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Collapse by Jared Diamond

- Abstract

When the ancient Greeks happened upon ruins whose origins they could not fathom, they called them “Hebrews’ castles”—a nod to the Hebrew Bible as the oldest available source of recorded history. In reality, the sites belonged not to the Hebrews but to earlier Aegean societies like the Myceneans and the Minoans. Regional powers in their day, those societies had disappeared, leaving the Greeks to wonder about their fate. Were they conquered or enslaved, stricken by plague or by famine, by earthquake or by flood?

Even today, the desolate places of the world are littered with “Hebrews’ castles.” We gaze in wonder at, among others, the Anasazi pueblos of the American Southwest (Anasazi being the Navajo word for “the ancients”), the monumental statues of Easter Island, and the grand cities of the Maya entombed in the Yucatán jungle. Aided by the tools of modern archaeology, from the analysis of midden heaps and pollen grains to radiocarbon dating and even more sophisticated physical methods, we often are able to know a good deal about the people responsible for these artifacts. In some cases, like that of the long-deserted Viking settlement in Greenland, detailed written records exist alongside the stone shells of churches, barns, and great houses.

About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.