13 ancient mysteries unlocked by modern science

Researchers and their high-tech tools shine the light of science on fossilized monsters, deadly diseases, footprints from the deep past and a silk dress that defied the sea.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
1 of 13 Kiril Cachovski/Lithuanian Mummy Project

Child mummy

Using all sorts of high-tech tools, today's scientists look to clues from the past to explain everything from the color of ancient bats to who left mysterious footprints on a beach more than 800,000 years ago.

Researchers, for example, are hot on the trail of history in search of the origin of smallpox in humans. They're now looking to this 17th-century mummy of a child found under a Lithuanian church to help them write a new timeline for smallpox.

The mummy contains evidence of the oldest known version of the actual virus, rather than just pockmarks and scarring that could possibly be attributed to other sources. The find calls into question the idea that smallpox may have emerged as far back as ancient Egyptian times. It's a fascinating intersection of science and history.

2 of 13 Paul Mayer, The Field Museum

Tully Monster

The Tully Monster sounds like the star of a horror flick, but it's actually the name given to a bizarre fossil found by amateur collector Frank Tully back in 1958. It spent decades as a mystery of history as scientists couldn't figure out what it was ... until a new study came out in 2016.

It turns out the 307-million-year-old critter is a vertebrate, and more specifically a jawless fish akin to a lamprey. That's a fascinating discovery considering researchers had originally thought it could be some sort of worm or slug.

3 of 13 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ancient d20 die

Ancient Egyptians were into d20 dice long before modern folks discovered the fantasy role-playing world of Dungeons & Dragons. This die from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dates back to the Ptolemaic Period around 304 to 30 B.C. The symbols appear to be from Greek origin, but the die possibly points to either gaming or spiritual divination activities among the ancient Egyptians.

4 of 13 George Poinar, Jr./Oregon State University

Salamander in amber

You won't find any salamanders living on islands in the Caribbean today, but a salamander trapped in amber 20 to 30 million years ago shows the critters once lived in the area. The tiny piece of amber, the subject of a 2015 research paper, captures a moment in time when a hatchling, missing a leg after what was likely a struggle with a predator, failed to escape from the sticky substance.

5 of 13 Jakob Vinther/University of Bristol

Prehistoric bats

Fossils can tell us a lot about animals, but you might be surprised to know they can sometimes tell us the colors of long-dead creatures. In 2015, scientists determined that two species of bats that lived at least 33.9 million years ago had a reddish-brown color based on studying the shape of melanin, a type of pigment, preserved in their fossils.

6 of 13 David Martill, University of Portsmouth.

Four-legged snake

Meet Tetrapodophis amplectus, a snake with four legs. It popped up in fossil form and dates back 110 million years ago. The legs end in a set of long toes that may have been used for grasping prey.

"This fossil answers some very important questions, for example it now seems clear to us that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards, not from marine lizards," said paleobiologist David Martill of the UK's University of Portsmouth after publication of a research paper on the snake in 2015.

7 of 13 Kaap Skil Museum

Shipwrecked dress

Divers in the Netherlands explored the wreck of a ship from the 1600s back in 2014, but revealed one of the unique finds in 2016: a fantastically preserved silk dress that somehow survived the ravages of both time and water.

The intricate floral pattern and fine craftsmanship point to the dress belonging to a noblewoman. Divers also recovered a book with a coat of arms from King Charles I, indicating some of the cargo may have belonged to the royal family.

8 of 13 Uruma Board of Education

Roman coins in a strange place

An odd find appeared in the ruins of Katsuren Castle in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan. In 2016, a visiting archaeologist recognized four copper Roman coins with a likeness of Roman emperor Constantine the Great on one side and an image of a soldier on the other. The coins most likely got there after traveling through ancient trade routes. It's a fascinating hint of the extensive trade networks that existed deep in the past.

9 of 13 Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

800,000-year-old footprints

Look closely at this picture and you'll see the outline of a foot. A footprint on a beach isn't unusual, except that this particular footprint is over 800,000 years old. Researchers discovered these indentations along a Norfolk beach in England in 2014 and declared them the oldest footprints found outside of Africa.

Digital reconstruction efforts led scientists to the conclusion that the prints likely came from a family of at least five different adults and children. Researchers carefully documented the prints before they were wiped away by the sea.

10 of 13 Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr

Murder mystery

Evidence of history's bloodiness is on full display in a group of fossilized bones found in Kenya. Researchers released a study in early 2016 that tells the story of a massacre of at least 27 nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. Most of the skulls show signs of severe trauma, while other skeletons still contain obsidian projectile tips. The prehistoric murder mystery points to a bloody battle between two rival groups.

11 of 13 George Poinar Jr.

Flea holds plague secrets

The bubonic plague traveled through rat fleas and devastated Europe in the 1300s. Scientists uncovered more about the history of the Black Death by taking a close look at a flea trapped in amber 20 million years ago. Oregon State University entomology researcher George Poinar, Jr. believes the flea may contain plague bacteria.

It may not be possible to conclusively identify the bacteria as a plague ancestor, but it matches the correct size, shape and characteristics. "Plague may have played a larger role in the past than we imagined," Poinar said.

12 of 13 State Collection of Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich

Bones and plague

You've heard of the Black Death, but the lesser-known Plague of Justinian claimed millions of lives in the Byzantine Empire starting around 541 and lasting across two centuries. Both were caused by the organism Y. pestis. In 2016, researchers released the findings of a study of teeth from 6th-century German skeletons that shows Justinian plague may have covered much wider ground than previously thought.

"Our research confirms that the Justinian plague reached far beyond the historically documented affected region and provides new insights into the evolutionary history of Yersinia pestis, illustrating the potential of ancient genomic reconstructions to broaden our understanding of pathogen evolution and of historical events," researcher Michal Feldman said.

13 of 13 Todd Marshall/University of Edinburgh

A real Scottish sea monster

You've heard of the mythical Loch Ness Monster, but scientists are more interested in a real historic sea creature popularly named the Storr Lochs Monster. A mostly complete fossilized skeleton of the Storr Lochs Monster turned up on a beach on the Isle of Skye in 1966, but researchers are now taking a new look at the remains.

"It is the most complete skeleton of a sea-living reptile from the Age of Dinosaurs that has ever been found in Scotland," notes the University of Edinburgh.

Unlike with Nessie, we know the Storr Lochs beast was an actual dinosaur called an ichthyosaur. Scientists hope to learn more about the creature's evolution while performing the first thorough study of the fossil.

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