5 Ways You're Probably Picturing History Wrong
They say you can learn from history, but first you have to understand it. And, as we've told you before, we absolutely do not. Time and again, we've found that what we've always thought of as fact is about as accurate as a seven-year-old's understanding of sex. For example ...
Huge Medieval Battles Were Incredibly Rare
Historical documentaries like Game Of Thrones and Lord Of The Rings have taught us that medieval warfare was a sprawling, terrifying spectacle. Rows of mounted cavalry as far as the eye can see, ranks of men with colorful shields and pikes with an ocean of (CGI) armored troops behind them. You know, like in Kingdom Of Heaven:
Now, we're not saying that shit never happened -- the battle you see above certainly did. We're saying that (for instance) famed conqueror Richard the Lionheart fought a whopping three battles in his entire Lionhearting career. Henry II, one of France's most famous leaders, fought one. Even the most famous medieval battles, like the historic English victories at Crecy and Agincourt, only served as prologues to a whole lot of sieging -- the much more common warfare tactic in which armies simply camped out around a castle or town for months or years until the people inside ran out of food and (usually) surrendered. The truth is that large, pitched battles went down in the history books specifically because they were so unusual.
Why? Well, despite all of the speeches by Mr. Braveheart about the glories of combat, in reality, you always prefer the path to victory that doesn't get half your men hacked to pieces -- armies, after all, are expensive. So rather than agree to have your 20,000 men meet their 20,000 in a scenic open field, armies would only look to engage if victory was all but assured, in which case the weaker side would try to hole up in a castle and turn the affair into a (usually boring) siege. Otherwise, open combat was to be avoided if at all possible, with leaders much preferring to pick away at the enemy with raids, weakening them one razed village or captured stronghold at a time.
Yeah, most of the fighting wasn't exactly the kind of shit they write heroic poems about. Pillaging was the primary tactic of the day, mainly because while we like to imagine epic conflicts fought over freedom, faith, and murdered princesses, most wars were fought over economic issues like property rights. Since peasants were essentially a resource (they provided food and tax revenue), terrorizing them was an easy way to hurt the enemy without the risk of taking an arrow to ye olde gonads.
On the rare occasion when large battles did happen, only armies commanded by total bozos would descend into the usual trope of two forces that fire a few rounds of arrows and then start hacking at each other in a chaotic free-for-all. Scouts and spies were used to track enemy movement, armies used terrain, trenches, and tactical positioning to try to gain an advantage, and they would, you know, try to hide their forces if possible. Commanders studied past battles and textbooks were analyzed and revised. Again, they couldn't throw waves of men at each other. They didn't have them to spare.
So every scene in which a hero leads a courageous charge into the teeth of of the enemy is actually showing that he's kind of an idiot. A true hero would be slaughtering confused peasants and stealing their cattle, dammit!
Great Britain Wasn't An Island Until Fairly Recently
You probably remember from various science classes that all of the continents used to be connected, but slowly drifted apart over the course of millions and millions of years. Still, we assume the world map looked pretty much as it does now for all of human history at the very least -- geology takes its time.
Britain may have recently voted to leave the European Union, but that's not the first time they've rage-quit on the continent. And the last time was even more chaotic and confusing than Brexit, because not too many thousand years ago, Britain was physically torn away from Europe.
During the tail end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, what we know now as the island of Great Britain formed the upper corner of the European mainland. The massive chunk of land connecting Britain and Europe was called Doggerland, because sometimes we name land masses after a child's attempt to explain where their golden retriever came from.
This wasn't some random icy wasteland, either; we know that Doggerland was populated. Modern fishermen occasionally haul up spears and mammoth bones, and archaeologists recently acquired technology that allows them to explore the presumably magic kingdom that's hidden under the English Channel and the North Sea. Scientists are trying to create a 3D map of the lost landmass using seabed-mapping technology, and they even plan to pull up DNA samples to see exactly who the Doggerland people were.
Ultimately, Doggerland had an insurmountable problem: It was all lowlands. Once the ice sheets began to melt and the seas started to rise, Doggerland pulled an Atlantis. In 7500 BC, a giant landslide off the coast of Norway created a tsunami that tore through the region. By 6000 BC, the people still clinging to the vanishing surface started moving to the higher grounds of what would become the Netherlands and the British Isles. Doggerland disappeared completely by 5000 BC, and up until the last moment, there were probably lots of people there insisting that the news of the disaster was all an alarmist hoax.
Stonehenge Was A Small Part Of A Vast Network Of Monuments
Stonehenge is one of those places that everyone's heard of but only vaguely understands, kind of like the New York Stock Exchange. It's a 5,000ish-year-old monument that used to be a burial ground or an ancient calendar or something, right? It's mysterious and it looks cool, but ultimately it's a bunch of rocks standing around in a field.
And sure, there are some parts missing, but you can still picture what it would have looked like back when it was new (whenever that was).
Every discovery scientists make about Stonehenge makes it more mysterious. We already knew that, back in its heyday, Stonehenge looked something like this:
But more recent discoveries indicate there are at least 17 other Neolithic shrines buried in the area. In 2014, a team of archaeologists finished a four-year radar technology survey that discovered impressions left by wood, stones, and ditches, some following the same layout as Stonehenge. That would mean Stonehenge was but one part of a massive, miles-wide complex used to perform rituals that scientists are 90 percent sure were creepy as fuck.
A year later, there was an even bigger find: The remains of 90 giant stones arranged in a "C" shape buried under a grassy bank a mere two miles from Stonehenge. Dubbed Durrington Walls, the fixture is a mile in circumference, and it's overshadowed by an even larger foundation nearby, a 1.8-mile monstrosity known as Cursus.
Cursus has a big pit at both ends -- the east pit is aligned with the "avenue" that used to lead to Stonehenge, while the west pit is aligned with Stonehenge's "Heel Stone." The avenue and the Heel Stone line up perfectly with the light of the Sun during dawn and dusk, respectively, of the summer solstice, which is an impressive bit of engineering for people who probably smelled awful. Durrington Walls, meanwhile, is thought to have once been the site of a building where "defleshing" was performed during burial rites.
Note: Defleshing is exactly what it sounds like.
So Stonehenge wasn't just a spooky ceremonial site sitting alone in the wilderness -- it was the center of a major hub of ritual and professional activity. The fact that its creators left no written records may doom us to endless speculation, but additional research could offer some clues. Then again, between mysterious architecture that aligns with the stars and a strange burial house of the defleshed, part of us wants researchers to stop before they keep digging and accidentally wake Cthulhu.
The Amazon Jungle Was Home To Massive Cities
What do you picture when you imagine the tribes of the Amazon rainforest? Blowpipes and loincloths for countless generations, right? Small mud huts and the occasional jaguar attack? A few huge pyramids where psychotic priests beheaded people and soldiers played dick-ball?
How about vast interconnected cities in which millions of people live? No?
It's easy to think of the Amazon as a giant patch of impenetrable greenery populated by isolated tribes because, well, that's essentially what it is today. But more and more, archaeologists are thinking that the Amazon used to hold sprawling cities with a combined population of as many as 50 million people.
Recent evidence suggests that at the end of the 15th Century, the Amazon was as developed as Europe. Complicated networks of roads connected cities, and the cityfolk weren't noble savages wearing Birkenstocks and smoking pot like ur-hipsters -- they destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest to establish farmland. The modern Amazon, which we think of as pristine, virgin rainforest, is in large part regrowth over once-domesticated land.
Technically, we've known about this since the first Spanish explorers arrived in South America in the 16th Century, but their reports of gleaming white cities that looked an awful lot like home were met with a skeptical "Yeah, right" and the glug-glug motion from other Europeans, who only encountered jungles and hunter-gatherers by the time they got there themselves. The regression was caused by the same thing that fucked up basically every native in the Americas: white dudes.
When Europeans marched in, the vast majority of Amazonians succumbed to their foreign diseases. Nature quickly reclaimed the land, so later explorers only found the radically diminished, low-tech population we tend to think of as the entirety of Amazonian culture. It was only once we started using sophisticated excavation techniques and technology like ground-penetrating radar that we were able to uncover this lost civilization. We may never know much about their culture, but at least their legacy lives on whenever you get drunk, go online and order five seasons of Frasier with rush shipping.
Cavemen Were Smarter Than You Think (And May Not Have Lived In Caves)
If you want to call someone stupid, slow-witted, and out of touch with the modern world, call them a caveman. Our distant ancestors are synonymous with simplistic, grunting half-apes who were too busy clubbing each other on the head to bother figuring out that caves are shitty places to live. Have you seen their cave paintings? A child could do better! What a bunch of assholes.
First of all, they probably didn't live in caves. Early archaeologists just made this assumption when they first started finding old bones and paintings preserved for millions of years in caves. But you know what they say about assumptions making an ass out of u and ... muption. Modern archaeologists have since found evidence of early human life far from any caves, and they now suspect that caves may barely have been used for residences at all. Caves previously thought to be homes may have in fact been carefully prepared burial sites, which would explain all the skeletons and artwork in them.
There's also no good reason to think that early hominids were any less intelligent than us -- which you can take as you will the next time you accidentally drop your phone in the toilet. Neanderthals are believed to have used complex hunting methods to trick mammoths into falling into ravines, indicating there were techniques for communication and advanced planning. There's also evidence that they knew how to make pitch (that goopy black stuff that's used as waterproof sealant and torch fuel), which took Homo sapiens until the late Middle Ages to mass produce.
Anthropologists also believe that Homo erectus had the technology to build and navigate seafaring boats, a skill that we're guessing 99.9 percent of the people reading this do not possess. With all that brain power, it's also unlikely that "cavemen" communicated with the simplistic "Fire bad! Meat good! Chad bastard!" phrases generally associated with them. Our ancestors from 15,000 years ago had such intricate language that we still use some of their words today.
There's also evidence of hominid altruism, such as one-to-two-million-year-old skeletons with decayed bones and teeth, indicating that they would have had trouble walking and eating without assistance. In other words, they died far older than they should have been able to survive on their own, implying that their friends and family cared for them, or at least benefited from their wisdom. Ancient man carried their loved ones through hinterlands full of constant dangers and gave up some of their precious few resources to keep them alive, while we stuck our parents in nursing homes and started screening their calls the moment they asked us to teach them how to use Netflix.
Yeah, if you want to celebrate some historical genius, forget about the Wright Brothers or Tesla -- we'll take whatever cave person first had the idea to keep feeding and caring for Ogg, even though his gimpy ass was slowing down the group. We're reasonably sure none of us would be here without them.
For more ways we're idiots about history, check out 6 Things From History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly and 5 Scenes From History That Everyone Pictures Incorrectly.
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