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8 Amazing Things Uncovered by Melting Glaciers and Ice

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As the climate warms, ice patches, glaciers, and permafrosts across the world have begun to give up their hidden history. As a result, glacial archaeology—the study of objects retrieved from glaciers and ice patches—has recently come into its own. Ötzi the iceman, uncovered in the Alps in 1991, is one of the most famous and important such archaeological finds, but there are plenty of other examples of bodies, artifacts, landscapes, and even deadly pathogens found beneath the ice. 

1. SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF A MISSING COUPLE // SWITZERLAND

On August 15, 1942, Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin went to milk their cows high in an alpine field near Chandolin in southwestern Switzerland. They were never seen alive again. The couple's seven children were left wondering what had happened to their parents, and as the search for the missing couple continued the siblings were split up and placed with several local families. In July 2017 the mystery was finally solved when ski workers uncovered the perfectly preserved bodies of the Dumoulins on the receding Tsanfleuron glacier. It was immediately obvious that the bodies were from the 1940s due to the clothes they were wearing, and identity papers allowed police to identify the couple. Police speculated that they must have fallen down a crevasse, snow and ice enveloping their bodies, until the warming air on the shrinking glacier finally uncovered their resting place almost 75 years later. Their youngest daughter, Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, 75, said that her siblings never gave up looking for their parents, adding: “I can say that after 75 years of waiting this news gives me a deep sense of calm.”

2. 1000-YEAR-OLD FOREST // ALASKA

Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska
Jasperdo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska (seen above), was advancing over 1000 years ago, a flow of glacial melt—icy water and gravel—preceded its path, covering an ancient forest with gravel. This gravel acted as a sort of cushion, so that when the glacier itself enveloped the forest the majority of the trees weren't crushed, and some even remained standing. Over the last 50 years, as the glacier has receded, the trees and stumps have slowly been uncovered, and in recent years as the melt has sped up—shrinking at a rate of 170 feet per year since 2005—more and more of this ancient woodland has been revealed. Archaeologists have been working to identify and age the trees, some of which retain their bark, and thus far tests by University of Alaska Southeast Professor of Geology and Environmental Science Program Coordinator Cathy Connor have revealed that they range from 1200 to an astonishing 2350 years old.

3. IRON AGE HORSE // NORWAY

In September 2013, bones from an Iron Age horse were uncovered from a site over 6500 feet high in the mountains of Norway. The horse, found alongside perfectly preserved manure and a horseshoe, indicates to archaeologists that Iron Age peoples were using these animals to carry cargo at high altitude over the mountains near Oppland in Norway. Archaeologists working in the region are increasingly finding new artifacts revealed by melting glaciers and ice patches, but they're working in a race against time—the artifacts remain perfectly preserved while locked in the ice, but as soon as the ice melts, they are in danger of degradation from contact with the open air. Earlier in 2013, an amazingly well-preserved 1700-year-old woollen tunic was also rescued from melting ice in the region—two patches on the garment showed that it had been carefully mended by its Iron Age owner.

4. INCAN CHILD SACRIFICE VICTIMS // ARGENTINA

School children look at one of the mummies found in the Llullaillaco volcano.
School children look at one of the mummies found in the Llullaillaco volcano, on display at the High Mountain Archaeology Museum in Salta, Argentina.
Juan Mabromata/Getty Images

The extremely well-preserved frozen bodies of three Incan child sacrifice victims were found entombed on the Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina in 1999. The bodies of a 13-year-old girl, plus a boy and girl both about four or five years old, were found at 22,000 feet up, and are considered the best-preserved ice mummies in the world. They have allowed scientists to carry out a number of tests that have increased our knowledge of capacocha—the Incan tradition of child sacrifice.

Spanish chronicles indicated that the Incas would select especially talented or beautiful children to be sacrificed to the gods to celebrate important milestones or in response to natural disasters. By analyzing hair from the 13-year-old, known as the “Llullaillaco maiden” due to her serene expression, researchers discovered that she had been heavily drugged with coca leaves (from which cocaine is derived) and alcohol. She was dressed in expensive clothes, was well-nourished, and had beautifully braided hair, which historians think indicates she was very well looked after during the year before her death. Traces from the hair of all three victims shows that they were heavily sedated with drugs before being taken up to their lofty tombs on the volcano, where they likely died of hypothermia about 500 years ago. Nearby residents have concluded that the mummies were found just in time, before higher summer temperatures would have damaged them.

5. WWI SOLDIERS // NORTHERN ITALY

As the highest settlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the small village of Peio in modern-day northern Italy was dragged into the conflict of World War I in 1915. Here, at altitudes over 6500 feet, intrepid soldiers fought in what became known as the White War. Due to the inhospitable conditions and the freezing weather, specialist mountain soldiers were recruited—the Italians had the Alpini, who sported distinctive feathered caps, and the Austrians had the Kaiserschützen. The fierce conflict high in the mountains went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world at the time but today, as the region's ice melts, archaeologists and historians are learning more about the amazing feats of bravery of those involved.

A variety of artifacts have been uncovered from the melting glacier, including a poignant unmailed love letter to a girl named Maria, soldiers’ helmets and guns, and, of course, bodies. In 2012, the mummified bodies of two blond and blue-eyed Austrian soldiers, aged just 17 and 18 years old, were uncovered from the ice—both had been shot through the head and buried in a crevasse on the Presena glacier by their comrades. Locals held a funeral for the pair in 2013, and 200 people from around Peio attended.

6. ARCTIC MUMMIES WRAPPED IN COPPER // SIBERIA

The mummified bodies of an adult and child were recently excavated from the melting permafrost near Salekhard, Siberia, inside the Arctic Circle. The bodies were found in Zelenyy Yar, an ancient necropolis that has since 1997 been an ongoing archaeological site. Researchers have uncovered more than 100 burials in the area. These latest mummies are of an adult at least 5 foot 7 in height, covered in canvas and birch bark overlaid with copper strips, and a small baby, thought to be about 6 months old. Archaeologists think that the bodies date from the Medieval period, and hope that further analysis will reveal more about these little-known Arctic peoples.

7. ANTHRAX RELEASED FROM PERMAFROST // SIBERIA

A herdsman in Siberia handles his reindeer.
Atyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images

A 2016 hot spell with temperatures reaching 86˚F exacerbated the melting permafrost in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, unleashing some unwelcome pathogens back into the environment. The body of a reindeer infected with anthrax was uncovered by the melting permafrost, releasing the reanimated spores into the atmosphere. The disease, which had not been seen in the region for 75 years, infected local herds of reindeer and then at least 20 people, causing serious illness and the death of a 12-year-old boy.

Scientists are also concerned about other dormant pathogens being re-introduced as further warming unlocks them from their frozen state in the permafrost. Spanish flu, smallpox, and bubonic plague could all be released in the future as the shallow graves holding victims of past epidemics slowly melt.

8. NEW ISLANDS UNCOVERED // GREENLAND

Researchers studying the Steenstrup and Kier Glaciers in northwest Greenland noted the emergence of several new islands from the ice between 1999 and 2014. In the last 60 years, the Steenstrup Glacier has retreated some 6.21 miles, uncovering islands dotted around the coast, and requiring maps to be redrawn. Over time glaciers naturally retreat and advance in a cyclical fashion, but according to glacier researcher Mauri Pelto of Nichols College, the recent pace and extent of the retreat has suggested an acceleration due to global warming. If the ice continues to recede, more landmasses that have lain hidden in the ice for thousands of years could be exposed.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually break away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write the “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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12 Facts About the Smithsonian's Collections
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With 19 museums spread along the East Coast, the Smithsonian Institution has become the country’s richest repository of American history. From culture to science, zoos to space exploration, the federally-backed archive has spent nearly 200 years preserving and educating. Check out some facts on its history, how a new species of dolphin was found hiding in its archives, and how the founder eventually became part of the collection.

1. ITS FOUNDER NEVER SET FOOT IN THE STATES.

Wealthy British globe-trotter James Smithson (1765-1829) had acquired an estate worth roughly $500,000 at the time of his death and ordered that all of his assets be inherited by his nephew, Henry James Dickinson. There was one twist: The estate was to be turned over to the United States in the event Dickinson died without an heir of his own so the country could build a hub for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Henry, then 18, died just six years later, and so President James Polk signed the act approving the Smithsonian Institution into law in 1846. Curiously, Smithson had never even visited the U.S. Why leave such a legacy to a foreign nation? Smithson never commented on his decision, leaving people to guess that it was either because he was impressed by democracy or because he wanted to enrich a country that, at the time, had only a few educational hubs.

2. NO ONE WAS REALLY SURE WHAT SMITHSON WANTED.

A portrait of James Smithson

“Increase and diffusion of knowledge” can be interpreted pretty broadly, and it took the United States a long time—roughly 10 years—before anyone could agree on what to do with Smithson’s gift. Educators, politicians, and civilians all had a unique notion of how to spend his fortune, including opening a university, a library, or an observatory. Ultimately, the Smithsonian Institution was a compromise, involving many of these ideas. By 1855, construction on the main building was complete at the National Mall in Washington; it was designated as a National Museum in 1858 [PDF].

3. THEY HAD TO HIDE THEIR COLLECTION FROM AXIS FORCES.

At the height of U.S. involvement in World War II, museum curators knew that Axis forces would have designs on destroying the vibrant culture housed at the museum’s main location at the National Mall. To protect these irreplaceable items, the Smithsonian arranged to have them shipped to an undisclosed location—now known to be near Luray, Virginia—and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse. They didn’t return until 1944.

4. SMOKEY BEAR LIVED AT THEIR ZOO.

Smokey Bear takes a bath at the National Zoo

Yes, that Smokey Bear. (And there’s no “the” in his name.) In 1950, a bear cub that survived a raging forest fire in Capitan, New Mexico, was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and named Smokey after the popular ad campaign mascot of the era. As a living symbol of the effort, he spent his remaining 26 years at the National Zoo, a constant recipient of visitor attention and hundreds of jars of honey.

5. THEY DISPLAY JUST ONE PERCENT OF THEIR COLLECTION.

In order to execute Smithson’s mission statement, the Smithsonian has had to morph into the greatest display of hoarding the world has ever seen. All told, the Institution’s various artifacts, specimens, and other arcana is believed to number in the neighborhood of 137 million, with an official museum estimate of 154 million. Just 1 percent of that is available for viewing at any given time.

6. ONE CATEGORY IS USUALLY OFF-LIMITS FOR VIEWING.

17th century human remains found in Jamestown, Virginia

Evolving public attitudes over the decades have prompted the Smithsonian to be very wary of displaying human remains. While they’ve collected everything from shrunken heads to the “soap man”—a corpse whose body turned to a soap-like substance thanks to a chemical reaction to soil—most of it remains out of public view.

7. AN EXHIBIT ON NUCLEAR WAR STIRRED CONTROVERSY.

For a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II, museum organizers drew criticism in 1994 for presenting material that some veterans groups and members of Congress felt was politically charged. The museum agreed to omit text near the display that some felt dwelled on the horrific effects of the bomb, as well as references estimating the U.S. and rival casualties that might have been suffered if the bomb had not been deployed.

8. THE WEIRDEST ITEM THEY’VE CATALOGED IS A CRAPPY VIDEO GAME.

The box art for the Atari 2600 game E.T.

Amidst many internet lists of strange Smithsonian catalog items—taxidermied animals, beards, and other miscellanea—nothing seems more incongruous than the 2014 inclusion of a 1982 Atari video game based on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Renowned for being produced quickly and for helping to fuel the video game crash of the early 1980s, supplies of the cartridge were buried in a New Mexico landfill and only recently excavated. One went into the museum's archives.

9. THEY TURNED DOWN JIMMY DURANTE’S NOSE.

In the 1950s, actor and comedian Jimmy Durante was easily identified by his bulbous nose, a three-inch-long (from bridge to tip) feature that led to his nickname, “the Great Schnozzola.” Sensing a publicity opportunity, Durante’s management arranged for a makeup artist to create a plaster cast of Durante’s nose and offer it up to the Smithsonian as a piece of Americana. Frank Setzler, the museum’s head of anthropology was unimpressed. “Heavens, no,” he was quoted as saying. “Who would want that? The only place we could use it would be in the elephant display.”

10. AN UNDISCOVERED SPECIES OF DOLPHIN WAS LURKING IN THEIR INVENTORY.

A dolphin skull from a recently-discovered species

With so many specimens, the bowels of the Smithsonian almost certainly harbor secrets that can surprise even scientists. In 2016, two researchers in search of fossilized marine mammals stumbled across the skull of a 25-million-year-old river dolphin they named Arktocara yakataga. Said to have been found in Alaska, the dolphin may have dwelled in the Arctic. It was estimated that the skull—plucked from obscurity because one of the researchers found it “cute”—sat on the shelf for 50 years before being identified.

11. THEY’RE COMMITTED TO PRESERVING DOROTHY’S SLIPPERS.

Possibly the most iconic pair of footwear in pop culture, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz have become a Smithsonian trademark. In 2016, the Institution successfully raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter to build a state-of-the-art preservation case to protect the kicks from deterioration. While star Judy Garland wore several pairs during filming and the Smithsonian’s are mismatched, it’s clear that visitors want to keep them in condition for any future travels along the yellow brick road.

12. SMITHSON EVENTUALLY BECAME PART OF THE COLLECTION.

James Smithson's final resting place within the walls of the Smithsonian

In 1904, some 75 years after his death in Italy, Smithson’s remains were about to be disturbed. U.S. Smithsonian officials were alerted that his grave site would be displaced because of a nearby stone quarry expansion. The Institution took the opportunity to have his casket shipped to America so he could be interred at the site of his legacy—the Smithsonian itself. Escorted by Alexander Graham Bell, the casket traveled 14 days by sea. The body was entombed and topped off by a marker in the Smithsonian, where it remains viewable by the general public.

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