Unknown Ancient Empires

Little Known Ancient Civilizations

Everyone knows of some ancient civilizations, either from world history classes in high school, from popular books or films, or from television specials on the Discovery or History Channels, the BBC or Public Broadcasting's NOVA. Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, all of these are covered again and again in our books, magazines, and television shows. But there are so many interesting, less well-known civilizations! Here's an admittedly biased selection of some of them and why they are not to be forgotten.

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Persian Empire

13th Century Persian Bowl Depicting Bahram Gur and Azadeh
13th Century Persian Bowl Depicting Bahram Gur and Azadeh. © Brooklyn Museum

At its height about 500 BC, the Achaemenid dynasty rulers of the Persian empire had conquered Asia as far as the Indus River, Greece, and North Africa including what is now Egypt and Libya. Among the longest-lasting empires on the planet, the Persians were finally conquered in the 4th century BC by Alexander the Great, but Persian dynasties remained a coherent empire up into the 6th century AD, and Iran was called Persia until the 20th century.

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Viking Civilization

Harrogate Viking Hoard
Harrogate Viking Hoard. Portable Antiquities Scheme

Although most people have heard about the Vikings, what they mostly hear about is their violent, raiding nature and silver hoards found all over their territories. But in fact, the Vikings were madly successful at colonization, placing their people and building settlements and networks from Russia to the North American coastline.

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Indus Valley

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets
Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets. Image courtesy of J.M. Kenoyer / Harappa.com

The Indus Civilization is one of the oldest societies we know of, located in the greater Indus Valley of Pakistan and India, and its mature phase is dated between 2500 and 2000 BC. The Indus Valley people were probably not destroyed by the so-called Aryan Invasion but they certainly knew how to build a drainage system.

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Minoan Culture

Minoan Mural, Knossos, Crete
Minoan Mural, Knossos, Crete. phileole

The Minoan culture is the earliest of two Bronze Age cultures known on islands in the Aegean Sea which are considered precursors to classical Greece. Named after the legendary King Minos, the Minoan culture was destroyed by earthquakes and volcanoes, and is considered a candidate for the inspiration of Plato's Atlantis myth.

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Caral-Supe Civilization

Monumental Earthen Architecture at Caral
Monumental Earthen Architecture at Caral. Kyle Thayer

The site of Caral and the cluster of eighteen similarly dated sites located in the Supe Valley of Peru are important because together they represent the earliest known civilization in the America continents—nearly 4600 years before the present. They were discovered only about twenty years ago because their pyramids were so massive everyone thought they were natural hills.

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Olmec Civilization

Olmec Mask at Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Olmec Mask at Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. Madman

The Olmec civilization is the name given to a sophisticated Central American culture dated between 1200 and 400 BC. Its baby-faced statues have led to some fairly baseless speculation about prehistoric international sailing connections between what is now Africa and Central America, but the Olmec were incredibly influential, spreading domestic and monumental architecture and a suite of domestic plants and animals into North America.

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Angkor Civilization

East Gate at Angkor Thom
The East gate of Angkor Thom featuring a giant face at the famous temple area of Angkor Archeological Park on December 5, 2008 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Ian Walton / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The Angkor civilization, sometimes called the Khmer Empire, controlled all of Cambodia and southeastern Thailand and northern Vietnam, with a heyday dated roughly between 800 to 1300 AD. They are known for their trading network: including rare woods, elephant tusks, cardamom and other spices, wax, gold, silver and silk from China; and for their engineering capacity in water control.

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Moche Civilization

Moche Portrait Head
Moche Portrait Head. John Weinstein © The Field Museum

The Moche civilization was a South American culture, with villages located along the coast of what is now Peru between 100 and 800 AD. Known particularly for their amazing ceramic sculptures including lifelike portrait heads, the Moche were also excellent gold and silversmiths.

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Predynastic Egypt

Female Figurine from Predynastic Egypt
From the Brooklyn Museum's Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, this female figurine dates to the Naqada II period of the Predynastic period, 3500-3400 BC. ego.technique

Scholars mark the beginning of the predynastic period in Egypt somewhere between 6500 and 5000 BC when farmers first moved into the Nile valley from Western Asia. Cattle farmers and active traders with Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Nubia, the predynastic Egyptians contained and nurtured the roots of dynastic Egypt.

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Burial Mounds at Aali Cemetery
Burial Mounds at Aali Cemetery. Stefan Krasowski

While you really couldn't call Dilmun an "empire," this trading nation on the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf controlled or manipulated trade networks between civilizations in Asia, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent beginning about 4,000 years ago.