“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
-William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Could modern civilization really lose entire cities? Could we do so on purpose? It’s a wild idea, but a surprisingly persistent one.
This week, Matt and I touched on these questions in our series on lost cities. As usual, we didn’t have time to delve into anything near as deeply as we’d prefer (I’m still bummed about cutting our Shangri-La stuff). We’d covered Atlantis previously, so we didn’t want to retread the same ground. However, we discovered some fascinating stuff.
First, human civilization really has lost entire cities. Not ‘lost’ as in utterly destroyed by natural disaster; ‘lost’ as in “where the heck did that city go?” Until Troy was rediscovered, the vast majority of serious scholars thought it was a myth. In other words, we didn’t just forget where the darn thing was — we convinced ourselves that it never existed in the first place.
Second, groups of humans have attempted to downplay, suppress or dishonestly interpret archaeological evidence that doesn’t fit their ideological narrative. In colonial South Africa and the United States, for example, European immigrants were taught that the lands they’d traveled to were sparsely populated, and that the few pre-existing populations were unsophisticated and wholly incapable of building a real civilization. This couldn’t be further from the truth on both continents, but that didn’t stop the South African government from ignoring and distorting overwhelming material evidence of places like Mapungubwe.
Third, archaeology can be a source of tremendous controversy between nations. Western museums, for example, are up in arms about Turkey’s new “cultural war,” a strategy to recover Turkish antiquities from museums in Berlin, London, Paris and other cities. Turkey threatened to ban foreign archaeologists if the Western institutions don’t return the artifacts. It’s possible that political conflicts could bury future discoveries as easily as dirt and stone.
There’s good news, however: satellite technology has greatly enhanced our ability to locate forgotten ruins across the globe. Through the use of a technique called LiDAR (short for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’), experts can discern ruins or traces of human settlements that may have otherwise been overlooked.
Does this mean that we’ll find proof of other cities that were once relegated to the world of fiction? Possibly. But let’s not get too excited yet. For example, while researchers have claimed to find legendary cities like Ubar and Cuidad Blanca, their findings have been vigorously disputed. While it’s enormously tempting to claim one ruin or another is solid proof of a legendary city, such a claim also requires an enormous amount of research. To date, there’s still a boatload of work to be done.
And, even if we haven’t discovered a legendary city — even if, for instance, we definitively prove that one city or another never existed — it’s important to remember that every single ruin we do find presents an astonishing opportunity to learn more about our collective past. That’s more than enough for me (though I’d still love to trace the Shangri-La legend in an upcoming episode).
Want to know more? Check out a shortlist of sources below, and let us know what you think about lost cities.
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Thanks for reading, and have a swell week.
A Shortlist of Sources
Hall, Martin. “History as Propaganda in South Africa in Zimbabwe.” Lost Cities of the South (via PBS.org), 1999-2000.
Heaney, Christopher. Cradle of Gold. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
Joyce, Rosemary. “Good science, big hype, bad archaeology.” The Berkeley Blog, 7 July 2012.
Ndlovu, Ndukuyakhe. “Decolonizing the Mind-set: South African Archaeology in a Postcolonial, Post-Apartheid Era.” Postcolonial Archaeologies of Africa, 2010.
Leake, Jonathan. “Lost ‘Atlantis of the desert’ runs into sands of doubt.” The Sunday Times, 20 October 2002.
Letsch, Constanze. “Turkey wages ‘cultural war’ in pursuit of its archaeological treasures.” The Guardian, 21 January 2013.
Maugh II, Thomas H. “Ubar, Fabled Lost City, Found by LA Team.” The Los Angeles Times, 5 February 1992.
Riddell, David. “The Lost Tribe of Surveyors.” New Zealand Skeptics, 2004.
University of Houston. “Legendary city of Ciudad Blanca may have been found with airborne LiDAR.” Science Daily, 5 June 2012.
Wall, Tim. “The Hunt for Lost Cities.” Discovery News, 18 June 2012.