Tamara Merino, The New York Times, Redux
Tamara Merino, The New York Times, Redux
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What makes a historic 'first'?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

First we hold them up as heroes. Daring. History-making.

Then we find out they are flawed. They took short cuts. Questions arose. It happened to Lance Armstrong in 2012. Elizabeth Holmes made bogus claims about a Silicon Valley breakthrough. Even famed polar explorer Robert Peary, celebrated in his lifetime, faked his biggest “discovery.”

Enter Colin O’Brady. The American explorer (above) has declared himself the first to ski solo across the continent of Antarctica unassisted. But was he?

O’Brady’s 2018 arduous trek captured the world’s imagination, and he’s on talk shows and magazine covers these days promoting a just-released autobiography. But O’Brady skied only about half the distance that Norwegian Borge Ousland, considered by many to be the modern era’s most accomplished polar explorer, did in 1997.

In Aaron Teasdale 's story for Nat Geo, Ousland says: “I don’t think he should get away with it. The truth should be presented.”

Trail-blazers throughout history are expected to uphold their personal integrity to get nuances right. It’s about sticking to the facts—and not by exaggerating the significance of your achievements. O’Brady, other explorers say, has been tripped up by the definition of what “crossing Antarctica” means.

Although O’Brady was the first to have completed the route he took across Antarctica, his journey irked explorers because he crossed not the Antarctica you see—the one that has existed for 100,000 years with ice caps—but the one that remote sensors have determined has land at the bottom of the ice. “It’s not so much that no one had been able to cross Antarctica this way before,” writes Teasdale, “it’s that no one had defined a crossing in such achievable terms.”

No one has accused O’Brady of using the performance-enhancing drugs that tarnished Armstrong’s accomplishments in cycling or of deceiving investors the way Holmes, once a hero to female entrepreneurs, did with claims about her biotech company, Theranos. And going back, it took nearly eight decades for researchers to determine that the notes of explorer Peary, once hailed (even by us) as the North Pole’s discoverer, showed that he had faked the find.

While Colin’s actions are substantially different from the actions of these prior trail-blazers, many polar experts are calling into question whether his Antarctica crossing is the achievement he claims it to be.

So, what makes something “a first”? And what do we want to believe, in an age where the signal of truth is often hard to find amid the noise of public relations, social media exaggeration, and of the expectation of legit superhuman accomplishments, such as Alex Honnold’s 2018 free solo climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan?

The skinny? History just may uncover the truth. Be careful whom you anoint a hero.

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When history meets the Oscars

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Juxtaposition: On screen, in an Oscar-nominated documentary, Dr. Amani Ballour is seen moving a hospital underground, saving Syrians who have been injured by Russian warplanes or by poison gas from Syria's brutal dictator. Over the weekend, the pediatrician at the center of the film The Cave (above) arrived in the United States to bear witness to what her nation has endured. Ballour, who with her husband is awaiting asylum in Canada, also is attending the Academy Awards. No dress yet for the Oscars? Ballour shrugs. Her focus is elsewhere. “[The film] is our testimony of the crimes against humanity,” she tells Sydney Combs and Eslah Attar for Nat Geo. “This is our truth of what happened and what is still happening. All the people around the world know the Oscars. They will see this film and they will know the truth."

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Left undone: Pledges poured in after Haiti’s 2010 devastating earthquake. But some never materialized into cash, and some claims of help (such as the American Red Cross’s assertion it provided homes to 130,000 Haitians when it only built six houses) were false, or grossly exaggerated. Unfinished is a long-promised public hospital for the capital, Port-au-Prince. Also, photographer Paolo Woods shows us (above) unfinished houses from a supposedly $44 million project north of the city.

Read: Weary Haitians mark 10th anniversary of devastating quake

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Today in a minute

Primary vs. caucus? Four out of five Americans polled prefer an election primary rather than the caucus system that dominated in the early years of the republic. Iowa, however, which has its first in the nation caucuses tonight, begs to differ. Election reformers, eager to get candidate selection out from insiders and smoke-filled rooms, encouraged states in the 1890s to have primary elections, and by 1916, 25 states did, Erin Blackmore writes for Nat Geo.

Restoring history: After the deadly white supremacist riot in Charlottesville in 2017, a group, dedicated to a more complete understanding of U.S. history, organized to identify, buy and preserve the spaces where African American history occurred, the New Yorker reports. Do you know that of the more than 95,000 historic sites in the United States, only about 2 percent are devoted to African American history? The paucity of sites marking African American history and achievements have led people of color to “carry around knowledge and stories in our bodies,” says poet and Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander, a supporter of the new initiative. (Need a quick overview on African American history?Here’s a page from Nat Geo Kids with biographies of African American leaders, and, going deeper, the New York Times’ 1619 Project).

Who really discovered Antarctica? For decades, a mistake in translation prevented the world from identifying the first known person who spotted the southern continent. On January 27, 1820, Fabian von Bellingshausen, leading a Russian expedition, looked toward solid ice that was likely an ice shelf attached to Antarctic land. He is now generally considered the first, but a translation of his diary didn’t state a land sighting as clearly as did British naval officer Edward Bransfield, who claimed to spot the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula JUST THREE DAYS LATER. Erin Blackmore, writing for Nat Geo, says the first person known to set foot on the continent was an American, John Davis, in 1821.

Retiring: Erudite Robert Krulwich stepped away Friday as co-host of the popular radio show and podcast Radiolab, but did you know he once had a Nat Geo feature called Curiously Krulwich? In one column, he explored the strange history of Switzerland’s refusal to let women vote before 1971—680 years after Swiss dudes began voting. Of the long injustice, Krulwich cried “No!” (This being Switzerland, he added “Non!” and “Nein!”) Krulwich wrote one of Nat Geo’s most popular articles: the profile of the quiet Russian officer to whom you may owe your life.

Take the quiz

So, where is Ukraine? One good thing about a U.S secretary of state's impromptu map challenge to an NPR reporter: it may have spurred interest in world geography. If you have a moment to put the “geo” in Nat Geo, test your own knowledge with this 10-question Pompeo Quiz, from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. (Disclosure: I had trouble with the “stans.")

A few words

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The last glimpse

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Hello, you Neanderthal: Modern African populations carry more snippets of Neanderthal DNA than once thought, about a third of the amount the team identified for Europeans and Asians. Study author Joshua Akey, a geneticist at Princeton University, said the findings heighten our shared history and challenge previous assumptions, particularly with DNA proof of return travels of these Europeans back to Africa. “There’s this idea that people left Africa and never went back,” Akey told Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas. “Clearly there’s no one-way bridge there.”

Read: You may have more Neanderthal in you than you think

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with Eslah Attar selecting the photos. Have an idea, a link, a Neanderthal neighbor? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and happy trails