I'm always drawn to a historical mystery.
The difficulty, of course, is given that a huge amount of our history has either highly unreliable records or else no records at all, a lot of mysteries will never get resolved satisfactorily. Two examples I read about recently which are as fascinating as they are frustrating are the true identity of Jack the Ripper, and the fate of the "Princes in the Tower" -- the two young sons of English King Edward IV, who disappeared in around 1483 and were probably murdered.
As a quick aside, it bears mention that in the latter case the alleged culprit, King Richard III, was not the horrific, amoral villain you might think, if your only source is the play by Shakespeare. He was actually competent and not a selfish monster, nor was he a hunchback; the Shakespearean smear job makes for great theater, and appeased the anti-Yorkist monarchy of the time, but has unfairly tarred a man who -- if Henry Tudor hadn't decided to swipe the throne -- probably would have been considered a pretty good leader. He may still have had the princes killed, though; such behavior by a king anxious to eliminate rivals and put his own claim to the throne beyond question was not at all uncommon at the time. But Shakespeare having Queen Margaret call him a "deformed, bunch-backed toad" seems a little excessive.
Sometimes there's an entire ethnic group that is mysterious, again usually because we have mostly archaeological evidence to go by, supplemented by dubiously accurate accounts written down by other (often hostile) cultures. In fact, the whole reason why the subject of historical mysteries comes up is because of a paper I read a couple of days ago about the Scythians, the central Asian "horse warriors" who bumped up against the cultures their territory bordered -- principally Greece, Rome, China, and Persia -- and whose accounts form the basis of our knowledge of who they were.
In "Ancient Genomic Time Transect from the Central Asian Steppe Unravels the History of the Scythians," which appeared last week in Science Advances and was authored by a huge team led by Guido Alberto Gnecchi-Ruscone of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, we read about a genomic study of the remains of over a hundred individuals from Scythian burial sites, and find out that they were hardly a single unified ethnic group -- their genomes show a significant diversity and represent multiple origins. So the Scythians seem more like a loose confederation of relatively unrelated people than the single unified, monolithic culture of fierce nomads depicted in the writings of their rivals.
The authors write:
The Scythians were a multitude of horse-warrior nomad cultures dwelling in the Eurasian steppe during the first millennium BCE. Because of the lack of first-hand written records, little is known about the origins and relations among the different cultures. To address these questions, we produced genome-wide data for 111 ancient individuals retrieved from 39 archaeological sites from the first millennia BCE and CE across the Central Asian Steppe. We uncovered major admixture events in the Late Bronze Age forming the genetic substratum for two main Iron Age gene-pools emerging around the Altai and the Urals respectively. Their demise was mirrored by new genetic turnovers, linked to the spread of the eastern nomad empires in the first centuries CE.
If that's not intriguing enough, last week there was also new information uncovered about an artifact from the same place but a lot earlier, the "Shigir idol," which was uncovered from a peat bog in the Ural Mountains in 1890. Its age is apparently greater than scientists have thought -- the new study suggests it's about 12,500 years old, making it the oldest wooden representation of a human figure known.