Some of the thriving ancient civilizations that failed include the Indus, Maya, Anasazi, Khmer, Cahokia, Çatalhöyük, Polynesians of Easter Island, and Vikings. The collapse of these ancient societies is believed to have been caused by some bizarre reasons.
Quite a few ancient societies, like the Chinese and Egyptians, managed to recover by transforming themselves. Rome, the city at the epicenter of Ancient Roman culture, also managed to revive; but some civilizations disappeared for good, leaving behind ruins.
For those that study ancient civilizations, including historians and anthropologists, the results of the complete demise of some societies often point to a combination of factors. In an article for the BBC, Luke Kemp outlines them: climatic change, the collapse of the environment, inequality within societies, complex bureaucracies, external factors (famine, plagues, disease, and war), and just bad luck. Furthermore, history has shown that failure affects small or new societies and can even touch established civilizations with advanced technology.
Let’s explore the five most bizarre reasons why some ancient societies failed:
Theories for the Mayan Collapse Point Partly to Climatic Change
There is evidence that several ancient societies were partly destroyed because of climatic changes, resulting in crop failures and starvation. The biggest culprit is drought, but flooding and mini-ice ages also affected some regions.
One of the most advanced pre-Columbian civilizations was the Maya, who occupied Central America and southern Mexico. Their elaborate cities and their pyramid temples were at their peak between A.D. 250 to about A.D. 900. After that, the Mayans, known for their calendars, mathematics, astronomy, and architecture skills, suddenly overthrew their kings and abandoned their cities. Evidence, some historians say, points to a significant drought that caused deforestation and soil erosion.
However, suggestions also point to other factors, including an epidemic, a revolt against the corrupt ruling class, and constant conflict within the city-states. This all led to the breakdown of trade and the final demise of their society.
Anasazi and Evidence of an Environmental Collapse
In the southwestern region of the U.S, the Anasazi lived in spectacular cliff dwellings built from stone during the 12th and 13th centuries. They abandoned the area and fled south because of violent political upheaval caused by several factors, including environmental collapse. Researchers have found signs of deforestation, a long-term crippling drought, and water management issues. The problems also led to cannibalism and massacres.
The Easter Island Mystery
The Polynesians who inhabited the remote Easter Island arrived there sometime from A.D. 300 to A.D. 1200. Despite being remotely situated, the island is 2,300 miles west of Chile, and these newcomers managed to erect hundreds of giant stone statues called moai. No one knows how the society on Easter Island failed, but by 1800 there was no one there, and the statues were toppled over. Speculations vary, but some believe disease or diminishing natural resources caused their demise.
Cahokia’s Political and Social Unrest
Like most failed ancient societies, the demise of Cahokia points to more than one reason. Researchers know the area was affected by severe flooding in A.D. 1200 and by the Little Ice Age. These natural phenomena possibly led to diminishing natural resources and diseases, which have resulted in political and social unrest.
Cahokia was the largest of the indigenous villages in the area, resulting from the cultivation of corn. It was located very close to St. Louis, Missouri, and its central position ensured it became a trade center. The city is believed to have hosted up to 20,000 people at its peak between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1100.
Bad Luck and the Failure of Greenland’s Vikings
Around A.D. 985, Erik the Red and his people arrived in Greenland after being banished from Iceland. These Vikings were herdsmen and hunters, settling two colonies where they are believed to have thrived for hundreds of years. A missionary expedition to Greenland expected to find approximately 5,000 people to convert in 1721, but they only found ruins.
Archaeologists believe that the two settlements were destroyed just decades apart by several contributing factors around A.D 1400, including the onset of the Little Ice Age. The ice age blocked their sea routes while also shortening their growing seasons.
Whether they packed up and left, starved to death, succumbed to the Black Plague, or were annihilated by the Canadian Inuit, who also arrived on the island around A.D. 1200, no one is sure. But, according to History.com, the Vikings are not the only known society to have failed on Greenland.