10 Little-Known Ancient and Prehistoric Cultures

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Everyone has heard about the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Stories of these dominant cultures can be found in most any grade-school history book. But these huge civilizations weren’t the only organized human cultures on the planet long ago. Hundreds, if not thousands, of human groups rose and fell over in our past. Archaeologists have yet to discover all of them. And of the cultures that are known, most aren’t a part of popular consciousness. In fact, the majority of people would be hard pressed to name more than the biggest civilizations that prospered in prehistoric and ancient times.

Below, you’ll find a list of 10 of the least known cultures and civilizations from our past. All of these groups have been well researched, and although their details may be common knowledge in academic circles, they’re not well known to the average person. These cultures are samplings from all over the world, from a broad range of time periods in prehistory and ancient times.

For the purposes of this list, prehistory means before writing; ancient history refers to the period after writing until the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476. However, it’s important to recognize that these terms are arbitrary, and that many scholars will use prehistory and ancient history in different ways. Regardless, you can think of the cultures listed below as peoples who flourished before the Middle Ages, before the organization of modern city states, and before the start of most people’s knowledge of history. These are our hidden ancestors.

10. Harappan Civilization (2600 B.C. to 1900 B.C.)

The Harappan Civilization extended through what is today Pakistan. Harappan culture flourished during the mature period of the Indus Valley Civilization, so the Harappan Civilization is really a subset of this larger group. The name for the civilization comes from the first of its first discovered city, Harappa, which was unearthed in 1842. Harappan culture thrived during the same time period as Dynastic Mesopotamia and Early Egypt. As of today, more than 1,000 cities from the Harappan Civilization have been found.

The Indus Valley cities found from this time period exhibit excellent urban planning. The sewerage and drainage systems in place were far more advanced than elsewhere in the world. And the Harappans also were masters of architecture; they built walled cities with granaries, warehouses, citadels, and possibly even public baths. They were also some of the first people to develop a uniform system of weights and measures. The Harappans were skilled metallurgists too, having developed advanced skills with copper, tin, bronze, and lead.

The Harappans used a large trade network both within their civilization and outside of it. There is evidence for extensive trade between the Harappans and the Mesopotamians. Archaeologists aren’t sure if the Harappans had a writing system or not. Symbols have been found, but it has yet to be determined whether these were used for everyday writing or just as agricultural markers.

In about 1800 B.C., the Indus Valley Civilization began to decline. By 1700 B.C., all the cities had been abandoned. No one knows why the civilization waned, but the culture did live on. Its influence was felt throughout the region for years to come.

9. Valdivia Culture (3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C.)


The Valdivia Culture was made up of ancient peoples who lived near what is now modern day Valdivia, a coastal town in Ecuador. The culture was first discovered in 1956 by Emilio Estrado, who suggested that it may have been linked to the ancient Jomon culture in Japan based on similarities in pottery styles. Estrado’s theory proposed trans-Pacific trade between the two groups, but it has been largely dismissed because of a lack of evidence.

The Valdivian people lived in communities with houses built in circles around central plazas. They were sedentary people who grew corn, beans, squash, peppers, and cotton. They were skilled fishermen and occasional deer hunters. They were also excellent craftsmen, creating beautiful clay works. Mature Valdivia pottery is dark red and polished, and the trademark piece is a “Venus” figure, a female figurine that was likely used in ritual fertility ceremonies.

Eventually, the Valdivia culture died out. The area was repopulated by groups unconnected with a central culture.

8. Chavin Culture (900 B.C. to 200 B.C.)


The Chavin culture was prevalent in the highlands of Peru for more than 700 years. The influence of the culture stretched for hundreds of miles along Peru’s coast with multiple ruin sites, a fact which has led some people to call it a full-out civilization. The Chavin people domesticated llamas for pack animals, food, and wool, and developed the technique of making jerky. They were also skilled agriculturalists, growing quinoa, potatoes, and corn.

Chavin de Huantar, an impressive temple and World Heritage Site, is the most known relic of Chavin culture. The temple was an architectural masterpiece. It was given a draining system that not only kept water from destroying it, but also created a load, rushing sound for effect. The temple is built of stones that are not found anywhere near the site, which means the builders had to have brought them in from far away. It’s also home to a number of intricate carvings, including the Lancon, a 4.5-meter-long granite stone that was a central cult figure in the Chavin way of life.

Chavin art is dominated with images of fanged felines, which are thought to be examples of deities or, possibly, references to altered states of consciousness. These fanged felines can be seen in artifacts up and down the Peruvian coast, proving the Chavin influence was extensive. But although the Chavin appear to have done quite well, their culture disappeared by 200 B.C. following a century of town abandonments.

7. Achaemenid Empire (550 B.C. to 330 B.C.)

A coin from the Achaemenid Empire.

The Achaemenid Empire was one of the first Persian Empires that spanned large areas of modern-day Iran. It was arguably the largest and wealthiest empire of the ancient world, reaching across some 10.7 million square kilometers. The Achaemenid Empire, which is sometimes simply called the Persian Empire, was the entity involved in the Greco-Persian Wars, which are famous in Western history. It’s first ruler and founder, Cyrus the Great, is also responsible for freeing the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity.

During its height, the Achaemenid Empire ruled over the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Because it encompassed such a large area and many cultures, Achaemenidian art, religion, and even language were blends of many elements. However, the most dominant religion in the empire was Zoroastrianism, and the official language was Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Empire ruled in opulence for more than 200 years. But it was overthrown in just a few short years after the wars of Alexander the Great began. The regions of the Achaemenid Empire would become part of the Hellenistic State, which would eventually be overtaken by the rise of Rome.

6. Badarian Culture (4500 B.C. to 3250 B.C.)


You’ve heard of ancient Egypt, but you probably don’t know about the Badarians. The Badarians were the first people to introduce agriculture to Egypt, and they were the ancestors of the people who began the Egyptian empire. So far, scientists have found about 40 settlements and 600 graves that have been associated with the Badarian cultural tradition. From this evidence, archaeologists have discovered that Baderians grew plants, herded animals, and fished. They also buried their dead in elaborate, low cemeteries; the deceased were placed on mats, laid in shallow pits, and oriented to the south, with their heads facing west.

5. D’mt Kingdom (? 900 B.C. to 600 B.C.)

Ruins of the temple at Yeha, a city which could have been part of the D’mt Kingdom.

D’mt was a kingdom in modern day Ethiopia, dating somewhere near the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. Very little is known about the D’mt Kingdom, and archaeologists aren’t sure how it connects to the later Aksumite culture, which became prominent a few centuries later. The kingdom was based on agriculture, and there is evidence of irrigation systems. The Kingdom of D’mt could have also been the place where Ge’ez, an ancient Semitic language, was developed. Knowledge about D’mt remains murky, but it is an area of interest to scholars who work with the later empires of Ethiopia and Eritrea, which probably had some of their roots in this kingdom.

4. Gandhara (600 B.C. to A.D. 1021)


The Kingdom of Gandhara was a long reining civilization located in present-day Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan. The boundaries of the kingdom varied throughout its long existence. The kingdom was most prominent during the first centuries A.D, when Buddhist kings ruled.

Gandhara is known for its distinctive style of Buddhist art, which has Greek, Indian, Persian, and Syrian influences. The kingdom used a Prakrit, or dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan, for language; this language was commonly known as Gandhari. Gandhari was used to write the Gandharic Buddhist texts, which are the earliest Buddhist and Indian manuscripts discovered so far.

Gandhara flourished for centuries, keeping its name and local rulers while conquering empires came through. But when Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the kingdom in 1021, the name was lost. Gandhara was forgotten, or known only locally, for centuries. The British rediscovered the kingdom in the early 19th century, but it was not until the 20th century that much of the kingdom’s history was known.

3. Dorset Culture (500 B.C. to A.D. 1500)


Eskimo and Inuit peoples are commonly associated with the far upper reaches of North America, but there was another culture that predated both of these groups in most areas, especially in what is now eastern Canada. The origins of the Dorset people are not well understood, but it is known that by 500 B.C., their distinctive pottery and tools were made throughout Arctic Canada. Dorset people relied on sea creatures for food; they would hunt seals through the ice with harpoons. The Dorset people also made distinct masks and intricate carvings, both of which indicate a strong religious or shamanistic tradition.

Dorset people were once found in much of the arctic north of Canada, but they became more isolated on eastern, far north islands after the medieval warm period, which melted the ice and altered the Dorset’s food habits. Eventually, the culture became overtaken by the Inuits, who moved across the continent from Alaska.

2. Moche Culture (A.D. 100 to A.D. 800)

A Moche decapitator mural image from the Huaca de la Luna.

The Moche culture consisted of multiple groups of people who shared common styles of iconography and architecture in Peru. The Moche people lived primarily in the valleys of northern Peru, where they thrived in agriculture with a sophisticated system of irrigation. Anthropologists know a lot about the Moche from their art, which depicts many scenes from everyday life and some of ritual significance.

Based on the depictions in Moche art, human sacrifice seems to have been an important aspect of Moche culture. One place where sacrifice could have taken place was the Huaca del Sol, the central ritual temple built by the Moche civilization. This adobe building was the largest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, but it was in large part destroyed when the Spanish looted it for gold in the 17th century. Near the Huaca del Sol sits the Huaca de la Luna, which remains more intact. This temple was definitely the site of human sacrifice; images inside it depict sacrificial victims, who were killed on the top of the temple and then hurled over the edge.

The Moche culture collapsed around A.D. 650, and it disappeared entirely by A.D. 800. No one knows for sure what happened to these people, who flourished for years. Many anthropologists suggest that a raiding tribe killed off many of the Moche. Even so, many remnants of the culture survived for generations in Peru.

1. Longshan Culture (3000 B.C. to 2000 B.C.)

An example of Longshan pottery.

The Longshan peoples lived around the Yellow River in what is now China, and they made a lot of progress toward more modern civilizations in eastern Asia. They were the first to form cities in China, and they were also some of the first peoples to harvest silk from silkworms. During the time of the Longshan, rice was a staple food and was obviously cultivated; before their time, rice was just beginning to be grown. Pottery making also reached new levels of skill during the Longshan cultural period. The Longshan used pottery wheels to create perfect vessels, which are commonly polished and black.

Based on some findings, anthropologists think the Longshan were believers in divination. They used cracked cattle bones to tell the future. One Longshan site is also believed to be an observatory, which could have been used for ancient astronomy. It might have been that Longshan people were interested in their potential future status; based on burial findings, it turns out that the Longshan maintained a highly stratified social system.

For their huge contributions to the Asian region, the Longshan were extremely important. They’re some of our lost ancestors that we should respect greatly.