In what may be a dire warning to us all, history has proven time and again that no matter how mighty or demure, the world’s civilizations will continue to rise and fall. According to the latest archeological research, there are five factors that have almost unfailingly played a role when it came to societal collapses: the collapse of trade routes that ultimately led to scarcity and starvation; climate change; the outbreaks of diseases and epidemics; uncontainable population movements and increased warfare typically linked to failed states. From the largest and most spectacular to the lesser-known and mysterious, this list takes a look at some of the greatest civilization collapses.
10. The Cahokia
About 1,200 years ago, indigenous villages began popping up in the lush river lowlands of America’s Midwest and Southeast. The largest of these, which had a population of around 20,000 people (just like London at the time) was located close to modern-day St. Louis, Missouri. The inaugural U.S. city was enclosed by a high wooden enclosure and accommodated numerous plazas and over 100 earthen mounds, the largest of which is known as Monks Mound, which would have taken more than 14 million baskets of soil to reach the 100 feet it stood during the city’s heyday.
Just outside of the city’s walls is a ring of red cedar posts called “Woodhenge” which in ancient times likely served as some sort of solar calendar. From archeological evidence obtained at the site, it is quite clear that the city thrived around the 1000s. Its location, at the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers turned it into the perfect trade hub but also played a major part in its downfall. A terrible flood hit the city around 1,200 and impacted every facet of the inhabitant’s lives. More recent research has also found that climate change, diseases, overexploitation of natural resources, and the “Little Ice Age” played a major part in Cahokia’s fall, as such the city was completely abandoned by the time Columbus arrived in the Americas.
9. Persian Empire
The Persian Empire was comprised of several dynasties that lasted over a number of centuries, situated in what is today known as Iran. The first Persian Empire was founded about 550 BC by Cyrus the Great. Spreading from the Indus Valley in the East to the European Balkan Peninsula in the West, it ultimately became one of history’s largest empires and was at the heart of the globe’s breakthroughs and refinements with regards to science, religion, culture, art, and technology. The glorious empire stood for almost 300 years before it fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BC.
After the failed invasion of Greece around 480 BC by Xerxes I, more resources and funding had to be focussed on the Empire’s outer reaches to protect its lands. Due to a state of near-constant warfare, its subjects were ultimately taxed too heavily in order to bolster the Empire’s fast-depleting funds, leading to a severe recession. Without anyone realizing it, the great Persian Empire had entered the steady downward spiral that finally led to its decline. A decline that would never be reversed by the many subsequent rulers.
8. Khmer Empire
The Khmer Empire or Angkor Civilization was the most significant complex society from the 9th to the 15th century in mainland Southeast Asia. Known for its spectacular architecture, the civilization also fostered far-reaching trade partnerships throughout the rest of the world and is renowned for its vast and innovative hydrologic system which enabled them to benefit from the monsoonal climate while taking full advantage of the pro’s and con’s that came with daily life in a rainforest.
The official date for the empire’s collapse is 1431 when the capital city was overrun and destroyed by the neighboring Siamese Kingdom. However, the empire’s collapse can actually be traced over a much longer time period as a variety of factors had already weakened the empire considerably before its ultimate devastation. Increasing maritime trade between societies weakened the Khmer Empire’s strategic lock on the region while an extended drought brought on by climate change exacerbated living conditions in the over-populated cities. The exact reasons for the Empire’s collapse, unfortunately, remain somewhat obscure as documentation within Angkor itself fell silent from the late 14th century.
7. The Mayan Civilization
Certainly the most progressive pre-Columbian civilization throughout the New World, the Maya carved massive rock cities into the jungles of Central America and southern Mexico, containing palaces, ball courts, elaborate plazas, and even magnificent pyramid temples. Famous for their calendar, astronomy, hieroglyphic writing, and architecture capabilities, the Maya reached the pinnacle of their influence between 250 AD and 900 AD. However, in one of history’s greatest mysteries, the population almost seemingly overnight abandoned their cities, overthrew its kings, and abandoned all further technological development.
Numerous hypotheses have been offered to explain what may have happened. However, recent research does seem to be favoring significant droughts, worsened by soil erosion and deforestation as the catalyst to the eventual societal breakdown. Evidence has also surfaced of a revolt against the ruling classes as well as continuous warfare between the various city-states which may have led to the collapse of existing trade routes. While the population may have scattered after the events, the Maya never faded away. Millions of their descendants are still living in the region today.
6. The Indus Valley Civilization
The ancient inhabitants of the Indus Valley began building their settlements as early as 8,000 years ago in present-day Pakistan and India, officially making them one of the world’s earliest civilizations. By the third millennium BC, they already inhabited more than 386,000 square miles of land, thousands of miles more than their contemporaries in Mesopotamia and Egypt – and compensated for approximately 10% of the earth’s population. They also made use of a unique script called “Indus Script” that has not been deciphered to this day and designed and built sanitation systems within their cities that managed to remain unparalleled until the arrival of the Roman Empire.
However, around 1900 BC, the Indus, also known as the Harappa or the Indus Valley civilization experienced a sudden and uncontrollable decline. Its populace abandoned their cities and supposedly moved southeast. Initially, it was believed that Aryan invasions from the north caused this migration and the eventual Indus collapse, however more recent research now suggests that the area experienced major shifts in its monsoon cycle, essentially rendering agriculture impracticable. Yet the possibility also exists that other factors, such as cholera and malaria outbreaks as well as earthquakes may have played a significant role.
5. The Anasazi
The area known as the Four Corners region is located in the southwestern United States. It was here that, around the 12th century, the Anasazi built their famous and fascinating stone dwellings on the sides of a rocky cliff, several of which were so intricately made that they had over one hundred rooms. Yet, for some reason, the spectacular cliff settlements were only inhabited for a short while, and from what researchers have learned, the Anasazi’s ultimate societal collapse was a nightmare. Evidence of mass killings and cannibalism, water shortages, crippling deforestation, and a debilitating dry spell has been revealed that many now suspect may have triggered the plunge into the Anasazi’s final societal collapse.
To add to the tragedy, many believe that ongoing political and religious upheaval, comparable to what Europe encountered after the Reformation, may also have added to the misery that effectively pushed the Anasazi to leave their homeland and seek refuge in the south. Today, many of their descendants that include the Zuni and Hopi peoples, deem the word Anasazi offensive, and prefer to call them “ancestral (or ancient) Puebloans.”
4. Easter Island Civilization
At some point between 300 AD and 1200 AD, Pacific islanders miraculously discovered and decided to settle on Easter Island, one of the world’s most remote places. All the more astonishingly, regardless of the lack of pack animals, wheels, and much less cranes, they successfully erected hundreds of massive stone sculptures, termed “moai”, the greatest of which weighed more than 81 tons and was 32 feet tall. (The biggest moai, dubbed “El Gigante,” weighed over 144 tons and was much taller, but it remained in the quarry.) However, every sculpture had been brought down, the civilization had collapsed, and the priests and chiefs of the island had been overthrown by the 1800s.
By analyzing pieces of charcoal and pollen in core samples, researchers have since uncovered that Easter Islanders chopped down almost every last tree, but also that rodents (more specifically rats) ate the seeds that would have become new trees before the forest could regenerate. This environmental disaster, which also removed their capacity to make sea-going canoes and ropes, in all probability led to a period of widespread famine and civil conflict. The arrival of Europeans only made matters worse, beginning in 1722 when the first Europeans set foot on the island and immediately proceeded to kill several islanders. By the 1870s, the Peruvian slave trade as well as several incidents of smallpox, reduced the number of the native islanders to less than 100.
3. Mycenaean Civilization
The Mycenaean civilization (or Mycenaean Greece) was the final stage of the Bronze Age in ancient Greece. Spanning from around 1600–1100 BC. It embodies the very first sophisticated and distinctly Greek civilization in mainland Greece with its works of art, writing systems, urban organization, and palatial estates. The Mycenaean Greeks developed numerous advancements in architecture, engineering, and military infrastructure, whereas trade throughout huge expanses of the Mediterranean was crucial to their economy. Linear B, the Mycenaean script, provided the first written records of their language, and their religion already incorporated several of the Olympic Pantheon deities.
Mycenaean Greece vanished with the collapse of the Bronze Age cultural heritage in the eastern Mediterranean. It was followed by the so-called “Greek Dark Ages”, a transition period that led to Archaic Greece. During this era, critical changes took place, including a shift from a palace-centralized to a decentralized model of socio-economic organization. Various and diverse hypotheses have been suggested to explain the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, including climate change, the Dorian invasion, and natural disasters. The Mycenaean era has become the historical setting for almost all ancient Greek mythology and literature – including the Trojan Epic Cycle.
2. Roman Empire
The Roman Empire came into being with the rule of Emperor Augustus. During his reign, the senate had limited powers and was mostly in place as an organ that had to support the emperor. His heirs, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero succeeded him between the years 14 AD to 68 AD. The successions were interrupted when Emperor Nero died. Three emperors fought for power during a terrible civil war and were won by Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty. Several dynasties followed in the years up to 235 AD.
When it comes to the demise of the Roman Empire, the simplest theory boils down to a chain of military losses. Rome had been entangled with the Germanic tribes for hundreds of years, however by the 300s numerous “barbarian groups”, such as the Goths, had intruded far beyond the boundaries of the Empire. They overcame a Germanic insurgency during the 4th century, but during 410 AD the Visigoth King Alaric skillfully overcame Rome’s forces and destroyed the city of Rome. The Empire remained under threat for four decades only to be destroyed again in 455 AD by the Vandals. Eventually, by 476 AD, the German leader Odoacer orchestrated an uprising and overthrew Emperor Romulus Augustulus. From that day onwards, no Roman emperor would ever again rule, causing many to cite 476 AD as the year the Roman Empire suffered its coup de grace.
1. Ancient Egypt
The civilization of ancient Egypt endured for more than 3000 years and is probably the most recognizable of all the ancient cultures in our history. The question of how it came to an end is a very popular one, but not by any means an easy one to answer as it is naturally a very controversial topic among archeologists. Some believe it came at the end of native Egyptian rule in which case it would be in 342 BC during the flight of King Nectanebo II. Others believe it came about during Egypt’s absorption into the Roman Empire around 30 BC while many simply believe that it should be linked to the last appearance of the ancient hieroglyphics script around 400 AD.
Many argue in favor of the last suggestion, as in all of the above cases, the country’s foundational artistic and religious values continued, even though it was increasingly degraded. The ultimate end of hieroglyphic writing, however, was a direct consequence of the final destruction of the ancient civilization.