Did the Pilgrims Really Land on Plymouth Rock and More Questisons From our Readers

Where do hurricanes start, the Big Bang, sea gulls and other answers from the Smithsonian’s experts

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According to oral tradition, the Mayflower Pilgrims landed near Plymouth Rock in 1620—but first-person accounts of their arrival make no mention of it. Illustration by Owen Davey

Did the Pilgrims really land at Plymouth Rock?
Slade Labadie
Dixon, New Mexico

It’s hard to be certain. According to oral tradition, the Mayflower Pilgrims landed near the landmark rock in 1620—but first-person accounts of their arrival make no mention of it. The legend is attributed to Thomas Faunce, an acquaintance of the earliest Pilgrims, who recalled hearing it as a boy.
William L. Bird
Curator, National Museum of American History

Why do I see sea gulls in large parking lots miles from any water?
Larry Seaver
Plainfield, New Jersey

Gulls often stop to rest (and forage for French fries) in parking lots when they’re migrating, usually in spring and fall. And while most gull species are coastal, the Franklin’s gull inhabits the prairies of central North America.
Carla Dove
Ornithologist, Museum of Natural History

If the universe began with the Big Bang, with celestial bodies traveling away from the point of origin, can the center of the universe be pinpointed by backtracking their trajectories?
Glen J. Venable
Gaines, Michigan

The Big Bang wasn’t so much an explosion into space as an explosion of space itself. If we were to backtrack the expansion, we would end up with an infinitesimally small point—space itself would disappear, along with the concept of location. Picture a balloon on which we drew little dots to mark galaxies; when we inflate the balloon, all the dots expand away from each other, yet on the two-dimensional balloon surface we cannot pinpoint any center of this expansion.
Debora Sijacki
Astrophysicist, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Why do hurricanes originate off the southwestern coast of Africa? And is there a similar point of origin for typhoons?
Robert Bruce Barton
Charlotte, North Carolina

Tropical cyclones—storms called “hurricanes” in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific and “typhoons” in the western Pacific—always originate near the Equator, where solar heating provides energy to develop large storms. Atlantic hurricanes originate near Africa and move toward North America because of global atmospheric circulation patterns.
Andrew Johnston
Geographer, National Air and Space Museum

Can an animal’s (or human’s) diet be determined through the analysis of bones that are tens of thousands of years old?
Christine Sturtz
Parsippany, New Jersey

We can’t determine exactly which plant or animal an individual ate, but we can reconstruct its food web. We can analyze chemicals in bones up to about 50,000 years old, and we can examine wear patterns and other physical qualities in many older ones. From bones, we can tell whether an animal was an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore; whether an herbivore ate mostly grasses or leaves; and how much meat a carnivore generally ate.
Christine France
Physical scientist, Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

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