As someone with a background in history, I have had the honor and privilege of befriending several talented and brilliant historians. Their ability to decipher documents, navigate archives, formulate arguments, bring new perspectives to old ideas and present their conclusions in an exciting, engaging and thought-provoking way continually amazes me, and I hope one day to have several books by them on my bookshelves as they continue their work.
History as an academic discipline, however, is often different from the popular conception of history. While historians continue to explore the political, economic, social, cultural, intellectual and personal topics of the past, the historical mysteries that prevail in popular culture often take on a larger than life scale, blurring the line between fact and legend. Some of the ten have happened within living memory, while others have puzzled people for thousands of years.
From disappearances to murders and mysterious locations to undecipherable languages, these mysteries of the past span several continents, centuries and disciplines or topics of interest. They are far from the only ten, as the widespread study of history by professional historians and others with a personal interest continues on in increasing numbers, and new work is published on any imaginable topic. These particular ones, however, will appeal to a wide audience, as they have captured the imaginations of millions of people for years and will continue to do so until they are solved.
10. Were Homer and Socrates Real People?
Despite holding pivotal positions in the traditional Western canon as the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and one of ancient Greece’s greatest philosophers respectively, scholars have disputed whether either man was real. The Iliad and Odyssey were originally spread through the spoken word, and use several epithets or repeated phrases for simpler recitation. As a result, some have argued Homer was either the person who finally wrote the two epic poems down, instead of their original author, or never existed at all and was simply a name attributed to their final written forms.
Socrates’ existence is more likely than Homer’s but is still up for debate. Socrates never published written work, and his ideas come to us second-hand through others like Plato, who claimed to be a student of Socrates. He also, however, appeared in work by the famous comedic playwright Aristophanes and the military historian Xenophon. The accounts of Socrates differ, but could be explained by his differences in age in the three accounts. While many assert he was a fictional mouthpiece for the ideas of others, the majority continue to assume his existence as a real person.
9. Is the Bermuda Triangle Real Or Fictional? If It Is Real, What Causes It?
The Bermuda Triange, located between Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico, is popularly perceived as a black hole for travellers, as dozens of vessels or aircraft have entered the area, never to be seen again. Many now believe there are logical explanations for many of these disappearances, as journalist Tom Mangold and researchers for the US Navy have both recently explained multiple 20th century disappearances used to support the theory, including Navy Flight 19, which famously disappeared in 1945.
Those who believe in the Bermuda Triangle have offered explanations ranging from unpredictable and turbulent weather partnered with a strong current, to an unusual magnetic phenomenon that disrupts compasses and causes accidents, to the presence of Atlantis or alien invasions. While the former are far more likely, and at least a contributing factor, human and mechanical error remain the most likely causes for ships or planes that disappear.
8. Who Was, Or Is, The Zodiac Killer?
The Zodiac killer committed at least five murders in the San Francisco area in 1968 and 1969, but taunted police investigators with letters and codes and claimed he was responsible for many more. The killer was never caught, and several theories have been disproved. A new book entitled The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Louisiana native Gary Stewart, claiming the killer was his biological father, Earl van Best Jr., has attracted a great deal of media attention, but several similar have preceded it and all been proven false. The case remains an open file but is not being actively investigated. It was also the basis for David Fincher‘s 2007 film Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. (in my opinion one of the most underrated movies of the past ten years, and a close second to Se7en in Fincher’s filmography).
7. What Was The True Identity Of Jack The Ripper?
Aside from the name’s origin in a London newspaper in 1888, few facts are agreed upon when it comes to Jack the Ripper. He is associated with at least five murders, but some have linked him with dozens more, stretching for decades. No one was ever caught for the murders, but many have created their own theories. One book, written by a descendant of one of the victims, claimed the murders were carried out by Sir John Williams, surgeon to Queen Victoria, because of his medical knowledge and possible romantic connection to one of the victims. A former murder detective in the UK has presented a case suggesting many of the murders connected to Jack the Ripper were committed by a German merchant, and famous crime novelist Patricia Cornwell published a book in 2002 arguing they were carried out by a painter named Walter Sickert, which she continues to research and assert. His true identity, however, remains up for debate. Even Star Trek took a run at Jack the Ripper with its second season episode “Wolf in the Fold,” which turned him into a non-corporeal entity responsible for possessing people across the galaxy and committing mass murder on several planets.
6. How Was Stonehenge Constructed And What Was It Used For?
Stonehenge is by no means unique as a megalithic monument, but is treasured for its size and precision. Its largest stones were over 40 tons in weight, and some were moved as far as 240 kilometres to be used in construction. The exact methods used to transport them remain a mystery, but are widely agreed to be the result of human effort, likely either through sleds and pulleys or water transportation. The stones furthermore reveal a high level of craftsmanship in shaping the rocks, smoothing their edges and shining them.
Its purpose is also unknown, but is often thought to be related to astronomy or religion in some way, as the location of some of the stones correspond to lunar cycles and eclipses. Others have posited it was related to burials and funeral rites, or to healing rituals. It may also have been used for all of them in some combination, as the Druidic religion practiced in Britain at this time included astronomical features in its rituals.
5. What Happened To D.B. Cooper?
On November 24th, 1971, D.B. Cooper hijacked Northwest Airlines Flight 305 and had $200,000 and parachutes delivered to the plane in mid-air to ensure the survival of the plane’s 36 passengers. Cooper later jumped out of the plane with a parachute over the Pacific Northwest, bringing the money with him, and was never seen again. The case remains the only unsolved hijacking in US history and continues to baffle. The true identity of D.B. Cooper was never established, no body was found to suggest that he died upon landing, and no suspect or lead has served as a clear, strong direction for the case. While it is possible he did not successfully complete his jump and has been dead for decades, it is also possible he is alive and well in an unknown location. A movie based on Cooper was released in 1981, and his story has been used in television shows like Prison Break and White Collar.
4. What Happened To Amelia Earhart?
In July 1937, famous pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean during an attempted circumnavigation of the globe. Despite a search that lasted over two weeks, neither they nor their plane was ever discovered, and their ultimate fate remains unknown. Several conspiracy theories, including that Earhart had been conducting spy missions for the United States or was captured by the Japanese, were floated around, but two theories have come to the forefront. In one, Earhart’s plane simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean, never to be found. Another uses archaeological evidence found on the island of Nikumaroro to postulate she crash-landed there. Pieces of clothing or other paraphernalia have been found that could match Earhart’s time period and body size, but none of it can be firmly linked to Earhart or Noonan despite the correlations.
3. Will Linear A Or Rongorongo Ever Be Translated?
Linguistics remain the only way to unlock the secrets of two civilizations: the Minoans, who lived in Crete and preceded the ancient Greeks; and the civilization on Easter Island. The Mycenaean Linear B language has been deciphered through its similarities to later Greek languages, but Linear A remains a mystery as it seems unconnected to other languages in the region. The reason for the Minoans’ downfall also remains a mystery, and many classicists and archaeologists hope the language will offer some clues into their fate.
Rongorongo was discovered by Europeans in the mid-19th century, but it has no remaining readers and cannot be deciphered. There are few remaining inscriptions of it and no clear linguistic connections, which increases the difficulty of translation. If it can be understood, scholars will be able to gain many new insights on the life and achievements of the people of Easter Island.
2. Were Robin Hood And/Or King Arthur Real People?
While it is unlikely Robin Hood or King Arthur ever existed in their modern legendary forms, it has been speculated both were based upon real historical figures. Archaeologists have scoured southern Britain and Wales for evidence of Arthur or the locations of Arthurian legend, and discovered parallels between Tintagel, the place of his conception, and a fortress in Cornwall. Another set of fortifications on Cadbury Hill may have inspired Camelot, though most still believe Colchester (Camulodunum) stands as the most plausible Camelot site. Arthur himself was likely based on a fifth or sixth century king, chieftain or warlord in the area, or was a composite of Roman generals, Welsh warriors and any one or combination of the many rulers in southern England.
Robin Hood was not firmly associated with the time of King John until centuries later, and is most likely a pseudonym or name ascribed to a collection of outlaws and thieves (similar to the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride). Lacking the archaeological possibilities of the Arthur investigation, Robin Hood theories will likely remain mere theories, unless new texts or evidence is uncovered.
1. Where Did The Wow! Signal Come From?
On August 15th, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman, a volunteer member of the SETI project (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) observed a 72 second radio transmission from the Big Ear radio observatory at Ohio State University. The transmission was thought to originate in the Sagittarius constellation, and has been speculated by some to be extraterrestrial in origin. The signal was then dubbed the “Wow! Signal,” after Ehman scribbled Wow! in the margins beside the signal record. Many possible hypotheses to explain how such a signal could have originated from Earth or bounced from an object in space have been disproven, but scientists have also been unable to prove conclusively that the signal originated in space. The signal was more than likely an anomaly or caused by humans or their creation, but if not, it represents one of the most momentous events in human history.