The human mind loves a good mystery. It’s almost impossible to resist the urge of a puzzle, if only for a moment. Where it’s a Rubik’s cube, a riddle, or if reality TV is any indication, an unsolved murder, we want to know what the answer is. Unfortunately, sometimes the mystery proves to be far more satisfying than the solution. History is rife with enticing mysteries that had the most disappointing resolutions.
As a mystery, the story of the Roanoke settles is chock to the gills with intrigue. In 1587, English settlers on Roanoke Island found themselves running low on supplies. Things could have been disastrous if something didn’t take a turn for the better. A team of brave explorers left the colony to find supplies.
The elements and the environment conspired against them, and it took years for them to return. In a time before the United States even existed, it was them against nature. When they finally make it home in 1590, the colony is deserted. Not a soul remains, not even a body. There are simply empty builds and one mysterious word carved into a tree: CROATOAN.
What could have happened? The colonists were never found. What could the word Croatoan mean? How could an entire colony just disappear? It was so interesting they even made a season of American Horror Story about it.
The problem with the mystery presented this way is that it leaves out some very important pieces of information. The first and most significant one is that the word “Croatoan” is by no means a puzzle or gibberish. It was the name of the tribe of natives who also lived on the island and had proven to be remarkably friendly.
There is an abundance of evidence that shows the colonists, running low on supplies and unable to wait for the return of their explorers, just moved in with their native friends. They joined the tribe, welcomed as friends and neighbors.
The fact is, the colony was never lost. They moved. Archaeologists and historians confirmed it. The idea that anything mysterious happened was born years later, and not without a tinge of racism behind it as well, suggesting the indigenous peoples were the villains here.
9. Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle has long been one of those mysteries of the world that seems to exist alongside stories of Bigfoot and crop circles. It’s a zone of mystery in the sea where, if you sail into it unaware, you may never return. It’s spoken of like a portal to another dimension from which boats could never return.
Later, as “science” tried to be applied to the phenomenon, it was posited that the triangle was a mysterious zone in which no compass would work. A ship’s navigation would be rendered useless, and that’s how so many vessels met their fate in this dark and horrible zone.
There is no evidence to suggest ships disappear in the Bermuda Triangle with any greater frequency than they would in any other part of the ocean. It’s possible that compasses in a certain area of the ocean will redirect to true North rather than magnetic North, though.
One of the bigger issues with the Bermuda Triangle is trying to define what and where it is. It has no actual border. No one has mapped the Bermuda Triangle. It’s more of a general area. An area in tropical waters with many islands. That means the potential for many storms and shallow waters including coral reefs. The kinds of places and circumstances that cause boats to sink without any mystery needed.
8. The Sailing Stones
The Death Valley Sailing Stones seem truly perplexing. Out in the middle of a flat, lifeless, dry lake bed are some smooth stones that seem as mundane as anything. But sometimes, if you go to look, you’ll see trails behind the stones. Long tracks that the stones have made in the sand. Sometimes they travel in a zigzag, sometimes they move in parallel. The trails can be very long as well. And they’ve been puzzling people since at least 1948.
No other marks are in the dirt around the stones. No tracks from animals, and certainly none from humans. The stones are flat, so it’s not like they’re rolling somehow. Some stones are up to 600lbs. It looks, to an outside observer, like these rocks wake up in the middle of the night and crawl around the lake bed.
The big problem with figuring out how these stones are travelling is that they don’t always move. In fact, it can be years between movements. You can’t just sit out in a lawn chair and see it for yourself. So scientists set up a sting with time lapse cameras and GPS. And the actual explanation is interesting, but hardly mysterious.
The playa in which the stones are located needs to fill with water before the stones can move. But not a lot of water. The stones have to remain uncovered. Then it needs to get cold enough at night for the shallow water to freeze. When that happens, sheets of ice will form that are moved in the breeze, and these can push rocks around in front of them. Later in the day the ice melts completely, and you’re left with a rock and the path it travelled.
7. The Construction of Stonehenge
For some strange reason, many modern humans are unhappy with the idea that ancient humans had any skills whatsoever. It sounds weird to say it like that, but look at the number of people who are convinced countless ancient landmarks had to have alien involvement. It’s a fringe belief, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not popular. People really think something like Stonehenge had to have a mysterious origin because how could people 5,000 years ago have moved such massive stones and arranged them that way without modern technology.
The fact of the matter is that ancient people didn’t need modern technology because they did not know it. So they solved problems their own way. Because we rely so much on modern technology, it’s harder for us to imagine another way to get things done. It’s just a social disconnect. But it’s not insurmountable.
So how did people thousands of years ago move stones that weighed between 4 tons and 25 tons? How did they travel over 150 miles with some of them? How could any of this be done before the wheel was even invented?
The building of Stonehenge is only mysterious if you don’t understand engineering. And, to be fair, most of us don’t so that’s okay. In order to explain it better, a man from Michigan took the time to build his own Stonehenge by hand.
Wally Wallington, a retired carpenter with no engineering degree, just uses rocks and basic tools to prove you could easily move slabs of rock that weighed over a ton with simple levers and stone pivots. He did this all by himself and built his own backyard Stonehenge to prove it could be done. On a larger scale, with more people helping, it would have been fairly quick and not difficult to do at all.
6. The Romanovs
The Romanovs were the ruling family of Russia until 1918 and the Russian Revolution. Czar Nicholas and his family were taken captive and their fate was sealed. They slaughtered the entire family in a basement. And that seems cut and dry with no mystery at all, except at the time no one knew this happened.
They hid the remains of the Romanovs for years. Rumors abounded that some of the children, in particular Anastasia, had escaped. Other stories said that Alexei and Maria had escaped. Throw in tall tales about Rasputin who allegedly couldn’t be killed and the whole thing plays out like a Netflix miniseries.
The political events that led to the execution of the Czar and his family are complex, but it brought an end to Imperial Russia and set it on the path towards the Soviet Union. In order to fully destroy the very ideas of old Russia, the Czar and his heirs were killed. But doing it in secret meant that pretenders to the throne could keep popping up at home and abroad, claiming to be Nicholas’ children or being used as political pawns.
In order to quell speculation that the Romanovs had not survived and were truly gone, the hidden bodies were later exhumed. The problem was that the remains of two of the children were not there. The rumors continued on for years that Alexei and one of his sisters had escaped.
It wasn’t until 2007 when a second grave was exhumed that they identified the bodies of the other two children, finally bringing to a close once and for all the idea that somehow one or two had escaped to live on.
5. The Mary Celeste Crew
A disaster at sea is compelling to many people, just look at the enduring story of the Titanic. We have romanticized the disaster to the point where it was literally an epic romance movie. Less well known but still captivating to many is the story of the Mary Celeste.
The Mary Celeste was a merchant ship that set sail from New York with a cargo of denatured alcohol and a crew of seven. Several days after setting sail, another shift discovered adrift it. The sails were set in a ragged fashion, the lifeboat was missing, all the hatches were open and there was no one on board. The captain and crew were never seen or heard from again.
The ship was stocked with supplies; it was undamaged, and the cargo was still on board. If someone disaster had struck, there was no clear sign of what it was or why it made everyone leave a well-stocked vessel that was not in danger of sinking.
A sounding rod was on deck and there was some water present, but not more than you might expect in a ship of its size. Speculation from mutiny to natural disaster to fraud and pirates were all put forward, but there was no real evidence to support any of it. The mystery endured for over a century.
A theory was put forth by a chemist that could explain the mystery with the help of some interesting science. The cargo on the ship was denatured alcohol, a highly flammable substance. It’s possible that the alcohol could have leaked from its barrels and ignited, causing an explosion.
Normally you’d think this would set the ship ablaze and leave charred wreckage everywhere. But experiments have shown that’s not necessarily the case. A pressure wave explosion would burst out with great force, enough to set the sails of the boat into disarray and blow out the hatches, for instance. But with a burst of cool air behind it, not even a trace of soot would be left behind.
Records show over 300 gallons of alcohol had leaked out. It was not drinkable alcohol, so the crew wasn’t sneaking any. With that much loose, a single spark could have set it off. A fearsome fireball would have panicked the entire crew and made them flee. In the water, they could have all drowned or fallen victim to sharks. The lifeboat was never found.
4. Cambysey’s Army
Persian King Cambyses II was said to have led an army of 50,000 soldiers into the Egyptian desert in the year 525 BC. The historian Herodotus wrote that the army was deployed from Thebes to destroy the oracle at the Temple of Amun. They never made it.
The army made it to a desert oasis after a week, but then they were never seen again once they left. In Herodotus’ version of events, a massive wind caused the sands of the desert to swallow the army whole. It sounds like a scene from The Mummy. The resulting mystery had been unsolved for centuries.
As it turns out, Herodotus was not just blowing smoke. Sandstorms are a real threat in the desert, as anyone who lives there knows, and archaeologists have discovered evidence that this is precisely what happened to the army. Remains of humans alongside weapons and jewelry dating to the period when Cambyrses would have sent his army were found near a large rock, the kind people might use to try to find shelter in a storm. The most striking find was a mass grave featuring hundreds of bleached bones and skulls massed together.
It’s possible many members of the army survived, but even if they did, it would have been a scattered and broken force.
3. Tsavo Lions
In 1996, Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer starred in The Ghost and the Darkness. The true story chronicled the Tsavo lions, a pair of man-eaters that killed and devoured between 35 and 135 humans working on the railroad in Kenya back in the late 1800s. The final count is hard to pin down, but it’s safe to say the pair terrorized thousands of workers and killed more than their fair share of workers.
Lions rarely attack humans, and for these two to not just attack once but routinely was extremely bizarre. They effectively halted the railroad’s progress across Africa and proved to be a unique and inexplicable roadblock to the British colonialism. The mystery of why the lions attacked had many potential answers.
The superstitious felt that the lions were the wrath of nature against the railroad itself, or against the British trying to lay claim to the land. The proper answer is far less mysterious. The lions had bad teeth.
Since they preserved the bodies of the lions after they killed them, researchers have been able to examine them. One of the unique features was the teeth. Unlike a typical lion, these had very little wear and tear on their teeth. One researcher likened them to teeth you’d expect to see in a captive lion, as though they had little experience with rough kills.
In fact, because of a severe tooth abscess, the main lion was thought to be unable to hunt normal prey. Bigger animals put up a fight, and the stress of trying to kill such an animal would have been crippling to the lion’s jaw. Humans presented easier and softer prey for the lions. The second lion also had tooth problems, putting them both in a position to ignore their usual prey in favor of less combative humans.
2. The Dyatlov Pass Incident
In 1959, nine hikers in Russia vanished. They were going out on a skiing trip that would see them trek 190 miles. When no one turned up a week past their return date, rescuers headed out to find them.
Their campsite was a chaotic mystery that left searchers baffled. They found several of the bodies on site, but the scene made no sense. Some hikers had cut themselves out of their own tents and ran into the snow, not even fully dressed. Hypothermia had claimed some of the dead, but not all. Three died from trauma to the head and chest. Two of them were missing their eyes. One no longer had a tongue.
The positions of the body were as confusing as the state of them. A few seemed to have been sitting around the fire, just not fully dressed. Others were a distance away in a position that suggested they were returning to camp. And a couple, not discovered for over a month, were in the woods.
One of the original theories was perhaps an avalanche since the group was in prime avalanche country. The only problem was the total lack of physical evidence. That was until a second theory popped up.
Avalanches are not all the same. There is a kind of avalanche called a slab avalanche. This happens when a weak layer of snow and ice is below many other layers. The weak layer gives and takes everything on top with it. It can trigger in relatively small sizes, maybe a slab the size of a car. But, just like a car, it can weigh over a ton and travel at incredible speed.
Modeling has shown that a slab avalanche could have plowed into the tents of the victims and caused the chest and head trauma that killed them. If they were asleep, that would explain why they weren’t dressed. They may have survived long enough to crawl from their tents. The others may have avoided direct collision but tried to escape, succumbing to hypothermia. As for the eyes and tongue? Scavenger animals.
1. The Pyramids
No look into the great mysteries of history that were hardly mysterious can be complete without addressing the pyramids of Egypt. For generations people have speculated over how these marvels could have been constructed by a society with no concept of machinery or modern building techniques. There are movies, books, and TV shows dedicated to the idea that aliens must have come to Earth to assist in their construction. But that answer is hardly scientific, and is certainly an insult to the memory of those whose sweat and blood went into the real construction.
How ancient Egyptians could have moved 2.3 million limestone blocks that weighed, on average, 2.5 tons is obviously a tough question to answer. How could anyone do that? Some materials had to be transported over 500 miles. It’s estimated the Great Pyramid alone took about 20 years to construct. Egyptologists estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 workers were needed to do the job, although Herodotus claimed it was 100,000. It was monumental by any stretch of the imagination.
The method behind it long baffled historians. It seemed entirely impossible but, if you don’t want to accept aliens as an answer, then there had to be a better solution. Researchers think they have the solution based on wall paintings from the tomb of Djehutihotep.
The artwork shows a person standing before a wooden sledge, the kind that was used to transport the massive stone blocks. And the person is wetting the sand.
After seeing the painting, a physics professor at the University of Amsterdam conducted an experiment to see how a wooden sledge traveled over sand. If the sand is dry, the sledge pushes it like a plow until it builds up in front, slowing the sledge down. Wetting the sand made it rigid and eventually the piles in front were non-existent and the sledge travelled with little resistance.
It’s the same principle as building a sandcastle. No water and the sand is impossible to build with. Too much water makes mud. But the right amount of water makes sand stick like glue, and that creates a perfect bridge for traveling on.
With the precise amount of water on the sand, it would take half as many workers to push the same amount of stone.It’s likely the Egyptians also used thin layers of desert clay. With the right moisture, it creates a perfect lubricant. There’s evidence of it between stones in the finished pyramids indicating it was used to help achieve the perfect final position.