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hile sitting in a Genoese jail cell, Marco Polo dictated his life story to Rustichello da Pisa, a 13th-century romance writer. Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, and explorer had a lot to tell. At first blush, it would seem strange that Polo, who came from a prosperous family and almost certainly was literate, didn’t write his memoirs with his own hand.

But as we still see in the 21st century, people who face great challenges — and live to tell about them — often bring individuals with the ‘gift of prose’ into the fold to ghostwrite these memoirs. And who better to write about your travels to strange lands than a romance author?

Thus, Polo and da Pisa co-authored The Travels of Marco Polo, which features Polo’s accounts of — among other things — seeing unicorns (which were probably actually rhinos). Since most Europeans had never seen a rhino, but they knew what a unicorn was, the Venetian’s error is forgivable.

Polo’s book became an instant success and pop culture phenomenon, largely because his account provided detailed, sensational reports of his travels to lands that most Europeans had never seen.

The son and nephew of prosperous merchants, Polo began his travels when he was 17 years old. Thereafter, he spent the next 17 years exploring China with his father and uncle.

Sailing from Venice, across the Mediterranean to present-day Israel, the Polos made stops in Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Finally, four years after departing Venice, the Polos arrived in China, where they met Emperor Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan.

Kublai seemingly took a liking to the Polos, especially Marco, whom the emperor eventually made royal emissary to Burma, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, regions that most Europeans also weren’t familiar with. Meanwhile, Marco’s father and uncle were tapped for other important roles in Kublai’s court.

Sometimes the Polos’ travels were fraught with danger: During a voyage the Polos took with a Mongol princess on a ship that carried hundreds of passengers, only 18 people — including the Polos and the princess — survived the trip.

In China, Polo was intrigued by the idea of paper money, a new concept to him. In addition to recounting his knowledge of Chinese currencies in his book, Polo provides detailed information about salt production and revenues of the region that no other Westerner, Arab or Persian had written about with such detailed descriptions.

But with such detailed information about his travels, you may be surprised that many people accused Polo of making up the whole story. To be sure, even today, historians continue to debate the veracity of Polo’s writings.

The problem is that Polo’s book is laced with errors — not just about alleged sightings of unicorns. Despite these inaccuracies, it’s likely that Polo indeed did conduct these travels: He shared detailed reports about China that he would have been unlikely to come across otherwise.

Through his writings, Polo likely contributed to the field of geography. In fact, Christopher Columbus, who hoped one day to follow Polo’s footsteps, brought a copy of the Venetian’s book on his voyage to the New World.

Yet, Polo’s writings provide us with a cautionary tale about the importance of ensuring the accuracy of data compiled into the products that we use to build maps.

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