Lost Civilisations and the Fiction Behind the Fact
I’ve always had an obsession with sunken islands and lost civilisations, ever since I was a little kid. As I grew older, I learned they were “just stories”, and then as I grew older still, I learned that there was a grain of truth to the stories, which promptly blew my mind.
Don’t worry, though, because I’m not one of those conspiracy nuts who thinks that Atlantis is in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle or that a race of merpeople is getting ready for an invasion. With that said, I still think that lost civilisations are fascinating, and today we’re going to be taking a little look at a few of the main lost civilisations in both fact and fiction.
What is a lost civilisation?
Lets get exploring!
Before we go any further, we should first take a look at exactly what we mean when we’re talking about a lost civilisation. Broadly speaking, a lost civilisation is any type of human (or otherwise, especially in fantasy) civilisation that’s no longer represented amongst our general population.
Semantically, there’s a slight difference between a lost civilisation and a dead civilisation. The Roman Empire represents a dead civilisation, but it was never lost because their influence lives on today. Likewise, Latin is a dead language, but it’s not a lost language because we still know how it works. It’s just that there are no longer any native Latin speakers, and indeed we don’t know for sure how it actually sounded.
Our real world is full of examples of lost civilisations, and we’re going to take a look at those a little later on in this article. But when we’re talking about lost civilisations in literature, we’re generally talking more specifically about mythical civilisations. Fiction allows us to see these mythical and often downright fictitious civilisations up close and personal, often before whichever cataclysmic event led to their downfall.
Two of the most popular and most interesting lost civilisations are Atlantis and Lemuria, and much of Robert E. Howard’s work can be said to focus on lost civilisations. In fact, his Hyborian Age is essentially a lost epoch in our planet’s history. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular civilisations.
All about Atlantis
Atlantis is arguably the most famous lost civilisation, iconic for sinking beneath the waves. Used as an allegory for hubris, Atlantis is first recorded in some of Plato’s works. Interestingly enough, in Plato’s stories, it represents a rival naval power that attacks his native Athens. When it sank beneath the waves, it was because they’d fallen out of favour with the gods.
Atlantis is actually not particularly important in Plato’s original stories, but the story has taken on a life of its own and has become an important part of popular culture. In fact, people are so obsessed with the story of Atlantis that many pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists have tried to locate it. Unfortunately, Plato didn’t exactly leave directions, and so all we really know is that Atlantis was said to have disappeared beneath the waves sometime before 9,000 BC and that it can be found beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
For the most part, most literary scholars and history buffs agree that Atlantis is fictional, but there’s some debate around where the inspiration for the story comes from. As with most storytellers of his time, Plato borrowed freely from other stories and other traditions, and so it’s likely that there’s an even older tale of a sunken city that Socrates was inspired by.
Some of the historic events that Atlantis has been linked to include the Minoan eruption of 1,600 BC, as well as the so-called Sea Peoples and even the Trojan War, the source of the legend of the wooden horse of Troy. But perhaps it doesn’t matter whether Atlantis was inspired by these events in the same way that it doesn’t really matter if the island of Atlantis is even real. I’d rather investigate the stories that they allow us to tell.
Learning about Lemuria
Lemuria is essentially another take on Atlantis, a purported lost land that’s said to be somewhere in either the Indian or the Pacific Ocean. It was originally adopted by scientists and other thinkers, but it’s now seen as discredited and a dead theory. That doesn’t make it any less interesting to learn about, though.
As with Atlantis, even after the initial death of the theory, Lemuria went on to find a place in popular culture. And also like Atlantis, some people have claimed to have discovered its present-day location, with many Tamil writers drawing parallels with Kumari Kandam, another mythical lost continent that’s said to be south of India in the Indian Ocean.
The original Lemuria theory had it depicted as a former land bridge that’s sunk beneath the waves, although we now know more about plate tectonics and can disprove that theory. Curiously enough, these types of sunken continents exist in our own world, including in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but none of them could be Lemuria.
As it turns out, Madagascar and India were originally part of the same landmass, but there wasn’t a mythical bridge as the Lemurian theorists would have you believe. Instead, they simply slotted together as part of a larger “supercontinent” called Gondwanaland. If you’re a comic fantasy fan and this sounds familiar, it’s probably because Terry Pratchett parodied it in his Discworld series with Howondaland.
The problem with the Lemuria myth is that Gondwanaland didn’t sink under the ocean. Instead, it broke apart and the pieces slowly floated away from each other.
The “real” lost civilisations
As you can tell from the real story of Gondwanaland, just because some of the most popular takes on lost civilisations are fictional, it doesn’t mean that they all are. There are countless real lost civilisations, and most of them became lost because they were wiped out by larger tribes and empires. The Romans and the Greeks did a lot for us, but they also created a more homogenous culture and wiped out a lot of history.
Just a few of the most fascinating lost civilisations in our real history include:
- The Khmer Empire: Located in Southeast Asia over 1,500 years ago, this empire was particularly known for its naval strength. Angkor, their capital city, was the largest city in the world at one time with around a million people.
- The Mayans: In popular culture, the Mayans are arguably most-known for their calendar, and the popular conspiracy theory that they’d predicted the end of the world in 2012 because of it. Spanning much of South America, the Mayan civilisation itself has long since died out, though there are still millions of people of Mayan descent and a couple of dozen surviving Mayan languages.
- The Aztecs: This civilisation rose to power in around 1300-1500 AD in modern-day Mexico. Sadly, they were wiped out by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes, who overthrew the empire and brought their reign to an end.
- The Babylonians: You might have heard of the Babylonians because of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Their capital city is said to be the first in the world to reach a population of over 200,000, and its remains are in modern-day Iraq, not too far south of Baghdad.
- The Tiwanaku: This Bolivian empire existed towards the end of the first century AD. When the Incas discovered them, they thought the Tiwanaku were made by the gods due to the grandness of their cities.
- The Incas: The Inca Empire was the largest empire in America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, effectively coming to an end at the hands of the Spanish in the late 1500s. Its size varied, but at its biggest, it covered parts of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Columbia.
You might get the impression from this list that lost civilisations are almost exclusive to Asia and South America, but the truth is that there are lost civilisations all over the world. You just have to look for them, which is somewhat ironic.
For me, I find them to be a fascinating area of research, not only because it exposes me to new cultures but also because we can often borrow from them to create new fictional tales of lost lands and lost peoples.
It’s been said that there’s no such thing as an original idea, and it’s certainly true that most of the stories that we hear today are inspired by other stories that have come before them. In the future, then, we can expect to see more and more stories of lost civilisations, especially because they can do a great job of reflecting our own society.
Part of the reason why stories about lost civilisations are thriving is that they tap into the very real threat of our modern society collapsing. Humanity and society have always been under threat, but we’re arguably more threatened than ever before thanks to COVID-19, global warming and other existential threats.
Stories of lost civilisations can help us to make sense of our own reality, and they can also help us to prepare for the future by showing us a glimpse of what different scenarios might look like. But more than that, they can help us to expand our minds.
George R. R. Martin famously said that a reader lives a thousand lives while the non-reader lives only once. What’s interesting to me is that every time we consume a story, we also consume the setting of the story. That means that reading novels can expose us to new cultures, and in the case of lost civilisations, it can expose us to cultures that we might not otherwise have experienced.
So even though the world feels like it’s getting smaller and smaller as technology continues to evolve, there’s still a place for stories about lost civilisations. Sure, we might not discover any new real examples, but that’s where fiction comes in. And I for one can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring for today’s generation of writers.