While we go about our lives in relative comfort and privilege, unsurprised by much we see around us, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that what we may see as "usual" may be at odds with some other places of the world. There are secluded hamlets peppered across the globe that have experienced some pretty strange occurrences indeed, of which I recently covered with an article on a peculiar Chinese village of dwarfs that no one seems to be able to satisfactorily explain. This is not the only such mysterious village to lurk out past the periphery of our understanding, and there are numerous other such quiet towns that have their own inexplicable mysteries to contend with. Here I will look at some of the stranger of these villages of unsolved mysteries, which go about their business off the radar of both the modern world and our understanding of it.
Similar to my previous article on the mysterious village of Chinese dwarves, it appears that there is yet another village suffering from the same predicament, this time half a world away, way over in Iran. In a remote, mountainous area of the country’s eastern region lies a village called Makhunik, situated around 143 km away from Birjand, the capital of South Khorasan province and just 20 km from the border with Afghanistan. A signature unique feature of the village is that the dwellings here seem to be rather miniature in dimensions, resembling mushrooms and with low, narrow doorways. These are said to have been built by the many dwarfs who once called this place home, and historical records say that when the village was founded around 1,500 years ago it was populated by peculiar people who rarely exceeded a meter in height.
It was not until later years that the people of the area would begin to grow to normal height, yet the mysterious dwellings remain, earning it the nickname of the “Lilliput of Iran.” Looking at the reason for why these ancient citizens might have been afflicted with dwarfism, many theories have been proposed, such as mercury poisoning, malnutrition, or inbreeding, but no one really knows, and these dwarfs remain largely a mystery even as their structures continue on.
Besides villages of dwarfs there is also the strange phenomenon of a village of twins. Kodinhi is a small, remote village located in the Malappuram district in Kerala, India. With only 2,000 families, it is a sleepy, quiet place that one could drive by without giving a second thought, and is a backwater, nondescript village not unlike countless others dotting the Indian countryside. However, spend enough time walking through its modest streets you may start to notice something peculiar about this village. You may start having a case of seeing double, for there are twins everywhere, of all ages, both identical and fraternal. In fact, there almost seems to be a pair of twins for practically every family in the village.
Kodinhi has the distinction of having the most unusually high rate of twin births in the world. In a village of only 2,000 people, there are reportedly over 220 pairs of twins. It was reported that in 2008 alone, 15 pairs of twins were born in the village. This may not seem like a high number when talking about a big city, but it is bizarrely high for such a small, relatively sparsely populated town. To put it into perspective, it is said that the rate of twin births globally is around 6 out of every 1,000 live births, whereas in Kodinhi it is more like 42 out of every 1,000 births, a striking contrast to the norm. In fact, the rate of twins in this sleepy, tropical town is around 6 times the global average.
Local doctor Krishnan Sribiju has spent a great deal of time studying the twins of Kodinhi and he believes that the rate of twin births is even higher than official records suggest. He also has found that the rate of twin births in the village is increasing every year, and that the number of twins in Kodinhi has doubled in the past decade. Dr. Sribiju is also quick to point out that the phenomenal rate of twin births in the village is particularly impressive considering that sub-continental Asia has a typically lower rate of twin births than most of the world, and India has the lowest twinning rate in Asia. Indeed, generally India has one of the lowest twinning rates in the world, making Kodinhi even more of a curiosity.
It is said that the twinning phenomenon in Kodinhi started around 60 to 70 years ago, and the exact cause remains unknown. Doctors have long been baffled as to why this village has so many twins, and no one as of yet has been able to unravel the mystery. Adding another layer of odd to the puzzle is the fact that even those who marry outsiders and move away from the village exhibit a substantially higher than normal rate of having twins.
Researchers have delved into genetic, biological, molecular, hereditary and climatic factors and still have not come to a satisfactory conclusion to this enigma. Pollutants or chemical factors have been mostly ruled out since the vast majority of twins born in Kodinhi are perfectly normal and healthy, without birth defects. In addition, artificial insemination or other fertility treatments are not a factor as the villagers are too poor to afford the prohibitively high costs of such procedures. Genetic problems have also mostly been discounted since the effect is localized in this one village.
Dr. Sribiju speculates that the answer lies in something the villagers are eating or drinking, but none has been able to isolate the substance that could be responsible. Further compounding this theory is that the eating habits of the villagers of Kodinhi don’t seem to be any different than other villages in Kerala. Dr. Sribiju has said he plans to continue research in Kodinhi with more detailed biochemical analysis equipment, but for now the abnormal number of twins here remains an unexplained anomaly. Fortunately for the villagers here, the twinning phenomenon has had no real negative effects except for perhaps people not being able to always quickly ascertain just which twin they are talking to. School teachers here like to joke that they are never sure if a student is really the one attending the class, or their twin. Mistaken identity is probably a real headache here, yet for the most part there have been no health concerns and the village even seems to be proud of their unique status.
In order to bring wider attention to the peculiar problems twins here face, around 30 pairs of twins in the village started an organization called “The Twins and Kins Association.” It is reportedly the first such association of its kind in India and it is hoped that the group will be able to raise awareness of Kodinhi’s plight and the unique lifestyles of twins. Just what is going on in the remote village of Kodinhi? What is the reason they have so many twins? For now, no one really knows. If you ever find yourself in this village and start seeing double yourself, just remember that it is not just your imagination playing tricks on you.
If twins are not strange enough, how about children that spontaneously change sexes at puberty? Nestled within a rural area of the country of the Dominican Republic is the small village of Salinas. It for all intents and purposes seems just like any other village in the area, but underneath it all is a mystery that has baffled scientists for decades. You see, in this village, many of the little girls seem to have the habit of spontaneously turning into little boys. The victims of this phenomenon are called the Guevedoces, which roughly translates to “penis at age 12,” and it is a very fitting moniker. These children are born apparently female, with obvious female genitalia and female secondary characteristics and tendencies, yet as they approach puberty they suddenly go through a massive change, which typically seems to first manifest as a lean towards traditionally male interests, and then a penis suddenly starts to appear for no apparent reason due to some little-understood genetic mutation. One Guevedoces named “Johnny” told the BBC News of his gradual transformation into a boy:
I never liked to dress as a girl and when they bought me toys for girls I never bothered playing with them - when I saw a group of boys I would stop to play ball with them. They used to say I was a devil, nasty things, bad words and I had no choice but to fight them because they were crossing the line.
This is not at all an isolated case in the village, with 1 out of every 90 children mysteriously making the metamorphosis from girl to boy at around age 12. The enigma was long just a whispered rumor in the region, until in the 1970s a researcher by the name of Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley, from Cornell Medical College in New York, got curious and came to the village to personally assess whether it was all true or not. It turned out that it indeed was real, which led her to start a series of studies on the children here to try and fin out what was causing it.
Imperato-McGinley found that the cause for this strange mutation lie in an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase, which is normally responsible for turning testosterone into dihydro-testosterone, the stuff that decides whether a structure found in fetuses called a “tubercle” becomes a penis or a clitoris, depending on what the X or Y chromosome tells it. Normally, a male with an X and a Y chromosome will become a male, and this dihydro-testosterone will then instruct the body to produce a penis, but in these Salinas cases there was a distinct lack of this enzyme, so they were born appearing female in all regards despite having male XY chromosomes.
It is not until puberty when the enzyme finally activates, upon which the body undergoes a sudden spurt of turning the seemingly female body into that of a male, producing rapid development of secondary sexual characteristics such as muscle, as well as turning what at first appeared to be a vagina into a penis, which would have normally occurred in utero and most often leaving the children, who had up to then been raised as girls, confused as to their gender.
Interestingly, these Guevedoces typically display heterosexual tendencies in spite of their change in sex, which caused McGinley to conclude that hormones in the womb influenced sexuality more than rearing and upbringing. These children also demonstrate small prostrates, which has led drug researchers to develop a drug called finasteride, which blocks the action of 5-alpha-reductase and mimicks the lack of dihydro-testosterone seen in the Guevedoces, effectively paving the way for treatment of men with prostrate problems and has also been used as a cure for baldness. The condition is very rare, and it remains unknown why this should happen so often in this one place.
Other villages have different odd anomalies. Every one needs a rest once and awhile, and a nap can sometimes really do the trick, but in one tiny village in Kazakhstan things have been taken to the extreme with an epidemic of epic napping that comes unprovoked and can last hours or even days on end. The village in question is called Kalachi, and lies in the the northern region of Kazakhstan, and it is here that since 2013 around a quarter of the citizens have been overcome with abrupt bouts of sleeping when they collapse into a coma-like slumber that can last for up to a week, followed by assorted symptoms such as grogginess, weakness, dizziness, nausea, blinding headaches and memory loss, with many awakening to have no memory of where they are or how they got there. In many cases the mysterious onset of the “sleeping sickness” has hit more than once, sometimes up to a half a dozen times. One sufferer named Viktor Kazachenko said of his experience:
I was going to town on 28 August. My brain switched off. That’s it. I don’t remember. I came round on 2 September. I understood [on waking up] in the hospital that I’d fallen asleep. After this slumber, my blood pressure started going up for no reason. Headaches – that’s not the word. For six weeks, I didn’t know where to put myself. It strongly affects your mentality. I’m very on edge.
The affliction seems to strike without warning, hitting people as they walk about or even drive vehicles, posing a very real risk to those around them in this quiet village of around 800, and the exact cause has long remained elusive. The alarming suddenness and mysterious onset of prolonged sleeping spurred researchers into action, and many theories have been looked at, such as genetic conditions, alcohol, or some sort of unexplained brain illness, with the main culprit believed to be an old Soviet-era uranium mine called the Krasnogorskiy mine, which closed in the 1990s and just happens to be located just outside of the village. This mine has been found to possess heavy metal salts and to exude radiation, radon, and carbon monoxide, which could all technically cause the reported symptoms in high enough concentrations. Indeed, this seems to be the official explanation of the Kazakh government.
However, there has been skepticism with this theory, and indeed some researchers have ruled out radon and carbon monoxide as the cause, as any gases from the mine should be dispersing long before they reach the village and cause such dramatic symptoms, leaving the exact origin of the phenomenon wreathed in mystery. In the meantime, the residents have been offered the choice to be relocated away from the area, yet many of the villagers have been there their whole lives and have refused to leave.
Besides physical ailments there are mysterious villages that exhibit other mysterious phenomena as well. Jatinga is a fairly small, rural town of about 2,500 people in India that is for the most part just the same as any other village in the area. Yet once a year, this rural hamlet becomes the setting of a bizarre mass death of birds that has for the most part gone largely unexplained.
The phenomenon occurs every year just after monsoon season in the months of September and October. During this time, just after sunset and typically on dark, moonless nights between the hours of 6:30 and 10 o’clock, flocks of birds representing numerous different species mysteriously congregate here in large numbers and plummet to their deaths. The birds circle spasmodically and violently crash into the ground, trees, and buildings, littering the ground with hundreds of smashed, broken bodies in a frenzy of flapping wings and death. Some of the dazed birds who survive crashing will get back up and promptly dash themselves against something again. Mostly the birds seem to fixate and hone in on light sources, such as house lights and torches, before crashing to their doom. Interestingly, the birds always come swooping in from the North, and only to a very well defined small strip of land that measures a mere 1.5 km (0.9 miles) long and 200 meters (656 feet) wide.
In total, around 44 species of bird, both migratory and local species, join in the mass death. In addition to the sheer amount of species joining in on the confusion and carnage, there is also the puzzling fact that many of the species present are known to be diurnal, meaning that they should not even be active at the times these deaths occur at. Puzzled scientists who have looked into the phenomenon have said that the incident is not really suicide in that it does not appear that the birds are doing this intentionally, but are rather disoriented due to factors that are still not totally understood.
The mass bird death of Jatinga was first observed in the early 1900s by the Zeme Nagas, a tribe native to the area. The tribe was badly frightened by the phenomenon, and believing it to be the work of angry gods, sold their land in 1905. Many villagers since then have often blamed evil spirits for plucking the birds from the sky and hurling them to their deaths. Many of the villagers believed that the birds themselves were the evil spirits, and took to hunting the birds down to mercilessly beat them to death with bamboo poles. Evil spirits or not, it probably doesn’t hurt that many of the species that die are considered to be local delicacies. To this day the disoriented birds that do not immediately die or get up to smack into something again are actively slaughtered by stick wielding villagers. Many villagers even set up bright lights in an effort to lure the birds in so they can be captured and eaten.
For years the mass bird deaths at Jatinga have baffled both villagers and ornithologists alike, and a variety of theories have been put forth in an effort to try and figure out what is going on here. One idea is that monsoon fog, combined with high altitudes and strong winds, disorients the birds and leads them to hone in on light sources in an effort to stabilize their flight, causing them to crash into various obstacles in the process. Another theory is that weather changes during the season are having some effect on the magnetic fields of the area, making the birds’ instinctive navigational abilities go haywire. In addition, at least for the migratory species represented among the dead, it has been shown that these birds often lose their habitats due to monsoon flooding and then make a mad beeline past Jatinga in their efforts to escape.
These are all perfectly rational and valid theories, but many mysteries remain. For instance, it is not really known why so many species, including non-migratory local ones, amass here simultaneously at that particular time of day and at that particular time of year. No one really knows why the birds should so maniacally focus on lights the way they do to such a deadly extent during the event either. It is also a mystery as to why the birds only ever descend upon the same small strip of land, and nowhere else, every single time. Lights placed in areas outside of this delineated zone of death have failed to attract the birds, even at the height of the phenomenon. In addition, ornithologists are puzzled as to why diurnal birds should suddenly appear here at night to join in the mass killing. The eminent Indian ornithologist, the late Salim Ali, once said, "The most puzzling thing to me about this phenomenon is that so many species of diurnal resident birds should be on the move when, by definition, they should be fast asleep. The problem deserves a deeper scientific study from various angles."
The mass bird deaths do have some positive effects. The influx of wildlife enthusiasts, ornithologists, and just plain curious visitors coming to witness the phenomenon for themselves during the monsoon season has been great for tourism in the area. In 2010, the village even started a festival to coincide with the bird deaths called the Jatinga Festival, and there have been various hotel projects undertaken in the area to cater to the guests. The villagers themselves are also always eager to get some fresh, delicious birds for dinner. What lies at the heart of this mystery? If anyone is so inclined to visit and see for themselves, be warned that the nearest airport is 350 km away from the village, after which one must undergo a perilous, albeit gorgeous, trek through dense jungles and hills via unkept roads and rickety bridges that are sometimes over a century old. For many willing to make the journey, it is worth it to gaze upon and ponder this macabre modern mystery.
What is going on in these secluded little hamlets nestled far from the hustle and bustle of the city and civilization as we know it? What unexplained mysteries are working here under the surface of these villages? Although these are verified as real places and there is little doubt that something strange is going on, they have managed to keep the scientific community scratching its head. As we search for answers, these little pockets of civilization situated out in the remote corners of our world continue on with their "normal" lives, while also continuing to be baffling conundrums that may or may not ever be truly solved.