16 Things We Learned About Ancient History In 2021

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Vote up the most fascinating facts you learned about the ancient world.

Ancient history is often a mystery to many people born into modernity. Whether it's Greece, Rome, or Egypt, or perhaps the lesser-known worlds of the Maori, the Maya, or the codes of Hammurabi, the cultures of ancient history are shrouded by the mist of time. Many written accounts have been wiped out over the millenia and artifacts can be weathered beyond recognition. But that doesn't mean we aren't learning new things about ancient history every day.

In fact, from hidden secrets of ancient architectural marvels to famous wars that only officially ended in the 20th century, we learned a lot about ancient history in 2021.

  • 1
    154 VOTES

    One Of The Oldest Tablets From Mesopotamia Is A Customer Complaint

    The world's first-ever documented customer complaint dates all the way to ancient Mesopotamia. The complaint was filed around 3,800 years ago from the city of Ur, which is now Tell el-Muqayyar in modern Iraq, and was written on a clay tablet. It's traced to a man named Nanni, who sent it to a businessman named Ea-nasir when Nanni was dissatisfied with his copper purchase.

    The complaint is in the Akkadian language in cuneiform script, one of the oldest forms of writing. Translated by Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim, the end of the tablet reads as follows:

    Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

    154 votes
  • Mount Vesuvius's Eruption Produced So Much Heat That It Turned One Pompeiian's Brain Into Glass
    Photo: Karl Bryullov / Wikimeia Commons / Public domain
    261 VOTES

    Mount Vesuvius's Eruption Produced So Much Heat That It Turned One Pompeiian's Brain Into Glass

    Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, burying the Roman city of Pompeii under a blanket of volcanic debris. Though it's likely that some Pompeiians escaped destruction, depending on when they decided to abandon the city, thousands did not. Instead, they perished under a storm of falling rocks or during the eruption's pyroclastic phase, a wave of extreme heat and toxic gas.

    Archaeological evidence suggests that the heat produced by the volcano was intense. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that suggested the heat was extreme enough to "vaporize soft tissues," crack skulls, and, in one case, turn a brain into glass.

    A scientific analysis of the remains of one person's brain indicated they had been vitrified, or transformed into glass. As scholar Pier Paola Petrone explained, "The preservation of ancient brain remains is an extremely rare find. This is the first ever discovery of ancient human brain remains, vitrified by heat."

    261 votes
  • 3
    108 VOTES

    Māori Seafarers May Have Visited Antarctica More Than 1,000 Years Before Europeans Did

    The Māori were Polynesian seafarers who settled the islands of New Zealand from the 14th century. But new research suggests they likely sailed beyond the confines of the land they called Aotearoa. 

    Using oral history narratives, a team of researchers have suggested Hui Te Rangiora, a Polynesian explorer, may have arrived on Antarctica in the 600s. 

    This research would extend the timeline of human contact with Antarctica by more than 1,000 years. Previously, 19th century Europeans were credited with "discovering" the southernmost continent. 

    108 votes
  • The Aztecs Believed When A Woman Gave Birth, She Was Engaged In A Battle
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    169 VOTES

    The Aztecs Believed When A Woman Gave Birth, She Was Engaged In A Battle

    Though there was more to the Aztec empire than fighting, the concept of warfare trickled into various aspects of everyday life.

    For example, the Aztecs understood childbirth in terms of conflict. They believed the laborious act of bringing new life into the world was a battle. Thus, women in labor were like warriors.

    Because the Aztecs framed childbirth as a clash, women who passed while they were "giving birth were honored as fallen warriors," according to David A. Schwartz. They even had a name for these women: "mociuaquetzque," or "valiant women."

    169 votes
  • 5
    135 VOTES

    Sparta May Have Slain More Than A Third Of Its Population Through Infanticide

    Infanticide was a common practice throughout the ancient world. Children with birth defects (or those merely unwanted) were often "exposed" - left to the elements, where they would perish unless taken in by someone else. Additionally, Roman patriarchs had power over the lives of their children, with no legal consequences attached.

    It's not surprising in this context that Sparta, which prided itself on the physical strength of its elite citizens, would have liberally practiced infanticide. A key source for this information is the historian Plutarch, who wrote in his life of the quasi-legendary Spartan reformer Lycurgus:

    Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche,​ where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the 9,000 lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state.

    (Plutarch's claim that "deformed" children were discarded is called into question by the life of King Agesilaus II, who had a clubfoot. Evidently, other factors were in play.)

    Historian Helena Schrader noted that because effective birth control was unknown in the ancient world - yet ancient families were generally smaller than medieval ones - anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of infants born to ancient Greek women may have been lost to neglect, illness, or deliberate exposure.

    While infanticide was common throughout ancient Greece, two aspects of the Spartan practice seem to have stood out to other ancients: Boys as well as girls were exposed (a rarity in misogynistic Greece), and the decision was left not up to the parents but to the state.

    It's worth noting that Sparta suffered a severe demographic crisis later in its history, with significant political consequences.

    135 votes
  • Pheidippides, The Greek Messenger Who Inspired The Marathon, Actually Ran More Like 300 Miles
    Photo: Hammer of the Gods27 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
    122 VOTES

    Pheidippides, The Greek Messenger Who Inspired The Marathon, Actually Ran More Like 300 Miles

    Pheidippides is at the center of a popular misconception about why the marathon is 26 miles long. According to legend, Pheidippides, an Athenian soldier, witnessed the combined Athenian and Spartan army's victory over the Persians at Marathon, then ran 26 miles to Athens to deliver the news. When he arrived, he informed the Athenians, then promptly perished from exhaustion.

    Today, marathoners run 26.2 miles in his memory, and hopefully don't share his fate in doing so. (According to another legend, the extra 0.2 miles were added during the 1908 Olympics in London so the race would end in front of Princess Mary's pavilion.) 

    But the real Pheidippides probably wouldn't have been impressed with someone who ran just 26.2 miles. He was a hemerodromos, or a military long-distance runner. In ancient times, the most efficient way to transmit messages over long distances was to run them. And Pheidippides's legendary run was much, much longer.

    His actual task was to run from Athens to Sparta to ask for more soldiers. He did that, and the Spartans agreed. But they refused to fight until there was a full moon, as was their custom. This wouldn't be for another six days. So, Pheidippides turned around and ran back to Athens to inform them of the delay. It reportedly took him two days to cover 300 miles. 

    It was a different runner entirely who ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news about the victory. The anonymous runner apparently still perished at the end of his journey, which is why his shorter run is still remembered. Over time, Pheidippides's ultra-marathon was conflated with the anonymous runner's feat. Pheidippides was no doubt thrilled to be mistaken for the other guy. 

    122 votes