Our Top Ten Stories of 2019

From a 16-million-year-old tree to Confederate soldiers’ diaries, voracious snakes and England’s warrior king, these were the most-read stories of 2019

top ten smithsonian stories
Presenting Smithsonian magazine's top ten stories of 2019 Photos via public domain/Netflix; photo illustration by Meilan Solly

The last year of the decade was filled with a dizzying array of headlines, from the January government shutdown to the devastating fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, the discovery of a new human ancestor species, the first-ever image of a black hole, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team World Cup victory, the Amazon rainforest’s unprecedented fire season and the end of a new Star Wars trilogy.

Archaeologists unearthed fascinating finds like a Pompeiian sorceress’ kit, “helmets” made from the skulls of children and 1,700-year-old Roman eggs. In the cultural sphere, Maurizio Cattelan’s $120,000 banana epitomized the public’s confusion and exasperation over conceptual art, while a Renaissance nun’s Last Supper painting made its public debut after 450 years in hiding. We lost luminaries including author Toni Morrison, celebrity cat Lil Bub, opera singer Jessye Norman, adventurer Barbara Hillary and Tuskegee airman Robert Friend, and welcomed new arrivals like royal baby Archie Mountbatten-Windsor. From the hidden story of the Apollo 11 mission to a new method for calculating dogs’ age, the pythons overtaking the Florida Everglades and a 16-million-year-old sequoia tree, these were Smithsonian magazine’s top ten stories of 2019.

1. This Map Lets You Plug in Your Address to See How It's Changed Over the Past 750 Million Years

Smithsonian magazine’s most-read story of the year centered on Ancient Earth, an interactive map that allows users to visualize how different parts of the world have evolved over the past 750 million years. Plug a specific address or more generalized region, such as a country or province, into the tool, then choose the desired date from a dropdown menu of 26 options spanning the Cryogenian Period to the present. To truly appreciate the project’s scale, start at the beginning of the map’s timeline and watch as the world shifts from unrecognizable masses to the supercontinent of Pangea and, finally, the seven continents seen today.

2. The True Story of Henry V, England’s Warrior King

Ahead of the release of Netflix’s The King, we profiled the movie’s eponymous monarch, England’s Henry V. Portrayed by Timothée Chalamet in the admittedly historically faulty film, the real Lancastrian king is best remembered as a warrior who led his country to victory against overwhelming odds at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. This feature teased out the complexities behind the much-mythologized ruler, who spent much of his nine-year reign fighting (or negotiating with) the French.

The King - Timothée Chalamet, Robert Pattinson | Final Trailer | Netflix Film

3. Hidden Japanese Settlement Found in Forests of British Columbia

To date, a team led by archaeologist Robert Muckle has recovered more than 1,000 artifacts—among others, the list includes rice bowls, buttons, ceramics, teapots, pocket watches and sake bottles—from a long-forgotten 20th-century Japanese settlement in the forests of British Columbia’s North Shore mountains. Populated by immigrants and their Canadian-born children, the community likely acted as a refuge from the rampant racism of pre-World War II Vancouver but was abandoned around 1942, when, as Muckle told Smithsonian magazine’s Brigit Katz earlier this year, its residents were “incarcerated or sent to road camps.”

4. What You Didn't Know About the Apollo 11 Mission

The June issue of Smithsonian magazine marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with a deep dive on the Apollo 11 mission by Charles Fishman. As the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon asked readers, “The leap to the Moon in the 1960s was an astonishing accomplishment. But why? What made it astonishing? … What exactly was the hard part?”

Fishman outlines the answer to these questions in an immersive, behind-the-scenes exploration of the race to the moon, documenting everything from President John F. Kennedy’s personal lack of interest in space to the Soviets’ secretive launch of an unmanned craft called Luna 15 just days before Apollo 11’s entry into orbit.

5. A 16-Million-Year-Old Tree Tells a Deep Story of the Passage of Time

Tourists stopping by the long-awaited “Hall of Fossils—Deep Time” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are welcomed by an enormous sequoia fossil dated to some 16 million years ago. Containing about 260 tree rings, the slab represents the culmination of curators’ efforts to place dinosaurs, megafauna and other relics of the past in perspective, offering visitors the opportunity to fully absorb just how much time has passed since the sequoia tree first sprang out of the earth in what is now central Oregon. “Time is so vast,” Smithsonian paleobotanist Scott Wing told contributing writer Riley Black in June, “that this giant slab of a tree is just scratching the surface.”

6. Calculate Your Dog's Age With This New, Improved Formula

Contrary to popular belief, one dog year isn’t actually equivalent to seven human years. To come up with a more accurate aging formula, geneticists led by Tina Wang of the University of California, San Diego, compared humans’ “epigenetic clocks,” or estimated age as indicated by a phenomenon called DNA methylation rates, to that of canines. The team found that young puppies and human infants have similar methylation rates, but these figures diverge over time, with dogs’ epigenetic clocks speeding up during the first year of life before slowing to align more closely with humans in later stages of life. Overall, the researchers reported, a 2-year-old dog is roughly equivalent to a 42-year-old human, while a 10-year-old dog is the equivalent of a 67.8-year-old person.

Calculate Your Dog's Age With This New, Improved Formula

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7. This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Is Combatting Terrorism

Smithsonian magazine’s January/February 2019 issue focused on America at war, exploring the nation’s involvement in conflicts through infographics, features, polls and photo stories. This map, compiled by Stephanie Savell and her colleagues at Brown University’s Costs of War Project, tracked the United States’ military involvement across the globe, revealing that the country’s armed forces operate in 40 percent of the world’s nations.

8. The Snakes That Ate Florida

Florida has a python problem—to say the least. As many as hundreds of thousands of Burmese pythons are scattered across the Everglades, wreaking havoc on the region’s native wildlife populations and largely evading those tasked with curbing their reach. Smithsonian contributor Ian Frazier joined local bounty hunters and biologists fighting the snakes’ invasion, recording these individuals’ forays into Florida’s swampland in vivid detail for the July 2019 issue of the magazine.

9. The Diaries Left Behind by Confederate Soldiers Reveal the True Role of Enslaved Labor at Gettysburg

In this online feature, historian Kevin M. Levin explored the lives of the 6,000 to 10,000 enslaved individuals who travelled with General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the summer of 1863 into the enemy territory north of the Mason-Dixon line. Drawing on diaries written by Confederate soldiers, Levin, author of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, keys in on the role slavery played in the war.

Some of the enslaved escaped once on the friendlier battleground of Pennsylvania, but others, perhaps out of fear, remained close to their owners. Levin shares the story of Moses, who buried his owner Captain William McLeod of the 38th Georgia following his death at the Battle of Gettysburg, and in the end surmises that “camp slaves and other enslaved workers—the entire institution of slavery, really—were crucial to the … Confederate insurgency as a whole.”

10. How Scientists Resolved the Mystery of the Devil’s Corkscrews

For this “Deep Time” story, Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of fossil vertebrates in the National Museum of Natural History’s paleobiology department, recounted scientists’ attempts to unravel the mystery of the Devil’s Corkscrews, an unusual type of fossil named for its bedeviling spiral appearance. As it turns out, the fossils are actually corkscrew-shaped burrows built by the extinct beaver species Palaeocastor.

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