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.
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.
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.
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.