We’ve talked endlessly about mysteries surrounding the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Incas, Aztecs, Maya, and pretty much every ancient civilization in the western world. But what about lesser-known civilizations? Africa features a rich, virtually untapped history, and its lands are littered with megalithic structures and medieval constructions that have remained virtually unstudied. Russia’s thawing tundra is also uncovering important archaeological sites from the Neolithic age, giving us a window into the past where there really wasn’t one before.
It certainly seems like no matter where you look on Earth, there are new mysteries to uncover, and we’re going to talk about them right now. Here are 10 more mysteries of ancient civilizations.
10. The Gedi Ruins
The ancient site of Gedi is a small town that rests indie the coastal region of Kenya. Built entirely from rocks and stones, it was occupied by the Swahili people of East Africa and dates all the way back to the 15th century.
It wasn’t until 1927 that Gedi was designated as a historical monument, kicking off an excavation and ongoing preservation operation that has not only expanded our knowledge of the site, revealing pillar tombs, a palace, and a great mosque but also has allowed for the preservation of the original foundations for future generations to be able to see.
Back in the town’s hay day, it occupied 44 hectares of land and featured segregated areas for the rich and middle class which were separated by two walls. The inner wall was where the rich lived, and the outer wall (composed of an area of 18 hectares) was where the middle class lived, primarily consisting of farms and plantations. Mud and wattle houses were the primary dwelling occupied by the middle class.
The biggest mystery surrounding Gedi is why it was abandoned. Archaeologists have three main theories, one being that the town was overwhelmed by an army from Mombasa around 1530 CE, another is that the Galla people who raided the region south of Gedi made life unbearable, and the third is that a lack of water and drying of their wells caused its people to abandon its walls.
9. Ancient Hawaiian Petroglyphs
Most of the petroglyph sites are deserted. That might sound strange to think about, especially for a chain of islands where space is probably at a premium, but tradition is very important to the Native Hawaiian people, so much so that last year the construction of a new observatory on one of Hawaii’s islands was hotly protested, as it would have had to have been built atop a mountain that is sacred to natives.
The ground in most sites is paved with carvings. Concentric circles featuring piko holes (basically dots) are the dominant feature of most of the glyphs, and many of them feature women giving birth, families, muscular dancers, lizards, and plenty of mystery symbols.
While archaeologists can piece together some of what these symbols mean, most of them remain mysterious, meaning there is no real translation for the vast majority of them.
8. The Great Zimbabwe Ruins
When the impressive ruins of Great Zimbabwe, which cover an area of over 80 hectares, were first discovered, the racist European settlers who found it absolutely refused to believe that it was built by African hands, believing instead that it was a reproduction of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem built by passing Chinese or European explorers.
It would be quite some time later before archaeologists corrected this assumption, revealing that the impressive structures composing the ruins were in fact built by native Africans in Medieval times. The central ruins were capable of housing a population of 10,000 to 20,000 people and featured an economy based on husbandry, crop cultivation, and gold trading along the coast of the Indian Ocean. The site also features an impressive drainage system that still works to this day!
Great Zimbabwe was abandoned some time in the 15th century, and while the most likely culprit is suspected to be famine and a resource shortage, the exact cause for the decline of the site remains a mystery.
Known as the Russian Stonehenge, Arkaim is an impressive site dating back to 2000 to 3000 years BCE and is located in the Southern Urals of the country. It is believed to have been a fortress, with a layout very similar to the city of Troy. The site is surrounded by a moat and is composed of two circular walls with an outer diameter of 160 meters. Among other things discovered about Arkaim were a water and drainage system, a system of mines, pottery, and ritualistic remains and artifacts.
The fortress thrived for nearly 200 years before its occupants abandoned it. The biggest mystery surrounding it is who inhabited its vast halls and houses? Though there is no real answer to this question, some archaeologists believe the fortress was occupied by an ancient Indo-European people, like the Aryans.
6. The Ancient Kingdom of Thulamela
Created by the mysterious Shona People of Zimbabwe, this ancient site stretches 9 hectares and rests on the northern tip of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. It dates back to the 13th to 17th centuries and is thought to have been the home of nearly 3,000 people, though an exact number hasn’t been calculated since no systematic survey or remote sensing operation has been carried out, at least not yet.
The people who lived within the walls of Thulamela traded with people as far as China, evidenced by the discovery of Chinese porcelain and glass beads and other traded goods. In fact, it can be inferred that the city was part of a trade network of sorts, exporting iron, copper, gold, and tin (which were produced locally) from South Africa via the Indian Ocean trade route.
While Thulamela was a thriving city through the 16th century, it was abandoned during the 17th century, and archaeologists think this likely had something to do with Portuguese influence and the Zimbabwe civil war.
The biggest mystery of Thulamela, believe it or not, is what its inhabitants called it. Thulamela is a modern name for the site, meaning “place of birth” but archaeologists are still searching for clues as to its true name.
5. The Chandar Slab / The Dashka Stone
The Chandar Slab, or the Dashka Stone, is a serious headscratcher. It’s one of Russia’s most mysterious artifacts and appears to depict the entire Ural Mountains region and contains evidence of civil engineering projects. It also features what are believed to be hieroglyphs that archaeologists suspect belong to an ancient form of Chinese.
The mystery, though, is that radiocarbon dating confirms that it may be 120 million years old. Now, that may seem impossible, and it’s definitely a reason for archaeologists to scratch their heads, but extensive tests seem to have confirmed that the slab is real. Explanations for its creation include divine origin (one of its nicknames is “the Map of the Creator”) or a natural formation of stone that just happens to exactly resemble the Ural Mountains at a 1-to-1 scale.
The biggest mystery, perhaps, is who made the stone? What sort of society did they have? And how is it possible that the stone is so old?
4. African Stonehenge – Stone Circles of Senegambia
Though not quite as large as the stones that make up Stonehenge, the stone circles of Senegambia are still an architectural achievement. They stand at nearly 2 meters in height and most of them weigh at least 7 tons. These may not be massive structures, but there are over 1,000 of them and they cover an area of 100 kilometers wide and 350 kilometers in length.
They’re located in West Africa, in what is now Gambia and Senegal, and date as far back as the 3rd-century BCE In most of the sites, numerous tumuli and burial mounds have been discovered near the stone artifacts, and evidence suggests that they were built over a long period of time, the last one being dated back to the 16th century CE showing that the stone circles might represent a long-standing tradition that was preserved for nearly two millennia.
However, who built them, and what their purpose was, remain a complete mystery to archaeologists.
3. The Jade Rings of Baikal
The discovery of a 5,000-year-old couple buried near Lake Baikal in Russia has raised some interesting questions about the Bronze Age Glazkov culture that they came from. Inside the man’s eye socket was a single white jade ring (other rings were piled on his chest). White jade is extremely rare, so the rings are likely connected to the Glazkov culture’s mythology and tradition (much like Greek and Roman mythology).
Next to the woman, archaeologists discovered a massive jade knife that measures 13 centimeters long and 7 centimeters in thickness.
Finds like this are especially coveted by archaeologists because they’re so rare. Not much is known about prehistoric societies, so this burial site may teach us quite a bit about their burial traditions. Time will tell if white jade has some special significance if similar artifacts are found in other burial sites.
2. Obscure Past of Mzora Stones – Morocco
Eleven kilometers from the town of Asilah and 27 kilometers from the ancient Canaanite city of Lixus is the site of the Mzora stone circle. The circle is comprised of 168 of an original 175 stones, each of which is absolutely massive, but the largest, called El Uted (meaning “The Pointer”), reaches 5 meters in height.
The site was mistakenly thought to be the final resting place of Antaeus, a legendary giant who was slain by Hercules. The rumor was most likely started by the Roman general, Quintus Sertorius in the 1st century when he came across the site. In fact, Sertorius was so enthralled by the size of the stones that he performed the first archaeological dig at the site.
While there has only been one professional archaeological survey of the site, and that was back in the 1970s, the survey revealed that the stone circle was related to Stonehenge and similar ones to it found in Europe. So, it’s thought that the same culture likely either played a part in influencing their placing or built the site themselves.
Though, much like Stonehenge, the site’s purpose is a mystery.
1. Literally All of Ancient African History
Africa’s prehistoric history is rich and varied, but much of it remains buried or hidden from archaeologists. This is partly because of the prevalence of white settlers and explorers discounting clear evidence that prehistoric African cultures built the ruins that they discovered all over Africa, favoring outlandish explanations in favor of more logical ones.
European explorers just couldn’t fathom the idea that medieval or prehistoric African cultures could have paralleled their own history, but that’s exactly what we’re discovering now.
South of the Great Pyramid in Giza are 300, nearly intact pyramids within the African kingdom of Kush. The kingdom of Kush was an absolute superpower, lasting hundreds of years and stretching as far as what is now the middle east.
Archaeological sites in Africa are especially important because they can tell us so much about our evolution as a species. But there is still resistance to them being studied, especially since many nations in Africa are largely creationist.
Much of the history of Africa, including ancient civilizations that could parallel the Incas, Aztecs, and Maya, remains a complete mystery.