Evidence Mounts that Columbus Was Not the First European to Reach the Americas


When did the New World and the Old World really meet? Pre-Columbian theories claim that interaction between the indigenous Americans and people from Africa, Asia, Europe, or Oceania occurred before Columbus. With a large diversity of scientific, linguistic, physical, and folklore evidence of contact from four different continents, it seems plausible that this was the case.

One product linking the Americas and Polynesia, is the sweet potato. The existence of the sweet potato, which is native to America, in Polynesia suggests there was trade between the two regions. Linguistics, or language-based evidence has shown that words like sweet potato share similar names in Polynesian and South American languages. Scientific evidence from genetics was found in late 2007, when seven ancient skulls were found in Chile. These skulls were found that have Polynesian features, but they were buried during a period when Chile wasn’t known to have contact with Polynesia.

Evidence also supports contact with East Asia. One piece of evidence connects Ecuador and East Asia, where pottery was found in Valdivia, Ecuador that was similar to a kind used by ancient Jōmon cultures in Japan. But could ancient Japanese sailors even reach South America? The records of 1890’s lawyer, James Wickersham show Japanese sailors becoming lost between East Asia and North America from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century. Some ended up on Alaskan islands and in México. If 17th century Japanese sailors could end up in America, Wickersham thought this probably also happened before European contact.

Africa and the Middle East also claim early contact. As researcher Niede Guidon working on expeditions in Brazil put it: “Humans might have come from not overland from Asia but by boat from Africa.” Claims involving Arab contact are found in early Chinese accounts of Arab Muslim expeditions. These records state that a sailor reached a place called “Mulan Pi,” which most historians identify as Spain. But some think it could refer to the Americas. An even older theory of contact states that Phoenicians from the Mediterranean crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in the Americas. Scholar Cyrus H. Gordon argues that geographic names in America can be traced to Phoenician language roots.

There is also physical and folklore evidence of Europeans going to the Americas before Columbus. Some people from the British Isles claim early contact the 14th and 15th century. Legend has it that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney; and a Scottish nobleman explored Greenland and North America 100 years before Columbus. Some also point to the Irish and Welsh legend of Saint Brendan, an Irish monk. In the legend, he made a seafaring journey to find paradise in the 6th century. This possible voyage to America was recreated by Tim Severin in 1977. He used an ancient Irish boat, called a Currach to make the journey.

Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, so the old saying goes. But with so much circumstantial evidence of exchange between these ancient lands, Columbus's voyage may have just been one of many.

[Sources: National Geographic; The New York Times; www.orkneyjar.com; Wikipedia]

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