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People have sailed across the ocean on boats made of wood and animal skins that would terrify most of us in the modern world, and they were doing so for hundreds, if not thousands of years before Christopher Columbus ever came upon the world stage—and these are just the explorations we know about! With so many records of history lost to us, or never written down in the first place, we might never really know all the people who “discovered” the Americas over the millennia.
We do know one thing, however: despite an amazing public relations campaign, Christopher Columbus was definitely not the first to discover North America. Truth be told, he might have been one of the last people to the party, as it seems that almost everyone made it there before him.
However, while Christopher Columbus has long been celebrated as the “discoverer” of the New World, it has been widely recognized that he was not actually the first human to make his way to the Americas – he just had the best PR campaign.
The discovery of the Americas is notable, mainly for how many different times it has happened.
While no one can dispute the courage of Christopher Columbus in leading an expedition that crossed the ocean, he wasn’t exactly a sterling example of a good human being. He was involved in torture, rape, murder, slavery, and as a result of all the smaller crimes put together – essentially genocide. The population of the island of Hispaniola was estimated at approximately 300,000 people when Christopher Columbus first landed. About 56 years later, the native population is reported to have been at about 500 people. That’s a hell of a legacy to wrap your head around.
And let’s not forget, Columbus partly discovered the New World by accident. He thought he was landing in Asia, which might make sense if you didn’t know there was an entire other continent in the way—so we give him a bit of leeway. However, he might have actually known there was a separate land mass between Asia and Spain. Something that rarely gets mentioned in the wonderful rhymes about him, is that it’s possible Christopher Columbus had a map (or at least there are some indications of one). While there’s no guarantee he consulted them, there are two examples of 15th century maps (the one created by Henricus Martellus from Florence, and the Waldseemuller map) that suggest knowledge of America could have existed around the time Columbus set sail.
And, lest you think that Columbus was simply just another colonial racist, he was reportedly horrible to Spaniard colonists under his rule as well! Columbus was reported to have ordered a woman’s tongue to be cut out for speaking ill of the Admiral; he had another woman tied naked on the back of a donkey and whipped for claiming she was pregnant when she was not; and on another occasion, ordered at least a dozen Spaniards to be publicly whipped and tortured because they traded gold for food to avoid starvation. So, summing it all up, while he certainly did display a fair amount of courage, the general list of good traits he displayed beyond that is remarkably short.
But enough about Christopher Columbus. Let’s talk about some of the other individuals and groups who made it to the Americas first. While they might have received less fame for what they did, they too displayed bravery in going to unknown areas of the world and, and they happened to beat Christopher Columbus on their way.
There were, of course, the indigenous communities native to the “fourth part of the world”. After all, the people who Christopher Columbus murdered and enslaved didn’t just randomly appear out of nothingness—they had to get there from somewhere as well.
Some groups, such as the Navajo, have specific stories indicating that they didn’t migrate to North America from other areas, but rather they sprung from the earth.
Historically, it has been widely believed that indigenous groups crossed to the Americas from Asia in a period when glaciers had lowered the water level in the oceans; this migration occurred via the Bering Strait. At that time, it was a land bridge rather than a strait, meaning that the crossing was still difficult, but was quite possible.
It is also thought that rather than a single migration, passages occurred in waves across the land bridge, with people spreading across the continents slowly over time.
The exact time of this movement is hard to really pin down. There is solid evidence of human habitation across the Americas 15,000 years ago. Beyond that, evidence gets a little less solid; some researchers believe the true number could be 40,000 odd years ago, meaning that these groups win the race for first discovery of the Americas—beating Columbus by 42 millennia or so.
Evidence for this theory is nearly impossible to determine, as boats would have been made of materials that would decay over time and would have been eventually been lost to history. However, there are some tantalizing clues in the tools left behind by the Clovis people—a distinct prehistoric Paleo-Indian cultural group from over 13,000 years ago. These tools bear some similarity to tools developed in similar periods in Spain and Southern France. Is this a case of parallel evolution of an idea? Or did knowledge of these tools cross the Atlantic in skin boats from much earlier explorers?
St. Brendan the Navigator:
By now the list of people who beat Columbus to the New World is hilariously long, and we’re not even close to done. While the Vikings left a settlement on the shores of Newfoundland, they might have been beaten to the continent by a few hundred years—courtesy of an Irish Monk named St. Brendan the Navigator.
Following in the footsteps of St. Patrick, St. Brendan wanted to sail out to bring the word of God to other groups of people. He traveled Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and the North of France, sailing around and spreading the word. Then, one day in his 90s, he wanted to sail west to find the Garden of Eden.
St. Brendan built a traditional Irish round-bottom boat, called a currach (or curragh). This ship was made of wood and animal skins. The size of his crew varied depending on the stories, but he set sail and went on an amazing voyage—finding pillars of crystal floating in the ocean, giant sheep, and other fantastic creatures. At the end of his voyage, he came to a lush wilderness that he and his crew thought was the literal paradise from the Bible. They stayed there for 40 days, until an angel instructed them to return home. Unfortunately, a mere 40-day stay is unlikely to leave enough of an archeological footprint for us to trace these days, even if we knew exactly where to look.
For quite some time there was an argument that Vikings had been early discoverers of North America as well. Writings about a place called “Vinland” bore a striking resemblance to what we know in modern times as Newfoundland.
In addition, the Viking’s pedigree as explorers is without argument. They discovered and colonized both Iceland and Greenland, putting them in a place where a trip to North America was not only possible, it was the next likely step in their advancing exploration. So, investigations were naturally started along where these early explorers might have landed.
While this sounds unbelievable, if you account for a bit of poetic license and variation in storytelling over time, the incredible encounters from the story of St. Brendan could actually map onto the various stops someone sailing from Ireland would make if they went from island to island, progressing across the northern Atlantic. For example, couldn’t the giant pillars of crystal floating in the ocean be icebergs?
While the Voyage of St. Brendan sounds like a beautiful story, was it even possible?
Well, in 1976, Tim Severin and a small crew of five built a currach based on the descriptions in the stories of St. Brendan. They then sailed it out from the monastery in Ireland from which St. Brendan was said to have departed. Their voyage was long, but they eventually found their way to Newfoundland. This showed the voyage was indeed possible, but it still didn’t answer the question of whether it happened.
Either way, St. Brendan did make it back from his voyage (the better part of a thousand years before Columbus would start his) and his story was told far and wide.
This might all sound like a crazy mix of fact and legend until you come to the fact that when the Vikings arrived centuries later, they referred to the land sound of Vinland as “Irland it Mikla” which translates as “Greater Ireland”. Kind of gets you thinking, doesn’t it?
There are some who believe that migration wasn’t just a one-way ticket across the Bering Strait. It is also theoretically possible that early boats could have made the journey. After all, this is how islands across the South Pacific and other areas were colonized. Couldn’t it be possible that groups could arrive by sea as well as land?
During the summer of 2015, Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist employing satellite imagery to uncover organic anomalies, conducted a test excavation at a second discovery site in Newfoundland. This time at Point Rosée, 676 kms (420 miles) southwest of L’Anse aux Meadows which (quick lesson in geography and math) is down the Gulf of St Lawrence, and 676 kms (420 miles) further inland North America.
If the Vikings only stayed a short time in one of the farthest northeast corners of the Americas’ eastern-most landmass, what would be the motive to head further west unless to discover a habitable landscape in which to lay down roots? Based on our knowledge of the Viking lifestyle and requirements to thrive, Point Rosée provided an ideal area for a settlement. It came equipped with ample wood, protection and visibility, as well as iron bogs in which to source one of their most imperative-to-existence materials: Iron. Iron literally held Viking life together. A Viking life without iron to smelt was akin to a modern-day mom’s life without coffee to drink!
In 1960, the 1,000-year-old remains of a Norse way station were unearthed at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada; this has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Site (take that Columbus!). Viking remains are notoriously elusive in their archaeological evidence, but it has been mostly confirmed that L’Anse aux Meadows provided a short stay for the Norse people. There has yet to be found any evidence which indicates a permanent Viking settlement in North America. Until recently…maybe?
Much more evidence is required at Point Rosée, including the process of dating the archaeological findings, before anything can be concluded about this or any other potential Viking sites. If the site at Point Rosée uncovers a significant diversion in date from L’Anse aux Meadows (i.e. later), or suggests further permanence in the “settlement”, the research could lead to evidence of permanent European inhabitants in the New World, well before 1492, and the Italian ship that sailed the ocean blue.
While there is definitely solid evidence that Vikings came to North America at the beginning of the last millennia, there are some tantalizing stories about other visitors that didn’t leave quite the same archeological footprint.
There’s a lot of dispute about the Chinese discovery of the Americas, because the records of it are a bit sparse due to periods of strife and attempts at isolation when records of contact with the outside world were destroyed. There are however a few theories for when the Chinese came over.
Based on discoveries of pictograms carved into rocks in a variety of locations across North America, some researchers believe these pictograms indicate proof of Chinese presence in the “New World” for thousands of years before Columbus. The pictographs are in a style that fell out of use thousands of years ago and are faded by the elements – suggesting they have been in place for quite some time.
Is this true? Evidence is sparse, but it could be possible based on the technology of the time, and it would further realign how people view the discovery of the Americas.
In addition, Polynesian groups are well known for the navigational feats required to colonize their islands, and some researchers believe they made it to South America well before Columbus was on the scene.
We might never know for sure if seafarers contributed to the colonization of the Americas, but it would add another set of names to the people who have discovered the continents.
However, others dispute the nature of the evidence, believing that thousands of years of Chinese presence would have created more of an extensive archeological footprint. If the stories the pictograms tell are true though, it is evidence that Chinese explorers not only visited North America, but the wide-range the hieroglyphs were found in suggested they explored a great deal of the continent.
There’s an additional theory being advocated by some that suggests the Chinese beat Columbus to North America by about 70 years.
It is fairly clear that a voyage to the New World from China would have been possible. In the 15th century, the Chinese were a leading maritime empire and their ships were already crisscrossing the waters of South East Asia.
During the Ming Dynasty, expeditions to explore the world were launched. Under the famous Admiral Zhang He, ships set forth to explore the Indian and Pacific oceans from 1405 to 1433. During these voyages, South-East Asia, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, and parts of the east coast of Africa were all explored.
However, a relatively recent discovery of a map that is claimed to have been from the correct time-period suggests the explorations went much further. The map seems to indicate that Zhang He and his exploratory ships circumnavigated the horn of Africa, and then crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the other side, reaching all the way to the Americas.
History goes back a lot further than 1492:
While the story of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492 has held up well over the years (never underestimate the power of a good rhyme), humanity goes back a lot further than 600 or so years.
The Americas have existed as a continent ever since they spun off from the supercontinent Pangea (seriously, that was a thing, look it up). And, while that was a mere 200 million years ago, you should never understate the tenacity of human beings and our urge to explore the unknown.
So, when you think of the discovery of the Americas, remember the courage of untold thousands of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, who crossed the oceans or took long walks into the unknown before Columbus was ever born. Remember the spirit of exploration that drives humanity to grow and stop giving all the credit the murderous guy with the good PR team.