15 Surprising Facts About Marco Polo

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Born in the Republic of Venice in 1254, Marco Polo was a trader, traveler, and adventurer, who (probably*) journeyed to Central Asia and China in an era when vast swaths of the world were still uncharted and just traveling to a neighboring town could take you days. When he returned from his adventures, he brought back stories that helped introduce Europeans to Asia, and contributed to demystifying the largely unknown continent. In the influential work, The Travels of Marco Polo, he outlined the geography of Asia, described the customs of its people, and told tales of life at the court of legendary Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. But as amazing as all that may sound, it only scratches the surface of the bizarre and exciting life of the traveling merchant. Here are 15 things you might not know about Marco Polo. 

*More on that later! 

1. HE BEGAN HIS ADVENTURES AS A TEENAGER.

Marco Polo wasn’t yet a seasoned traveling merchant when he embarked on his great journey east. In fact, he was just 17 years old. In 1271, Polo left home with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo, and set out for Asia, in hopes of reaching the court of Kublai Khan. It was likely the first time the young Polo had left home as well as the first time he’d met his father and uncle, who had been traveling the world since Marco’s birth. 

2. HE WASN’T THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO EXPLORE CHINA.

While his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, brought knowledge of the Far East to the European world, Marco Polo wasn’t actually the first European to visit China. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Polo to visit China. Before Marco embarked on his journey to Asia, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo had already travelled to China and met with Kublai Khan. 

In some ways, Marco’s journey was a bit of a sequel to Niccolo and Maffeo’s original adventures: The two older travelers had befriended the great Mongol emperor and told him about Christianity, the Pope, and the Church in Rome. Curious about European religion, Kublai Khan apparently requested that the travelers bring him 100 Christian men from whom to learn more about the religion, as well as some holy oil of the lamp in Jerusalem. Niccolo and Maffeo returned to Europe where they picked up the young Marco Polo and somehow procured the oil, but not the 100 Christians, requested by the emperor, before journeying East again.

3. HE TRAVELLED 15,000 MILES OVER THE COURSE OF 24 YEARS.

Marco Polo left home at age 17 and didn’t return to Venice for 24 years. Over the course of two decades, he travelled around 15,000 miles both on land along the Silk Road, and by sea, coming across parts of Asia and, if some highly controversial (and possibly forged) maps are to be believed, visited parts of the Alaskan coast hundreds of years before Vitus Bering.

4. HE DICTATED HIS LIFE STORY TO A ROMANCE WRITER DURING A STINT IN JAIL.

When Marco Polo returned to Europe in 1295, his adventures were far from over. He returned home to find Venice at war against the Republic of Genoa, and took up arms on behalf of his homeland. After a sea skirmish in the late 13th century, Polo was captured by the Genoese and tossed in jail. There, he befriended another prisoner, Rustichello of Pisa, who just happened to be a writer of popular romances. He began dictating his story to Rustichello, who produced the manuscript that would become The Travels of Marco Polo.

5. HE INTRODUCED EUROPE TO THE CONCEPT OF PAPER MONEY …

Long before Europe began printing its own bills, the Mongol empire was circulating paper money. Marco Polo described the strange currency in his book, facetiously describing Kublai Khan as an alchemist who could transform mulberry trees into money, instead of base metals into gold. He wrote, in awe, about the way paper money was treated by Kublai Khan’s subjects as though it were as valuable as gold or silver—and described the systems in place to prevent counterfeiting the paper currency.

6.

…AND TO ANIMALS LIKE CHOW CHOWS, YAKS, AND MUSK DEER.

Marco Polo encountered numerous animals on his journey that were then unknown in Europe. These included the chow chow dog breed, the musk deer, and the yak. Of these, the yak seemed to be Polo’s favorite: Impressed by the silky softness of their fur, he brought yak hair back to Venice with him, where he displayed it as a curiosity.  

7. HE DESCRIBED DELICACIES LIKE GINGER—AND AN EARLY POWER SHAKE.

Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced Italy to pasta. While the veracity of that story has long been debated, Polo did encounter some interesting foods. Ginger was widely used in the Roman era, but by the time of Marco Polo was considerably rarer, and much more expensive. During his travels, however, he found endless quantities of rare spices, costing virtually nothing. And while he may not have brought ice cream to Europe either, as some sources suggest, he does describe an early power shake. The Mongols reportedly dried milk, and, while riding, would add water to the milk in a flask. Riding with said flask would cause the mixture to churn, resulting in a thick syrup.

8. HE THOUGHT RHINOCEROSES WERE UNICORNS.

Back in the 13th Century, European superstition portrayed unicorns as horned, horse-like animals, who could only be tamed and captured with the help of a young woman. Marco Polo’s account of the animal debunked that superstition: In reality, Polo claimed, unicorns weren’t serene and beautiful creatures who gravitated to the pure of heart. They were ugly and dangerous, with hair like a buffalo, feet like an elephant, the head of a wild boar, and a black horn in the middle of their foreheads. Unicorns, Polo informed his readers, primarily liked to roll around in the mud and dirt, and attack people with their prickly tongues. Based on Polo’s description of the “unicorn,” historians now know he was actually describing the rhinoceros. 

9. HE BELIEVED IN SORCERY…

Throughout his book, Polo describes encounters with magicians and sorcerers. At the court of Kublai Khan, Polo describes meeting astrologers who could control the weather from the palace rooftops, and magicians who made flagons of wine levitate at feasts.

10. … AND EVIL SPIRITS.

If Marco Polo sounds a little bit superstitious, it’s likely because he lived in superstitious times. Throughout his book, he not only describes first-hand experiences with magic, but repeats the myths and rumors he encounters as fact. In one passage, Polo claims that it’s a well-known fact that evil spirits haunt the Gobi Desert, torturing travelers with illusions, and calling their names to turn them away from their path and make them lose their way—which is probably a reference to the very real phenomenon of the Gobi's “singing” sands. 

11. HE CLAIMED TO BE CLOSE FRIENDS WITH KUBLAI KHAN. 

In his book, Polo claimed not only to have made it to the court of Kublai Khan in Shangdu—traveling farther than almost any European had in the process—but to have befriended the emperor, becoming his right hand man and advisor. 

12. HE WAS GRANTED A GOLDEN TABLET OF SAFE CONDUCT.

When Marco Polo finally decided it was time to end his adventures and return home, Kublai Khan had grown so attached to the Venetian merchant, he chose to deny his request. Polo finally convinced Kublai Khan to let him go in return for helping the emperor’s great nephew on a sea voyage. In order to ensure Polo was safe on his travels, the emperor awarded him a golden tablet of safe conduct—an inscribed gold plaque—which would help him safely obtain supplies on their journey, and let everyone know he was under the emperor’s protection.

13. HE MIGHT HAVE EXAGGERATED A BIT.

While Marco Polo and his ghostwriter Rustichello of Pisa were undoubtedly great storytellers, historians to this day continue to debate exactly how true some of their stories were. Some historians have gone as far as to question whether Polo even made it to China, arguing he may have simply picked up stories from other merchants during his travels. While Polo’s historical significance isn’t up for debate, it’s unclear which of his tales stretched the truth. 

14. HE HAS A SPECIES OF SHEEP NAMED AFTER HIM.

After providing some of the first written descriptions of yaks, musk deer, and of course, unicorns, it seems fitting that Polo would eventually have an animal named after him. In 1841, zoologist Edward Blyth named a species of sheep Ovis ammon polii after Marco Polo (the sheep are colloquially called Marco Polo sheep). 

15. HE SERVED AS INSPIRATION TO CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS.

Marco Polo’s travels have inspired plenty of explorers to go on adventures of their own. Christopher Columbus himself brought a copy of Marco Polo’s book with him on his trip to the New World. And in the 1960s, a group of travelers even decided to follow Marco Polo’s exact route, journeying from Italy to China in cars and trailers instead of on horseback. 

How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession With Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal ended up being a motivating force throughout much of his life. Even during the Revolutionary War, and even when he ran for the highest office in the land, he had mastodons on the mind. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy beasts still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he was determined to find them—or, at the very least, enlist a couple of intrepid explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to do the hunting on his behalf.

The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and headed into the great unknown of the Louisiana Purchase in search of an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the two-and-a-half-year round trip—mapping the geography of the region and logging hundreds of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—but the directive to look for mastodons is a little-known footnote to their famous expedition.

At the start of their trip, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Although he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at least not in any of the written correspondence on record—the two explorers were all too familiar with Jefferson’s mammoth ambition. “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it,” author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Volume 2.

Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his mastodon obsession was fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who thought America’s animals and people were puny. Jefferson’s bone-collecting hobby quickly evolved into a mission to assert America’s dominance in the Western world and prove that it was "a land full of big and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove your country is home to a 12,000-pound monster.

A Rivalry Forms

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

François-Hubert Drouais, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various points in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, a number of mastodon bones.

Though his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” published in the 1760s, postulated that the people and animals of America were small and weak because the climate (he assumed, without much evidence) was too cold and wet to encourage growth.

Jefferson was furious. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon's beliefs about the mastodon. Buffon suggested that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, but because Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements didn't match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a different animal entirely. (Although they’re distinct species, woolly mammoths and mastodons were lumped into the same category at the time, and were called one of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)

“The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled back his argument a bit, adding, “But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”

He didn’t just believe that mastodons had existed at one point in time, though—he believed they were still out there somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson's era to assume that bones were evidence of a still-living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the concept of extinction wasn’t widely accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the idea that God’s creations couldn't be destroyed.

For his part, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural order, and that removing a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the whole system into disarray. Taking the tone of a philosopher, he once questioned, “It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?”

This position may have been partly fueled by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon would be the most satisfying way to stick it to Buffon and say, “I told you so.” (In the meantime, though, he had to settle for a dead moose, which he sent overseas to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to prove that large animals did, in fact, exist in America.)

The Hunt Continues

A painting of The Exhumation of the Mastadon

This 1806 painting by Charles Willson Peale, titled The Exhumation of the Mastadon, shows mastodon bones being excavated from a water-filled pit.

Charles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and asked him to fetch some mastodon teeth from a nearby "mastodon boneyard" in northern Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. “Were it possible to get a tooth of each kind, that is to say a foretooth, grinder, &c, it would particularly oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark politely explained that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to procure a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from travelers who had managed to visit the frontier.

However, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark's reply until six months later in August 1782 (because of, you know, the Revolutionary War). Although the war technically didn't end until the following year, peace talks between the two sides were nearing a conclusion, and everybody knew it. With an end to the conflict in sight, Jefferson doubled down on his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to me the most desireable object in Natural History, and there is no expence of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely.”

Later, while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the expedition was called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to look for mastodons along the way. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Under the head of Animal history, that of the Mammoth is particularly recommended to your enquiries.”

Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he was still thinking about mastodons. His preoccupations were so widely known that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “mammoth infidel” in reference to his unusual hobby and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Magazine of American History recalled, “When Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to some bones of the mammoth which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”

Once president, Jefferson used his office to further the field of paleontology. Not long after he was elected, he loaned one of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-filled pit. It ultimately became the first fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in America.

Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon during their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. After their return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second assignment to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three big boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who got to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.

Still, something wasn’t quite right, and Jefferson may have known it even then. By 1809, the animal in question had been identified and given the name mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature seems not to have provided other food sufficient for him," he wrote, "and the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse."

Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate

Thomas Jefferson
National Archive/Newsmakers

The fact that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had gone extinct long ago. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”

Although he was unsuccessful in his quest to find a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature he believed to be a lion were later revealed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “great claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.

Nowadays, the ground sloth fossils—and several other items that formed the "cabinet of curiosities" Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are part of The Academy of Natural Science collection at Drexel University. Considering that Jefferson is sometimes called "the founder of North American paleontology,” it would appear he got his revenge against Buffon after all.

CBS Is Live-Streaming Its 1969 Coverage of the Apollo 11 Launch Right Now on YouTube

The Saturn V rocket lifts off with the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969.
The Saturn V rocket lifts off with the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969.
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today is the 50th anniversary of the July 16, 1969 launch of the Apollo 11 mission, which resulted in the first Moon landing in history. CBS News is commemorating the momentous event with a YouTube live stream of its special coverage from that day, which you can watch below.

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite brought all the thrill and wonder of the takeoff into the homes of countless Americans, and he also introduced them to three soon-to-be-famous astronauts: former Navy pilot Neil Armstrong, Air Force colonel Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and former Air Force fighter pilot (and experimental test pilot) Michael Collins.

Cronkite chronicled the astronauts’ journey from their 4:15 a.m. breakfast at the command space center to Kennedy Space Center’s launch station 39A, where they boarded the Saturn V rocket. CBS sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun reported from the Florida beach itself, interviewing spectators who were hoping to witness history happen in real time. “I just hope they make it successfully and have no problem," said a visitor from California.

In the final seconds before liftoff, Cronkite counted down, not knowing what the future of the mission would hold.

Tune into the live stream below, or check out the highlights from CBS News here.

[h/t CBS News]

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