History class is where we go for the truth of it all: names, dates, events. It’s the who, what, when, why, where of our planet, with facts straight from the record books and people who lived what we now call history. So of course, everything you took from your history teachers is the bonafide truth, right? Maybe not…
Like every story, the story of our past contains its own biases and half-truths. It can be misconstrued or embellished every time it’s retold. Names of people are forgotten and true motivations lost between the lines of even the most accurate history books. In fact, you’ve probably committed these 11 history class lies to memory. But have you heard the truth?
1. The Lie: Puritan pilgrims fled Europe and sailed directly to Plymouth Rock, where the refugees quickly worked toward instilling their own pious beliefs in the Native Americans they found there. But that wasn’t the case at all.
The Truth: Pilgrims left politically tumultuous England for Holland in 1607, where they lived for 10 years. Then, worried they were losing themselves in Dutch culture, they sailed west, landing closer to Cape Cod than Plymouth Rock, but the latter became the more popular tourist spot.
Ryan Janek Wolowski / Flickr
2. The Lie: German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was a lazy kid who failed out of school and performed horrendously in math, proving that anyone can skyrocket to the absolute top of their field. Really?
The Truth: Einstein started reading college textbooks at age 11. When he was 16—front row, left—he did fail the entrance exam to Zurich Polytechnic, but not because of knowledge. The exam was in French. He didn’t speak French. Still, he nailed the math portion.
3. The Lie: Human beings evolved from apes. Long ago, there were just a bunch of apes running around. Then, over time, the apes stood taller and got smarter—they became human, as depicted in this famous illustration. But that’s not true.
The Truth: Humans didn’t evolve from apes, and you aren’t the great-great-grandchild of the ape at the local zoo; rather, apes and humans descended from the same distant ancestor—we’re cousins, in a sense. That’s why humans and apes both exist today.
4. The Lie: The Egyptian Pyramids in Giza were built by slaves. After all, who else would be willing to work in the blistering desert heat hoisting nine-ton limestone slabs to the top of a tomb?
The Truth: In 1990, archeologists uncovered the tombs of pyramid workers alongside the historic structures. Egyptians hired and paid 10,000 men to work in three-month shifts, and the king gave skilled laborers—masons, carpenters—full-time positions.
5. The Lie: In the 17th century, Isaac Newton composed his famous law of gravity after sitting beneath a ready-to-be-picked apple tree and taking a renegade falling fruit to the dome. So what did push Newton toward his revolutionizing idea?
The Truth: While on his family’s farm, Newton saw an apple fall from a tree (which you can take a photo with today, below). It didn’t hit him in the head, but rather, made him wonder why things always fall down. At least, that’s what Newton told William Stukeley, who went on to pen a biography on the physicist.
6. The Lie: In an effort to find new trading routes to Asia, Christopher Columbus discovered the hunk of land we now call the United States of America—the first European to set foot on said soil. In reality…?
The Truth: Columbus landed in the Bahamas, and he never set foot on what would become the U.S.A. Even if he had, another European had done so before him: Nordic explorer Leif Erikson docked on the continent 500 years before the man often credited with the feat.
7. The Lie: After 10 years of siege, Greek soldiers took the city of Troy with trickery. They presented the city an enormous wooden horse as an offering. Inside hid armed soldiers, who captured the city once the horse was brought inside city walls.
The Truth: Homer probably imagined the epic ending to the Trojan War for The Odyssey. While the city of Troy did fall, historians believe the seiging army just used a battering ram like the one below that might’ve been misrepresented in oral retellings of the event.
8. The Lie: Ferdinand Magellan, depicted on the left, circumnavigated the globe on a four-year journey from 1519 to 1522. He became the first man ever to complete a voyage around the planet.
The Truth: Magellan never finished the trip! He took a bamboo spear to the heart in 1521 when he involved himself in the politics between the Philippines’ native tribes. Juan Sebastian Elcano, right, finished the circumnavigation with just 18 of the original 270-person crew remaining.
9. The Lie: American Inventor and businessman Thomas Edison invented a light bulb in 1879, an invention the world had never seen before. Turns out, Edison had a bit of help.
The Truth: While Edison did create, patent, and commercialize a light bulb with a long-lasting filament, others invented light bulb first. Sir Humphry Davy, left, for instance, invented one in 1800, right, but the filament burned out too quickly to be viable.
10: The Lie: Christopher Columbus set out on The Niña, The Pinta, and The Santa Maria to prove the earth was round, not flat; his crew was terrified that they were going to sail right off the end of the earth.
Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press
The Truth: 2,000 years before Columbus struck the New World, Greek mathematicians and great minds Pythagoras and Aristotle proved the world wasn’t flat. In fact, Columbus stumbled onto American shores in part because he grossly underestimated Earth’s circumference.
11. The Lie: French emperor and military expert Napoleon Bonaparte—depicted in the 1970 film, Waterloo, below—was short, and it hurt his ego. To compensate, he channeled his anger into ruthless militarism and power conquests.
The Truth: British propaganda like that below victimized the tyrant Napoleon I, calling him “Little Boney” and poking fun at his height. In truth, the leader stood at about 5’7″, the average height for a 19th-century Frenchman, but he looked small beside huge Imperial Guards.
How many of these history class lies had you heard before? It makes you wonder what lies, half-truths, and misinformation will be told in history classes 100 years from now!
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