the Olmec civilizations are yet another mystery.
The Dilmun civilization
Dilmun, also known as Telmun, was an ancient civilization that spoke an East Semitic language and was present in Eastern Arabia from the 3rd millennium BC. Evidence suggests that it was located in the Persian Gulf, near trade routes connecting Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley civilization, and close to the sea and artesian springs. Dilmun included regions that are now Bahrain, Kuwait, and eastern Saudi Arabia.
Dilmun played a significant role as a trading hub from the late fourth millennium until 800 BC. It reached its peak as a major power when it had control over the trade routes in the Persian Gulf. The civilization experienced a period of great prosperity for the first 300 years of the second millennium BC until they were conquered by the Assyrians.
The archaeological record reveals that the urban spaces of Dilmun were clearly thought out with impressive architectural works and well-planned streets. Their material culture included stone sculptures, teraccota figurines, vases, beads, and bangles, among other items.
The Norte Chico civilization
The Norte Chico civilization, also known as the Caral-Supe civilization, was a sophisticated society in the pre-Columbian era that consisted of around thirty major population centers in the Caral region of north-central coastal Peru.
This civilization thrived between the fourth and second millennia BC, and the establishment of the first city is believed to have occurred at Huaricanga, in the Fortaleza area, around 3500 BC. It is regarded by archaeologists as the oldest ancient American civilization.
The Norte Chico civilization thrived in the valleys of three rivers – the Fortaleza, Pativilca, and Supe – with significant clusters of sites in each of these areas. In addition, there are several associated sites along the Huaura River, located further to the south.
Although no traces of Norte Chico physical artworks remain, they are known to have achieved the construction of monumental architectural pieces. The most impressive of these was the rectangular terraced pyramids which ranged in size from 3,000 m3 to more than 100,000 m3.
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