5 Weird AF Facts History Class Left Out
There's a whole lot of history out there, and for some reason, we keep getting more of it every single day. And since schools can't even always make it clear that the Nazis were the bad guys, the history of early humanity is largely glossed over, to the point where you could pick up more by playing Age Of Empires. Countless stories of obscure cultures go untold entirely. So here are five especially remarkable ones that will either broaden your view of the world or allow you to smugly brag about how you already knew all of this.
New Zealand Was Home To A Giant Murder Eagle
Australia is stereotyped as hosting a menagerie of animals that will happily murder you at will. But indigenous wildlife only claims a few Australians a year. Meanwhile in New Zealand, the last major landmass to be claimed by humans, there was once a creature so deadly it could have become a "them or us" scenario. In the 13th century, the Maori made the fertile hunting grounds of New Zealand their final stop after thousands of years of island-hopping that originated in Taiwan. And once they settled in, their folk tales soon began to star a bird big enough to hunt and kill their children.
New Zealand had no native land mammals, but many a bird species, and Haast's eagle ruled over all of them like a god made of talons and hunger. At 40 pounds and a nearly ten-foot wingspan, it was twice as large as the next-biggest existing eagle species, and its claws were of the size of a tiger's. Oh, and it could dive at an estimated 80 kph, which, while making it far from the fastest bird around, was more than quick enough to surprise whatever unsuspecting hunk of flesh and bone it felt like crushing to death.
Their most common prey was the same bird the Maori found themselves hunting, the moa. The moa was peaceful, because it could afford to be. Measuring in at up to 6.5 feet and 500 pounds, it was the biggest bird of its era ... until the Maori hunted it to extinction. Only an estimated 160,000 were alive when they arrived, and while their size made them difficult for even humans to hunt, their slow breeding rate and lack of fear of humans who hadn't yet discovered the concept of extinction was a bad combination.
And once their primary food source vanished, Haast's eagle was doomed too. There may have been no more than 1,000 breeding pairs to begin with, and the Maori moving in on their habitats didn't help. Both giant species simply weren't equipped to handle the human era, although there's been surprisingly serious talk about one day cloning the moa so it can eat up New Zealand's sprawling brush. There is hopefully no talk about reviving Haast's eagle outside of a movie wherein the Rock has to fight one, because it would immediately seek revenge by trying to kill us all.
The Arctic Was First Settled By A Mystery Culture
If we asked you to imagine someone who lives in the Arctic, well, you'd probably picture Santa Claus. But if we asked you to imagine someone else who lives in the Arctic, you'd picture an Inuit person. Various tribes live in Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland, but while you may assume that they've basically always been there, their arrival on the scene was relatively recent. The Thule, who lived in western Alaska, started spreading east around the year 1000 and became today's Inuit, but the Arctic they settled wasn't empty.
The Inuit themselves could have told you this, as they have stories about people they called the Tuniit. The Tuniit were bigger and stronger than them, giant men supposedly able to crush the neck of a walrus and drag it home like it was just another trip to Safeway. Other stories say the Tuniit knew magic and slept with their legs in the air so the blood would drain from their feet, making them light enough to outrun caribou (we tried it ourselves, to mixed results). But despite their all-around badassery, the Tuniit were a shy people who tended to keep to themselves and avoid conflict. They were "easily put to flight" if needed, so the Inuit took many of their best hunting grounds, while the Tuniit receded and vanished.
These stories were long considered myths, what with the magic and caribou-tackling and not super-swell relationship between Native Americans and the general scientific community. But a 2014 genetic study confirmed that while the Tuniit may not have bench-pressed seals, they did exist as a distinct people. Dubbed the Dorset, they lived in the Arctic for over 4,000 years, but vanished by 1300 CE, just 300 years after the Inuit arrived.
Their most distinct feature was their relative lack of genetic diversity. Not only did they migrate to the Arctic with few women in their group, but they also steadfastly refused to bone down with the Inuit and any other cultures they encountered. And that's a notable aberration, because throughout the epic sweep of history, discovering what a new culture was like in bed was inevitably a top priority after first contact.
While it's unclear where the Dorset migrated from, their very existence shows that people arrived in North America in more ways than previously believed. And given that the Inuit of their time were just as baffled by the Dorset as we are today, they're another valuable reminder that the pre-European history of North America is far more complicated than "A bunch of Natives just hung out for a while." In addition to being a society of wallflowers, the Dorset apparently preferred to hunt with spears despite bows being far safer, and their surviving carvings imply a focus on rituals and spiritual beliefs that may explain why they chose not to intermingle. As for what happened to them, the best guess anyone has is that diseases brought over by Viking traders did them in. Way to go, Vikings.
Japan Has Their Own Population Of Indigenous People
Most people don't think of Japan as having an indigenous population, because that would just be, well, Japanese people, right? But it's more complicated than that. To give you the extremely short version, the Ainu came to Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido over 20,000 years ago and established a hunter-gatherer society. The precursor societies of modern Japan arrived on the other islands even earlier, but it was a larger number of migrants around 2,800 years ago who brought over their farming practices while mingling with those precursors which kicked off the population boom which gave us the Japan we know today.
Sometimes the Japanese and Ainu peacefully traded, and sometimes they fought. But by the 1500s, Japanese people were expanding to Hokkaido, sometimes reluctantly escaping conflict and famine and sometimes enthusiastically looking to tame a "land of barbarians." By the late 1800s, colonization efforts became official, and the already-dwindling Ainu found themselves being assimilated.
To cram millennia of history into a crude metaphor, the relationship between the Japanese and the Ainu is not unlike how European settlers and modern America treated indigenous North Americans, which is never a great benchmark. The Ainu were forced into Japanese schools, forced to take Japanese names and live Japanese lifestyles, and sometimes forced into slave labor. They weren't legally allowed to practice their own customs until 1997, or legally recognized as a distinct indigenous population until 2008. (At least America acknowledged the people they were exterminating, goddammit.)
Historically, the Ainu tended to be lighter-skinned than most Japanese, and the men often wore bushy beards while women sported distinctive mouth tattoos. They hunted wolves, bears, and deer, the latter by driving herds off cliffs. Bears and bear imagery play a large role in Ainu culture, both for long-standing ecological reasons and because a bear god is frankly a badass god to have in your corner. They still have their own music, style of dress, and everything else that makes up a culture.
There are only around 24,000 Ainu today, and only an estimated ten are fluent in their critically endangered native language. Many Japanese aren't even aware of their existence, and of those who are, discrimination and stereotypes of the Ainu as "noble savages" are common. Ainu aren't given the same educational and economic opportunities, and are twice as likely to need welfare just to scrape by. But attitudes are changing. An Ainu political party was formed in 2012, in 2015 the government conducted an official discrimination study, and there are plans to open an Ainu cultural center in time for the 2020 Olympics. So if you ever visit Japan, go learn something about them instead of being yet another Western tourist who "ironically" buys a body pillow.
There Was A Bizarre Apartheid In France And Spain
The Pyrenees form a natural border between Spain and France -- two countries that, while not exactly squeaky clean in the history books, aren't thought of as home to cultures that would have made South Africa's Apartheid regime say "Whoa, too much." And yet, from before the 13th century until the end of the 18th, regions surrounding the Pyrenees discriminated against people called the Cagots with such intensity that it's darkly cartoonish.
The Cagots were confined to their own ghettos on the least desirable land, buried in their own cemeteries, and stereotyped as lepers, cannibals, and criminals, inevitably blamed and killed for any unsolved wrongdoings. They had to use their own church entrances and pews, were given communion with long spoons, and had their own church fountain where the water was presumably a little less holy. In the early 18th century, one relatively successful Cagot dared to use the non-Cagot font, and was punished by having his hand chopped off.
But being declared inferior in the eyes of God is still in the infield of the bigotry ballpark, so let's get to the really weird stuff. The Cagots were forbidden to practice most forms of work, to the point where a Cagot who farmed the fields he lived on had his feet impaled with hot spikes. It was better to let land sit fallow than have a Cagot, ew, grow plants in it, so most were forced to become woodworkers. It's unclear why carpentry was considered a sufficiently undignified profession, but whatever the logic, the Cagots became great at it, building many of the churches they would be discriminated against in.
It gets stranger! When a Cagot entered a non-Cagot area, they had to wear a goose foot on their clothes and announce their presence with a bell. They weren't allowed to share food, share bathwater, or even walk barefoot around non-Cagots because of how noxious their very being was considered. There's yet more, but you get the idea. Cagots were snubbed as unclean, untouchable people who should have considered themselves lucky they were allowed to live.
So just what the hell did they do to earn such absurd repression? No one knows. By the time Cagots enter the historical record in the 13th century, they were already being written about as an inferior caste. The great mystery is that they spoke the same languages, practiced the same religion, and even looked basically the same as their oppressors. The Cagots were only unique because they were Cagots. No one outside of western France and northern Spain had any issues with them. There was even a 1514 papal bull that essentially said "Come on, don't be dicks, they're good Christians just like the rest of us," but it went ignored.
Centuries of theories have emerged and been found lacking, although modern academics have a couple of strong guesses. The first is that they were descendants of Muslims who took part in the 8th-century invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, and were thus distrusted for their recent conversion to Christianity. By the time their conversion was no longer recent, the distrust had become systemic. The other theory is that they were the descendants of a medieval woodworking guild that was involved in an intense commercial rivalry before that discrimination evolved into a more general hate. Neither exactly justifies centuries of pure dickishness.
The discrimination finally started to die out when Cagots gained the opportunity to emigrate to North America, and then the French Revolution allowed them to enter the general population. But even their modern descendants don't like identifying as Cagots, and most of the unique culture they developed under the circumstances they were stuck in has been lost. But at least they'll always live on as the perfect example of why racism is stupid.
Madagascar Was Claimed By People Who Traveled 3,000 Miles To Get There
The average person doesn't give Madagascar a lot of thought unless they're deeply engrossed in a Risk game, but if they had to say who settled Madagascar, they would understandably guess people from Africa. The whole continent is sort of right there. But while there's evidence that African hunter-gatherers visited the island over 2,000 years ago, the people who settled it arrived around 1,200 years ago. Oh, and they came from Southeast Asia.
It's long been noted that Madagascar's Malagasy language has little African influence, but is similar to many of the languages spoken on the Indonesian island of Borneo, despite there being 3,000 miles of Indian Ocean between the two. Additionally, the remnants of Asian plants have been found on the island. Recent genetic studies have confirmed that Madagascar, also one of the last places on Earth to be settled, was claimed by an unusually small group of Indonesians who traveled an entire damn ocean in outrigger canoes.
Their motivation for all that canoeing is a mystery. They may have been blown off course, or they may have been fleeing something. We do know they arrived on the Comoros, a smaller African archipelago, in the 8th century, and left their linguistic influence there before moving to Madagascar 300 years later. And while the long, complicated, and often ugly history of Madagascar is likely what led to most of the island's Asian cultural influences being stamped out, the simple fact that such an epic journey was made at all has led to it being dubbed "the single most astonishing fact of human geography."
It's difficult to overstate what a challenging and exhausting odyssey it must have been, and while research continues into how they went about their lives on Madagascar, we may never know for sure why they came. But their legacy will live on, both in the genes and words of their descendants, and the reassuring knowledge that you can end even your worst days by zoning out in front Netflix instead of having to hop in a canoe, sail across a whole ocean, and hope that somewhere you can live in peace awaits on the other side.
For more, check out How One Escaped Slave Changed The American Civil War Forever:
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