Legends Solved By Recent Discoveries

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Let’s dive right into the past and explore some incredible discoveries that bring legends to life.

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As human history progresses, new discoveries constantly reshape our understanding of the past. And once in a while, stories long thought to be the stuff of legend are found to be more truthful than we could’ve ever imagined. Let’s dive right into the past and explore some incredible discoveries that bring legends to life.

10. Prehistoric Historians

In 1994, the Chauvet cave complex was discovered in southern France. Hundreds of ancient drawings cover the interior walls of the cave, including depictions of lions, rhinos, deer and even woolly mammoths. But one particular drawing possesses even greater significance. In the drawing, a deer appears surrounded by bursts of light.

Left: general view; right: traced detail, with an overlaid charcoal painting of a giant deer species removed (lower right). Credit: D. Genty (left)/V. Feruglio/D. Baffier (right)/CC BY 4.0

But layer-by-layer analysis has shown that these ‘bursts’ may be part of an earlier drawing. The original image underneath is even more powerful, as it appears to represent an exploding volcano. The legendary scene depicted would’ve been seen by generation after generation before it was covered by the deer, likely accompanied by epic tales of the Gods responsible for such destruction.

Chauvet cave complex and the volcanic eruption
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But this prehistoric legend was confirmed to be a genuine historical record in 2016. Carbon dating found that the drawing was created around 35,000 years ago. According to geologists, around this time, there was an active volcano merely 20 miles northwest of the Chauvet cave. And on a date remarkably close to the drawing’s creation, that volcano erupted, hurling torrents of lava and ash into the air.

This undeniable overlap between the hidden drawing and nearby volcanic eruption has led researchers to believe the painting almost certainly documents an eruption of this kind. This means the Chauvet sketch is not only one of humanity’s first-ever pieces of art; it’s also one of the first pieces of recorded history.

Chauvet cave complex and the volcanic eruption depicition
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9. Pele’s Bad Hair Day

In traditional Hawaiian culture, volcanoes are thought to be controlled by Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind, dance and - of course - volcanoes. Hawaiian legends tell of how Pele lived in the crater of the Kilauea volcano and causes the volcanoes’ eruptions. In the aftermath of Pele’s outbursts, it’s said that evidence of her presence can be found throughout the surrounding areas, in the form of a material that looks like her hair.

Peles hair of Hawaii
Cm3826, CC BY-SA 4.0 <creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Surprisingly enough, as geologists’ understanding of volcanoes – and the magma they contain – has developed, the legend has proven more accurate than you’d expect. Pele’s “hair”, is indeed often found deposited on rocks and trees after eruptions. The strange material is actually formed by the stretching of molten basaltic glass from lava.

As the volcanic material is flung outward, some of it solidifies into these hair-like masses. Imagine stumbling upon this stuff with no understanding of science or geology. Can you really blame the ancient Hawaiians, discovering this stuff after violent eruptions, for thinking it was freshly-malted hair of the being who’d devastated the land?

Pele's hair and the volcano
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8. All-Seeing Tsunami

Mahabalipuram is an ancient city located in southern India. Between the 3rd and 9th century, the centrepieces of Mahabalipuram were its seven beautiful temples. But according to legend, Mahabalipuram’s beauty made Indra, the deity of rain and storms, jealous. In his envy, Indra submerged the city under the sea in a great storm.

Indra submerged the city under the sea jealous of Mahabalipuram’s beauty
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For centuries, only one temple remained above water, leading historians to believe the others were either purely mythological or forever lost to time. But in 2004, the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami retracted the shoreline by 1,600ft, and what was revealed brought legends to life. A long, straight row of large rocks emerged from the water. Only, these weren’t natural features. They were man-made.

M.lakshman / AP

Closer inspection revealed that these structures were the remains of the lost temples. How exactly these monuments became submerged remains unclear, though some theorize that the temples were themselves submerged by another tsunami in 952CE. If true, this means the natural forces that submerged them would reveal them once more, centuries later.

7. The 7,000 Year Explosion

Before the colonisation of Australia by the British Empire, Aboriginal culture was rarely written down. Most of the Aboriginal history was kept through oral storytelling traditions. With a record-keeping method like this, you might expect stories to lose their truth over time… but hold that thought. One tale passed down for 7,000 years among the Gugu Badhun Aboriginal people, tells of a ground-shaking explosion that made the earth so hot, that it set Australia ablaze. A similar tale tells of a diabolical witch doctor who created an abyssal pit in the earth, from which arose a noxious fog that clouded the land.

Aboriginal history was kept through oral storytelling traditions
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Anyone who wandered into the fog never returned. That deadly fog sounds remarkably volcanic in origin, considering volcanic eruptions often send colossal clouds of ash, as hot as 1,400F, into the surrounding areas. The witch doctor’s pit sounds, similarly, a lot like a volcano’s caldera, and the story of a hellish explosion that blanketed the ground in flames is classic volcano behaviour. But Australia isn’t volcanically active, so how could any of this be based in fact? Well, recent research has shown that Australia was volcanically active in the relatively-recent past.

What’s more, by examining rock samples from the lava flows around one particular site, known as the Kinrara Crater, researchers discovered a major eruption that took place 7,000 years ago. That’s the exact same period the Aboriginal tale is thought to have originated. As the tale suggests, the Kinrara eruption left a large crater in the ground, and dispelled massive amounts of volcanic ash and lava, explaining the story’s ‘fog’ and ‘fire’. It’s crazy to think - these Aboriginal oral legends, passed down through 230 generations, retain such truth at their core.

Aboriginal tale of the Kinrara Crater eruption
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6. A Sinking Feeling

In the Solomon Islands, there’s a legend about a man named Roraimenu, who sought revenge after his wife left him for a man on the nearby island of Teonimanu. He placed a curse on Teonimanu and called upon dark forces to sink the island into the sea. Roraimenu watched from afar as huge waves dragged Teonimanu into the ocean’s depths, killing all who lived there.

Roraimenu watched from afar as huge waves dragged Teonimanu into the ocean’s depths
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But the legend, geologists argue, has its roots in fact. Teonimanu is believed to have actually existed, as recently as 400 years ago, before disappearing into the sea. Geologist Patrick Nunn theorizes that an earthquake caused an underwater landslide, submerging the island.

Teonimanu’s reported location is remarkably close to the 3-mile-deep Cape Johnson Trench, which is littered with geological debris strongly resembling sunken islands. If the island really did slide down into the abyss, it’s hardly surprising that such an event would spawn legends.

5. Egypt’s Scroll Of Secrets

The construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza has always been shrouded in myth. Many of these myths relate to the issue of transporting the pyramid’s enormous blocks from quarry to construction site. It was a seriously impressive feat, which lacked a verified explanation for centuries until a 2013 discovery finally gave some answers.

In a cave near the ancient seaport of Wadi el-Jarf, over 400 miles from Giza, archaeologists found fragments of a 4,600-year-old papyrus scroll. The scroll recounts the diary of an Egyptian workman and describes how the huge blocks were transported to Giza from Egypt’s primary limestone quarry in Tura.

huge blocks were transported to Giza from Egypt’s primary limestone quarry in Tura
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The stone blocks were carried on boats along the Nile and through a series of man-made waterways that took the workers close to Giza. After that, the ancient worker claimed, the blocks were rolled along special, oiled wooden tracks on sledges. Sorry ancient aliens, but all the credit for this one goes to those ingenious Egyptians.

great pyramid of Giza stone blocks were carried on wooden tracks on sledges
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4. Parking Lot King

When you think of British royalty, you probably imagine glamour and luxury. But, of all places, a parking lot in Leicester, England, became the resting place of King Richard III.

Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and was laid to rest in Greyfriars Church in Leicester. Around 50 years later, Henry VIII ordered the demolition of many monasteries, including Greyfriars, and consequently, Richard’s body was lost.

The legendary mystery of Richard’s final resting place endured for centuries. But in the early 2000s, a collective of historians came to realise the site of the Greyfriars Church was likely buried underneath… a parking lot. They began raising funds to excavate the site, and in August 2012, they discovered the skeleton of a young male with battle injuries matching the King’s reported demise.

When a tooth from the remains was found to match DNA from a living descendant of the king, the researchers’ theories were proven right. The centuries-old case was finally closed. And now we know Old King Rich realised just how important it is to arrive early for a decent parking spot.

Richard III, the King found beneath a car parking lot in Leicester
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3. The Fate Of Atlantis

In 360BCE, the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato shared the tale of the island of Atlantis. Plato spoke of a near-perfect society, living within a ringed city. The Atlanteans were afflicted with violent earthquakes and floods that eventually caused their island to disappear into the depths of the sea.

Santorini and the lost city of Atlantis
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Many historians argue the long-held belief that Atlantis is a purely fictional location. Others believe that Atlantis is an allegory for the rise and fall of real ancient civilisations, like the Minoans. But the similarity between the tale of Atlantis and the Minoans may go beyond metaphors.

Excavations on the Greek island of Santorini in the 1960s revealed that – long before its current towns were built – ancient settlements from the Minoan Bronze Age had once thrived there. But according to recent research, in around 1600BCE, an enormous volcanic eruption obliterated the Santorini Minoans, and devastated the surrounding lands.

Santorini Minoans and the lost city of Atlantis
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Santorini, being constructed on the lip of the semi-submerged volcano from which that eruption burst, stood no chance. An eruption of this scale would undoubtedly have seen chunks of land collapse into the surrounding waters. But before this occurred, the island could well have matched Plato’s descriptions of a ‘ringed city’. Whilst it’s still uncertain whether Atlantis was real, the rise and fall of the Minoans of Santorini fits Plato’s description eerily well.

Santorini and the legend of Atlantis

2. The Real Pied Piper

The tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is told to children around the world, but the story has some very disturbing origins. In the tale we know today, the Pied Piper lures an infestation of rats out of the town with his magical flute.

When the townspeople refuse to pay him, he gets revenge by using his flute to lure the town’s children away with him. But the tale is, surprisingly, based on truth, although who the Pied Piper was, and what exactly he did, has been hotly debated.

An inscription below a stained-glass window that once existed in Hamelin records how “in the year 1284…came a colourful Piper to Hamelin and led 130 children away.” With the association of rats with the Black Death, it was long assumed that the mentioned children were victims of the plague, for which the Pied Piper was a metaphor.

But in the past couple of decades, historians have theorized that the children of Hamelin may have been lured from the town as part of a sinister Medieval practice. This practice involved families selling their children to assist in settling unclaimed lands, or occasionally even fighting in wars.

The grim truth behind the Pied Piper
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But the strangest theory links the Piper to a truly bizarre phenomenon historians refer to as ‘dancing mania’. Several times throughout the Medieval period, groups of people were seized by an uncontrollable urge to dance. I’m not kidding. It reached such intensity, that groups of men, women and children alike would go from town to town, literally dancing themselves to death.

Pied Piper of Hamelin and the dancing mania
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This form of mass psychosis is now thought to have been caused by the communities accidentally consuming a psychoactive fungus known as ergot, which occasionally infected bread-making wheat. It’s quite possible that the Pied Piper tale reflects one of these bizarre, horrifying episodes of infectious madness.

The story could’ve even been inspired by all those theories at once. There’s evidence for each, and there’s little doubt that Hamelin’s children did indeed disappear. Whatever the cause, it’s one strange piece of history.

The disturbing truth behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin
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1. Blackbeard’s Lost Revenge

Blackbeard, one of history’s most infamous pirates, captured his most notorious vessel, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, in 1717. The ship, originally constructed for merchant use, had 40 cannons and plenty of room for men and loot alike.

At 103-feet-long, the ship’s hefty size allowed Blackbeard to terrorise ships throughout the Atlantic. But in 1718, Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground and sunk somewhere off the coast of North Carolina.

in 1718, Queen Anne’s Revenge sunk off the coast of North Carolina
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For over 300 years, the location and fate of the legendary ship remained unknown. But in 1996, after analysing maps and written material from the time of the Queen Anne’s sinking, researchers located a shipwreck about a mile from Atlantic Beach, North Carolina.

Divers unearthed an enormous array of early 18th century artefacts, including 30 cannons and two large anchors. After more than a decade of debate, in 2011, the discovery was finally… well… canonised. The wealth of artefacts proved enough for North Carolina state authorities to confirm, once and for all, that the shipwreck was indeed Blackbeard’s old faithful; the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

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