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Archaeologists Are Hot on the Trail of These 16 Spectacular Mysteries

What was Blackbeard really like?

Archaeology mysteries

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Blackbeard is considered one of history's most notorious pirates, known for terrorizing and pillaging ships along the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean. His flagship? Queen Anne's Revenge, formerly a slave ship.

Over the past decade, archaeologists have been excavating and analyzing artifacts from the wrecked remains of this frigate, revealing a wide array of information, including details of the medical practices aboard his ship. Analysis of these artifacts is ongoing. Currently, researchers are looking at the numerous glass beads found aboard Blackbeard's ship to see what they can reveal about Blackbeard's crew and the slaves that were aboard Queen Anne's Revenge when Blackbeard captured the ship.  

What does the Voynich manuscript say?

Archaeology mysteries

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Quality control operator of the Spanish publishing outfit Siloe Luis Miguel works on cloning the illustrated codex hand-written manuscript Voynich in Burgos on August 9, 2016.

The so-called Voynich Manuscript, a small unassuming book usually stored in a Yale University vault, is one of the most mysterious books in the world, that a small publishing house in northern Spain has finally secured the right to clone. The precious document containing elegant writing and strange drawings of unidentified plants and naked women is believed to have been written six centuries ago in an unknown or coded language that no one -- not even the best cryptographers -- has ever cracked.

Could mummies bring a disease back from the grave?

Archaeology mysteries

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Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, with only labs in the United States and Russia still containing samples of the virus. However, as archaeologists around the world continue to discover remarkably well-preserved human mummies, concerns have been raised that an archaeological discovery from the past could bring back the disease.

In 2011, construction workers in New York came across an iron coffin that held a remarkably well-preserved mummy of a woman who had died of smallpox. Archaeologists called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine whether the disease could still be active. The scientists ultimately concluded that this particular mummy posed no risk, but the CDC has been working with archaeologists to better understand the history of smallpox and determine whether there is any risk of the disease literally coming back from the grave. 

How did past civilizations survive severe droughts?

Archaeology mysteries

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Warming climate and increasingly arid conditions pose major problems for numerous modern-day communities. Archaeologists working at sites around the world are analyzing the different ways in which humans in the past adapted to increasingly arid conditions.

For instance, more than 4,000 years ago, at a time when the Middle East was undergoing a severe arid period, some communities survived by building cities in locations that had large reserves of underground water nearby, archaeologists have found. Similarly, archaeological research suggests that ancient human populations in the American southwest survived arid periods by moving to locations that still held water. 

How do looted artifacts get sold on the black market?

Archaeology mysteries

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Law-enforcement and defense experts working in a number of government organizations and research institutes agree that organized crime and terrorist organizations are selling looted artifacts to raise funds for their activities. But the methods these organizations are using to obtain funds from looting can be complex.

Archaeologists, such as those at the American Schools of Oriental Research, are analyzing satellite data as well as intelligence and law-enforcement information to try to determine the different methods by which terrorist organizations and organized crime are making money from these activities. In some cases, terrorist organizations that control territory (such as ISIS) appear to be allowing people to loot archaeological sites, and transport and sell the artifacts, in exchange for a share of the revenues. Gold coins, which can be found using metal detectors and can be easily smuggled and sold, are a prime target for looters, archaeologists have found.

Criminal organizations in Europe and Asia that don't control territory are making money by acting as middlemen who transport looted artifacts across borders, archaeologists have found. In Egypt, they are organizing attacks on antiquities guards.  

How did Iron-age warrior survive arrow to the spine?

Archaeology mysteries

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How bad an injury can a person survive without the assistance of modern-day medicine? As archaeologists excavate burials all over the planet and study them using ever more sophisticated medical tools, the discoveries they are making continue to push the boundaries of what is believed to be possible.

Recently the burial of a warrior found in central Kazakhstan, which dates back at least 2,000 years, reveals that the warrior had an arrow lodged in his spine that he survived, the bone around the arrow showing signs of healing. Scientists who studied his remains note that such a wound often kills a person immediately. 

What happened when Homo sapiens encountered other ancient hominids?

Archaeology mysteries

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Homo sapiensare the only species of hominid that is still alive, having existed for at least 300,000 years. All other hominids such as Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis and Denisovans are now extinct.

A mystery that archaeologists and anthropologists are trying to solve is why is it that these species are extinct while there are over 7 billion Homo sapiens on the Earth? Recent research suggests that Homo floresiensis went extinct at around the time that Homo sapiens arrived in its territory, a find that raise the possibility that Homo sapiens helped drive it into extinction.

Yet other recent finds show that DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans, which Homo sapiens would have acquired by breeding with them, helped Homo sapiens boost their immune system, allowing them to survive a wider array of diseases and conditions. These discoveries suggest that some sort of peaceful co-existence leading to breeding happened when Homo sapiens met these two species. 

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus writes about archaeology and all things about humans' past for Live Science. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University. He enjoys reading about new research and is always looking for a new historical tale.