Questions From History That Historian’s Can’t Answer


Studying history is like trying to read a book where half the pages are missing and the other half are written in 50 different languages, 10 of which don’t exist anymore. In other words, there are going to be some gaps, to put it mildly. As historians keep studying, they fill some of those gaps, but there are always plenty more left unanswered that will keep them awake at night.

10. Where Is Cleopatra’s Tomb?

Cleopatra is one of the most iconic figures of the ancient world, but her final resting place remains a mystery. According to Roman historians, both she and her lover, Mark Antony, committed suicide following their defeat by Octavian at the Battle of Alexandria, but Cleopatra did it later, only after finding out that Octavian intended to parade her as a trophy during his Roman triumph. Afterward, Octavian allowed the two lovers to be buried together, although Antony may have been cremated and not mummified.

That’s about all the info we have from ancient sources. In modern times, there is an ongoing debate over where the tomb would even be located. Some Egyptologists think that the most obvious answer – Alexandria – is the right one, but in recent years, there’s been increased interest in the ruins of an ancient city named Taposiris Magna which was once home to a large temple dedicated to Osiris. 

Dozens of tombs have been uncovered so far at Taposiris Magna, as well as a few mummies. Of particular interest was a pair of mummies, male and female, who had been buried together and covered head to toe in gold leaf. Although they weren’t Cleopatra and Mark Antony, they were clearly people of high standing in Egyptian society. More importantly, though, they showed that Taposiris Magna was a significant city in Cleopatra’s time and a possible location for her tomb.

9. Who Made the Devil’s Footprints?

February 8, 1855, was a cold and snowy winter night for the people of Devon who lived near the River Exe. In the morning, they woke up to see the land covered in a thick blanket of snow, but there was something else that sparked a lot of interest, concern, and even fear. In the snow, there were trails of marks that resembled cloven hoofs, which many of the superstitious locals immediately attributed to the devil.

The Times reported that the tracks had been made by a bipedal creature, not a quadruped and that they seemingly passed through walls and haystacks, over roofs, even across the river. 

Possible culprits included badgers and a kangaroo that escaped from a private zoo. According to a different explanation, the marks had been left by an experimental balloon that had been released from the Davenport Dockyard and traveled across the land, trailing its mooring shackles that actually created the hoof prints. The definitive answer, however, still eludes us.

8. What Happened to the Corte-Real Brothers?

João Vaz Corte-Real was a 15th-century explorer who sailed for the Portuguese Crown and was rewarded for his efforts with high-ranking positions in the Azores Islands. He had three sons: Gaspar, Miguel, and Vasco Añes who, unsurprisingly, also became explorers.

In 1500, Gaspar Corte-Real set sail to explore the North Atlantic on behalf of King Manuel I of Portugal. He reached Greenland, but the heavy ice prevented him from landing. The following year, Gaspar went on another expedition, this time with three caravels. Once again, his route was impeded by ice, so he changed course and finally touched down on new land “where pine trees and wild berries grew,” usually believed to be Newfoundland, although the exact location is uncertain. He encountered natives and captured around 50 of them, intending to enslave them, but he never made it back to Portugal. The other two caravels returned, but the one with Gaspar Corte-Real was never heard from again.

In 1502, his brother Miguel Corte-Real launched a relief expedition, also setting sail with three ships. Once they reached the shores where Gaspar landed, they split up to search, agreeing to return at a rendezvous point, but the exact same thing happened again – the other two caravels returned, but the one carrying Miguel Corte-Real became lost.

The third brother actually tried to mount his own rescue mission, and while the king did send more ships, he forbade him from being on them. The fate of the Corte-Real brothers remains a mystery.

7. Why Did Neolithic Europeans Burn Down Their Houses?

A strange phenomenon was happening in Neolithic Europe, primarily in the southeast – people were burning down their own houses, seemingly on purpose. Entire villages would have been set alight all at once and new settlements would have been built on top of the scorched remains. Archaeologists have dubbed this practice the “burned house horizon,” but its intentions and origins are still very much clouded in mystery.

Although this was something done by multiple Neolithic cultures, it seemed particularly pervasive throughout the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, which spread over large parts of modern-day Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova. The big question is “Why?” Why would anyone do this to their own homes?

Six possible explanations have been put forward and the first two contend that the burns were never on purpose. One claims that they were accidental, due to flammable materials and incendiary activities such as cooking, and the other that they were the result of attacking invaders. However, neither explain the regularity of the practice, as well as the fact that bodies were hardly ever found inside the burned houses.

The other four explanations all indicate that the burned house horizon was an intentional phenomenon, but done for different purposes. One archaeologist suggested that the houses were burned to make them more water-resistant, by hardening the clay that the walls were made out of. Another thought it was a way of fumigating the villages to get rid of insects and other pests. It may have been done simply to recycle old material and create space or as a religious ceremony, symbolically ending the life-cycle of the home.

6. What Happened to Abigail Williams?

One of the most well-known and notorious episodes from the history of colonial America is the Salem witch trials, a series of prosecutions driven by paranoia and superstition which saw hundreds of people accused and twenty of them executed for witchcraft. But one mystery that still lingers is the fate of Abigail Williams, the young girl who started the whole thing.

In 1689, Samuel Parris became the new minister of Salem, Massachusetts, and he moved there with his young daughter, Betty Parris, and her cousin, Abigail Williams. In early 1692, the village doctor was summoned to the Parris home, where both girls began exhibiting strange behavior, such as convulsing, barking, and speaking in tongues. The doctor concluded that they had been bewitched because they had the same symptoms as in a prior, well-known case of witchcraft – the Goodwin family in Boston. 

The two girls blamed the family slave, Tituba, who was arrested and imprisoned. Afterward, she confessed her deed, likely under torture, and even named two more women who acted as her accomplices. 

From then on, the insanity began – more girls were displaying the same symptoms and more people were being accused of witchcraft. Samuel Parris lost his job as minister and he left town, taking Betty with him, who later married, had children, and lived a normal life. Abigail Williams, however, stayed behind and had a significant role in the trials, accusing 57 people of witchcraft. 

As soon as she gave testimony in June 1692, Abigail completely disappeared from the historical record. It is unknown what happened to her, or why she did what she did. Some say she did it simply because, as a poor girl with no real prospects in life, this would have been the only time she had any kind of power or influence. Others think that the symptoms displayed by Abigail and the other “afflicted girls,” as they were called, could have been caused by ergotism from eating fungus-infected rye, which could have also led to her premature death, thus explaining her sudden disappearance from the historical record.

5. Who Is Buried Inside the Daisen Kofun?

While not as famous as the pyramids, Japan has its own ancient tombs built between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD called kofun. Some of them have an unusual keyhole design, and they can range vastly in size, from just a few dozen feet to thousands of feet in length. The largest one can be found in the city of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture. It is called Daisen Kofun and it is over 1,500 feet long and 1,000 feet wide, but the big question is “Who is buried inside?”

The kofun has long been regarded as the final resting place of Emperor Nintoku, the 16th Emperor of Japan who ruled during the 4th century, but no academic or scientist has ever confirmed this. And they have been unable to do it because people are actually forbidden from entering the tomb. 

Since the matter concerns a royal ancestor, it falls under the authority of the Imperial Household Agency, the Japanese government body which deals with all affairs concerning the Imperial Family. Ever since the 1970s, they have restricted all archaeological research to the outside of the moats which surround the kofun.

But there has been some progress on that front in recent years. In 2018, the agency allowed archaeologists to excavate the moats and look for ancient artifacts. In 2020, there was some talk of excavating the mound and, although it hasn’t happened yet, this is one mystery that might find an answer in the years to come.

4. What Happened to Roald Amundsen?

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen cemented his place in history in 1911 when he led the first expedition to reach the South Pole. But that was not the first or the last of his dangerous adventures. In 1926, he flew over the North Pole in a dirigible alongside Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile and their American financier Lincoln Ellsworth

Following their flight, Amundsen and Nobile had a falling out which led to a public feud over who led the expedition. The two of them became adversaries, but all feelings of hostility were put aside in 1928 when Amundsen received word that Nobile had crashed his airship, the Italia, while exploring the Arctic. On June 18, 1928, Roald Amundsen and a French crew boarded a Latham 47 floatplane and left Tromsø to assist in the rescue efforts. They were never seen again.

It is generally accepted that the plane crashed somewhere over the Barents Sea and all the people aboard were killed, but what we don’t know is where and why. Neither the wreckage nor the bodies have been recovered, although new searches still take place occasionally. The latest one happened in 2009 when a team used an underwater robot to search 45 square miles of the seafloor for the plane wreck, but were unsuccessful.

3. What Was the Lin Biao Incident?

While we’re talking about mysterious plane crashes, we should mention an event known as the Lin Biao incident.

During the Chinese Communist Revolution of the 1940s, Lin Biao was a general who played a decisive role in the victory of the communists and the rise to power of Mao Zedong. He remained influential throughout Mao’s reign and, in 1969, he was designated as his successor. He never got a chance to assume leadership, though, as Lin Biao and his family were killed in a plane crash over Mongolia on September 13, 1971. 

At first, the Chinese government made no announcement regarding Lin’s demise. It wasn’t until the summer of 1972 that they put forward the official story, that Lin Biao died while fleeing to the Soviet Union after a failed coup and assassination attempt against Mao Zedong. 

Unsurprisingly, not many people were convinced by the story. The Soviet Union secretly sent their own agents to investigate the crash site, but they weren’t big on sharing, either, so their findings also remained classified until the end of the Cold War. It wasn’t until the 1990s that they, at least, confirmed that Lin Biao was actually among the casualties of the flight, putting an end to rumors that Mao had him killed in secret or thrown in prison before the plane even took off. However, all other details surrounding the Lin Biao incident and the exact circumstances of his death still remain a mystery.

2. Did Thomas Cromwell Plot Anne Boleyn’s Downfall?

Anne Boleyn was the Queen of England and second wife to King Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell was the king’s chief minister and one of the main figures behind the English Reformation, which saw the Church of England break away from the authority of the Pope. They started off as allies, but their relationship soured in just a few years and came to an abrupt end with the execution of Anne Boleyn for treason. But was Cromwell the one who engineered the plot to get rid of the queen or did he simply carry out the king’s orders?

By 1536, Anne Boleyn had been queen for three years, but she had fallen out of the king’s favor due to her inability to give him a son. She was also on the outs with Thomas Cromwell due to their differing ideologies, even though they were once strong allies. Cromwell was instrumental in engineering the annulment of Henry’s first marriage so he could wed Anne Boleyn and, in return, she made him her right-hand man. But in 1536, Thomas Cromwell gathered evidence that Anne had committed adultery with numerous men, including her own brother. She was found guilty and executed on May 19, 1536, thus paving the way for Henry VIII to marry Jane Seymour just a few days later.

There is little doubt that most of the evidence against Anne Boleyn had been either manufactured or gathered by torture, but historians are uncertain over the role that Thomas Cromwell played in collecting that evidence. Did he fool the king and conspire to get rid of a political enemy or was he acting according to Henry’s instructions all along?

1. What Brought Down the Minoan Civilization?

Over a hundred years ago, archaeologists excavating the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea discovered the remnants of the Minoan Civilization. As they kept exploring, they found that the Minoans weren’t just any ancient people, but they were probably the first truly advanced civilization in Europe. By 1800 BC, they already had a writing system, sophisticated art, giant palaces, and even a plumbing system. The Minoans were ahead of everyone else in Europe, but by the mid 15th century BC, they started to experience a sharp decline, which eventually led to the collapse of their entire civilization. This begged the question – what caused the Minoan Civilization to fall?

For a long time, the answer was a catastrophic volcano eruption on the island of Thera, or Santorini as we call it nowadays. But archaeologists eventually discovered that Minoan life went on following that event, so there must have been something else. Others have argued that the eruption also caused massive tsunamis to hit the islands and that it also altered the climate to bring on years and years of cold, wet summers which, in turn, led to bad harvests. 

While there’s no doubting that the volcano eruption happened, some scholars believe that it was a large earthquake that made the Minoan palaces come crumbling down. And yet a fourth hypothesis claims that it was man, not mother nature, who caused the collapse of the Minoans, and that the civilization was ended by invasions from mainland Greeks, particularly the Mycenaeans. Maybe it was one of these, or maybe it was a combination that brought down Europe’s first true great civilization.

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