The Stone Age isn’t quite over — not everywhere. On North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal lives a tribe of about 250 people, the Sentinelese, who have remained so hostile to contact with outsiders that their society is almost entirely free of modern influences.
They have no agriculture, subsisting through hunting, fishing and gathering plants. It’s not even clear whether they can produce fire without an external source like lightning.
The Indian government has made overtures by leaving gifts, but the warlike Sentinelese drove them off. Earlier this year, Sentinelese archers killed two fishermen who came too close to the island. Their bodies still haven’t been recovered — even a helicopter sent to retrieve them was driven off by arrows.
Older than the pyramids, Ireland’s Newgrange lay lost for millennia until workers uncovered it while looking for building stone in the late 1600s.
No one knows who built it or why, but each year at the winter solstice the sun shines directly along a special passage into a chamber at its heart.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
On Oct. 21, 1978, 20-year-old Frederick Valentich was piloting a Cessna 182 airplane off King Island, Australia. About 45 minutes after taking off, he radioed air traffic control to report a large aircraft with four lights at about his altitude.
He said the craft had passed about 1,000 feet above him at very high speed. He described it as “a long shape” with “a green light” and said it was “metallic,” as though it were “shiny all over.”
“It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game,” he said. “He’s flying over me two … three times at speeds I could not identify.” He reported that the object “vanished,” then said it was approaching again from the southwest.
A few minutes later he said, “Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. … It is hovering, and it’s not an aircraft.” Valentich’s radio microphone stayed open for another 17 seconds, during which air traffic controller Steve Robey heard “metallic scraping sounds” before the signal died.
No trace of Valentich or his plane was ever found.
Witches weren’t the only ones in danger during the Middle Ages. In 1386, when a pig tore a French child’s face, the tribunal of Falaise put it on trial, ultimately sentencing it to be maimed and hanged in human clothing.
In 1474 the Swiss town of Basel tried a rooster for sorcery (it had allegedly produced an egg) and burned it at the stake.
Likewise wolves, snakes, crows, bats, owls, rats — even dogs and cats were put on trial. Like women, animals were considered demonic whenever men couldn’t understand their behavior.
On the Isle of Portland, in the English Channel, it’s considered bad luck to say the word rabbit.
So people use the term “underground mutton.”
The fishermen of Laguna in southern Brazil have a unique arrangement with local bottlenose dolphins. A pod of dolphins will drive fish toward the beach, where fishermen stand in the surf. When they see a dolphin roll over, the men throw out their nets, and the dolphins eat the escaping fish.
No one trained the dolphins to do this. It’s been going on since at least 1847.
If you’re going to make prophecies, it pays to be a little vague. The supporters of Ursula Southeil (1488-1561) claimed she’d correctly foreseen the automobile, the telegraph, air travel, and submarines. But one prediction failed to come true:
The world to an end shall come,
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.
“Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason,” wrote Jonathan Swift, “their long beards, and pretenses to foretell events.”
The pied piper is not just a fairy tale. Something specific and terrible appears to have happened in the German town of Hamelin on June 26, 1284. What it was is uncertain, but it seems to have claimed the town’s children, perhaps in a mass drowning, burial, epidemic or exodus. An inscription from 1603 reads:
Anno 1284 am dage Johannis et Pauli
war der 26. junii
Dorch einen piper mit allerlei farve bekledet
gewesen CXXX kinder verledet binnen Hamelen gebo[re]n
to calvarie bi den koppen verloren
In the year of 1284, on John’s and Paul’s day
was the 26th of June
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colors,
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
and lost at the place of execution near the Koppen.
Rats weren’t added to the story until the late 16th century. The site of the children’s disappearance, on Coppenbrugge mountain, is now a site of pagan worship, and a law forbids singing and music in one street of Hamelin, out of respect for the victims … though we may never know what their fate was.
It’s estimated that, in the United States alone, businesses lose $800 million to $900 million each Friday the 13th because some people will not travel or go to work.
In his Annales, English antiquarian John Stow describes the capture of a sea monster in the shape of a man, in 1187:
“Neere unto Orforde in Suffolke, certaine Fishers of the sea tooke in their nettes a Fish having the shape of a man in all pointes, which Fish was kept by Barlemew de Glanville, Custos of the castle of Orforde, in the same castle, by the space of six monthes, and more, for a wonder: He spake not a word. All manner of meates he gladly did eate, but more greedilie raw fishe, after he had crushed out all the moisture. Oftentimes he was brought to the Church where he showed no tokens of adoration. At length, when he was not well looked to, he stale away to the sea and never after appeared.”
The creature was not fish-tailed, but had a bald head, the body of a man, a beard and a very hairy chest. What was it really? A giant squid? A walrus? An angel shark? We’ll never know.
A 12th-century Javanese king, Jayabaya, predicted that white men would conquer the Indonesian island one day and tyrannize the people for years, until the white men were driven out by yellow men from the north. The yellow men would remain for one crop cycle, he said, and then Java would be free.
Amazingly, these predictions were fulfilled almost perfectly 800 years later. White settlers from the Netherlands ruled the island until the Japanese invaded in 1942, and two years later they officially granted Indonesia its independence.
Since Javanese predictions are so accurate, we should note that Indonesia seems due for another messiah — prophecies said he’d arrive “when iron wagons drive without horses and ships sail through the sky.”
In 1971, the Flat Earth Society announced that the world is a disc, with the North Pole at the center and a 50-meter wall of ice at the outer edge.
Strangely, that matches the flag of the United Nations.
Sam Patch (1799-1829), “The Yankee Leaper,” earned his epithet — in his 30-year lifetime he jumped from the following points:
- Mill dam, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
- Passaic Falls, New Jersey
- Miscellaneous bridges, factory walls, ships’ masts
- Niagara Falls, New York
- Upper Falls, New York
That last one attracted a crowd of 8,000 — Upper Falls is 99 feet high. The first attempt went fine, but on the followup he dislocated both shoulders and drowned. His grave marker says “Sam Patch — Such Is Fame.”
As old as the pyramids, southern England’s Silbury Hill is even more enigmatic. It’s essentially a gigantic man-made hill, 130 feet tall and perfectly round.
It must have taken 18 million man-hours to build, but archaeologists are stumped as to its purpose.
On Nov. 25, 1809, British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst was preparing to leave the small German town of Perleberg. He stood outside the inn, watching his portmanteau being loaded onto the carriage, stepped out of the light, and was never seen again.
A nearby river was dragged, and outbuildings, woods, ditches, and marshes were searched, but no trace of Bathurst was ever found. A reward was offered for information, but none came forth.
Bathurst had been urging Austria into war against the French, but Napoleon swore on his honor that he had played no part in the disappearance. The mystery has never been solved.
This is a classified photo of Mount Ararat, Turkey’s tallest mountain, taken by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in 1949.
That dark area is the “Ararat anomaly,” an unknown object perched on the edge of a precipice at about 15,500 feet. Biblical literalists think it’s the remains of Noah’s Ark. The U.S. government says it’s “linear facades in the glacial ice underlying more recently accumulated ice and snow.”
For now, it’s a stalemate — no one’s been able to reach it yet because the Turkish military controls the area.
An optical illusion.
The horizontal lines are parallel.
“At 4:00 a.m., the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow.”
— Prince Albert Victor, duke of Clarence, aboard H.M.S. Inconstant, July 11, 1881.
Thirteen officers and men saw the object, whatever it was, as did the crews of the corvettes Tourmaline and Cleopatra.
Four light aircraft have been flown under the St. Louis arch.
In 1980, Kenneth Swyers tried to parachute onto the span, hoping to jump back off and land on the ground. He slid all the way down one leg and died.
“Against stupidity,” wrote Schiller, “the gods themselves contend in vain.”
Six appalling facts about fitness expert Jack Lalanne:
- At age 40, he did 100 handstand push-ups in under six minutes and 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes.
- In the same year he swam between Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf while handcuffed, and swam underwater the length of the Golden Gate Bridge with air tanks but no fins, towing a 2,000-pound boat. Seriously.
- In his sixties, he began to swim with shackles as well as handcuffs. For the bicentennial he towed 13 boats across a Southern California bay, and in the year he qualified for Social Security he towed 6,500 pounds of wood pulp across a Japanese lake.
- At age 69, his chest still measured 47 inches, his waist 27 inches.
- At 70, he towed 70 boats across Long Beach Harbor.
- LaLanne is now 91 years old, but he still gets up at 5:30 every morning to spend two hours working out in the weight room and the pool.
“I can’t afford to die,” he says. “It will ruin my image.”
Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge constructed of vintage American automobiles spray-painted gray. The heel stone is a 1962 Cadillac.
Who says Americans have no taste?
Passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste, a 103-foot brigantine that left New York for Genoa on Nov. 7, 1872:
- Benjamin S. Briggs, 37, captain
- Sarah Elizabeth Briggs, 30, captain’s wife
- Sophia Matilda Briggs, 2, captain’s daughter
- Albert C. Richardson, 28, mate
- Andrew Gilling, 25, second mate
- Edward W. Head, 23, steward and cook
- Volkert Lorenson, 29, seaman
- Arian Martens, 35, seaman
- Boy Lorenson, 23, seaman
- Gotlieb Gondeschall, 23, seaman
A month after she sailed, the ship was found abandoned off the coast of Portugal. Her cargo was intact, and she carried a six-month supply of food and water. The sextant, chronometer and lifeboat were missing, suggesting that the ship had been deliberately abandoned.
No survivors were ever found. The mystery has never been solved.
Twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy were severely neglected by their San Diego parents, attended minimally by a German-speaking grandmother. They saw no other children, rarely played outdoors, and did not go to school.
They were 8 years old when a speech therapist realized they had invented their own language:
GRACE: Cabengo, padem manibadu peeta.
VIRGINIA: Doan nee bada tengkmatt, Poto.
It was apparently a mix of English and German, with some original words and grammatical oddities.
Their father soon forbade their speaking it, saying, “You live in a society, you got to speak the language.” They learned English, but they still bear the emotional scars of their neglect: Virginia works on an assembly line, and Grace mops floors at a fast-food restaurant.
Somewhere, J.F. Byrne is laughing at all of us.
A friend of James Joyce (he was the basis for Cranley in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Byrne announced in 1918 that he had devised a simple and unbreakable code system, called the “Chaocipher,” that would fit into a cigar box:
I had, and still have in mind, the universal use of my machine and method by husband, wife, or lover. My machine would be on hire, as typewriter machines now are, in hotels, steamships, and, maybe even on trains and airlines, available for anyone anywhere and at any time. And I believe, too, the time will come — and come soon — when my system will be used in the publication of pamphlets and books written in cipher which will be unreadable except by those who are specially initiated.
Unfortunately, no one was interested. The U.S. Signal Corps, the State Department, the Department of the Navy, AT&T — all turned him down.
Finally, Byrne published a lengthy coded message in his autobiography, offering $5,000 to anyone who could decipher it. A few years later, he quietly died, taking the secret with him.
The cipher has never been solved.
01/29/2014 UPDATE: In 2010 Byrne’s family donated his papers to the National Cryptological Museum, so the algorithm is now known. (Thanks, Peter.)