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ANTHROPOLOGY: Lost Civilizations

The idea that dead-end disappeared civilizations have no interest has aroused sleeping WAISers. Stephen Read writes:

"If survival is the issue, understanding the basis for the failure of the many other, apparently vibrant civilizations that we are uncovering is more likely to be instructive than that of those charmed societies that we identify as our lineage, "

Daryl BeBell agrees: "The study of cultures and societies should provide insight into those factors which they possess(ed) which allow human beings to exist. Those societies which 'failed' might well provide warning flags for those of us who still survive. Those which succumbed to aggressive neighbors can, be faulted, but the problem is more with the aggression than with whatever it was that made the other society vulnerable. The comparative study of cultures and societies is inherently of interest. Which factors ennoble humanity and which degrade it? Which factors contribute to economic success and which to failure? How is power is established and employed, and how is it limited?"

Lee Madland takes a deep breath and says: "Concerning lost civilizations, Carthage certainly qualifies along with Troy. I have no answer as to why the Canaanites disappeared, but one branch of them were the Carthaginians. With roots in Tyre and with a long maritime tradition, their favored name for themselves was "Sons of Canaan" ("Phoenicians" was a Greek label later picked up by the Romans). Prosperous and highly successful, these Semites were envied and despised by both Greeks and Romans, tempered by some respect for their enterprise and commercial abilities, for the same reasons as Jews have been in more recent times (or for that matter Indians in East Africa and Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia today). There is no doubt as to how they disappeared, the few pitiful survivors of the Roman siege and razing of Carthage in 146 BC having been dispersed and sold into slavery by the victors.

In its heyday before the fatal clashes with the rising Roman state, Carthage had firm control of navigation and commerce in the Western Mediterranean, along with dominant political power. Their ships were fully capable of sailing the ocean outside the Pillars of Hercules, or of Melqart as they called it. In the Atlantic they maintained regular maritime trading contacts with both Britain and the "bulge" of West Africa.

And possibly beyond. In one of the most intriguing passages in surviving ancient literature, Diodorus Siculus in the first century BC wrote in his history of a large island far out in the ocean discovered by Carthaginians some time after the founding of Gadiera (now Cádiz in Spain). 'Its land is fruitful, much of it being mountainous and not a little being a level plain of surpassing beauty. Through it flow navigable rivers.... The mountainous part of the island is covered with dense thickets of great extent and with fruit-trees of every variety.... The climate [is] so altogether mild that it produces in abundance the fruits...for the larger part of the year.... In ancient times this island remained undiscovered because of its distance from the entire inhabited world...." Diodorus went on to describe its accidental discovery by voyagers blown off course and he hinted at colonization, which was ultimately forbidden by Carthage in order to keep it secret as a refuge in case disaster should sometime befall the city. (Loeb Classical Library, Diodorus Vol. 3, pp. 144-151.) He went on with further details of an idyllic nature which prompted the modern Loeb translator in a footnote to dismiss the story entirely.

But while colorful exaggeration and embroidery must certainly be allowed for, it hardly invalidates the account. An earlier passage attributed to Aristotle in the fourth century BC (Minor Works, #84, in Loeb) describes it in basically the same terms, stating also that "frequent" voyages were made but later prohibited by the authorities in Carthage, who ordered those who had settled there massacred so as to keep the secret. (Carthage was notoriously secretive about its trade routes, the penalty for anyone divulging them being death.)

If the story does contain truth, what island was it? Some scholars willing to speculate have given it as Madeira off Africa. But the mention of a large size and especially of navigable rivers would eliminate that small island, or any others on that side of the Atlantic or in mid-Atlantic. As a geographer I have considered the possibilities with care. There is only one island in that entire ocean (and no likely mainland) that fits the stated criteria of distance, size, rivers, topography, vegetation, and climate: Hispaniola. Further, it lies smack in the middle of the very region where prevailing winds as well as currents would carry a ship from off northwestern Africa during the ancient navigation season. The Dominican Republic might have a more varied history than any of us know!"

My comment: Step aside, Columbus! Atlantis? U.S.News in an issue (7/24/00) devoted to "Mysteries of history", says Plato placed the sunken continent in the Atlantic Ocean...The Bahamas is now in vogue, thanks to psychic Edgar Cayce, who thought evil Atlanteans blew up their island in 10,000 BC. I must confess that I had never heard of Edgar Cayce, but the World Catalog lists 403 entries. This confirms the fact that I am very ignorant.

The same issue of U.S. News devotes a section to the disappeared Indus civilization. The issue is testimony to the interest in lost civilizations.

Ronald Hilton - 9/09/00