Amazing discoveries came to light nearly every single month in 2017. Take a chronological journey back through 15 of the year’s most intriguing historical events, from archaeological finds and fascinating DNA evidence to newly uncovered documents that change our understanding of history.
1. Archaeologists discovered a new Dead Sea Scrolls cave
In February of 2017, researchers in Israel announced they had discovered jars, wrappings, ties and other artifacts relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls—the famous cache of manuscripts that includes the oldest known copies of Biblical texts—in a previously unidentified cave at Qumran in the West Bank. First discovered back in 1947 after looters had helped themselves to many of the ancient manuscripts, the Dead Sea scrolls were thought to be hidden in 11 caves; this one is the 12th, and the first to be discovered in 60 years.
2. The church containing Jesus’ tomb reopened to the public
In the summer of 2016, officials at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City—where it is believed that Jesus’ body was laid after his death but before his resurrection—finally agreed to let a team of experts begin the first renovation and restoration of the church since 1810. The Holy Sepulcher has been a Christian pilgrimage site since its construction in the fourth century A.D. In March of 2017, it reopened to the public after the $3 million restoration, welcoming thousands of pilgrims and clergy members within its ornate walls.
3. Paleontologists in western Australia found the world’s largest dinosaur footprint
Dubbed “Australia’s own Jurassic Park,” a stretch of some 15 miles of the Daimler Peninsula in Australia’s Kimberley region is home to the world’s most diverse array of fossilized dinosaur tracks. Among the tracks left by 21 different kinds of dinosaurs in the once-wet sands of a river delta some 130 million years ago, scientists found one sauropod footprint measuring nearly 5 feet 9 inches (1.7 meters). The find, announced in March 2017, is the largest dinosaur print ever discovered.
4. A long-lost copy of the Declaration of Independence was found with differently ordered signatures
In April 2017, two Harvard University scholars made the case that a recently uncovered parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence contained an intriguing difference. The 56 signatures at the end are not grouped by state, as in other known versions of the famous document. Instead, they appear all mixed together, using a common 18th-century cipher. The man who likely commissioned the document was an outspoken supporter of a strong national government and identity, and might have been trying to emphasize the signers of the Declaration as a united group, rather than as representatives of separate states.
5. Research confirmed a band of convict pirates sailed to Japan at the height of its isolation
When a band of Australian convicts who mutinied aboard the brig Cyprus in 1829 went on trial for piracy, they claimed they had made it all the way to Japan aboard the captured ship. But as no Japanese records surfaced of the incident, it was long believed to be a myth—until May 2017, when a Japan-based history buff and English teacher translated samurai accounts from feudal Japan of an encounter with Western visitors in 1830. Based partly on a watercolor sketch of a ship with a British flag, he connected the accounts to the Cyprus for the first time, effectively solving a 187-year-old mystery.
6. Researchers identified bones found in Morocco as the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils
In June 2017, a team of scientists announced that fossils found in a cave in Jebel Irhoud, a hill in western Morocco, are from “early anatomically modern humans,” and date to around 300,000 years ago. If correct, their findings would make the Jebel Irhoud fossils the oldest known Homo sapiens bones, predating ones found in Ethiopia by more than 100,000 years. The new study goes against the argument that there was a single “cradle of mankind,” instead suggesting that modern humans may have evolved in various locations across the African continent.
7. Archaeologists found Sally Hemings’ living quarters at Monticello
For a long time, no one recognized the significance of the small room in the South Wing of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia mansion. But after following an old account mentioning that Sally Hemings, the slave woman with whom historians believe Jefferson had a long relationship (including six children together), lived in the South Wing, archaeologists announced in July that the room did in fact belong to Hemings. Though the room was adjacent to Jefferson’s own bedroom, it had no windows, and was likely damp and uncomfortable. Now, Hemings’ quarters are being restored as part of a larger effort to integrate the stories of Monticello’s enslaved population into the historic site.
8. Scientists analyzed the DNA of ancient Canaanite skeletons
According to the Bible, the Israelites conquered Canaan (as the land now encompassing Lebanon, Jordan and Syria was then known) after their flight from Egypt, and destroyed many of its local communities. But in July 2017, when scientists announced their analysis of DNA extracted from five 3,700-year-old Canaanite skeletons unearthed in Sidon, Lebanon, they found they shared about 90 percent of their DNA with modern Lebanese people. This suggests different groups within the Levant shared a common genetic background—a significant finding in a region long torn apart by religious, political and cultural struggles.
9. A stunningly well-preserved dinosaur fossil went on display to the public
In August 2017, a breathtaking new specimen began welcoming visitors to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Canada. Hailed as one of the best fossil finds of all time, the 110-million-year-old ankylosaur known as Borealopelta resembles a sculpture in its detail, right down to the heavy armor-like scales and the 20-inch spikes protruding from its shoulders. Borealopelta was excavated by miners in an oil and sand quarry back in 2011, then painstakingly separated from the stone surrounding it during thousands of hours of work over five years. The sands of the quarry preserved the creature’s body so well that scientists can even speculate on its color and pattern, thanks to traces of pigment left in its skin.
10. A century-old fruitcake and a doomed explorer’s painting were unearthed in Antarctica
This summer saw two big discoveries in Antarctica. In June 2017, the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust revealed that scientists working on a restoration of historic huts on Cape Adare had sifted through layers of dust, paper and penguin poop to uncover a delicate watercolor painting of a bird. Dated 1899, it was painted by Dr. Edward Wilson, who died on the failed South Pole expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott in 1911-12. In August, the same restoration project turned up a fruitcake made by the British company Huntley & Palmers, still wrapped in paper and encased in a battered tin. Scientists think the cake, which looked and smelled “(almost) edible” also dates to the Scott expedition, as the explorer was known to have favored that particular brand.
11. Researchers located the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
In August 2017, a team of civilian researchers led by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, discovered the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis, a U.S. Navy cruiser, on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The cruiser had been sunk 72 years ago by a torpedo blast from a Japanese submarine. Considered one of the greatest maritime tragedies ever suffered by the U.S. Navy, the Indianapolis had just delivered components of the atomic bomb that would be used in Hiroshima when it was hit on July 30, 1945. Only 316 of the nearly 1,200 sailors and Marines aboard the ship survived. Allen’s team found the Indianapolis after previous attempts failed, using a 250-foot research vessel that could dive up to 6,000 meters (or 3 ½ miles) deep.
12. Archeologists found the underwater ruins of two ancient Roman cities
After a seven-year search, a team of Italian and Tunisian scientists located about 50 acres of Roman ruins, including streets and monuments, off the northeastern coast of Tunisia, near the modern-day town of Nabeul, in late August 2017. Experts believe the ruins may be part of Neapolis, the coastal city thought to have been destroyed and partially submerged by a tsunami in the fourth century A.D. Then in December, divers uncovered another underwater Roman city—Baiae, a former center of luxurious hedonism—in early December off Italy’s western coast. Historians think Baiae was also submerged some 1,700 years ago, as volcanic activity forced the Italian coast into the Bay of Naples.
13. DNA evidence proved Viking women were warriors
In September 2017, DNA analysis of remains found in a 10th-century grave in Sweden provided the first genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior. The skeleton in question had been buried with various weapons, two horses, a game board and a full set of gaming pieces, all of which suggested the individual was a high-ranking warrior with strategic and military know-how. Ever since the grave was first excavated back in the 1800s, historians and archaeologists had assumed the skeleton was male. But after extracting DNA from the skeleton, researchers concluded that in fact, the remains were those of a woman, who stood somewhere around 5 feet 6 inches tall and lived more than three decades.
14. The National Archives released (some of) the last top-secret JFK files
According to a 1992 law passed by Congress, October 26, 2017 marked the final deadline for all records relating to John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to be released to the public. Though the files released in October yielded some interesting revelations—such as details about contacts between shooter Lee Harvey Oswald and the Cuban and Soviet intelligence agencies—the biggest one might be that U.S. agencies like the FBI and CIA are continuing to withhold evidence related to the assassination. In the final hours before the release, concerns by national security and intelligence officials led President Donald Trump to block the disclosures of some 300 files, pending a six-month review.
15. Scientists found a mysterious “void” inside the Great Pyramid
Using a high-tech method involving cosmic radiation, scientists identified a previously unknown space inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, aka Khufu’s Pyramid. Hovering just above the cathedral-like Grand Gallery, which leads from the Queen’s burial chamber to the King’s, the enclosure may be a structural feature that relieves weight on the gallery below. But scientists are now exploring whether the “void” may serve some other, unknown purpose, which could shed light on the enduring mysteries of the pyramids.