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Marco Polo
Nature Bulletin No. 591   February 13, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

In the year 1295 a man named Marco Polo returned to his native Venice with a fortune in jewels sewn inside his ragged, outlandish clothing. He had been away twenty-four years on a trip with his father, Nicolo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo. They had been forgotten by their family and friends. Three years later he was captured during a naval battle with the Genoese and lay in prison for several months. During this time he dictated an account of his travels and experiences to a fellow prisoner who wrote down over 200 chapters in a kind of French. Thus, he left to posterity one of the greatest books of all time, "The Travels of Marco Polo. .

Starting in 1271 when he was seventeen, they traveled overland across the entire length of Asia. Four years later, after many delays and detours due to hostile tribes, bitter winters, swollen rivers, mountain ranges and great deserts, they reached the court of Kublai, the Grand Khan of the Mongols, at Kanbalu -- now called Peiping.

Among the sights, new to European eyes, that he witnessed on this journey was". . . a fountain of oil which discharges so great a quantity as to furnish loading for many camels. " It was used" .... as an unguent for the cure of cutaneous distempers ... . and it is also good for burning. " About anthracite coal he says,". . . there is found a sort of black stone, which they dig out of the mountains, where it runs in veins. When lighted, it burns like charcoal. . . . These stones do not flame, except a little when first lighted. " On the Pamir Plateau " . . . there are wild animals in great numbers, particularly sheep of a large size, having horns, three, four and even six palms in length. " This largest of all wild sheep, now called Marco Polo's sheep, remained unknown to science for the next 600 years.

The Khan received them warmly because he was keenly interested in distant lands, their resources and their people, and, because the three Polo's were the first Europeans he had ever met. Young Marco soon became a favorite. He quickly learned the Tartar languages and greatly pleased Kublai by his alert mind and his ability to observe and describe what he had seen. For the next seventeen years he served as a trusted representative of the aging Khan, making many journeys to distant parts of the empire on state business. At that time Kublai ruled all of China and was probably the sovereign of more of the world's people than has ever acknowledged one man's supremacy. His empire stretched at least nominally, from eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Arctic shore of Siberia to India. Marco was the first to reveal China in its wealth and vastness.

Hunting with trained falcons, cheetahs and dogs, as well as with arrows and spears, was the principal sport of the Mongols The Khan's hunting expeditions were conducted in a very elaborate manner with thousands of people taking part under strict regulations. Marco's account of game management and conservation, as practiced by the Khan, is strikingly similar to our present-day methods. He says, "There is an order which prohibits every person throughout all the countries subject to the Great Khan from daring to kill hares, roebucks, fallow deer, stags or other animals of that kind, or any large birds between the months of March and October. This is that they may increase and multiply; and, as the breach of this r is attended with punishment, game of every description increases prodigiously." Marco also describes the Khan's game preserves, his system of planting millet and other grain as food and cover for pheasants and quails.

His incredible stories earned him the nickname, "Marco Millioni."

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