Much like its immediate predecessors, 2022 was a year for the history books, producing a dizzying array of headlines that reflected a mix of momentous change, loss and scientific discovery. The United States kicked off 2022 with a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, protesting China’s “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities” in the Uyghur-dominated region of Xinjiang. Within days of the global competition’s end on February 20, Russia invaded Ukraine, sparking a global humanitarian and diplomatic crisis that shows few signs of slowing.
In March, the global death toll for Covid-19 surpassed six million; despite this staggering figure, most countries (China and North Korea aside) have returned to an almost pre-pandemic existence with the safety net of vaccines and antiviral drugs. Also in the realm of public health, outbreaks of mpox, the virus formerly known as monkeypox, raised concerns—as yet unrealized—of a second pandemic.
This year’s cultural happenings ran the gamut from climate activists throwing food at masterpieces to a White House wedding to the explosion of viral daily guessing games. Across the U.S., institutions made incremental but measurable progress in the struggle for equality, repatriating looted or stolen artifacts, removing public monuments honoring slaveholders and the Confederacy, and celebrating the stories of under-recognized communities. Meanwhile, scientists made compelling contributions to our understanding of the universe, showing us new views of outer space, marking major steps in humans’ return to the moon and using ancient DNA to identify the first known Neanderthal family.
Smithsonian magazine’s coverage of 2022 reflected the eclectic interests of our readers. We chronicled intriguing finds like 1,900-year-old snacks in sewers beneath the Colosseum, an early medieval woman’s stunning necklace, a 4,300-foot tunnel beneath an ancient Egyptian temple and a 30,000-year-old baby woolly mammoth. We also paid tribute to towering figures who died in 2022, including long-reigning British monarch Elizabeth II, Fleetwood Mac member Christine McVie and French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. From a teen inventor to a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender at the end of World War II to paintings by J.R.R. Tolkien, these were Smithsonian’s ten most-read stories of 2022.
1. This 17-Year-Old Designed a Motor That Could Potentially Transform the Electric Car Industry
Our top story of the year profiled a high school senior whose impressive list of inventions includes animatronic hands, high-speed running boots and a motor with the potential to transform the electric car industry. As 17-year-old Robert Sansone told Smithsonian correspondent Margaret Osborne this summer, he wanted to develop an electric car motor made out of sustainable, affordable materials rather than rare-earth elements. He experimented with 3D-printed plastic, copper wires and a steel rotor until he achieved the high speed and efficiency needed to power an electric vehicle.
“Once I had this initial idea, then I had to do some prototyping to try and see if that design would actually work,” the inventor said. “I don’t have tons of resources for making very advanced motors, and so I had to make a smaller version—a scale model—using a 3D printer.” Sansone added, “I didn’t have a mentor to help me, really, so each time a motor failed, I had to do tons of research and try and troubleshoot what went wrong. But eventually on the 15th motor, I was able to get a working prototype.”
Sansone’s design won him first prize—and $75,000—at the 2022 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest high school STEM competition. The 17-year-old was one of several young inventors featured in Smithsonian this year. Among others, these innovators included Benjamin Choi, a 17-year-old who created a low-cost, mind-controlled prosthetic arm; Anika Puri, a 17-year-old who developed a low-cost tool to spot elephant poachers in real time; Aseel Rawashdeh, a 17-year-old who found a way to use baker’s yeast and essential oils to control mosquitoes; and Madison Checketts, a 12-year-old who designed an edible water bottle.
2. The Real Warriors Behind ‘The Woman King’
As part of our “Based on a True Story” series, which explores how popular movies and television shows blend fact with fiction, Smithsonian examined the real history behind The Woman King, a cinematic epic about the Agojie, an all-woman army from the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film stars Viola Davis as Nanisca, a fictionalized leader of the Agojie, and Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, a young recruit. The first major Hollywood adaptation of the Agojie’s story, The Woman King celebrates the strength of the women soldiers, whose training included mock assaults on towering, thorn-covered fortifications and exercises designed to harden them to bloodshed.
Though the broad strokes of the movie are indeed historically accurate, the script takes extensive dramatic license, particularly when it comes to the Agojie’s involvement in the slave trade. In the film, Nanisca urges Dahomey’s ruler, Ghezo (played by John Boyega), to end the kingdom’s close relationship with Portuguese slave traders. Portraying the Agojie—whose warfare yielded captives traded abroad or domestically—as critics of the slave trade makes for a “nice story,” Lynne Ellsworth Larsen, an art historian at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, told Smithsonian in September. “[But] do I think it’s historically accurate? I’m skeptical.” She added, “These women are symbols of strength and of power. But … they’re [also] complicit in a problematic system. They are still under the patriarchy of the king, and they are still players in the slave trade.”
The Woman King wasn’t the only historical production to receive the “Based on a True Story” treatment this year from Smithsonian. Other 2022 releases included HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, “The Crown” and Top Gun: Maverick.
3. More Than 400 Invasive Fish Dumped From Aquariums Found in Texas River
When in doubt, don’t throw your fish out. This may sound like a line from Dr. Seuss, but for scientists in Texas, it’s an essential piece of advice. In recent years, the state has witnessed an explosion in the population of suckermouth armored catfish, an invasive species that has no natural predator in the region.
“They take over important habitats such as springs, push out and replace native species, … decimate native vegetation, and undermine and destabilize banks,” said fisheries scientist Gary Garrett in a 2011 statement.
Also known as plecos, the catfish eat algae, helping to keep their owners’ aquariums clean. But few realize that the animals, which are native to South America, Panama and Costa Rica, can grow to more than two feet long, making them potentially problematic additions to one’s fish tank.
Toward the beginning of 2022, a Facebook post shared by Texas Parks and Wildlife brought new attention to the invasive species, revealing that researchers recovered 406 plecos from the San Marcos River during a single dewatering session. Noting that plecos “have been introduced to numerous water bodies in Texas through aquarium dumping,” the post closed with a pithy reminder: “Never dump your tank!”
4. Outdoor Cats Are Using $500 Starlink Satellite Dishes as Self-Heating Beds
In early January, five felines who cuddled up on a self-heating Starlink satellite dish captivated audiences both on our site and further afield. As entrepreneur Aaron Taylor wrote on Twitter late last year, “Starlink works great until the cats find out that the dish gives off a little heat on cold days.” Responding to a question about whether the cats affected the satellite’s performance, Taylor said, “Yes, interrupts streaming of movies. Doesn’t shut it down completely but definitely slows everything down.”
In Smithsonian’s coverage of the viral post, Osborne pointed out that the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends keeping cats indoors to avoid disease, extreme weather, predators and cars. Outdoor cats also pose a major threat to native animals, killing an estimated 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. annually.
5. Rarely Seen Paintings by J.R.R. Tolkien Portray a Lush ‘Lord of the Rings’ Landscape
J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of many talents. Best known for writing The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the British author was also a skilled mapmaker, calligrapher and artist. In February, the Tolkien Estate unveiled a digital portal featuring many of the writer’s artistic creations, from a vibrant watercolor of the dragon Smaug to sketches of English streetscapes. According to Smithsonian correspondent Nora McGreevy, “the site features 12 previously unpublished items, including Tolkien’s paintings of flowers and exotic birds, a draft manuscript of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (1953), and photographs of the author and his family.”
Also in 2022, we took a deep dive into Tolkien’s lesser-known stories of Middle-earth, which inspired the recent Amazon Prime series “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Tolkien drew inspiration for his Númenor writings from the political unrest of the late 1930s but was reluctant to draw a direct link between history and his fantasy world. “In this book about tyranny, Tolkien was loath to act like a dictator by telling his readers what to think,” wrote John Garth for Smithsonian magazine’s October issue. “He built his world out of the worlds he knew. But he would have hoped that in future times, with other dictators, his work should continue to feel relevant.”
6. The Japanese WWII Soldier Who Refused to Surrender for 27 Years
When American troops seized the island of Guam in August 1944, 29-year-old Shoichi Yokoi and some 5,000 of his fellow Japanese soldiers refused to surrender, preferring to eke out a meager existence on the run rather than face the shame of becoming a prisoner of war. By the end of World War II in September 1945, the Americans had captured or killed the majority of these men, but Yokoi and about 130 other holdouts remained in hiding. Deep in the jungles of Guam, they sought refuge in caves or makeshift underground shelters, surviving on a mix of coconuts, papaya, shrimp, frogs, toads, eels and rats.
On January 24, 1972, Yokoi’s two decades of near solitude (he’d last made contact with other stragglers in 1964) came to an abrupt end. Spotting two fishermen while he was checking a bamboo fish trap, Yokoi charged at the strangers, fearful they’d capture him as a prisoner of war. The men easily overpowered Yokoi, who was sent back to Japan the following month. Though he received a hero’s welcome, Yokoi expressed great remorse over his return, telling the New York Times, “I have returned with the rifle the emperor gave me. I am sorry I could not serve him to my satisfaction.”
7. The Breathtaking Glen Canyon Reveals Its Secrets
Published in the magazine’s October issue, Pete McBride’s stunning photo essay revealed how Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the U.S., became “a symbol of water troubles in the West and the impact of climate change.” An artificial reservoir created by the damming of Glen Canyon in the mid-20th century, Lake Powell supplies drinking water to millions of Americans. But it’s on the decline, with water levels dropping to unsustainable numbers due to mismanagement and drought. For the first time in decades, sections of the lake are no longer underwater, exposing everything from a natural monument known as the Cathedral in the Desert to the “detritus of other times … pull-tab beer cans, flippers, lawn chairs, golf balls, anchors, a pair of pliers, sunglasses, jet skis and even sunken boats,” according to McBride.
“The diminishment of Lake Powell,” McBride wrote, “is a tragedy for countless Americans … [and] a matter of grave concern to people and businesses downstream who depend on the water stored there. Yet we can also marvel at the beauty of the landscape as it reasserts itself. There are lessons to be learned, for sure, lessons about our relationship to nature, lessons about time.”
Other 2022 Smithsonian stories about water shortages in the West included an August explainer on states’ disagreements over how to conserve the limited water supply and an overview of the Colorado River Compact, which marked its 100th anniversary in November.
8. The 20th-Century History Behind Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Smithsonian turned to Katya Cengel, author of From Chernobyl With Love: Reporting From the Ruins of the Soviet Union, to unpack the modern history behind the conflict.
Though Russian President Vladimir Putin traces the modern Ukrainian independence movement to the German occupation of the country during World War II, Ukraine had already asserted its sovereignty decades earlier, in 1917. By linking Ukrainian independence to World War II, during which some freedom fighters aligned themselves with the Nazis in hopes of escaping Soviet oppression, Putin paints any push for Ukrainian sovereignty as a Nazi one, Markian Dobczansky, a historian at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, told Smithsonian. He added, “[Russian leaders] basically don’t recognize any Ukrainian historical agency except the agency that they imagined for them.”
Putin’s justifications of the invasion as a demilitarization and de-Nazification campaign may be ahistorical, but, as Cengel explained, some Ukrainians did actively participate in the Nazis’ reign of terror, including the Holocaust. Ongoing re-examination of Ukrainians’ roles in wartime atrocities “has prompted a relatively difficult dialogue in Ukraine about the issue of complicity,” said Natalie Belsky, a historian at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Dobczansky, for his part, concluded that “Ukraine has begun the process of confronting the darkest pages of its past.”
9. Lost Cities of the Amazon Discovered From the Air
In May, a study published in the journal Nature revealed the existence of a vast network of suburban-like settlements in the Bolivian Amazon. Discovered with light-based remote sensing technology (also known as lidar), the sprawling urban landscape contradicts the colonialist view of the Amazon as untouched wilderness. “It’s a myth that was created by Europeans who really spoke of a jungle, and vast regions untouched by humans,” study co-author Heiko Prümers, of the German Archaeological Institute, told science correspondent Brian Handwerk. “So a lot of people didn’t want to see that there were archaeological sites here that merit exploration.”
Prümers and his colleagues used lidar to peer beneath the Amazon’s dense vegetation, uncovering “raised causeways” that connected miles of settlements “across a landscape … shaped by a massive water control and distribution system with reservoirs and canals,” according to Handwerk.
Linked to the Casarabe culture, which thrived in the region between about 500 and 1400, the structures have remained largely untouched for centuries, preserved by the Amazon’s low population density. Without further study, however, the Casarabe sites and others like them could disappear, falling victim to deforestation before scholars can analyze them. “We’re running out of time, because we’re losing the Amazon,” Chris Fisher, an archaeologist at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study, told Smithsonian. “And we’re going to lose things that we never knew were there. To me, that’s a real tragedy.”
10. The 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2022
This year, our annual list of the best small towns to visit across the U.S. spotlighted sites that “inspire our hearts and minds, and encourage us to get out and explore,” in the words of travel correspondent Laura Kiniry. Selections ran the gamut from Africatown, Alabama, a community founded by survivors of the slave ship Clotilda, to Cañon City, Colorado, which celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2022.
Other highlights from the list included Bemidji, Minnesota, the self-proclaimed “curling capital” of the U.S. and the alleged birthplace of Paul Bunyan; Banner Elk, North Carolina, home of the annual Woolly Worm Festival; and Chillicothe, Ohio, whose Indigenous Hopewell earthworks were recently nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. “Our picks for the 15 best small towns to visit this year all have a population of 25,000 or under, a high density of cultural offerings and natural beauty, and a compelling reason to visit in 2022,” Kiniry wrote in June.