When you hear the word “pyramid,” you probably conjure up an image of Egypt, with the large structure jutting out of the sand, the Sphynx laying beside them, watching everyone. Egypt certainly has pyramids, but they aren’t the only ones.
Examples of pyramids have been found all over the world, in various shapes and forms. From the jungles of Mexico and Central America to Egypt to India and Peru. The oldest, however, were only recently discovered, and they aren’t the ones we know best. If somebody wants to see examples of what are now believed to be the oldest pyramids in the world, they’re going to need to head to Brazil.
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For a long time, historians and archaeologists completely overlooked the Brazilian pyramids, even though they were somewhat sitting there in plain sight. Unlike other pyramids from around the world, they were not built from stone. This threw experts off, as the pyramids just looked like giant piles of shells, like ancient human refuse. Upon further inspection, the large piles of shells they found seemed to have both rhyme and reason to them.
What Lies Beneath
Around the large structures were found numerous skeletons, stone plaques, breast plates, and even figurines of various animals. These appeared to be burial graves, which makes researchers believe the pyramid, much as with other pyramids from around the world, had a religious purpose. What exactly that was remains to be seen, but it’s apparent these sites were revered enough to house the ancient Brazilians’ dead.
Very, Very Old
As far as age is concerned, the pyramids of Brazil are extremely old. Some have been determined to have been built at around 3,000 BCE, which makes them a few hundred years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Even more interesting, some pyramids which no longer stand may even date back to 5,000 BCE, making them some of the oldest in the world.
Different Construction Method
Whereas the Egyptian pyramids were built all at once over a significantly long period of time, it would appear as though the Brazilian pyramids were built in segments. It’s unsure how this was done, but it definitely seems to be the case when examining the various different parts of the pyramids.
Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico
Massive in Scale
The Brazilian pyramids appear to have been pretty tall when they were shiny and new. The biggest was upward of 160 feet tall and had a base which covered some 37 acres, which is about 1.6 million square feet. One of those which is still standing is about 100 feet tall and covers 26 acres. It may have been another 65 feet taller when it was first constructed.
Not One of a Kind
The pyramid they found in Brazil wasn’t alone. There are several around the area, and some believe there may have been hundreds of them, as many as 1,000, spread across the country. Now, not many are around, thanks to human interaction.
For many years, nobody really know what the large piles of shells were. It was suspected they were just leftover refuse from ancient civilizations. As such, from the 1920s to the 1960s, the material from which the pyramids were built ended up being gathered and used as material to make roads. Because of this destruction, it is estimated fewer than 10 percent of the pyramids still exist in any sort of form.
Midden excavated for road use in Florida
The Cherry on Top
What is perhaps one of the more interesting recent discoveries regarding the pyramids is they once had structures built on top of them. If you think about the pyramids seen in Central America, they often have a temple or some other sort of structure built at their apex. The same is believed to have exited atop the Brazilian pyramids, though they were built some 3,000 years before.
Pyramid in Mexico
The Oldest of the Old
While the pyramids of Brazil which still stand are quite old, they’re not the oldest structures which can be found across the world. I feel it might be fun to take a look at some of these incredible pieces of truly ancient architecture, some of which hail from all the way back to nearly the fifth millennium BCE, around the time the first of the Brazilian pyramids may have been built.
The Cairn of Barnenez
The oldest building in the world is believed to be the Cairn of Barnenez in France, which is dated to 4850 BCE. It is 236 feet long, 82 feet wide and 26 feet tall, making it a rather impressive structure, to be sure. It was built entirely of stones and contains interesting pieces of megalithic art in its numerous tunnels and chambers. Fun fact: It’s made up of between 13,000 and 14,000 tons of stone.
The Tumulus of Bougon
France also holds the Tumulus of Bougon, parts of which were built in 4800 BCE. It is made up of five different structures, with a large wall which splits the structures into two different zones. Inside the massive grave structure were found various ancient items. Different styles of pottery were found among beads, seashells, stone tools and more. Each of the buildings which make up the site have their own unique style.
Skipping over to Italy, one can find the Monte d’Accoddi, a site dating from about 4000 BCE. There is a massive platform, which is believed to have been an altar, or perhaps a temple or some sort of observation point. While the original structure seems to have been built by the Ozieri culture, there is evidence another group of people came in and added to Monte d’Accoddi and used it for ritualistic purposes.
Knap of Howar
Up on the coast of Scotland, just a few hundred years later, the Knap of Howar was being built and lived in. It seems the earliest people lived there from 3700 BCE and likely left about 900 years later. Unlike our previous topics, this was a home, and may very well be the oldest preserved home in northern Europe. It has no windows, but a hole in the roof leads researchers to believe they were illuminated by fire.
The island country of Malta is home to a pair of temples, the first of which was built around 3600 BCE. Statues have been found around the area which imply its use: a fertility rite. Folklore states that a giantess built the temples and used them for worship after she gave birth to a child with a common man. To get even more specific, the tale says the giantess only at broad beans and honey.
An interesting structure exists in Wales known as Pentre Ifan. Built in 3500 BCE, it is a burial site of sorts, but has a unique aspect to it. While it was originally believed to be covered in dirt or some other sort of building material, all that remains are seven stones. Three of the stones support a larger stone, which many believe was brought in by a glacier, as it is too large to have been moved by people.
Why does Europe get to have all the fun? Peru also holds an exceptional old structure. Sechin Bajo was built in 3500 BCE and is considered the oldest structure in all of the Americas. It is quite large and made up of multiple buildings which were constructed over the millennia. The oldest building sat on a platform which has raised over circular plazas. It’s hard to say what the use was, but it certainly sounds interesting.
There is some great folklore associated with Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, England. Built in 3460 BCE, the burial tomb was associated with Wayland, a smith-god. The story goes that, should someone find they needed to have their horse reshoed, they need only leave the horse and some money and Wayland’s Smithy, then come back some time later, to find the horse reshoed and the money gone. An invisible blacksmith had fixed it, of course.
Its name means “The Burnt City,” and no one really knows what happened to Shahr-e Sukhteh. Founded in 3200 BCE, it was abandoned a bit over 1000 years later. Some interesting discoveries have been made at the site in recent years. Women, it seemed, held great power in the area. Human remains found also seem to be those of a messenger who had ridden a camel all his life.
Tomb of the Eagles
The Tomb of the Eagles may seem like any other tomb in Scotland, but the site built in 3150 BCE has an interesting element. Among the thousands of human bones found at the site were 725 bird bones. It was originally believed these may have been used in the construction of the site, but dating shows them as being buried up to 1,000 years later. Most of them were from the white-tailed sea eagle.
England, Wales and Scotland have plenty of old stuff, but so does Ireland. Newgrange is one of the oldest. A prehistoric monument dating back to 3200 BCE, it holds a great many bones, but also has a ton of megalithic art. Stones cover the outside of the structure, ringing the entire thing. For thousands of years, Newgrange was sealed up, and Irish mythology and folklore called it the home of the gods.
Pyramid of Djoser
It’s finally time to get to the things we all know and love: Egyptian pyramids. The first of these, built around 2650 BCE, was the Pyramid of Djoser, who was a king of the 3rd Dynasty of Egypt. Not only is it the first pyramid in Egypt, it also is believed to be the first example of using cut stone for construction. Until this point, most stones had either been broken into shape or simply used as found.
In 2600 BCE, two fantastic sites appeared in Pakistan. The first was Harappa, a fortified city which housed more than 23,000 residents, had homes of sculpted clay and, possibly, a whole bunch of other unique things. For instance, tablets found in the city contain what may very well be one of the first examples of writing. Though many have tried, the writing has yet to be deciphered.
Along with Harappa, Mohenjo-daro was a major player in 2600 BCE. For its time, it was also incredibly advanced. Among the ruins have been found a massive granary, a giant pool, an assembly hall and a building made up of 78 rooms. There also appear to be rooms for bathing, one of which may have offered hot baths. There even seems to have been sewage.
In India, the ancient city of Dholavira dates back to 2600 BCE and may have been home to the same people who inhabited Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Like the other two cities, Dholavira seemed rather advanced, though their specialty appeared to be water. They had many reservoirs and channels in order to guide rain to those reservoirs. More examples of the interesting text found in Harappa was found here.
Pyramid of Meidum
After Djoser’s pyramid was complete, Imhotep, who likely designed Djoser’s pyramid, decided to build another for Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty of Egypt. Originally a step pyramid built in 2580 BCE, the design seemed to have changed once Imhotep’s successor, Sneferu, took over. He began to change it into a true pyramid, a decision which may have caused its eventual collapse.
Great Pyramid of Giza
No pyramid is as well known, or as impressive, as the Great Pyramid of Giza, built for the pharaoh Khufu in 2560 BCE. For thousands of years, the great tomb stood as the tallest building in the world at 481 feet. Though now it looks like a giant pile of rocks, it was once covered in casing stones, making it a smooth, shining surface. It was probably built by aliens.
With a name like Labbacallee, it’s got to be good. Built in 2300 BCE, this prehistoric burial monument is the largest Irish wedge tomb, which is basically what it sounds like. The burial site has three large stones on top of it, and they slope down to form the wedge shape. While it is historically of note, it is mostly on this list because I love the name.
Ziggurat of Ur
It is unknown exactly what the dimensions of the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq were when it was originally completed, but it was likely fairly large. Just looking at it is impressive. In its current form, it is mostly a reconstruction which was performed by King Nabonidus in the sixth century BCE after it had fallen to ruin since its construction in 2100 BCE. It was further restored under orders from Saddam Hussein.
Do you like mythology with your history? If so, Knossos is something you may enjoy. Not only is it an interesting Greek site, a building within it may have been home to the Minotaur. Legends say King Minos lived in the city of Knossos, and he had the labyrinth built to house his son, the monster of legend. While a labyrinth hasn’t been found, it’s fun to consider what the site could be, in those terms.