Our Top 10 Stories of 2011

From Civil War mustaches to Mayan lost cities to myths about the brain, here are the most-read stories of the year

Articles about beer and web memes are featured in our top 10 but which article is the most popular? (Clockwise from top left: TongRo Image Stock / Corbis; Library of Congress; Landon Nordeman; Dave Yoder)

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“There!” Hansen said. Lozano banked down toward what looked from afar to be a huge stone knoll, half swallowed in vines and trees. The pilots who first flew over the Mirador basin in the 1930s, among them Charles Lindbergh, were startled to see what they thought were volcanoes rising out of the limestone lowlands. In fact, they were pyramids built more than two millennia ago, and what we were circling was the largest of them all, the crown of the La Danta complex. At 230 feet, it is not as tall as the great pyramid at Giza, but, according to Hansen, it is more massive, containing some 99 million cubic feet of rock and fill.

We were hovering now over the heart of the ancient city of El Mirador, once home to an estimated 200,000 people and the capital of a complex society of interconnected cities and settlements that may have supported upwards of a million people. The last thing you would ever guess from a casual aerial overview was that virtually every topographical contour in the primordial forest was created not by geological and environmental forces but by the vanished inhabitants of one of the world’s foundational civilizations.

6. Secrets of the Colosseum

German archaeologist Heinz-Jürgen Beste has studied the hypogeum, or ruins beneath Rome’s Colosseum, for 14 years. Read about how the space, now open to the public, was once a bustling staging ground equipped with elevator systems to lift animals and scenery into the arena for gladiator contests, battle reenactments and animal hunts.

From the story:

Beste says the hypogeum itself had a lot in common with a huge sailing ship. The underground staging area had “countless ropes, pulleys and other wood and metal mechanisms housed in very limited space, all requiring endless training and drilling to run smoothly during a show. Like a ship, too, everything could be disassembled and stored neatly away when it was not being used.” All that ingenuity served a single purpose: to delight spectators and ensure the success of shows that both celebrated and embodied the grandeur of Rome.

7. Top 10 Myths About the Brain

Senior editor Laura Helmuth debunks some of the most rampant rumors about the brain, including one that posits that we use only 10 percent of it. Visuals, says Helmuth, might just be the best way for us to make sense of the brain. See some artistic images of the organ in another photo essay from this year titled “Beauty of the Brain.”

From the story:

It’s all downhill after 40 (or 50 or 60 or 70).

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