A long time ago, in a galaxy...that you're standing in now, actually.
This trope is when modern-day/near-future humans discover that they actually had a super advanced society eons ago, in pre-history. In other words, Homo Sapiens
are their own Precursors
. This prehistoric civilization, for whatever reason, fell or disappeared before recorded history, thus explaining why nobody knew about it before. Oftentimes they lived in an Advanced Ancient Acropolis
which they'll leave behind for present explorers to marvel at.
Compare Human Aliens
, Adam and Eve Plot
, Earth All Along
. For a specific subtrope of this, see Atlantis
(depending on how advanced it's depicted). For any
species that came before us, including aliens, see Precursors
. Compare Ultra Terrestrials
, when an alien species turns out to also be from Earth but developed and left way in pre-history (before humans were around). When the story is set in a future where humanity is extinct, see Humanity's Wake
. See Humanity Is Advanced
where humanity is the current Advanced Alien. If we have evolved to the point these guys are not immediately recognizable as human they may also be Original Man
(Some of the below examples might be spoilers, so be careful!)
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Anime and Manga
- Happens in The Mysterious Cities of Gold with the people of Mu and Atlantis being the precursors.
- It turns out the 'aliens' who drive the plot of Rinne no Lagrange are actually this.
- In Suisei no Gargantia the Galactic Alliance and the Hideauze are this to the people of Gargantia.
- The Mulians in RahXephon are an example; Bahbem says in the final episode that the titular weapon was developed and used by him over ten thousand years ago.
- The "Ancients" in Monster Rancher.
- Gilgamesh is disgusted with modern civilization for this reason. During his reign, humanity was a very powerful and advanced race that even had working fightercraft (his own flagship is one of the treasures inside the Gate of Babylon). Gilgamesh believes humanity has declined because there are so many humans now, and the intrinsic strength of humanity has become diluted in each human as a result. The reason he desires the Grail is because he wants to bring that golden age back by using the Grail to kill most of humanity. He would then rebuild his kingdom with the worthy survivors.
- DC Comics villain King Kull is the last survivor of a highly-advanced Neanderthal-like race, who had enslaved primitive humans until these revolted and killed them all. Kull escaped by placing himself in suspended animation until the present day, where he became an enemy of Captain Marvel.
- Hellboy and related series have the ancient Hyperboreans, who lived untold millennia ago in a majestic, utopian society that had mastered the power of the vril. Their corruption and fall may have caused the last Ice Age. Survivors built Atlantis and other legendary cities, and taught the secrets of vril to a few humans, before disappearing entirely. They may not have been precisely human, but looked pretty much the same as us and are considered one of the "races of man" - though the frogmen are considered the next race of man, so take that as you will.
- If one defines "human" broadly (as in, "the genus Homo", because they show up in our fossil record as Homo habilis), then the Pak, in Larry Niven's Ringworld and its sequels, certainly count. They built the eponymous Big Dumb Object with energy-matter conversion technology, collected species from throughout the Milky Way and preserved them on the Ringworld, and built a star-spanning empire without hyperdrive. Their technological achievements actually frightened the Pierson's Puppeteers, a race that turned their home planets into spaceships (admittedly, scaring Puppeteers is easier than it should be).
- Halo: Cryptum reveals humanity had a galaxy-spanning empire several hundred millennia ago, but lost it all in a war with the Forerunners, who then forcefully degenerated their society.
- In Empire from the Ashes by David Weber, the Moon turns out to be a giant ancient human starship, and all humans on Earth are the descendants of its crew.
- The Book of Swords fantasy series touches upon an "Old World" which was technological rather than magical. The "modern" humans in the story don't even begin to understand it.
- Similarly, the Shannara series offers occasional glimpses of a technological era that preceded the current magical one. Antrax, the Big Bad of the eponymous book in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, is a malevolent supercomputer that survived the end of said era, designed to guard its knowledge.
- In Whitley Strieber's novel The Greys, the Nordic Aliens were said to come from a Lost Colony of Earth founded 150,000 years ago.
- The punchline of the Frank Herbert short story "Occupation Force" is that the aliens who just landed in Washington DC are just checking up on a colony they founded...roughly seven thousand years ago.
- In the massively convoluted history of the Perry Rhodan universe, there are several precursor species that turned out to be either human or descended from a common ancestor. Specifically, Atlantis was colonized by the survivors of an alien expedition who were, unknown to themselves, actually descended from the last interstellar civilization to arise on Earth.
- A somewhat weird example: In Terry Pratchett's early sci-fi novel Strata, a human explorer ends up on an obviously artificial disc-shaped 'Earth' inhabited by medieval humans (and stuff like demons, djinni and dragons). She ends up launching a project to transfer the disc's inhabitants from their failing world to a newly-built planet, which is very strongly implied to be our Earth. It gets weirder, though, with the second part of the Twist Ending: The entire universe turns out to be artificial, made by the same Sufficiently Advanced Aliens that produced the disc...who then colonized it, voluntarily forgetting about their origins to become ordinary flesh-and-blood 'natives'. So basically, humanity ends up being its own precursor twice over.
- The Giants series of novels by James P. Hogan revolve around the discovery that Homo Sapiens actually evolved on the now-destroyed planet Minerva between Mars and Jupiter, where they developed an advanced civilization over forty thousand years ago.
- Dean Koontz's Twilight Eyes. At some point in the distant past humanity had a highly developed civilization, including genetic engineering. They created a race of evil shapeshifters that went out of control and destroyed civilization so thoroughly that modern humans can't find any trace of it.
- Andre Norton's Operation Time Search. The fabled civilizations of Mu, Atlantis and others really existed and had highly advanced magitech. In the original timeline they were all destroyed as a result of the evil actions of Atlantis, but the intervention of an accidental time traveler changed history so they still existed in the present.
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, humans are the descendants of the Golgafrinchans. They sent the most useless third of their population (phone sanitizers etc.) to crash land on Earth. The entire remaining population was then wiped out by a plague contracted from a dirty telephone.
- Andrei Livadny's novel Ark heavily implies that the planet that the titular Moon-sized starship (it is the actual Moon, hollowed-out and rigged with engines) crash-lands on is Earth in distant past, especially since the first person out of the ship is a shepherd named Noah. Oh, and the crash happens to have emptied (or parted, perhaps) a sea. Apparently, the giant ship has somehow traveled back in time. The author obviously ignores the consequences of a Moon-sized object hitting Earth (not to mention a giant spherical mountain that we have somehow missed).
- In Battlestar Galactica it's revealed that the whole show has been set many thousands of years in the past, meaning their advanced society predates ours.
- Even the ancestors of the colonial humans were more advanced than the main characters thought, having built Cylons on Kobol before branching out into the colonies.
- In Stargate SG-1 the Ancients turned out to be human, albeit originally from a different galaxy and who manipulated evolution on earth to produce the current Milky Way humans. The Ancients are biologically indistinguishable from modern humans, but technologically? They built the stargate network. And that's not even scratching the surface.
- Blake's 7 had a couple of episodes that implied a human(oid?) galactic civilization existed tens of thousands of years before the present.
- Subverted by Fringe, which built the mysterious "First People" into its mythology starting in the second season and really taking off in the third... only to reveal that the "First People" were actually the main characters who sent technology back in time for their past selves to find in order to heal the damage done to the universe by technology run amok...or something like that. It was never explained just why they had to invent a whole ancient hieroglyph aesthetic for the world-saving machine, unless they actually wanted to convince people that they were some kind of ancient civilization of humans that evolved billions of years before the dinosaurs (stretching scientific credibility so thin you can see through it).
- The ancient hieroglyph aesthetic is a cover so that unaware people can't assemble and use the machines before the right time, but in the same time people who know can read the manual.
- The Twilight Zone, episode "Probe 7 - Over And Out": Cook has a spaceship and Norda came from another planet, so she probably had one too. Their first names turn out to be Adam and Eve.
- Space: 1999: The episode "The Testament of Arkadia" has the crew of Moonbase Alpha discover that Earth was settled from another planet 25,000 years ago.
- The Elder Race of Man from the Rock Opera 2112 by Rush. A culture that valued creativity and the arts, the Elder Race was at some point thought destroyed and replaced by the Solar Federation. Word of God says the final track in the series is meant to represent the return of the Elder Race and the defeat of the culturally repressive Federation.
- The ancient history of Warhammer 40,000 speaks of an era called the Dark Age of Technology, when humanity was at its peak and had essentially conquered the galaxy. Then everything went horribly wrong. Ten thousand years later, the Imperium of Man still uses what technology remains from the Dark Age, but ascribes its functions to machine spirits.
- Uniquely, the Dark Age of Technology is ancient from the perspective of Warhammer 40,000, which takes place some 38,000 years in the future. The Advanced Ancient Humans of 40k are, from our standpoint, Advanced Future Humans.
- The Azrans from Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy. Curiously, since they're stated to have existed 1 million years ago, they wouldn't technically be humans, at least not anatomically-modern humans , which are the sole surving subspecies of the Homo genus - every other species of human went extinct during th last ice age, which occured less than 1 million years ago, so the exact taxonomy of the Azrans is ambiguous.
- Bungie's next series Destiny plays with this trope. The games takes place in the wake of humanity reaching a Golden Age of space travel only to be nearly being wiped out, and with the players now navigating the ruins of that lost society. But that advanced civilization was founded in the future, so modern humanity is actually the ancient advanced ones.
- Blue Dragon has ancient technological ruins in an otherwise feudal Japan-type society.
- The Kingdom of Zeal from Chrono Trigger. The game is initially set in "1000 AD", and Zeal takes place in "12,000 BC" (i.e. 13,000 years prior). The Kingdom was a mighty civilization with both advanced technology and access to powerful magic. Unfortunately, they wanted to use a new source for all this which was a sleeping Eldritch Abomination who woke up from that and wiped them from the map (almost literally; their civilization existed on a floating continent that was destroyed and fell into the ocean).
- Whatever previous group of people that left behind the ancient ruins in a game of Civilization. If you recover technology from one of the ruins, it will always be one more advanced than the ones you already have, which means you can recover industrial or modern technologies if you happen upon one late in the game.
- The Mu in Mega Man Star Force are this. Not only did they have everything that was a recent innovation for the modern humans, but a great deal more.
- As well as the ancient civilization that colonized the other planets of the solar system and created the Stardroids in Mega Man V. May or may not be the same people, since the timeline of both series is (theoretically) the same up until the beginning of the 21st century.
- Assassin's Creed: The Precursor race known as The Ones Who Came Before apparently co-evolved with what later became modern humans, and were capable of sharing genetic material with them and possibly interbreeding, making a cross between this trope and Ultra Terrestrials. And they created the first humans as slaves. The slaves rose up, and a great war took place, and the only remaining signs of them are individuals with some First Civilization DNA, like Desmond and his ancestors, and the artifacts they left behind.
- In Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, the ancient civilization of Vendigroth had technology in advance of anything that Arcanum's recent industrial revolution has developed; including medicinal compounds that can resurrect the dead, mass-produced Clock Punk automatons, schematics for the most powerful gun in the game, and a technology powered Macguffin that allows you to kill the Final Boss.
- One of the big twists of Utawarerumono is that all the Little Bit Beastly Half-Human Hybrids are genetically engineered organisms. The game does not take place in Fantasy Counterpart Culture of twelfth century Ainu Japan but a future Earth and Hakuoro is one of the very last surviving pure-blooded humans. Hakuoro is also edging towards Humanoid Abomination which explains his longevity.
- In the Star Ocean series, an Earthling civilization had a hyper-advanced society on the lost continent of Mu in the Pacific Ocean.note The continent was destroyed in a meteor impact, which somehow teleported the some of the inhabitants to other planets.
- Wolfenstein: The New Order: The Reveal of the game is that the Da'at Yichud, a secret society that created anti-gravity and advanced robotics technology centuries ago, the very society that the Nazis stole and reverse-engineered their game-winners from, is Jewish and still surviving. Their key to survival was pursuit of god through knowledge, which meant that almost nobody leaked the secrets or used them to conquer the world like the Nazis did, and the technology kept improving without stagnation. That means in this universe, by their own logic, the Jews are the properly advanced culture and the Nazis are winning by cheating.
- An arc of Nodwick featured a time traveler from centuries in the past who was disappointed to see that society had degenerated into medieval feudalism, and there was a crater where his home city used to be, and he caused it by bringing a temporally sensitive date-minder through a time portal.
- While there's no evidence of any civilizations with current day levels of technology, there were quite a few who were advanced compared to what followed, particularly since until a certain point, even the largest societies were at risk of being wiped out by a natural disaster.
- The fall of great civilizations usually led to a Dark Age that made the past look good in comparison.
- Just as often, things are no worse, in some ways they may well be better, but the political and cultural transition gets them remembered in a bad light. That's one of several reasons the "Dark Ages" are no longer called that.
- Incidentally the term "Dark Age", when used generically, refers to this trope. When a culture falls the supply of written records dries up, leaving historians in the dark. (However, very few real historians use the phrase anymore—preferring to just say "X century Y place", e.g. "7th century Britain"—since it's sensationalistic and tends to involve lots of unprofessional assumptions. If you use the phrase to refer to the Middle Ages, or even the "Migration Period" right after the fall of Roman imperial government in western Europe, some historians will actually get angry at you.)
- The Antikythera Mechanism (named after the Greek shipwreck it was found in) was a geared device discovered underwater, dating to around the 1st century BCE. Designed for predicting the positions of various celestial bodies, the level of craftsmanship and complexity it exhibits is far greater than anything else recovered from that time period. Though its origin is still a mystery, it is thought to be perhaps one of Archimedes inventions, possibly used by Hipparchos, an early Greek astronomer.