Recent Articles

The foundation of Atlas Obscura is contributed by intrepid users around the world, out exploring the places no one else is noticing, or delving into history that's been all but forgotten. Here we are highlighting five of our favorite recent additions to the Atlas. Have a place we've missed? Create an account and become a part of our community.

TRUNYAN
Bali, Indonesia

article-imageTrunyan Cemetery (photograph by Yusuf IJsseldijk/Wikimedia)

For centuries in a Bali village, the dead of the Bali Aga people have been placed out in the open beneath a giant banyan tree. The Trunyan cemetery added to Atlas Obscura by cum2tekuiti is actually a practical solution to death's unpleasant decomposition. The smell from the tree reportedly masks the scent of decay. 

MICROPIA
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

article-imageSome of the bacteria residents at Micropia (via micropia.nl)

Opened in 2014, Micropia in Amsterdam is the world's first microbe zoo. Added by labatteg to Atlas Obscura, this incredible space focuses on the bacteria that live on and around us, with exhibitions of petri dishes with cultures. A microbiology lab on site tends to and grows new specimens. 

RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL'S SECRET APARTMENT
New York, New York

article-imageRadio City's secret apartment (photograph by Luke J. Spencer)

Even a heavily-trafficked destination like New York's Radio City Music Hall has its secrets. High above the stage is a hidden apartment. Added by Luke J. Spencer, who also contributed photographs, the apartment is almost perfectly preserved from when it was built in the 1930s, with 20-foot ceilings adorned in gold leaf and plush furnishings. 

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article-imageEbola facility in Sierra Leone, August 2, 2014 (©EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre)

Death, disease, and fear ravage much the world right now, as thousands die of Ebola in West Africa, and hundreds of thousands across the globe read about it. In such a climate, it only makes sense to quarantine the affected areas to stop the swell of infection, or does it?

Sitting at home, our idea of a quarantine probably brings to mind one of two images. The first is a humane and sanitary containment system, where victims are tended to by healthcare workers versed in precautionary measures to prevent spread, and perhaps a second containment system for those who may have been in contact with the disease, so that those who are not infected remain so, and those who are can be swiftly moved to the correct facility. The other image is that of the dystopian novels, where thousands of people — sick and well — are left to fend for themselves in abandoned stadiums or hospitals, as the rest of the word metaphorically throws red tape around the area and walks away.

Sadly, the reality of quarantine is closer to the second image than the first, and it may even be more dire than that.

In August this year, military forces surprised citizens in a neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia, with a "cordon sanitaire." Makeshift roadblocks of old scrap wood were forcibly placed around the area of West Point, a densely populated slum where education is minimal and health care is virtually nonexistent. The residents of the neighborhood were not informed of this blockade, were not made aware of its purpose or the reasoning behind it. They were expected to comply with brute force, as the government there scrambled, feeling they had no time for communication.

In these conditions, can we really blame victims of the disease and their possibly infected loved ones for breaking out of (or into) the neighborhood?

As much common sense as it may make to first-world countries trying to stop a deadly disease, quarantines have always walked the thin line between healthcare and human rights violations. It has been well-documented that the difference between these two outcomes is efficient and strong communication. Something we have not achieved in West Africa.

Cordon sanitaire is a specific type of quarantine that uses physical barriers to mark an area of disease or military aggression. Its first known use as a phrase stems from France in 1821, when the French government sent 30,000 troops to the Pyrenees to stop a deadly fever from traveling from Spain into their country. Quarantines of this nature have been in use since the 1500s, often used in medieval times to thwart the bubonic plague. 2014 is the first year one has been government sanctioned since 1918, when the border between Russia and Poland was closed to prevent spread of typhus.

In almost all cases of use, cordon sanitaire is a last resort, implemented when the cause and spread of a disease is unknown. As some residents of parts of West Africa are condemned to a dystopian reality, it is worth looking at the history of quarantines, and the diseases they were meant to prevent.

Bubonic Plague: 1665

article-imageScenes of the Great Plague of London in 1665 (via Wellcome Images)

In 1665, England experienced its last epidemic of the deadly bubonic plague that had been prevalent since the 1400s. Top estimates say it killed 100,000 of London’s 460,000 citizens. While we now know the plague is spread by fleas from rats, in those days little was known about the origin of the disease. As is common, the infection stemmed from a destitute area.

In the small town of St. Giles, west of London, rats carrying the disease made their way through alleyways strewn with garbage into Whitechapel, then London itself. Quarantines were immediately set in place, the houses of the infected locked, and churches prohibited from keeping bodies on their property. Those who died of the bubonic plague were carried away at night and thrown into plague burial pits. By September of 1665, however, quarantine measures were abandoned. Those who could afford it fled the country, leaving the impoverished and already-sickened to their own devices. Parliament ceased activity. What actually stopped the disease in 1666 was not quarantine measures (as they were carried out haphazardly and not adhered to properly), but a great fire that burned nearly all of the city, taking the plague with it. The city rebuilt itself with wider streets and implemented stricter sanitation codes to prevent another epidemic from taking place.

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article-image
Mating female and male Microbrachius, by Brian Choo, Finders University

Scientists have long believed that prehistoric fish all mated externally by releasing eggs and sperm into the water. But a new discovery — "one of the biggest in the evolutionary history of sexual reproduction" — has led an Australian professor to conclude that Microbrachius dicki, prehistoric armored fish, actually had genitals, and were using them to copulate internally 385 million years ago.

Palaeontologist and Flinders University Professor John Long made the discovery accidentally, while going through old boxes of fossils at the University of Technology in Tallinn, Estonia. He found that the M. dicki is the first species in which the male and female developed physical differences. Males had "genital limbs" called claspers on either side of their bodies that were used to transfer sperm into females, and females had "genital plates," which are rough like cheese graters, to dock the male organs in place. Those claspers are now believed to be the oldest sexual organs, which, over hundreds of millions of years, would evolve into the penis.

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article-imagePhoto taken from a roll of film found at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident (via Wikimedia)

In January of 1959, 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov led a group of eight young Soviet hikers, comprising seven men and two women and mostly university students, into the Ural Mountains, attempting to reach Mt. Ortorten from the small settlement of Vizhai. It took more than three months to locate all nine of their bodies.

They were found about six miles away from their destination, in a forest almost a mile away from their campsite, without their skis, shoes, or coats in approximately -30 degrees Fahrenheit weather. Two of them had fractured skulls, two more had major chest fractures, and one hiker was missing her tongue. Soviet investigators listed the cause of death as “a compelling natural force,” and abruptly closed the case not even a month later.

article-imageSkiers setting up camp at about 5. p.m. on Feb. 2, 1959. Photo taken from a roll of film found at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident (via Wikimedia)

Here’s what we know about the incident. Six of the skiers died of hypothermia and three died of injuries. They died separately — two of them were found under a cedar tree near the remains of a fire, while three others were found in intervals of hundreds of feet from the tree, and four more were in a ravine another 250 feet away. The two under the tree had burned hands. The four in the ravine weren’t found until May 4, three months after the incident. The dead seemed to have donated some of their clothing items to the living; Ludmila Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Yuri Krivonischenko’s pants, while Semyon Zolotaryov was found wearing Dubinina’s hat and coat, and some garments had cuts in them, as though they were forcibly removed. Consistently, there were eight or nine sets of footprints in the snow, accounting only for the skiers and not suggesting another party’s involvement (on foot, at least). There was no sign of struggle or of any other human or animal approaching the campsite. There was a snowstorm the night of February 2, which is when it was determined, via their diaries, that they died.

article-imageA view of the tent as the rescuers found it on Feb. 26, 1959 (via Wikimedia

Their campsite was made on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl (Dead Mountain), at about 3,600 feet. All the travelers — eight of them in their early/mid-20s with Zolotaryov in his late 30s — were experienced mountaineers, having skied across frozen lakes and totally uninhabited areas to get there. Despite nasty weather and slower progress than they'd planned, their last diary entries reflected high spirits. Charmingly, in a very typical Soviet way of bonding, they even produced a little newspaper about the trip, which they titled The Evening Ortoten and which bore the headline: From now on, we know that the snowmen exist. It goes on to say, “They can be met in the Northern Urals, next to Otorten mountain." (They were, it's thought, probably jokingly referring to themselves.)

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