15 Surprising Facts About Marco Polo | Mental Floss

15 Surprising Facts About Marco Polo

iStock
iStock

Born in the Republic of Venice in 1254, Marco Polo was a trader, traveler, and adventurer, who (probably*) journeyed to Central Asia and China in an era when vast swaths of the world were still uncharted and just traveling to a neighboring town could take you days. When he returned from his adventures, he brought back stories that helped introduce Europeans to Asia, and contributed to demystifying the largely unknown continent. In the influential work, The Travels of Marco Polo, he outlined the geography of Asia, described the customs of its people, and told tales of life at the court of legendary Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. But as amazing as all that may sound, it only scratches the surface of the bizarre and exciting life of the traveling merchant. Here are 15 things you might not know about Marco Polo

*More on that later! 

1. HE BEGAN HIS ADVENTURES AS A TEENAGER.

Marco Polo wasn’t yet a seasoned traveling merchant when he embarked on his great journey east. In fact, he was just 17 years old. In 1271, Polo left home with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo, and set out for Asia, in hopes of reaching the court of Kublai Khan. It was likely the first time the young Polo had left home as well as the first time he’d met his father and uncle, who had been traveling the world since Marco’s birth. 

2. HE WASN’T THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO EXPLORE CHINA.

While his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, brought knowledge of the Far East to the European world, Marco Polo wasn’t actually the first European to visit China. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Polo to visit China. Before Marco embarked on his journey to Asia, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo had already travelled to China and met with Kublai Khan. 

In some ways, Marco’s journey was a bit of a sequel to Niccolo and Maffeo’s original adventures: The two older travelers had befriended the great Mongol emperor and told him about Christianity, the Pope, and the Church in Rome. Curious about European religion, Kublai Khan apparently requested that the travelers bring him 100 Christian men from whom to learn more about the religion, as well as some holy oil of the lamp in Jerusalem. Niccolo and Maffeo returned to Europe where they picked up the young Marco Polo and somehow procured the oil, but not the 100 Christians, requested by the emperor, before journeying East again.

3. HE TRAVELLED 15,000 MILES OVER THE COURSE OF 24 YEARS.

Marco Polo left home at age 17 and didn’t return to Venice for 24 years. Over the course of two decades, he travelled around 15,000 miles both on land along the Silk Road, and by sea, coming across parts of Asia and, if some highly controversial (and possibly forged) maps are to be believed, visited parts of the Alaskan coast hundreds of years before Vitus Bering.

4. HE DICTATED HIS LIFE STORY TO A ROMANCE WRITER DURING A STINT IN JAIL.

When Marco Polo returned to Europe in 1295, his adventures were far from over. He returned home to find Venice at war against the Republic of Genoa, and took up arms on behalf of his homeland. After a sea skirmish in the late 13th century, Polo was captured by the Genoese and tossed in jail. There, he befriended another prisoner, Rustichello of Pisa, who just happened to be a writer of popular romances. He began dictating his story to Rustichello, who produced the manuscript that would become The Travels of Marco Polo.

5. HE INTRODUCED EUROPE TO THE CONCEPT OF PAPER MONEY …

Long before Europe began printing its own bills, the Mongol empire was circulating paper money. Marco Polo described the strange currency in his book, facetiously describing Kublai Khan as an alchemist who could transform mulberry trees into money, instead of base metals into gold. He wrote, in awe, about the way paper money was treated by Kublai Khan’s subjects as though it were as valuable as gold or silver—and described the systems in place to prevent counterfeiting the paper currency.

6.

…AND TO ANIMALS LIKE CHOW CHOWS, YAKS, AND MUSK DEER.

Marco Polo encountered numerous animals on his journey that were then unknown in Europe. These included the chow chow dog breed, the musk deer, and the yak. Of these, the yak seemed to be Polo’s favorite: Impressed by the silky softness of their fur, he brought yak hair back to Venice with him, where he displayed it as a curiosity.  

7. HE DESCRIBED DELICACIES LIKE GINGER—AND AN EARLY POWER SHAKE.

Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced Italy to pasta. While the veracity of that story has long been debated, Polo did encounter some interesting foods. Ginger was widely used in the Roman era, but by the time of Marco Polo was considerably rarer, and much more expensive. During his travels, however, he found endless quantities of rare spices, costing virtually nothing. And while he may not have brought ice cream to Europe either, as some sources suggest, he does describe an early power shake. The Mongols reportedly dried milk, and, while riding, would add water to the milk in a flask. Riding with said flask would cause the mixture to churn, resulting in a thick syrup.

8. HE THOUGHT RHINOCEROSES WERE UNICORNS.

Back in the 13th Century, European superstition portrayed unicorns as horned, horse-like animals, who could only be tamed and captured with the help of a young woman. Marco Polo’s account of the animal debunked that superstition: In reality, Polo claimed, unicorns weren’t serene and beautiful creatures who gravitated to the pure of heart. They were ugly and dangerous, with hair like a buffalo, feet like an elephant, the head of a wild boar, and a black horn in the middle of their foreheads. Unicorns, Polo informed his readers, primarily liked to roll around in the mud and dirt, and attack people with their prickly tongues. Based on Polo’s description of the “unicorn,” historians now know he was actually describing the rhinoceros. 

9. HE BELIEVED IN SORCERY…

Throughout his book, Polo describes encounters with magicians and sorcerers. At the court of Kublai Khan, Polo describes meeting astrologers who could control the weather from the palace rooftops, and magicians who made flagons of wine levitate at feasts.

10. … AND EVIL SPIRITS.

If Marco Polo sounds a little bit superstitious, it’s likely because he lived in superstitious times. Throughout his book, he not only describes first-hand experiences with magic, but repeats the myths and rumors he encounters as fact. In one passage, Polo claims that it’s a well-known fact that evil spirits haunt the Gobi Desert, torturing travelers with illusions, and calling their names to turn them away from their path and make them lose their way—which is probably a reference to the very real phenomenon of the Gobi's “singing” sands. 

11. HE CLAIMED TO BE CLOSE FRIENDS WITH KUBLAI KHAN. 

In his book, Polo claimed not only to have made it to the court of Kublai Khan in Shangdu—traveling farther than almost any European had in the process—but to have befriended the emperor, becoming his right hand man and advisor. 

12. HE WAS GRANTED A GOLDEN TABLET OF SAFE CONDUCT.

When Marco Polo finally decided it was time to end his adventures and return home, Kublai Khan had grown so attached to the Venetian merchant, he chose to deny his request. Polo finally convinced Kublai Khan to let him go in return for helping the emperor’s great nephew on a sea voyage. In order to ensure Polo was safe on his travels, the emperor awarded him a golden tablet of safe conduct—an inscribed gold plaque—which would help him safely obtain supplies on their journey, and let everyone know he was under the emperor’s protection.

13. HE MIGHT HAVE EXAGGERATED A BIT.

While Marco Polo and his ghostwriter Rustichello of Pisa were undoubtedly great storytellers, historians to this day continue to debate exactly how true some of their stories were. Some historians have gone as far as to question whether Polo even made it to China, arguing he may have simply picked up stories from other merchants during his travels. While Polo’s historical significance isn’t up for debate, it’s unclear which of his tales stretched the truth. 

14. HE HAS A SPECIES OF SHEEP NAMED AFTER HIM.

After providing some of the first written descriptions of yaks, musk deer, and of course, unicorns, it seems fitting that Polo would eventually have an animal named after him. In 1841, zoologist Edward Blyth named a species of sheep Ovis ammon polii after Marco Polo (the sheep are colloquially called Marco Polo sheep). 

15. HE SERVED AS INSPIRATION TO CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS.

Marco Polo’s travels have inspired plenty of explorers to go on adventures of their own. Christopher Columbus himself brought a copy of Marco Polo’s book with him on his trip to the New World. And in the 1960s, a group of travelers even decided to follow Marco Polo’s exact route, journeying from Italy to China in cars and trailers instead of on horseback. 

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

17 Odd Things We've Sent to Space for Some Reason

There's a Starman waiting in the sky.
There's a Starman waiting in the sky.

Artifacts, personal and pop cultural totems, and even the dead have made the journey from our planet to the outer reaches of the heavens. We've covered some odd items that have gone to space before; here are 16 more unusual things that took a trip to the cosmos.

1. Human remains

Thanks to Celestis, a company that specializes in booking “memorial spaceflights,” and an agreement with private rocket company SpaceX, the remains of several people who have died have been launched into the great beyond (for a couple of hours, at least). Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's remains were on the inaugural Celestis flight in 1997; his remains took flight again in 2012 with the remains of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty. Astronaut Gordon Cooper’s ashes were also on that flight.

2. A toy dinosaur

In 2020, astronauts aboard SpaceX’s first crewed missions packed an unusual travel companion: a plush dinosaur. During the historic flight, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were accompanied by “Tremor,” a sparkly Apatosaurus. The crews’ sons chose the toy, which acted as a zero-g indicator.

3. Actual dinosaurs

In 1985, astronaut Loren Acton brought small bits of bone and eggshell from the duck-billed dinosaur Maiasaura peeblesorum along on a mission on SpaceLab 2. Thirteen years later, the skull of a meat-eating Coelophysis from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was a passenger on a trip to the Mir space station.

4. A car

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster, with Earth in background
Nothing clears the head like a long drive through the stars.

In 2018, Elon Musk took off roading to a whole new level. SpaceX launched a red Tesla Roadster into space as part of the Falcon Heavy rocket’s test flight. “Starman,” a mannequin clad in a spacesuit, sits in the car’s driver’s seat. You can track Starman’s cosmic journey here.

5. Salmonella

Lots of strange things have been brought to space in the name of science—including salmonella. Two shuttle flights to the International Space Station (ISS) contained samples of salmonella to determine how the bacteria would react to low gravity, and the findings were kind of scary. When the salmonella returned to Earth after being in orbit for 12 days on the space shuttle Atlantis, the bacteria became even more virulent. In the first study to examine the effect of space flight on the virulence of a pathogen, the bacteria that had taken a space trip was three times as likely to kill the lab mice as the salmonella that was kept on Earth in as close to similar conditions as possible.

6. Tardigrades

Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears, became the first animals to survive exposure in outer space. The eight-legged creatures typically spend their days on a moist piece of moss or enjoy feasting on bacteria or plant life at the bottom of a lake, but they survived being frozen at -328°F or heated to more than 300 degrees on their trip to space. The water bears, which typically don’t grow more than 1 millimeter in length, were dehydrated and exposed in space for 10 days by a group of European researchers. Back on Earth and rehydrated, 68 percent of the tardigrades that were shielded from the radiation survived. A handful with no radiation protection not only came back to life, but later produced viable offspring. Excitedly, an “amateur tardigrade enthusiast” theorized the water bears must be extraterrestrial in origin if they can handle such conditions, but that claim has boringly been denied by the Swedish and German scientists, who made up for it by naming their experiment "Tardigrades in space," or TARDIS.

7. Sperm

Without gravity, samples of animal sperm don’t work the way they should. Putting bull sperm in orbit made the tiny cells move faster than usual. Meanwhile, in sea urchin sperm that flew on NASA missions, the process of phosphorylation screeched to a halt when the enzyme known as protein phosphatase didn’t do its job. In 1979, two female rats that went to space became pregnant but didn't carry the fetuses to term, and the males’ testes shrank along with their sperm count. Fortunately (or unfortunately), one creature has been able to reproduce far from our planet: the cockroach.

8. See-through fish (medaka)

Since the medaka’s organs are clearly visible because of its transparent skin, this species of fish was the obvious choice for scientists to test the effects of microgravity on marine life—and to help determine why astronauts suffer from a decrease in bone density while in orbit. Bones naturally break down and rebuild, and osteoclasts help break down bones while they're under construction, as it were. In space, the process gets wonky, which is why astronauts endure two-hour high-intensity exercise routines and take vitamin D supplements. With the medaka’s help, scientists discovered the time-consuming space exercise could be avoided, and by finding the mechanism in bone metabolism, it may lead to the development of an osteoporosis treatment.

9. Soft drinks

Special designed fizzy drinks cans taken aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985
Even astronauts quenched their thirsts with a fizzy treat.
shankar s., Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1984, Coca Cola decided it wanted to put the first carbonated beverage on a space shuttle. The company spent $250,000 developing a can that would work without gravity, keep the drink fizzy, and not spill all over the place—even changing some of their formula in the process. After NASA agreed, Pepsi responded by saying it felt left out. NASA then announced that any soft drink manufacturer could participate if they created a viable container. In 1985, four cans of Pepsi and four cans of Coke were on board the Challenger; the day shifters drank Coke, and the night owls consumed the Pepsi. Neither of the sodas were to their liking.

10. Pizza

Pizza Hut wasn’t satisfied with simply being the first company to advertise on a rocket in the year 2000, so one year later it paid the Russian space agency about $1 million to become the first company to deliver a pizza to someone in space. The pizza delivered to cosmonaut Yuri Usachov included a crispy crust, pizza sauce, cheese, and salami (because pepperoni grows moldy over a certain period of time). Extra salt and spices were also added to compensate for the deadening of taste buds from space travel, and it was delivered in a vacuum seal. Usachov gave the pizza a thumbs up.

11. A cheese wheel

A canister containing space cheese
Some truly out-of-this-world cheese.
Chris Thompson/SpaceX, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2010, SpaceX placed a wheel of Le Brouere cheese on an uncrewed spaceship to honor the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus cheese shop sketch. To add to the pop culture celebration, SpaceX sealed the cheese wheel in a metal cylinder bearing the image of the film poster from the 1984 Val Kilmer movie Top Secret!. It was claimed to the first cheese to travel to orbit on a commercial spacecraft.

12. A corned beef sandwich

Astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board the Gemini 3 in 1965. The following exchange was recorded:

Gus Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

The entire incident lasted 30 seconds, with the sandwich only being consumed for 10 of those seconds, before being put back away inside Young’s flight suit.

While legend has it that Yuri Gagarin was accompanied by a homemade salami sandwich in 1961, the Russians had a specialized vacuum kit so they could clean up after eating to prevent any clogging of shuttle equipment. The Americans were just supposed to consume food from tubes, so Young was putting himself somewhat at risk for the five-hour mission. The astronaut got a stern talking to; he later landed on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission.

13. Guns

Unlike astronauts, Soviet cosmonauts went into space locked and loaded, carrying a triple barrel TP-82 capable of 40 gauge shotgun rounds. The heavy duty weapon was deemed necessary after 1965, when cosmonauts landed on Earth and became stranded in the Ural Mountains. The isolated cosmonauts feared the local wolves and bears would attack them. In 2006, the TP-82s were replaced with a standard semi-automatic.

14. Buzz Lightyear

A Buzz Lightyear toy spent 467 days in space, orbiting the Earth on the ISS before having a ticker-tape parade in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom thrown in his honor. The toy’s namesake, Buzz Aldrin, was a special guest.

15. Amelia Earhart’s watch

Amelia Earhart was the first president of an international organization of licensed women pilots called The Ninety-Nines. One member of that group is astronaut Shannon Walker, who in October 2009 was presented with a watch, owned by current group director Joan Kerwin, that Earhart wore during her two trans-Atlantic flights to bring onboard the ISS. Earhart, of course, was the first female trans-Atlantic passenger in 1928, and flew from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland solo on May 20, 1932. She gave her watch to H. Gordon Selfridge Jr., who passed it along to Ninety-Nines charter member Fay Gillis Wells. Kerwin acquired the watch at an auction.

16. A treadmill named after Stephen Colbert

An astronaut using the COLBERT treadmill
European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers using the COLBERT.

Stephen Colbert, as he is wont to do, managed to crash an online contest. He garnered enough write-in votes and technically won the right to name a room at the space station after himself. Though NASA reserved their right to ignore write-in votes, the agency compromised by naming their second-ever model of treadmills after him, dubbing it the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The treadmill’s manufacturer nickel-plated the parts, and unlike a standard treadmill, there are elastic straps that fit around a runner’s shoulders and waist to keep them from careening across the space station. The announcement was made by astronaut Sunita Williams on an episode of The Colbert Report; Williams ran a marathon on the previous treadmill while living at the space station in 2007, jogging in place with the concurrent Boston Marathon.

17. An issue of Playboy Magazine

Some members of the backup crew of Apollo 12 included some Playboy spreads on the crew’s checklists, which were attached to Pete Conrad and Alan L. Bean’s wrists as they explored the lunar landscape. Astronaut Richard Gordon, who stayed in orbit around the Moon during the mission, also found a topless DeDe Lind calendar hidden in a locker, which was labeled “Map of a Heavenly Body.”