In novels (SF and FF) that hint at being earlier in Earth's history, such as Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time, in which period would such a story need to take place to plausibly and realistically be able to play out into our history?

Some examples are LotR, Star Gate, Fringe, Assassin's Creed, The Event, etc. The plot involves humans (or humanoids that are uncanny to us), elves, aliens etc. that had hyper-advanced (magical or technological) civilizations on Earth long before we were around. But I have yet to find one that goes into (educated) detail as to when and how this was possible without causing huge inconsistencies in a timeline that should end up with present day.

(I understand that many factors go into this such as deep time, geographic details, species evolution continuity/extinction events and archaeological discoveries, but it does seem to me that there should be a time frame (thousands? millions?) where it would be possible to fit in a fictional continuity and still have history play out in the way we know it. If the answer ends up being a discussion instead of a quick response, feel free to PM me)

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    $\begingroup$ LotR was not set in Earth, and this seems consistent with our timeline. Fringe, too, seems consistent with the timeline. I'm not sure as to the others, though - and I'm only familiar with LotR. Good question, though. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jan 6 '15 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean 'like our history?' For specific events, you could have a world start in 1930 and not contain world war 2. Conceivably, such a world could see a delay in the development of rocketry and nuclear weapons by decades. The USSR would also never form, completely changing the face of the world even 30 years later. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Jan 6 '15 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me those are usually alternate histories, so even if we share a similar world or past, they do not have us in their future. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jan 6 '15 at 0:25
  • $\begingroup$ @ckersch When I say 'like our history', I'm mostly talking macro scale in terms. However simply put, a history that still allows you to sit here infront of your computer and read this. (Sure books tend to write themselves into corners, A. Clarke did this many times, but in the case of tv series, they can/do tend to keep things open enough so that the story can always continue with up to date references. No point in having the moon blown up when it's still there IRL, unless it's really plot necessary and the end of the show is close.) $\endgroup$ – DriesDP Jan 6 '15 at 1:09

10 Answers 10


While a fictional society with say, tribal elves using bows and arrows could be "mistaken" for humans in the real-world archeological record, a high-tech or very exotic civilization needs to have every trace of it removed. You can do this by:

  1. Putting it in the distant past
  2. Locating it far away
  3. Limit it to a small geographical area
  4. Invoking a cataclysmic destruction that wipes out all evidence

Plato's story of Atlantis invokes all four. It existed 9000 years before Plato, it was located somewhere in the uncharted atlantic, on a single island, that sank into the ocean.

To answer your question, the choice of time period in your own story will then depend both on how exotic the forgotten civilization is and to what degree you invoke techniques two, three and four.

The updates to the Atlantis myth also reflects this, by locating it in more and more remote locations [3]. In 1623, only some fifteen years after the Jamestown Colony was founded but with Atlantic crossings to south and central american colonies already routine, Francis Bacon chose to place Atlantis off the west coast of North America. In 1934, when most of the world was well chartered, the italian Julius Evola placed Atlantis on the North Pole [2]. The pole had first been visited only 8 years earlier, by Roald Amundsen in an airship. In the 60's and 70's, when exploration of the sea-floor was well established, Erich Von Däniken and others proposed that Atlantis was instead beneath the ice sheet of Antarctica [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Location_hypotheses_of_Atlantis#Other_locations

[2] The american William Fairfield Warren had also proposed the North Pole Atlantis in 1885.

[3] A notable exception is Professor Olaus Rudbeck at Uppsala University, Sweden, who in 1679 proposed that Atlantis was in fact Sweden and that the capital of Atlantis was his own Uppsala. For this he was widely ridiculed.

  • $\begingroup$ #4 was the first thing that came to mind for me. Heck make it a commentary on climate change and say humans got so advanced gaia slapped us back to earth with a 'biblical' flood. $\endgroup$ – James Nov 5 '15 at 14:46

The challenge of inserting a high-tech society into an under-documented part our history is getting rid of the artifacts of that society. Fall back ten thousand years and you have a clean slate and almost unlimited editorial freedom to play with. Just be sure to clean up your toys when you are done.

As an example, in one of my stories, I have a space-ready human society buried in the pre-histroy at a depth of about twenty thousand years. As they begin colonizing the moon and mars, they catch the attention of the neighborhood star-spanning empire, which immediately conquers them with nanite disassemblers, stripping every scrap of plastic, concrete and processed metal from the surfaces of all their planets. In the absense of their technical toys and structures, the surviving humans fall back to a pre-bronze age technology level and the rest of the history proceeds as our historians teach. My story opens about a hundred years from now, as, for atleast the second time, we come to the attention of the star-spanning empire.

The believability challenge in hidden history stories is not justifying the existence of prehistoric high-tech. It is justifying our current day ignorance of the glory of our past.

  • $\begingroup$ A good worked example of how to have an ancient high-tech civilization and justify why there is no record of its existence. The nanites cleaned up all the evidence. A well deserved plus one $\endgroup$ – a4android Jun 21 '17 at 6:29

The main problem with any advanced society is that we have no evidence of it left behind. Even if thousands of years passed with human vanished you would find metals, plastics, bits of railroad, remains of reinforced concrete, etc littering the landscape.

This was handled in the Giant's Trilogy (James P. Hogan) by having the human civilization in question occur on another planet in our solar system.

A war on that planet destroyed it and humans are descended from refugees of that war who crash landed on our planet. (There's more to it than that but I'm avoiding more spoilers than I've already given). The first book in the trilogy is "Inherit the stars" and it's really good.

This nicely explains how we weren't even aware of this prior civilization until when exploring the moon we start finding things they have left behind.

Really we need more details on what you want to be forgotten before we can be more specific though. Is this a few people or an entire culture. Are we talking magic or science, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. Yes is seems that the evidence/artifacts thing is the largest hurdle. It becomes even more so when it's not simply things like buildings, tools or materials. I want to inject a range of species into that history, that would be the advanced pregenitors which eventually offshoot a parallel species which leads to us, long after they are no longer around. As @henry-taylor (continued below) $\endgroup$ – DriesDP Jan 11 '15 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ (continued) and @abulafia points out, a clever plot device like a cataclysm can wipe out the artifacts/materials/fossils/evidence, but genetics would most certainly hint at those lost species that led to us. (as with neanderthal, denisovan etc.) $\endgroup$ – DriesDP Jan 11 '15 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I agree with @william-kappler about how ancient civ story elements have degraded into a joke, especially since that AA crap, however the reason I prefer to have a story set in the past where evidence may be irrecoverably lost, as opposed to in the future where readers may actually experience the time of the story, is because of suspension of disbelief. If it's set in the past, it's easier to 'let go' and enjoy the story when you may never know if it has any truth to it. In hard-SciFi like I,Robot which is otherwise very plausible, if we were to hit the 2037 mark, it's harder to 'let go' $\endgroup$ – DriesDP Jan 11 '15 at 19:01

It really depends on the area. Such concepts are a kind of "god of the gaps" view of history, so the more unknowns there are about a given culture, the more easily one can get away with inserting material into their history. For most areas, that is probably going to be the rise of the modern civilization that still exists there - like Rome for the West, the Qin dynasty for East Asia, and so on. As soon as a largely common written language comes on the scene, and a cultural continuity is established, a lot more becomes known about civilizations.

However, for some areas, you might have more leeway. Even despite intense archaeological research, we still know very little about most of Mesoamerican history. Places where there was no technologically-advanced civilization before colonization, like the Pacific islands or parts of Africa, could go right up to the modern age.

There isn't really going to be a catch-all answer, since different people are inherently going to find different things believable, and how likely they will accept things they don't find believable depends on how good you're handling the material. I personally find the idea of aliens in Ancient Egypt to be absurd, but even so I liked Star Gate, possibly because it didn't care if you thought it was absurd or not.

Part of it depends on the scale as well. If you insert an entire new civilization (like Atlantis), that is harder to justify than something like saying some random ancient leader was a wizard/alien/etc..

Also remember that the believability is going to depend on what the viewer knows. It would probably be hard to insert aliens into ancient Rome, but it might be easy to do so in India, because most people consuming English-language media are more knowledgeable about Rome than India.

I would warn you, though, that this concept has been largely burnt out, and if you want to go with it, you really should make an effort to be original and believable - and not try to be too serious with it. Think of how much Ancient Aliens has become a massive joke online. Fictional history was really big for a while, especially the 90s, and my impression is people are tired of the concept. There are probably ways to do it, but taking that as a premise definitely is going to add to the difficulty of whatever you are doing.


You could conceal your society by having it be an actual event that was wiped out. Witch hunts, talking dinosaurs, whatever suits your fancy.

For high technology in the past with plain old humans its probably interesting to note that more advanced technology tends to be really small (nanotech), fragile (biotech), or big (tower of babel). If its small enough you can have radiation ruin it over time until it's unrecognizable. If its fragile you don't have to worry if you place it far enough back in time. And if it's large you need it near a disaster site or else some sort of removal effort by the people, maybe a cultural shift towards being one with nature or something. Meteor impacts, volcanoes, and subduction zones all make good disaster sites. If you place your advanced civilizations collapse at before pangaea (maybe an aquatic tribe?) you could easily have all traces vanish.

Or you can have humans be your disaster. What if your high technology requires everything to be made of gold and silver? Would even a whisper of it have survived into recorded history? I don't think you even need to go that far back for something like that.

For hiding spots that are still viable you have tropical jungles, underground caverns, under the Antarctic ice sheet, in deep sea rifts, and under a desert. You have to be careful with what remains your hiding of course but I can see a solitary lab in the jungle going undiscovered under some tree.

Magical civilizations are easy. They have almost nothing to hide even if artifacts are required and especially if they're not. Why make a shovel when you can wave your arms and be done with it? We easily interpret things as ritualistic currently so you could place those anywhere you want on the time-line. The Aztecs could have had super-wizards at one point until the line died out and the priests devolved into mimicking past wizards. Who knows?


if %errorlevel% 1 goto TL;DR

I just want to point out that I heard a story today about an archaeology team who found ruins on Honduras recently.

The ruins were in a place that was so remote, it could only be reached by helicopter. They were also forced to take along some ex-military specialists who had to rope down from their helicopter to cut away brush, thereby clearing a landing space. Also, the animals they encountered near these ruins acted as if they had never come in contact with humans before.

Here's the kicker: the art found in the ruins and the other archaeological data they gleaned did not match any previously known civilisation.

The point is, there are still civilisations whose cultures and existences are completely unknown to us! Generally, these can only now be found in very remote spots, as other answers have suggested, although it is impossible to know what history has been erased during development of land.

Other than housing untold numbers of civilisations, benefits of a remote area include a minimal impact on current history.


As for a specific time period, the ruins seemed to have been between 400 and 800 years old, placing their existence at a time before Europeans really began to explore the globe. So, a good place to start would be somewhere before about 400 years ago, in either the Americas, central-to-northern Asia, Oceania, or any of the many islands in the Pacific.

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    $\begingroup$ -1 for the "people thought the Earth was flat" myth $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 4 '15 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ did they not? if you can provide a source for this, please let me know... $\endgroup$ – HotelCalifornia Mar 19 '15 at 4:50
  • $\begingroup$ "No educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat. [...] the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans. Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. [...] no educated person believed otherwise." (source) $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 19 '15 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ Edit: myth removed $\endgroup$ – HotelCalifornia Mar 29 '15 at 13:51

If humanity has existed for some 200,000 years, as it currently is believed, then I would look at some of the earliest civilizations we know of, and consider them to be a point in which such stories were already lost. A lot of leeway here, but I am unsure as to whether the time span of 200,000 years accurately reflects anatomical humans, or earlier iterations of our species.


Modern science and technology would be able to detect if there had been widespread mining and building of all kinds in, I guess, at least the past 1 million years. You’ll need to explain how the civilization ended, obviously, and what traits of them could still be found today (genetic code, artifacts, fossils) or why none. I can see the following work:

  • A society with pre-industrial level millions of years ago, but rather small population to explain why we haven’t excavated anything. This could also be extraterrestrial castaway with limited amounts of their original technology, e.g. Battlestar Galactica.
  • Extraterrestrial visitors with magic-like technology that never got left behind. They could live forth in countless myths, but would have to have been gone when human civilizations in areas the ETs visited had acquired writing. See Stargate.
  • Non-human intelligent beings, e.g. sapient dinosaurs that utilized only organic materials or underwater creatures. For instance, the Indus valley culture had developed writing, but almost no written evidence remains, because perishable palm leaves were the paper of the day, whereas the clay tablets of Mesopotamia lasted.

When we try to come up with a plausible 'lost history' situation, we run into a few limitations that are quite hard to work around without essentially falling back on 'a wizard did it'.

First and foremost, we have a fairly solid fossil and genetic record that lets us set an early limit for anatomically modern humans at ~200k years. Even if we take liberty with the current anthropological understanding of human development and history, it's hard to justify intelligent humanoids that would be capable of civilization more than ~1MY in history. Clearly, if we're going fantastical (elves, etc) or way out there (dinosaur cities) this limit is irrelevant but let's treat a million years as the 'cap' for the sake of argument.

Second, while we can find ways to handwave away most traces of civilization (more on that later), we would absolutely know if any previous civilization had discovered nuclear power. Discovering nuclear power creates isotopes and traces that don't naturally exist and couldn't be hidden or wiped away. There are places in our civilization where steel and other materials from the pre-atomic age are used for scientific instruments because they aren't contaminated and don't interfere with experiments. There are other chemical processes that would almost certainly leave detectable traces, but nuclear power is the most obvious one.

It would be quite improbable for a civilization to reach our current level of technology without discovering nuclear power. Not entirely impossible, but quite improbable.

Third, a modern society leaves large-scale traces. Things like cities, roads, railroads, buildings, piers and breakwaters, mines, and countless other artifacts that would be readily obvious - even after tens or hundreds of thousands of years - as remnants of some kind of civilization. A city could maybe be lost to a jungle or cataclysm, but not the number of cities and infrastructure required for a modern society to function. While you can maybe justify an agrarian civilization, even a classical Greek or Roman civilization would leave clearly artificial artifacts for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Now, on the other hand we have a big card up our sleeve - ice ages. There have been approximately ten of them in the past million years, and the massive glaciation gives a plausible way for the earth to be scoured clean. Roads and cities? Scraped away and mixed in with or covered in with glacial deposits. Cement would be ground to dust. Objects and buildings would be erased wherever they are covered by glacier.

The biggest problem with ice ages scouring everything clean is that glaciers don't cover the entire earth. The last major glaciation stopped at roughly 40* N latitude in North America, which leaves everything south of the Ohio River untouched.

Civilization around the tropics could be swallowed up by the jungle or other growth, but that still leaves a wide temperate band. We've also cleared enough jungle - and yes, found some traces of earlier (hundreds / thousands of year old) civilization that have been swallowed up but nothing that would be a shocking technology level.

So basically, it's hard to justify. One possibility in a sci-fi setting would be that we are a lost alien colony / our ancestors were crew of a crashed starship. The colony broke down for whatever reason (plague, bad luck, warfare, etc), and over the course of a few generations basically lost civilization and later regained it. This makes it hard to justify the fossil and genetic record, but it seems like the most plausible way that there could be a high technology society / civilization that existed before modern civilization.

  • $\begingroup$ I would like to point out that advanced nuclear energy (advanced fusion) can be used to wipe traces of fission. Especially if there was never any wars fought with fission weapons, and hence no atmospheric fallout to attempt to scour. $\endgroup$ – Black Nov 7 '15 at 17:16

Practically any time between the 5th and 10th Centuries. The early half of the Middle Ages has very few surviving documents, with most of what survives from this period being visual art and copied religious manuscripts. Things start to pick up a little more in the Gothic period around the 12th Century, then the record becomes fairly complete starting with the Renaissance, but really, depending on the scope and setting of your events, it's not until the turn of the last century that you couldn't really find a place to tell your story where the events wouldn't be widely known before now.


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