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Did Pirates Really Make People Walk the Plank?

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Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, mateys! Abstain from this nautical celebration and you’ll likely be told to “Go walk the plank” by some eye patch-wearing devotees.

It’s a form of punishment storytellers have been waxing about for centuries. Treasure Island , Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventuresome magnum opus, mentions plank-walking on several occasions. Movie-makers publicized the practice still further, as demonstrated by this catchy number from Disney’s Peter Pan:

Thanks to all that media attention, many now believe walking the plank was downright commonplace on real-life pirate vessels. However, historical records paint a more ambiguous picture.

Among the first non-fiction, English-language books to cover buccaneers and their lifestyle was A General History of the Pyrates. Originally published in 1724 by an author working under the pseudonym “Captain Charles Johnson,” it claims that—back in ancient Roman times—Mediterranean pirates would facetiously offer prisoners their freedom via holding ladders over the open ocean and inviting them to swim back home.

Yet, most primary accounts of walking the plank are sketchy at best. Before his execution in 1769, a seaman named George Wood confessed that he’d forced at least one prisoner to do so. But, alas, Wood was no pirate but rather a common mutineer.

Fifty-three years later, an eyewitness would write that British ship captain William Smith was taken by some bona fide gentlemen of fortune. After nabbing him, the survivor recalls, “a plank was run on the starboard side of [their] schooner, upon which [they] made Captain Smith walk, and… as he approached to the end, they tilted the plank, when he dropped into the sea”.

Most historians conclude that, while plank-walking did exist, it was relatively rare. For starters, many captives would’ve been kept alive and held hostage, as was the case for a young Julius Caesar in 75 BCE. And when buccaneers really did mean to off somebody, plenty of other options were available, such as marooning, which nearly always resulted in death.

If a more sadistic measure was desired, “keelhauling” fit the bill perfectly. This involved stripping the victim, tying him to a rope, throwing him overboard, and dragging him beneath the length of the ship as razor-sharp barnacles sliced through his skin. Yikes!

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Big Questions
What Are Carbohydrates Used for In Our Bodies?
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What are the carbohydrates used for in our body?

Ray Schilling:

Carbs are varied. There are complex carbohydrates that are absorbed slowly and you hardly get an insulin reaction. On the other end of the spectrum there are refined carbs like sugar, which are rapidly absorbed in the gut and to which the body reacts swiftly with an insulin reaction to lower high blood sugars.

Generally speaking all carbs are broken down into glucose and absorbed in the gut. Glucose is the fuel that is metabolized inside the cells in the mitochondria to give us energy. This is particularly important in the brain, which lives solely by glucose as its energy supply, but our muscles, our heart, our liver, and kidneys are all very rich in mitochondria for the metabolism of glucose.

But there is a dark side to refined carbs that we need to know about: When all our glucose storage spaces in the liver and the muscles are full (glycogen is the storage form of glucose), then the liver starts processing glucose. With our sugar consumption having spiraled upwards in the last 183 years, this surplus sugar metabolism is causing more and more problems.

The liver produces triglycerides from the extra sugar and LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol. This causes hardening of the arteries and causes heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.

We need to come to our senses and cut out processed foods (which have extra sugar in them), switch to a Mediterranean diet and only consume complex carbs, contained in legumes, vegetables, and fruit. It is also recommendable to cut out starchy foods with a glycemic index of higher than 55 in order to bring our liver metabolism back to normal (normal triglyceride and LDL cholesterol production). This will mean cutting out pasta, potatoes, rice, bread, and muffins.

If you're wondering what kind of recipes you could follow, I have included one week’s worth of meals in this book: A Survivor's Guide To Successful Aging: With recipes for 1 week provided by Christina Schilling.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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