Human Journey

Why Did Ancient Civilizations Build Such Huge Monuments?

The “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala brought together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can still be a part of the conversation, commenting on this post or tweeting using #5Civilizations.

On the final day of the conference, after two days of individual presentations on ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Maya, all the presenters and hosts sat together on stage to discuss the nature of civilization and what we can apply today from the lessons of yesterday, or as the tagline for the Dialogue put it, how to view “the past as a window to the future.” Two days later, sitting on top of Temple IV in Tikal, looking out over the city’s ruins and miles and miles of jungle canopy, the group engaged in another conversation, centered around the collapse of civilizations.

Pulling from both of those, and the experience of recapping the presentations in these blog posts, here are the main questions and themes that seemed to arise from the Dialogue. Leaving the conference there was a distinct feeling that this was simply the beginning of the conversation. Keep it going in the comments below.

Part 1: What Is “Civilization”?

Part 2: Why Did Ancient Civilizations Build Such Huge Monuments?

Part 3: Is Every Civilization Destined to Collapse?

Why Such Big Buildings?

Richard Hansen, director of the Pre-Classic Maya site of El Mirador, and one of the creators of the whole idea of the dialog had a particular question that had been getting at him. “Somehow we’re all wired to put a major emphasis on labor and resources at the very beginning of a society,” he said. Why is there that early emphasis on monumentality?

Renee Friedman of the British Museum and director of excavations at Hierakonpolis in Egypt pointed out that it’s not just at the beginning that a civilization builds huge monuments. 2000 years after the pyramids, the Ptolemaic kings were building huge monumental temples. “It’s just a different form,” she said, but “it’s still plenty of monumentality.” In particular, “when they were trying to reassert their power, there was again a big push to build these huge stone temples…trying to bind society together again.”

The interesting thing there is that groups trying to “reassert” their power are in many ways comparable to groups at the “beginning of a society.” So perhaps building big things is simply something people do when they begin to work together. Once there is a sense that they want to do things together, they do things that weren’t possible in smaller groups. Elaborate dances might be one example, but monumental architecture is another, and it’s the one that stays visible.

Recent discoveries at the 11,600-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey fit well into this. Long before cities or even substantial, permanent houses, nomadic people worked together at this site to construct huge stone “temples” with carvings of animals and people (see reconstruction gallery). In ways, that’s similar to what people had been doing for tens of thousands of years already, decorating the vast interiors of natural caves with naturalistic images of animals. Archaeologist Ernesto Arredondo had pointed out that the Maya actually called their temples “mountains.” Francisco Estrada-Belli added that there is reference to their interiors as “a cave in the sky.” Although that example comes from much later and a world away, there seems to be a natural connection there. People who live in a natural landscape put much practical and symbolic attention on the physical Earth and its features. Once they decide to work together in large numbers, they realize they can express themselves on the scale of the landscape through massive construction projects. Perhaps painted caves are not stone-age cathedrals then, as much as cathedrals are elaborate man-made caves.

A vintage photo reveals the epic scope of ancient Egypt's early monuments. (Photo by Hans Hildenbrand)
A vintage photo reveals the epic scope of ancient Egypt’s early monuments. (Photo by Hans Hildenbrand)



How to Cut Back With Style

Although later generations may continue to build monumental structures, the margin of increase in size is rarely as great as at the beginning, and is often negative. A major reason for this is simply be the cost of time, materials, and labor.

Renée Friedman had discussed the example from Hierakonpolis of a leader ostentatiously keeping and sacrificing actual wild animals as a symbol of strength and authority at obviously great cost. “This couldn’t last,” she said, as she pointed out that in later years the rulers simply used art to make the same statements symbolically, and much less expensively.

Juan Carlos Pérez added that the site of Copan is another good example, where in early stages temples are decorated with enormous amounts of stucco relief. The digging for lime and the burning of wood to create the stucco would have had a huge environmental cost. By 630-620 AD, he said “the leaders needed to change the style. They brought in mosaics. This must have been a dramatic moment.”


While modern reconstruction has given more definition to parts of this temple at Tikal, Guatemala, the monumental structure itself has stood for more than a millennium. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)
While modern reconstruction has given more definition to parts of this temple at Tikal, Guatemala, the monumental structure itself has stood for more than a millennium. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)



What do you think? Post your comments below and on Twitter at #5Civilizations.

NEXT: Part 3: Is Every Civilization Destined to Collapse?

Read All Posts From “Dialogue of Civilizations”


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 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.
  • Phil

    Why did they build them?
    It gave them something to do and helped to keep them from fighting and killing each other, or else it was a local “work-for-food” project.

    What else are you going to do back then beside hunt for food, water, war and sex.

  • Margaret

    All Mega structures are the apex of technology representing the scientific, mathematical and religious consciousness that was venerated by the society that built them. Necessarily, these structures reflect the outsourcing of mental capabilities held by the population and expressed as this technology. The starting point for the cognitive processing that these technologies take to make, exists in mankinds murky beginnings, which makes me think that these structures have been made by remnant races of people who wish to leave a lasting technological legacy, for the people who rise up after they have died out. The technology only becomes apparent when the new races reach the same technological level of understanding. Will our modern scientists ever compromise enough to collect the worlds information into one place and build the equivalent of the ancient Alexandra Library for all mankind to study and how will they store it all? What megalith will represent our technology as a legacy to those who will come after us, to show what heights we reached? What will they speculate about us?

  • Steve

    We are not ancient but we are turning out monuments of huge sizes. Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument comes to mind

  • Eric

    @Margaret “What megalith will represent our technology as a legacy to those who will come after us, to show what heights we reached?

    Pretty sure you’re talking vaguely about the internet.

  • Jade

    Closer to the sky may have meant closer to the divine source who appeared to bestow life-giving bounty of warmth, light and rain upon the earth. Below the earth, the underworld, may have represented evil and decay, so their rulers had to be entombed in megastructures that paid homage to The Divine Source in the sky. Also, before man knew how to make fire, he must have seen or heard stories of mountains that breathed and spat fire that took many lives. He may have created cone-shaped structures (the pyramids) to pay homage to, or to appease the Divine by performing sacrifices (livestock or human), in a sense re-creating the volcanic event he deduced to have been favored by the Divine.

  • Jennifer Marley

    Hi Phil,you took the words right out of my mouth,(hey there’s a song somewhere there).When discussing this subject that is exactly my reply.

  • A Man Called Da-da

    Why Did Ancient Civilizations Build Such Huge Monuments? For the same reason some guys drive giant monster trucks.

  • Jason

    Shallow answer, Phil. The ancients had all the activities, concerns and problems we have today. They had art, science, math, despots,famines, disease, etc.

    Monuments must therefor have had some “monumental” purpose

  • Klara Burianova

    When I read this article I remembered the construction of skyscrapers in present. They are our monuments. Unfortunately, these buildings can’t “survive” as the ancient ones.

  • jack althouse

    Ugh. Give me a break. All that so called brain power and all they can come up with is the giant monuments were built to reassert power. Form follows function. Large platforms with lots of steps means lots of people can use them at same time. Mass exodus to summit to escape local reoccurring disasters like tidal waves and lava flows. The giant structures weren’t built first, they were built last. Just before the comets struck and the earth vomited her guts out, crushing, drowning, melting, and burying everything else. The big stuff stands with none of the little stuff around it because the big stuff was large enough to survive. These people have degrees??? JFAlthose AIA NCARB

  • Sarah Mangan

    The monuments are in society seem to me to be less about the trappings of the decoration of the structure and more about the work it takes to build them. The rulers who are new need a method by which they can retain their power and prevent uprisings against them and to control the wealth of the society.The monuments serve to do these by a works program ,the citizens who might otherwise be talked into rebellion are kept busy tired and content with their wages which afford a better than the average lifestyle for someone there age.This redistribution of wealth to the masses makes those who are in power safe because they are popular with the masses who come to rely upon the civilization of the society to maintain there own lifestyles.Civilization of men means to make men civil so that they can work instead of fighting each other.monuments and large public works accomplish this.Monuments also serve as a human relations tool in their advertisement of the rulers through the motif ,so it must make the masses want to be a part of that wonderful society and no other. The large public works don’t really have this ,so the monuments come first. This system works well even through tough times financially because the masses will send their children to war to keep the society going.The only reasons that have ever brought down great civilizations are a successful invasion and famine. Being taken over makes it part of another civilization but famine will end it from within because it no longer is able to provide the lifestyle that the masses had become used to.So no matter what the motifs of the monuments where edifice , temples,or a community center they are no longer serving to maintain the life style of the masses.When the masses can not feed their children their lives become very personal and only about their nuclear family .The monuments do not fulfill their purpose any longer of giving the people something to do to get food because there isn’t any.So people start to do for themselves and not for the whole because that is what hunger does.,and the civil way they had been to each other ends.

  • Cleveland Beasley

    Don’t be temped to categorize all monuments in the same fashion. Some served purposes for elite groups, however the earlier monuments–i.e. stone hedges, earthen mounds and such were actually the workings of civilizations, but apparently hunter-gatherer groups. The more elaborate monuments in the 1000 BC-800AD can be attributed to vast societies, however many and much of the earlier megalithic constructions have no tracing of large population settlements and cannot be labelled as ‘forced labor’ monuments.

  • Alex

    I think the idea that they were built for ‘monumental’ purposes is a most reasonable one. Perhaps their scale was more a result of designing them to last for a ‘monumental time’.. (i.e. forever, or as close t that as possible)..?

  • Jw

    Theyre messages saying to the preceding generations “you can’t make this. Investigate and learn. Look learn rediscover and stop thinking you’re the pinnacle of evolution.. The deeper you look the more you find. we left this for you because we knew it would take thousands of years for collective intelligence to recover to where we got to. We knew we were not going to last” A food for work scheme! Hilarious.

  • Jw

    Make that following generations

  • john

    we still build monuments .but not to last iwonder why

  • Randy the Atheist

    They built them to appease the sky gods – to gain their attention and admiration.

    You see, prior to the invention of sky gods, people long believed in various flavors of shamanism where a “medicine man” would awaken sleeping spirits and call upon them to do good or evil deeds. Shamanism itself was preceded by an even older belief system called animism where every object including rocks and rivers were thought to contain a spiritual force.

    The transformation from earth-bound spirits to sky gods followed the invention of agriculture. Agriculture required the precise charting of the sun and the stars in order to track the seasons. Large stone monuments appeared and curious points of light were discovered that crossed the constellations. These lights which are now known as planets became embodied in mystery and eventually into the realm of the divine.

    Agriculture is what made monument building a possibility. It fostered permanent settlements where before, nomadic lifestyles of hunter-gatherer groups made such things impractical – and impossible. These permanent settlements would in turn, foster the creation of the first codified writing systems which lead to mathematics, geometry and lastly, precision architecture.

  • sadashivan

    Indus Valley did not make huge monuments rather they concentrated in social and political achievements, Specially during Vedic period.
    During 30000-40000 BC resemblance of cave arts in Africa, France, Spain, India, signifies similarity of homo sapiens behaviour. Over the ages art and skill evolved to Bow and Arrow, geometrical, dancing, birds, cow, horse riding, bull riding. During this time human began to realize to raise animals for milk and meat. Tribes were divided into small groups mainly family (family and relatives who had the same ideology) members maintaining own identities and deities (pictures of Dravidian Tribes of Chhattisgarh). Superior groups gained control over other small groups and “Mupar” or “Mupan” the aged head of superior groups became ruler and their deity became head of all Gods and Goddesses. They believed in spirits, sacrifices, and worshiped main Deity “Kula Devi” (“Amma” “Ma” Goddess of the group who protects) “Mother Goddess”. The mother, grandmother, grand to grandmother or eldest, whoever was senior most became most respectful. Females had internal home responsibilities so had more attachments with kids got love, comfort and protection. Happens even in present life as mother is the best friend and involved more than others in day to day family life, kids remember and tribute for rest of the life. Mother can go to extreme extent for protecting her children; this significance enrolled mother in the group as Goddess. We can observe that wherever and whichever region first cultural people migrated or had direct or indirect influence, Mother Goddess became most auspicious of all Gods. View pictures of Mother Goddesses: Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Minoan, Mycenaean, Athens, Chinese, Mesoamerica, and Romans. Similarly, sacred bull or ox too marked spiritual symbols in all the civilizations. Sacrifice too was part of spiritual activity throughout the civilizations.

  • Egyah Acquah

    I blame the world academia, as well as UN for failing to admit the sayings of the Bible!!
    structures we see today to tell us man was originally created giant by God. those stones well arranged were energy built to tap solar energy from the sun industrial purposes. The flood disrupted their objective.
    Bible says there is nothing new on Earth. One generation is successfully gathering or joining pieces of inventions made by ancient ppl, and improve upon the technology.
    Look at the fossils of ancient skeleton of man scattered around the world. Are these not vindicating Bible? giant buildings found below the ocean floor which scientists have over hundred of decades cannot deny and decipher the truth. The Bible stands tall! JESUS reigns forever. Amen

  • Charlene Kotei

    Great article. I enjoyed reading it. Please check out mine at It has a detailed explanation of early man and early civilization. I hope you enjoy it. Your suggestions and opinion is welcomed.

  • Mark foster

    I think it has a lot to do with the trappings and red tape of society that rises up over time. As societies progress they collect rules and regulations, as well as a more political mode of leadership.
    This leads to the public monitoring spending as well as a focus on different priorities such as civil rights. It can also lead to regulations such as workers rights, building standards, and higher established costs for goods and services. At the beginning of a society things are clear cut and simple whereas after a few centuries there emerges an established way of doing things that can be very hard to break, or it can be taken so much for granted that the thought of doing things another way doesnt even occur to the average person anymore.
    Can you imagine the outcry if egypt tried to build the pyramids today? Everyone would be saying that it was a waste of time and labor when egypt has other problems to attend to. The same was probably true of ancient egypt.

  • Navi

    In my opinion they built these huge structures and build mythologies to keep the population under control. Even in Hindu mythology, the society was structured along the lines of castes. These were artificially created to serve those who ruled. The justification to this system of caste was through the control of religion and the religious scriptures. This is it… It served the same purpose that cinemas and the entertainment industry serve today: to keep us in awe.
    The king of the builders of the circus of Rome:the Colosseum , Julius Caeser said, “Give them bread and circuses”. In the modern world we are given “MacDonald and MTV”

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