As modern humans with constant access to every piece of information that has ever been known, we like to think we're pretty smart. Surely, in these times of carbon dating, digital reconstruction, and computerized archiving, we've learned everything there is to know about our primitive ancestors. Well, you might be surprised -- there are still several major events in history that today's scientists, after years of extensive research, know precisely dick about.
5 We Don't Know What the Ancient Egyptians Actually Looked Like
Thanks to a pop culture obsession with ancient Egypt extending at least as far back in history as the early '90s (when Sam Beckett fought a mummy on that one episode of Quantum Leap), we know just about everything there is to know about the people of the ancient Nile. We've decoded their language, we know what gods they worshipped, we know the history of their whole civilization, and we pretty much know the first name of every ceremonially wrapped mummy we've ever torn out of a sarcophagus in the name of discovery.
The only thing we don't know is who they were.
That is, we have no idea what race they were, or what they actually looked like. Mummies of any screed tend to revert to a racially homogenous shade of dirt brown after a few thousand years baking in the desert heat.
Keith Schengili-Roberts/Wiki Commons
And it's hard to get a good look at them when they're chasing you and your talking dog through an abandoned mine and/or carnival.
Most people probably imagine the ancient Egyptians as being vaguely Middle Eastern in appearance, because that's how they're portrayed in the movies (you know, when they aren't being played by straight-up white dudes). However, that's just how they've looked since the Persian conquest of Egypt ... which was thousands of years after the people who actually built the pyramids died. Before that, it's anyone's guess.
You see, in the mid-1800s (when Egypt-mania really took off in the Western world), white people who marveled at these giant ancient constructs applied their strongest racist science and assumed the Egyptians were pasty Aryan Europeans, specifically because only white people could have the technical ability to build the pyramids. Others theorized that they were black, due to the fact that Egypt is, you know, in Africa.
A fringe theory suggests that they came to Egypt from a distant land known as "Las Vegas," but records there are scant.
"But what about the thousands of ancient Egyptian paintings we've found?" you might be thinking. "Surely we can look at those and know the skin tone of the mighty Pharaohs!" Well, if you were thinking that, you're wrong again. Egyptian paintings were heavily stylized, with men often portrayed as red and women as bright yellow, which, discounting severe sunburn and/or jaundice, aren't really shades that human beings come in.
Although this does support the "space aliens" theory.
Greek sources refer to the Egyptians as being "dark-skinned" and "curly-haired," which is sort of helpful in the sense that it lets us know that they probably didn't look like Jackie Chan, but otherwise could mean they were anything from black to Semitic to Italian.
The closest thing that science has to a conclusion is that the Egyptians probably emerged from northern Africa, which, as you may have noticed, is where Egypt is located. So we've got a rough idea, but only in the sense that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Arnold Vosloo are equally believable as ancient Egyptian princes.
4 There Are Giant Stone Heads in Central America, and We Have No Idea How They Got There
People were surprisingly good at moving giant stones around in ancient times, mostly because living in the Stone Age gave you little other choice. And despite the History Channel's dogged insistence that Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid could only have been built by extraterrestrials, the truth is that science actually has some pretty good ideas about how regular human beings were able to put those awe-inspiring structures together.
But then there are the Olmec colossal heads, and we're not talking about the magical storytelling dome on Legends of the Hidden Temple.
"Give me a discman, you son of a bitch."
That's one of the giant stone heads carved by the Olmec civilization in Central America, and archaeologists don't know what the hell their deal is.
The Olmecs are thought to be the oldest civilization in the Americas, predating the better-known trinity of the Incas, the Mayas, and the Aztecs by hundreds of years. Daily life in the Olmec civilization was presumably pretty boring, as they came to the same conclusion as the folks half a world away on Easter Island did and decided that they might as well dedicate all of their idle time to carving giant stone heads.
"Should we at least give some of them different expressions? You know, mix it up a little?"
Cutting a person's face into a giant piece of rock isn't exactly beyond the realm of possibility, but check this out -- the Olmec heads are carved from volcanic basalt, which was located 80 miles from where the Olmec ultimately settled. Each head weighs close to 20 tons, and the Olmecs never got around to inventing the wheel. So the question is, how in the hell did they get those immense rocks through 80 miles of sweltering, hostile jungle?
Before you say "Well, obviously the same way the Egyptians did it," consider this -- dragging slabs of impossible weight across a desert is an entirely different word problem than figuring out how to carry a bunch of stones each weighing approximately the same amount as Optimus Prime across 80 miles of dense foliage, spiders, snakes, and the occasional 150-foot plateau. The same techniques just wouldn't work.
They didn't so much colonize as say, "Fuck it, we're far enough. We live here now."
Modern science still doesn't know how or why the Olmecs dedicated such a huge amount of effort into dragging these massive heads through such impassable terrain, outside of maybe some ancient, oversized game of long-distance bowling.