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. 

40 Years Later: 20 Facts About the 'Miracle on Ice'

The USA Team celebrates their 4-3 victory over Russia in the semi-final of the Ice Hockey event at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.
The USA Team celebrates their 4-3 victory over Russia in the semi-final of the Ice Hockey event at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.
Steve Powell/Getty Images

On February 22, 1980, the Soviet War in Afghanistan was almost two months old, making the Cold War as tense as ever. On that same Friday, a hockey team comprised of American college players defeated a dominant Soviet Union group made up of professional athletes—dubiously designated as students, engineers, or soldiers to maintain their then Olympic-required amateur status—in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Jim McKay, the venerable host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and its respected Olympic telecast anchor, was tasked to put into words what the viewers had just seen; the 59-year-old settled on, “That may be the greatest upset in sports history.” He added that it was the equivalent of an all-star football team of Canadian college boys beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had just won their fourth Super Bowl in six years. Forty years later, that comparison holds up.

1. The U.S. beat the Russians in a surprise upset in a hockey game 20 years earlier.

Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semi-final Men's Ice Hockey event at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York on February 22, 1980. The game was dubbed the Miracle on Ice. The USA went on to win the gold medal
Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semi-final Men's Ice Hockey event at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York on February 22, 1980.
Steve Powell /Getty Images

The Americans won the men’s hockey gold in 1960 thanks to a surprising semifinal win over the defending champion Soviet Union. After that, the Soviets dominated and took home the next four gold medals, going 27-1-1 and outscoring their opponents 175-44, making the 1980 victory a much bigger shock.

2. The U.S. head coach was the last player cut from the 1960 team.

Bill Cleary agreed to join team USA only if his brother Bob could play. The Clearys got their wish, and as a result, there was not enough room for Herb Brooks. Brooks would go on to play at the '64 and '68 Olympics, and he later earned a spot on the Olympic team as head coach after leading the University of Minnesota to three national championships in the 1970s.

3. Herb Brooks kept telling his players that one of the Russians looked like Stan Laurel.

Boris Mikhailov #13 of the Soviet Union sits on the boards during Game 1 of the 1972 Summit Series against Canada on September 2, 1972 at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Boris Mikhailov
Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

Insisting that Boris Mikhailov resembled the thin Englishman in the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy was an attempt to get the U.S. players to not take the Soviet Union squad so seriously.

4. The USSR beat the U.S. 10-3 less than two weeks earlier.

In a February 9th exhibition at Madison Square Garden, the Russians expectedly dominated. Combined with the Soviets’ 6-0 victory over a team of NHL All-Stars one year earlier, it looked like a fifth consecutive gold medal was inevitable.

5. The Russian head coach was hospitalized the day before the game.

Viktor Tikhonov had dealt with the flu throughout the Olympics, and was taken to the hospital on February 21st without any of his players knowing. Tikhonov did not believe in antibiotics.

6. The night before, the starting U.S. goalie and one of the Russian players enjoyed an arcade game together.

Jim Craig and Sergei Makarov played Centipede at Lake Placid's Olympic Village video arcade against one another. The two communicated with “nods and laughs.”

7. It was one of Al Michaels’s first times announcing a hockey game.

Al Michaels speaks at media day for Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan on January 31, 2006
Al Michaels
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Even though he had never called a hockey game before, Michaels got the play-by-play assignment for the 1972 gold medal hockey game on NBC because nobody else wanted to do it. In 1980, doing that one broadcast made him the undisputed hockey veteran at ABC, as well as the only one who knew what offside and icing were.

8. Al Michaels memorized the Russian names by playing table hockey.

He played against his broadcast partner and former NHL goalie Ken Dryden in their hotel room, announcing their contests and naming his little men after the players on whichever team the U.S. was about to face.

9. Ken Dryden had the busiest February 21st of all.

Dryden, who served as color commentator for the game, would later be teased by his children for not coming up with one of the most memorable sports calls of all time like Michaels, but it’s possible that he was a little bit tired. On Thursday afternoon, while Viktor Tikhonov was in a hospital bed, Dryden went up to Toronto to take the Canadian Bar Exam (which he would pass). That night, as the most famous game of Centipede of all time was taking place, he was back in Lake Placid, having dinner with Herb Brooks, answering a slew of questions Brooks had about the Russians. Dryden was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983, and to Canadian Parliament in 2004.

10. The game was shown on tape delay in the United States.

ABC tried desperately to have the opening face-off moved from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. eastern time, and agreed to pay the International Ice Hockey Federation $125,000 to make it happen (even though they considered it extortion). The IIHF, however, couldn’t get the Soviet Union to agree to the time change despite offering them $12,500, because they did not want the game moved from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. Moscow time. Since all of this happened in 1980, the outcome was not known by most Americans when they watched the recorded broadcast that started in primetime. McKay on air was upfront about the game not being live, and said the network received mail from viewers writing that they did not want the ending to be spoiled.

11. Parts of the game were cut out of the original broadcast.

The United States Hockey team competes against the Soviet Union hockey team during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York
The United States Hockey team competes against the Soviet Union hockey team during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

ABC had scheduled footage for both the hockey game and men’s slalom from 8:30 to 11, with 8 to 8:30 devoted to the animated special The Pink Panther in: Olym-Pinks. To make room, minutes of the game were dropped.

12. Jamie Farr was the only celebrity in attendance.

Farr played Klinger on M*A*S*H, which was in its eighth season. The 7700 seat Lake Placid Olympic Center was sold out, and tickets with a face value of $67.20 were allegedly scalped for as much as $600.

13. It wasn’t the gold medal game.

The Americans and Soviets advanced to the “medal round” with Finland and Sweden. A win earned a country 2 points, a tie 1 point. Going into the big match, the U.S. had tied Sweden, and the USSR beat Finland. After the U.S. shocked the world, the Russians took out their frustrations on Sweden two days later and beat them 9-2, so if the U.S. lost to Finland in their next and final game, the Soviet Union would have won the Gold again, with 4 points to the Americans’ 3.

14. The starting Soviet goaltender was taken out of the game after the first period—and it shook up the team.

It looked like the USSR was going to finish the first period up 2-1, but a last second score by Mark Johnson gave the U.S. a lot of momentum. This upset Viktor Tikhonov so much that he benched Vladislav Tretiak and replaced him with Vladimir Myshkin, who, after shutting out the Americans in the second period, would allow two goals in the third. The move shocked the Russians at the time—defenseman Sergei Starikov said, “It felt like a big hole had been put in our team.” Tikhonov himself looked back on it and admitted, “It was my worst mistake, my biggest regret."

15. Al Michaels did not rehearse his famous question.

The word “miraculous” was swimming in his mind as the final seconds ticked away, which led to him asking if we believed in miracles. Hours later, after working the Finland/Sweden game that transpired while most of the country watched the game whose nickname he was mostly responsible for on delay, he had forgotten what he said.

16. Some of the Soviet players took the loss in stride.

The first Russian Mark Johnson shook hands with after the game had a smile on his face. When Johnson and Eric Strobel ran into Valeri Kharlamov and Boris “Stan Laurel” Milkhailov in a waiting room before taking a urine test, Milkhailov said, “Nice game.”

17. The U.S. team sang "God Bless America" after winning, but didn’t know all the words.

The United States Hockey team celebrates after they defeated the Soviet Union during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York
The United States Hockey team celebrates after they defeated the Soviet Union during a metal round game of the Winter Olympics February 22, 1980 at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The team got tripped up after “land that I love,” hummed through the lines they didn’t know, and picked it up again for the big finish.

18. Players from both countries later played in the NHL.

Thirteen of the 20 members of the U.S. squad went pro, Including defenseman Ken Morrow, who, after winning the gold medal, joined the New York Islanders and won the Stanley Cup in each of his first four seasons. Jim Craig’s arcade buddy Sergei Makarov was one of five players from the 1980 USSR team to join the National Hockey League in the 1988-90 season. Makarov won the Rookie of the Year award at the age of 31, which led to the league enforcing a rule starting the following season that you had to be 26 or younger to win.

19. There was a made-for-TV movie about the game starring Steve Guttenberg.

The 1981 ABC film Miracle on Ice mixed actual game footage with written scenes. Guttenberg portrayed goalie Jim Craig, Karl Malden played Herb Brooks, and Jessica Walter—known by some today as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development—played Herb Brooks’ wife, Patti.

In 2004, Disney released the film Miracle, which starred Kurt Russell as Brooks.

20. The Lake Placid Olympic Center Rink was renamed Herb Brooks Arena in 2005.

Brooks returned to lead the 2002 U.S. men's hockey team to a silver medal. One year later, he passed away after a car accident.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

More Than 350 Franklin Expedition Artifacts Retrieved from Shipwreck of HMS Erebus

Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From a shallow Arctic gulf, a treasure trove of objects from the HMS Erebus shipwreck has been brought to the surface for the first time in more than 170 years. The items could offer new clues about the doomed Franklin expedition, which left England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. All 129 people perished from still-uncertain causes—a mystery that was fictionalized in the AMC series The Terror in 2018.

Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada, said in a teleconference from Ottawa that this year’s research season was the most successful since the discovery of the HMS Erebus shipwreck in 2014. Parks Canada divers and Inuit located the HMS Terror, the second ship of the Franklin expedition, in 2016.

Parks Canada diver at HMS Erebus shipwreck
A Parks Canada diver retrieves a glass decanter at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From mid-August to mid-September, 2019, the Parks Canada and Inuit research team began systematically excavating the large and complex shipwreck. “We focused on areas that had not been disturbed since the ship had sunk,” Bernier said. “Right now, our focus is the cabins of the officers, and we’re working our way toward the higher officers. That’s where we think we have a better chance of finding more clues to what happened to the expedition, which is one of the major objectives.”

Over a total of 93 dives this year, archaeologists concentrated on three crew members’ cabins on the port side amidships: one belonging to the third lieutenant, one for the steward, and one likely for the ice master. In drawers underneath the third lieutenant’s bed, they discovered a tin box with a pair of the officer’s epaulets in “pristine condition,” Bernier said. They may have belonged to James Walter Fairholme, one of the three lieutenants on the Erebus.

HMS Erebus shipwreck epaulets
A pair of epaulets, which may have belonged to third lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, was found at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

In the steward’s pantry, where items used to serve the captain were stored, divers carefully brushed away sediment to reveal dozens of plates, bowls, dish warmers, strainers, and more— about 50 serving pieces total. Bernier said some of the most exciting finds were personal objects that could be linked to individuals, such as a lead stamp with the inscription “Ed. Hoar,” for Edmund Hoar, the 23-year-old captain’s steward. They also found a piece of red sealing wax with a fingerprint of its last user.

Dishes at HMS Erebus shipwreck
Divers found dishes in the steward's pantry at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

Other intriguing items brought to the surface include a glass decanter, found in the officers’ mess area on the lower deck, which may have held brandy or port; a high-quality hairbrush with a few human hairs still in the bristles; and a cedar-wood pencil case. All of the artifacts are jointly owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit.

Hairbrush from HMS Erebus shipwreck
A hairbrush discovered at the HMS Erebus shipwreck still had a few human hairs in the bristles.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

The extensive recovery was made possible by a new research barge, which was moored over the shipwreck and provided hyperbaric chambers and hot-water suits. While wearing the suits, divers were able to stay in the frigid waters for about 90 minutes at a time; they spent over 100 hours examining the wreck this year.

The HMS Erebus’s size and excellent state of preservation mean there’s much more to discover, Bernier said. The Erebus is 108 feet long, and though the upper deck has collapsed, there are 20 cabins on the main deck. They’ve examined only three so far. “There are tens of thousands of artifacts still there,” Bernier tells Mental Floss. “We’re going to be very focused and save what needs to be saved, and go to places [in the wreck] where there are good chances of finding the most information that is valuable for the site.”

Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists
Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists set up instruments near the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

As with the findings from previous research seasons, many questions about the shocking demise of the Franklin expedition remain unanswered. How and when did the HMS Erebus sink after both ships were abandoned in spring 1848, having been trapped in ice since September 1846? Which officers and crew were among the 24 men who had died by that time, and why so many?

Bernier tells Mental Floss there’s even a new mystery to solve. Near Edmund Hoar’s items, divers found another artifact that also bore the name of a crew member—mate Frederick Hornby. “Originally, when the ships set sail, he was not on Erebus, he was on Terror,” Bernier says. “So this object jumped ship at one point. How did that happen? Was Hornby transferred to Erebus; did they abandon one ship and put everybody on the other one? Was it something somebody recovered after he died? Was it given to somebody? With one object, we can start to see [new] questions. Hopefully, by piecing all of this together, we can actually start pushing the narrative of the story in some interesting direction.”

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