Lessons for Today From 5 Ancient Civilizations

At least five distinct times in world history, human beings created a unique writing system that allowed them to organize their thoughts and record and transmit information like never before: the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese, People of the Indus Valley, and the Maya. They each spread to inspire more written systems (for example the Latin alphabet we use comes from Phonecian, which stems ultimately from Egyptian).

All were separated by vast distances in space and time, but now all are being brought together.

This April at the Dialogue of Civilizations in Guatemala City, Guatemala, experts in each of these five ancient cultures will come together to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. NG Explorer Fred Hiebert, Nat Geo News Watch blogger Fabio Amador, and NG Grants Officer archaeologist Christopher Thornton will be on board to moderate discussions among experts from the U.S., U.K., Egypt, India, China, Taiwan, and Guatemala.

The conference will also draw particular attention to the archaeology of Guatemala, and highlight the culture and history of the modern Maya who live there to this day.

Luis Fernando Andrade greets his guests at the Guatemalan Embassy and announces the upcoming Dialogue of Civilizations. (Photo by Fabio Amador)
Luis Fernando Andrade greets his guests at the Guatemalan Embassy and announces the upcoming Dialogue of Civilizations. (Photo by Fabio Amador)


The conference was officially announced on March 15 at the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, D.C., just a few minutes walk from National Geographic’s headquarters. Ambassador Luis Fernando Andrade Falla, National Geographic’s Executive Vice President of Mission Programs Terry Garcia, Andrew Morrison head of indigenous affairs at the Inter-American Development Bank, and Deputy Director of the Guatemalan Tourism Board Maru Acevedo were all in attendance, excited to kick off the project, voicing the hope that this will be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.

The goal of the event is “to create a forum to discuss the origins, dynamics and contributions of these civilizations to society and culture, exploring how the past can serve as a guide to contemporary societies fostering a global forum for permanent historical discussion.” In other words, it’s almost like setting up a time-traveling UN: get representatives from different cultures to discuss their cultures and how their individual lessons can be applied to help our world today.

So what do you think? Is the modern world too different to learn anything from the ancients? Or can the past really be a window to the future? Post your comments below and on Twitter at #5Civilizations!

NEXT: National Geographic Egypt Archive

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • rashad

    hello my nams ahmad rashad i love to afghanistn i wach u tv its very good thanks

  • Kane Matheu

    Looking forward to the big event. To understand the past and make a better future

  • T’JulofVulcan

    We should have learned long ago. That is what Linear Time is for: to learn from History so as to map the future taking into consideration the path and mistakes of our ancestors and avoid the pitfalls as we contemplate all the possible repercussions of any action. In other words: live life like a Chess Champion and less like a bunch of chumps.

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