The study of history is largely a practice in conjecture. For some events, we have first-hand written accounts. We know that the Magna Carta, for instance, was signed by King John in Runnymede, England in 1215. That’s not disputable. You don’t have to be a historian to know that or to tell somebody about it. The historian’s job is to study why it happened, where it happened, when it happened, and what the ramifications of its happening were. Expert scholars can disagree on these matters. It’s not like mathematics where there is only one true answer. Two plus two will always be equal to four, and historians will always disagree on the degree to which the Magna Carta shaped modern democracy.
However, there are still many things in history that we don’t know about—either because there was no first-hand written account or there are conflicting written accounts. Some of these are figured out easily enough. There is much we have yet to discover about our own history. Some of these mysteries sit in plain sight, taunting us with their unknown complexities. Others are hidden and shrouded in uncertainty. Here’s a list of 15 history mysteries we still cannot fully explain.
Stonehenge is an enormous man-made rock formation near Salisbury in England. It was built in stages over a millennium by neolithic peoples (not druids) from about 3,100-1,600 BCE. How on earth did people who didn’t have steam engines, cranes, pulleys, or even a wheel build these magnificent structures? And why? Stonehenge aligns almost perfectly with the rising sun on summer solstice and setting sun on winter solstice. Why and how did these people decipher complex astronomical data before establishing a complex system of government? We also know that some of the stones came as far away as Wales. How did they get them to Salisbury? Maybe they placed the giant stones on rectangular frameworks of poles and essentially rolled them with a lot of man power. Or perhaps, they could have been rolled over a series of balls lined up in grooved rails. But, it is also possible that the blue Welsh stones were displaced by a glacier. To get the stones in place on the top, they probably built huge dirt ramps and then knocked them over.
14 The Pyramids
The Pyramids at Giza in Egypt are the last surviving of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There are several pyramids throughout Egypt–and indeed–the world. But, the Great Pyramid at Giza stands above the rest in size, stature, and legend. They were built as elaborate tombs for Pharaohs–the living god kings of Ancient Egypt–by thousands of laborers–who were probably not slaves nor Jews–over the course of decades for each individual Pyramid. The Great Pyramid, or the Pyramid of Khufu, was built for Pharaoh Khufu around 2580-2560 BCE. Historians and engineers alike have quibbled for centuries over just how the Ancient Egyptians built these enormous edifices. The widely held answer now is that they were able to pull these massive stones across the desert by merely pouring water on the sand in front of them; thus, greatly reducing friction. They then constructed giant ramps to pull the blocks up. One last note about Stonehenge and the pyramids: If you ever encounter anybody who claims humans must have had help from an advanced alien race to construct these monuments, leave the room immediately, lest their stupidity be contagious.
13 The Mary Celeste
Ever heard of a ghost ship? They’re as mysterious as they are fascinating. A ghost ship is a ship that is discovered with no crew members aboard. Most of the stories of ghost ships you read about are greatly exaggerated. There are usually mundane explanations, such as the crew bailed a day earlier because of bad weather. But, the Mary Celeste remains a baffling mystery to this day. The Mary Celeste was a merchant brigantine that was discovered abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean near the Azores Islands in 1872. This ship was disheveled but seaworthy and under partial sail. The crew was gone along with the lifeboat, but the cargo, provisions, and captain’s and crew’s personal belongings were all aboard. The captain and crew were never seen again. There were no signs of mutiny nor piracy, and there is only little evidence of bad weather. Did a sudden and brief sea quake cause an experienced captain to bail and demand an abandonment of the ship? Did some gasses leak or was there a malfunctioning pump? Who knows?
12 The Clovis Culture
The Clovis Culture were a prehistoric people that lived in North America around 13,000 years ago. They are named after modern-day Clovis, New Mexico, where their archaeological remains were first discovered. The Clovis people are one of the oldest peoples of the New World for whom we have evidence today and were perhaps the first sophisticated culture to evolve in the Americas. But for all their sophistication, their society collapsed remarkably quickly. What’s more is that archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians alike can’t figure out what happened to them. There are several hypotheses, though. The most popular is that, as the Clovis Culture coalesced around specific areas and became more sedentary rather than nomadic, the animals they hunted–megafauna such as woolly mammoths–declined and even became extinct; thus, limiting their food supply. It is possible that Clovis people contributed to these extinctions. It is also possible that a climate change–a period of significant cold of about 1500 years–contributed to their downfall. Others theorize that the culture fell apart after a schism between the sedentary and nomadic factions. Regardless, most agree that the Clovis were the antecedents of all subsequent North American indigenous cultures.
11 The Lost Colony of Roanoke
Established in 1585 by the famed Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke Island in modern-day North Carolina, Roanoke Colony was the first English attempt at settling America. After a false start in 1586, Raleigh dispatched another 115 settlers in 1587. When they arrived, they found none of the English garrison from 1586 but only one skeleton. This was to be some eerie foreshadowing because when Governor John White returned to the colony in 1590, he found no one. Not a single person. Nor did he find signs of struggle, and all the houses had been dismantled. He told them to carve a Maltese Cross somewhere if they were forcibly removed or attacked. No such cross was found; only the word “CROATOAN,” the name of a nearby First Nations tribe. Bad weather precluded him from investigating further.
Were the colonists massacred? Were they taken as slaves by the Native Americans or otherwise integrated peacefully? Did bad weather force them to move and then starve? Their fate and the fate of little Virginia Dare, the first English person born in the New World, remains a mystery.
10 The Xia Dynasty
Established by Yu the Great, the Xia Dynasty is, in Chinese tradition, the first dynasty in Chinese history. It was they who laid the groundwork for a continuous civilization that would last for about 4,000 years. They are believed to have ruled from 2070-1600 BCE. Or maybe 2205-1766 BCE. Or possibly 1989-1558 BCE. Or...you know...maybe never. The great Xia Dynasty might be entirely fictional. The first written accounts of the Xia are from the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). The Zhou supplanted the Shang Dynasty, and they wanted to justify this coup by explaining that the Shang were immoral. One way they did this was by telling how the Shang sneakily usurped the previous dynasty, the Xia. Many Chinese believed the Xia Dynasty to be the same people as the Bronze Age Erlitou Culture, whose archaeological remains in Northern China roughly correspond to the dates of the Xia. But, with such a lack of contemporary accounts and the motive for the Zhou to fabricate them, many modern scholars are skeptical.
Did the Zhou make the whole thing up? Did they merely exaggerate the greatness of the Xia? Or was Chinese society really so advanced so early?
9 The “Wow! Signal”
Earlier in this piece, I was stuffy about claims of alien involvement in human history. But that’s not to say that extraterrestrials don’t exist. The universe is very, very, very, very big. Possibly infinite. Given this, the notion that Earth is the only planet that supports life is almost laughable; that there is life out there in the universe is a near certainty. It’s just probably nowhere near us. But the ‘Wow! signal’ might be our best evidence yet that such life exists. Observed by astronomer Jerry Ehman of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in 1977 at Ohio State University, it was a narrow-band radio wave signal. It lasted for 72 seconds. The signal has all the hallmarks of what we would expect an extraterrestrial intelligent life transmission to have. Ehman was so excited that he wrote “Wow!” on the printout. But, we have never observed another one since. Was it an Earth-sourced signal that was somehow reflected back? Was it the cause of interstellar scintillation? A hydrogen cloud?
Frankly, none of these explanations are compelling. Maybe it was just a computer error. Or did aliens send one message–and one message only–and we missed our chance?
8 Greek Fire
For centuries, the Byzantine Empire was the greatest civilization in Europe/the Near East...perhaps even in the world. Centered around Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the Byzantines were a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, and they lasted until 1453. One of the things that made them so strong and stable was their navy. In naval battles, the Byzantines would deploy a weapon called Greek Fire. Greek Fire, from what we can tell from sources, was a terrifying napalm-like weapon. Byzantine warships would fire upon enemy ships with Greek Fire that would stick to them no matter what. Water couldn’t put out the flames until such time when the ship had completely sank. Sounds awesome and terrifying, right? What’s more, we still have no idea how they made Greek Fire. The Byzantines were not too keen to share the recipe to their mystery weapon, and it was not until the 20th century that we again had a similar technology.
7 The Salem Witch Trials
In 1692, Salem Massachusetts began to experience an odd phenomenon. Three young girls in the outpost of this fledgling colony began acting strange and having fits. They would eventually blame three other women of practicing witchcraft. Matters quickly got out of hand, and this lead to a series of events that saw 25 people die. How can this be explained? One compelling theory is that the strange behavior and paranoid mindset of the town was caused by ergot, a type of fungus that grows on rotting wheat that can cause hallucinations. Another theory is that Reverend Increase Mather used the witch craze to bolster his standing in the community, and others were making accusations based on spite and jealousy. Lastly, the whole ordeal could be explained by mass hysteria.
But, these theories are not mutually exclusive. It could be the case that the original girls’ behavior was the result of ergot, and this touched off a series of accusations that were cynically used by the reverend for his own gain and caused the rest of the town to fall prey to mass hysteria.
6 The SV Sea Bird
The SV Sea Bird was a merchant brig from the 18th century. Under the command of John Huxham around 1750-1760, the ship ran aground at Easton’s Beach, Rhode Island. The lifeboat was gone. The ship was returning from a voyage to Honduras and was expected to dock at Newport. The Sea Bird was apparently abandoned in sight of land and drifted off course. Neither Huxham nor any of his crew were found aboard. Why on earth would they abandon ship in sight of land? And, if they arrived ashore, why did nobody ever see them again? The only living things found on-board were a dog and a cat, who seemed totally fine. Perhaps the most unsettling detail is that there was coffee boiling on board. In some accounts, the Sea Bird itself then vanished a week after it was discovered empty. Scary if true.
5 The Shroud Of Turin
The Shroud of Turin is one of three things—a long piece of linen cloth that was used to cover the body of Jesus of Nazareth after his crucifixion, a cruel prank by somebody trying to scam the religious, or a piece of fabric that just happens to have an imprint that kind of looks like a bearded man’s face. A radiocarbon test in 1988 dated the fabric to 1260-1390, which is consistent with the Shroud’s first known exhibition in France in 1357. However, some have alleged that there were problems with the dating, but a meaningful scientific challenge to the dating has never been successful. The Catholic Church has never officially endorsed nor rejected the Shroud, although several Popes have spoken of it in a manner indicating that they believe it to be genuine. Was it one of many medieval European ploys to con the faithful out of their money? Or is it just a case of a pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon that causes us to see faces in patterns (like an electrical outlet)?
4 The Ark Of The Covenant
Sticking with the religious theme, we have the Ark of the Covenant. Does it still exist somewhere? Did it ever? Where is it? Can it really cause Nazis’ heads to explode? The Ark of the Covenant is described in Exodus as a gold-plated chest that contains the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and, in various texts of the Hebrew Bible, Aaron’s rod and a pot of manna. The Ark was housed in Solomon’s Temple in ancient Israel. But, its fate after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE is unknown. Did Josiah, King of Judah, hide it? Did the Babylonians destroy it? Did the Babylonians take it? If so, what did they do with it and who took it from them? Possibilities of its current location today include Mount Nebo, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, France, the UK, Ireland, the United States, and others.
3 The Easter Island Moai
Carved by the Rapa Nui people between 1250-1500, Moai are giant human figures on Easter Island. Nearly half of the 900 Moai are at Rano Raraku quarry where they were carved, but the others were moved around the island’s perimeter. Like with Stonehenge, just how the Rapa Nui moved the Moai is a mystery. When Europeans arrived in 1722, Easter Island was nearly treeless. It was later discovered that Easter Island was once covered with trees. It was then believed that the Rapa Nui cut down all the trees to make sledges to transport Moai. But, it is now believed that natural conditions were the main contributors to deforestation. The Moai were still there when Europeans first arrived in 1722, but the Rapa Nui started deliberately toppling them soon after and had knocked them all down, largely because many had converted to a Birdman Cult and later Catholicism, by 1868, the time when the island’s population was devastated by disease and depopulation from the slave trade.
But, Polynesian peoples were nothing if not intrepid. Remember, Polynesians came from Asia all through the Pacific and all the way to Easter Island. Maybe even further.
2 Did Polynesians Arrive In The New World Before Europeans?
Traditionally, we were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. Then, we discovered remains of a Viking settlement in Newfoundland. Then, we began to realize we probably shouldn’t say “discovered,” since...you know...there were already millions of people living there for millennia. But now, the picture is even murkier because there is evidence suggesting that Polynesians traded with Native Americans before Columbus and perhaps even before the Vikings. Some linguistic similarities, similar boats used by native Hawaiians and the Chumash people of Southern California, and a resin found on a Peruvian mummy from a tree found only in Oceania all support this theory. The strongest piece of evidence, however, is the sweet potato. It was first cultivated in South America, but by around 700-1000, it had made its way to Cook Islands and throughout Polynesia, and then from there on to Asia.
Was this the result of trade? Maybe. But it’s also possible that sweet potatoes could have floated there. Could Polynesians really have made it to the New World on outrigger canoes? Why not? They made it from maritime Asia to all over the Pacific.
1 The Voynich Manuscript
Of all the items on this list, this mystery might just as well be the most confounding. When it comes to the Voynich Manuscript, we just have no idea what the heck this thing is. Named for Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish bookseller who purchased it in 1912, this codex has been carbon-dated to the 15th century. It may have originated in Northern Italy. The manuscript appears to be pharmacological in nature, as it appears to depict the healing properties of plants. The drawings are weird, uncanny, and confusing. But the most baffling of all is that it is written in an unknown language. Linguists have been unable to determine if it’s a natural language, a constructed language, a cipher, or just merely gibberish. Even the best code breakers in the world can’t figure out what on earth it means.
Is the Voynich manuscript some sacred tome of a bizarre secret society? Is it a hoax? Maybe, but why and how could somebody put so much effort into a hoax?! My favorite theory is that it was written by a monk or doctor who may have eaten a few too many bad mushrooms or who otherwise just went insane, and scholars have been puzzling for centuries over the works of a madman.