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Ancient Ruins That Reveal Fascinating Human History

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From the Incan mountaintop citadel of Machu Picchu to the moai of Easter Island and the rock-carved city of Petra, Jordan, the world is dotted with ancient ruins that offer fascinating glimpses into early human civilizations. While many of these sites have become well-known to tourists, you may not be quite as familiar with some of the very oldest ruins on Earth — structures dating back as far as 23,000 BCE. Explore 15 of the oldest ruins in the world.

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Stonehenge (2500 BCE)

View of the Stonehenge with a beautiful blue sky in the United Kingdom.
Credit: danaibe12/ iStock

This one you're definitely familiar with: Stonehenge is arguably the world's most famous prehistoric monument, located in Wiltshire, England, about 90 miles west of London. Historians do agree it was an important site, but no one knows exactly what it was used for. The stone circle dates to approximately 2500 BCE and features about 100 massive upright stones, some brought in from as far as 200 miles away. Various theories say it was either a burial site, an astronomical calendar, a buried treasure location, or a massive altar. Of equal mystery as its purpose is how the stones were moved from so far away and placed upright without the use of modern tools and equipment.

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Hulbjerg Jættestue (3200 BCE)

View of the hill grave Hulbjerg Jaettestue in the south of Langeland, Denamrk.
Credit: Redphotographer/ iStock

Dating to around 3200 BCE, Hulbjerg Jættestue stands atop a hill near the town of Bagenkop, located on the island of Langeland in southern Denmark. It was built as a burial chamber, and the ruins are so well-preserved that you can crawl inside yourself. Fifty-three people were buried there from the Funnel Beaker culture, which was the first farming society in Scandinavia. Some of the skeletons found at the site show preventative work on teeth — Denmark’s oldest evidence of dental work.

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Sechin Bajo (3500 BCE)

Close-up of a carved depiction of a gruesome stone-age battle in Sechin Bajo.
Credit: Sophie Robson/ Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Sechin Bajo, an ancient city in Peru located about 230 miles north of Lima, was a relatively recent archaeological discovery. In 2008, archaeologists uncovered a plaza underneath some of the ruins that dates back more than 5,500 years — making it one of the oldest known structures in the Americas. The civilization that built it, the Casma-Sechin culture, was one of the first groups in the world to start living in cities. Even older archaeological material has been found underneath the plaza, so Sechin Bajo may date back further than scientists originally thought.

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Megalithic Temples of Malta (3600 BCE)

View of the Mnajdra Temple within the Hagar Qim megalithic complex.
Credit: Aksenovko/ iStock

Gozo and Malta, two islands in the Maltese archipelago in the Mediterranean, are home to seven megalithic temples built as early as 3600 BCE: Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Skorba, Ta’ Ħaġrat, and Tarxien. The unique temple complexes, each built with a different layout and construction style, were together designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. In almost all of them, you walk into a courtyard and continue into a room made from upright stone blocks. Everything is constructed out of two types of limestone local to Malta, and at one point, the structures had roofs. Many of the stones are decorated with carvings; archaeologists believe that the temples were used as ritual sites.

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Knap of Howar (3600 BCE)

View of the oldest standing house in western Europe, the Knap of Howar.
Credit: Geography Photos/ Getty Images

When the Knap of Howar was built around 3600 BCE, it was used as a home for Neolithic farmers, and continued to serve that purpose until it was abandoned about 500 years later. The site, on the island of Papay in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, comprises two structures. Not only are they the oldest structures on the islands, but they are also northern Europe’s oldest standing buildings. The structures are oblong, built from stone into the ground, and connected to one another via a short passageway. The site was excavated in the 1930s, when sea erosion along the coast led to evidence of the stone walls.

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Monte d’Accoddi (4000 BCE)

View of the pyramid in Sardinia, Italy.
Credit: Chiara Paolini/ Shutterstock

When a prehistoric hunter-gatherer community came to Sardinia, Italy, around 4000 BCE, they created Monte d’Accoddi, thought to be an altar in the shape of a stepped pyramid. It was built in two phases. In the first, the hunter-gatherers created the platform at the bottom of the pyramid that rises nearly 20 feet, but around 3000 BCE, they abandoned the monument. Eventually, a new group — a Copper Age agricultural community called the Abealzu-Filigosa — moved in and renovated the structure, enlarging the first platform and building a second, plus adding a large ramp. Archaeologists believe the site was used to give sacrificial offerings to their deities. It was completely abandoned by 1500 BCE.

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Cairn of Barnenez (4500 BCE)

View of the great Cairn of Barnenez, in Brittany, France.
Credit: Philippe PATERNOLLI/ Shutterstock

Dating back to approximately 4500 BCE, the Cairn of Barnenez, located in France’s Brittany region, is considered the largest megalithic mausoleum in Europe. Measuring 250 feet long and about 80 feet wide, with sides that rise 16 feet, the structure houses two burial chambers and 11 passage tombs throughout the interior. Some of the interior of the cairn is exposed because the site was used as a quarry until the early 1950s. In 1954, excavations and restoration unearthed arrowheads, pottery, and axes, which provided evidence that the site was still in use during both the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age (approximately 3300 BCE to 1200 BCE).

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Locmariaquer Megaliths (4700 BCE)

The Great Broken Menhir of Er Grah, located on the territory of the municipality of Locmariaquer.
Credit: Philippe Paternolli/ Shutterstock

The Locmariaquer Megaliths are a series of neolithic structures, also in the Brittany region of France, that date back even further than the Cairn of Barnenez, to around 4700 BCE. Highlights of the site include a passage grave called Er-Grah Tumulus, a dolmen (a single-chamber megalithic tomb) called Table-des-Marchand (“Merchant’s Table” in French), and an enormous granite block named Grand-Menhir. A menhir is an upright stone erected by humans, and Grand-Menhir is believed to be the largest such stone from the Neolithic period. It’s also the oldest of the structures built at the site. The stone broke sometime around 4000 BCE, and the broken part was used as the main capstone for the Table-des-Marchand.

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Les Fouaillages (4800 BCE)

View of the Les Fouaillages on the Guernsey Channel Islands.
Credit: Aurora GSY/ Shutterstock

Les Fouaillages is a prehistoric burial mound erected on Guernsey (the second-largest of the Channel Islands) around 4800 BCE. It was discovered by accident when a local couple, John and Cherry Lihou, were walking in a field on the island after a 1977 fire and saw a mound of earth with a flat stone poking out the side. Archaeologists began excavations the following year. The site as it appears today is not much more than a series of stones arranged in a triangular pattern, with another stone structure in the center. But more than 35,000 artifacts have been found there, including stone tools, pottery, and arrowheads. Throughout its history, it was believed to be used as a tomb, a farming settlement, a shrine, and a land boundary marker.

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Choirokoitia (7000 BCE)

An aerial view of the Choirokoitia.
Credit: shujaa_777/ Shutterstock

The village of Choirokoitia on Cyprus was first settled by Neolithic farmers around 7000 BCE and continued to be used for the next 3,000 years. Family homes in the village were circular with flat roofs, built from stone and mudbrick. Each family had more than one building surrounding a courtyard where cooking and other household chores were done. The village itself was surrounded by multiple walls for protection. One of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in the eastern Mediterranean, the settlement was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.

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Çatalhöyük (7400 BCE)

View of the Neolithic Site of Çatalhöyük.
Credit: acsen/ Shutterstock

On the Southern Anatolian Plateau in Turkey, the ruins of Çatalhöyük mark the spot of a Neolithic settlement dating back to around 7400 BCE. The site includes two mounds, both covered in paintings, sculptures, and other pieces of ancient artwork. Çatalhöyük was an urban settlement, an example of early humans adapting social and cultural practices for a settled (rather than nomadic) lifestyle. There were no streets throughout the entire complex, and the homes were arranged back to back; residents accessed their buildings through the roofs.

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Tower of Jericho (8000 BCE)

View of the remains of the towers and town walls of Preceramic neolithic.
Credit: Geothea/ Shutterstock

Often referred to as the world’s first skyscraper, the Tower of Jericho was built in what’s now the West Bank around 8000 BCE. Part of an ancient settlement, the stone structure is 28 feet tall and was built by a hunter-gatherer community who had settled as civilization was transitioning to an agricultural lifestyle. When archaeologists uncovered the site in 1952, its purpose mystified them, but a recent theory suggests that because the hunter-gatherers could no longer pick up and move as needed, they built the tower as a display of power to scare away potential intruders. It may also have been linked with the summer solstice, blocking the shadow of a hill from covering the settlement as the sun set on the longest day of the year — a symbolic shield against darkness.

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Göbekli Tepe (9600 BCE)

Ancient Site of Gobekli Tepe in SanliUrfa, Turkey.
Credit: acsen/ Shutterstock

In southeastern Turkey, about six miles from the city of Urfa, a collection of massive carved stones jut out of a mountain ridge to form Göbekli Tepe, an ancient worship site built by hunter-gatherers around 9600 BCE. At one time, researchers believed it was a cemetery, but now it’s considered the world’s oldest known temple. The site has large communal buildings, standing stones, and T-shaped limestone pillars — some of the world’s oldest megaliths — meant to depict humans and animals. Many of the structures were likely used for rituals and social gatherings.

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Tell Qaramel (11,000 BCE)

Aerial view of Tell Qaramel.
Credit: R. F. Mazurowski

Though it doesn’t look like much more than a mound today, northern Syria's Tell Qaramel (indeed, a tell is an archaeological mound) was once a thriving settlement from approximately 11,000 to 9650 BCE. Excavations of the mound in the 1970s revealed that the hunters and gatherers who built the site constructed five circular towers, three temples and gathering places, and about 90 domestic buildings and outhouses. The buildings were mostly arranged in trenches next to the towers. Archaeological digs have also exposed skeletons and household objects made from flint and bone that are decorated with different patterns, though so far, there has been no evidence of grain cultivation or domestication of animals.

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Stone Wall at Theopetra Cave (23,000 BCE)

View of the inside of the Theopetra Cave.
Credit: Tolis-3kala

A stone wall outside Theopetra Cave in central Greece is widely considered to be the oldest known human-built structure on Earth. Researchers believe that humans first moved into the cave around 135,000 BCE, as evidenced by the footprints from four children. The wall in front of the cave’s entrance dates back to approximately 23,000 BCE, and is believed to have protected the cave’s inhabitants from the bone-chilling winds during the last Ice Age. The population inside the cave changed with the shifting weather outside, but there is evidence that it was inhabited for thousands of years.

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