Lost civilisations

Question of the Day August 5, 2011 – Lost Civilizations

Is it possible that there was a civilization whose records were totally lost? I am not talking about Atlantis. I am talking about far back in earth’s History that no archaeological digs have ever found. For instance, before the city off the coast of India and the possible temples off Japan.

I think it is possible, even probable that there were many civilisations whose existence has been totally lost to history.
I doubt that any of them had what we would consider high technology, and they could have had some quite amazing technologies based upon woodworking, pottery, and some relatively simple metalworking.

The last ice age reached its peak about 30 thousand years ago, and in tropical regions, there would have been stable habitable coastal climates for about 10,000 years, before the sea level started to rise again. That stability would have been important for the building of ports and establishing coastal trading networks.
All evidence of such places (if any still exists) would be 140m (400ft) below current sea levels.

While the rate of sea level rise was rapid in geological terms, in human terms it was only about 1cm per year, or 1m per hundred years. Such a relatively slow (in human terms) rise of sea level would tend to destroy all traces of such places through the actions of wave, storm, and floods over hundreds of years, until the site fell below the active surf and surge zones (about 700 years).
Anyone who has seen what a single storm can do to coastal structures would have no problem seeing how unlikely any trace of anything man-made could survive the best part of a thousand years of storms.

That period of more or less steady rise in sea level continued for about 13,000 years.

As to floods, there have been no shortage.
Over the 100 thousand year period that sea levels were below the “Straits of Gibraltar”, the Mediterranean and Black seas both dried out, and were much lower than today.
It seems highly probable that the then shores of those seas were heavily populated.
The flood that resulted from the Atlantic Ocean flowing through the straits and into the Mediterranean about 7,000 years ago must have been disasterous for those communities.
A few hundred years later, when a similar thing happened to the Black Sea area, it must have been a “deja vu” event for the bards and story tellers of the age (and since). A second great flood in the cradle of European civilisation.

But we can be quite certain, for many reasons, that no civilisation has every mined material at the rate, and on the scale, that ours is.

Thus while it is almost certain that many civilisations have existed in the past, and have vanished without trace, it is also true that none previously have taken knowledge and technology to the level that this civilisation has.

That leaves the question:
Will we manage to take this civilisation to the next level of cooperation, in guaranteeing abundance of all necessities for all (including the natural environment); or will we remain trapped in the illusion of wealth, but the ecological destruction, that reliance on money delivers?

Are we willing to go beyond money (and survive)?

Or will we too disappear without trace?

[followed by]

Hi Ian

A whole bunch of things make me suspect that humans who really traveled around and explored the entire planet only happened very recently.

It doesn’t take a lot of technology to explore the entire planet.

New Zealand is a biogeographer’s dream. No land mammals here, except for a couple of species of bat blown over from Australia, and some seals who swim in here to have their pups.
It was only when the Maori (sailing Polynesians) arrived in about 1300 that the first mammals were introduced (rats).

I suspect any civilisation advancing in technology to our level would have explored the planet along the way, and I suspect that rats would have gone along for the ride.

This is the major thing that makes it seem extremely improbable that there was any serious technological society preceeding us.

I accept that there were probably many who mapped out Antarctica, but it is a lot bigger than New Zealand, and a lot easier to find.

Another factor is the biogeography of the rest of the world.
None of the temperate edible plants had been moved across the tropics prior to 10,000 years ago.

Another factor is the occurrence of ore bodies.
High grade metal ore bodies were common all around the world in appropriate geological strata. No area had been significantly mined, prior to the last 5,000 years.

For all these reasons, it seems highly improbable that any civilisation had explored the entire planet prior to 1300 years ago.

[followed by]

Hi Gil

It definitely does depend upon how one defines civilisation.
I did say “what we would consider high technology” by which I mean a knowledge of chemistry and physics as we know it today.

I am very confident that has never previously happened on this planet.

And yes, social life in primates requires a high degree of cooperation, at several levels.

Will we take cooperation to the level required?

[followed by]

Hi Gil

There is a vast difference between finding a poison that works, and using it effectively (something that can be done relatively simply by a little trial and error); and understanding the biochemistry involved in the process.
The difference is profound – millions of man-hours different!

[followed by]

Hi Gil

Not really.
An irresponsible user, with a knowledge of biochemistry, can create biological weapons that can destroy at whole new levels.
The user of poison darts is stuck with the poison they have, until by some random chance, they stumble upon something else.

Once again, the difference is profound!

[followed by]

Hi Gil

In the sense you use, it is fairly clear that we have lost thousands, perhaps millions of “civilisations”.

In the sense I mean, I am very confident that there has never before been a civilisation that was both global and high technology (in the sense of a full knowledge of atomic chemistry, atomic physics, and biochemistry).

Certainly there is an aspect of randomness in all things, and there is something else also. What we have built in the last few centuries is a succession of contexts of understanding. Building these contexts, in many different fields, is a work of many thousands of lifetimes of individuals with the freedom and resources to do exactly what they choose for much of their time.


Yes it is possible that some of those ancient civilisations developed some sort of technology based upon discovering some aspect of electricity and magnetism – probably based upon the use of gold as a conductor and involving the use of quartz crystals as resonators.
And any such technology would be severely limited by available gold.

For the most part gold is concentrated in geothermal systems. At very high temperatures and pressures, a very little gold will dissolve in water, and as the pressure drops, the gold tends to deposit out (usually in quartz, which also forms by a similar physical mechanism). Thus we tend to find concentrations of gold as nuggets in ancient geothermal structures that have been uplifted by tectonic processes and exposed by weathering.
Most minerals are concentrated into some sort of ore body by some sort of variation on this general theme.

However, some minerals are concentrated by biological processes, and iron is usually one of those (chalks and limestones are other examples of minerals with biological origins).

There are also sources of “sky iron”. Some meteors contain high concentrations of iron and nickle in particular. These would have formed in the core of smaller planetessimals some 5 billion years ago, that acquired enough mass for heat of the radioactive decay of the short lived isotopes within them to cause them to melt, but which weren’t big enough to stay molten (as the earth is), and thus cooled and solidified, and were later broken up in some collision with some other similar body.
But these sky iron sources are rare, in the big scheme of things.
They were probably important in areas covered by ice, where they would be easily spotted, and the only easy source of iron.
In areas covered by forest, such things would be very difficult to find, and thus very rare indeed.

As to things lasting, plants and animals have lasted for many millions of years.
Their distribution on the planet tells us a great deal about times past.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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