While we were all taught as young laddies in school that it was in 1492 that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the true and actual history of exactly how the American continents came to be discovered and populated remains severely more complicated.
This isn’t to take anything away from Columbus’ accomplishments, as it is certainly true that his achievement remains valid with regards to altering the course of history and opening civilization’s eyes as to just how much the world we live in contains, we are however still charged with uncovering the real truths behind the exact points in history that humans ‘discovered‘ the Americas and also the mechanisms by which these discoveries occurred.
Indeed it’s an unarguable fact that most people in the known world before Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas neither had any idea that there were entire continents on Earth yet to be discovered, nor would perhaps even believe that the world was round. Common belief in those days was either that the world was flat, or that the circumference of the earth was simply too great to sail around westward to reach Asia. Not only that, but with the Spanish Inquisition going strong at the time of Columbus’ proposal to Queen Isabella I, he was literally putting his life on the line by not only suggesting such an outlandish concept as sailing west to the Indies, but also requesting that Spain fund the voyage as well.
Contrary to today’s absurd and idiotic flat-Earther trend, SOME humans have known for thousands of years that the Earth was round. Unfortunately, ‘some people knowing’ does not mean that most people have been aware throughout history – remember these are the days before the inter-connectivity existed that we now enjoy as a result of the internet.
The ancient Greek polymath Eratosthenes is known to have not only surmised that the Earth is round, but also to have nearly exactly calculated its circumference – and this was over two-thousand years ago! How did he manage this feat without the benefit of modern technology, the same technology that current flat-Earthers ignore?
This man was astute enough to realize that if obelisks in the southern part of Egypt showed no shadows at noon, and if a deep well in that area was perfectly lit at its bottom, then due to Earth’s flatness, obelisks (or any vertical object) near Alexandria should cast no shadows either. Earth’s roundness however denied this possibility, and Eratosthenes was intelligent enough to realize that since these objects further north cast shadows at high noon, this must mean that the Earth was round. He then set about to measure the degree of the shadows and through trigonometry calculate the curvature of the Earth – and therefore also a close approximation of its circumference (thrown off just a bit since the Earth is a slightly flattened spheroid rather than a perfect sphere).
So it was settled before the time of Christ then…the Earth was/is round…only however to those who were learned enough to understand this logic and also actually hear about Eratosthenes’ findings in the first place (no internet). Then of course there was also the fall of the classical civilizations and the dark ages and so on, so fast forward to the 1490’s and things were somewhat back to where we started, a lot of people only believed what they could see and education was not necessarily abounding, regardless of the fact that several Muslims had by then also effectively calculated the circumference of the earth and therefore ‘proved’ its roundness.
Columbus used as much of this scholarly evidence as he could – sometimes tailored to meet his own goals (understating the circumference) – when pleading his case to several monarchs only to be rejected time and again until Spain finally saw fit to wager the cost of a voyage against the potential windfall that could result for the crown were he to prove successful. The rest is history. On the 12th of October, 1492, Columbus landed on the island he christened ‘San Salvador’ – now part of The Bahamas – ten long weeks after departing Palos de la Frontera, Spain, and thus began the systematic exploitation of the Americas by Spain and later Portugal which resulted in untold measures of devastation to the indigenous peoples over hundreds of years (and which some would argue is still occurring).
We’re all well aware of what happened after 1492, with various colonial powers in Europe subsequently carving up pieces of the Americas as their own and warring over them until the manifest destiny of The United States was achieved as well as Mexican independence from Spain, and the list goes on…but what about the history of the Americas before 1492? This is where things get somewhat tumultuous among scholars as different theories continue to compete for legitimacy.
It may have taken a while, but the discovery of the remains of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland in 1960 finally proved that Viking explorers had indeed reached North America as part of living their sagas, and that they had done so somewhere around the year 1000 AD – potentially even a clean five hundred years prior to Columbus’ first voyage. Why was this not already understood well before Columbus’ time? One explanation is that the Norse just didn’t think much of it, perhaps not enough at least to put any effort into ensuring that this information was conveyed to other, non-Norse peoples. The Norse did what they were used to doing about these things, it was included into their sagas and nothing more was really thought of it over time.
Another potential reason is that they may have wanted to keep these new waters to themselves rather than soon have other countries coming in to compete for fishing areas. One thing is certain, if you look at it from the Norse point of view, this discovery didn’t to them have the same meaning as it ended up having for Columbus. From a northern perspective this was just another coast in addition to Greenland’s, Iceland’s, and Scotland’s which were in the same general area to the Norse. They most probably didn’t for instance, travel southward enough to understand the sheer scale of the American continents, nor were they particularly inclined to do so. Keep in mind that L’Anse aux Meadows was starting to get far enough to be slightly more inconvenient to travel to as compared to some of their closer territorial areas.
One thing becoming slightly different however as the Norse traveled westwards, was the presence of what they called “skrælings”, basically the indigenous peoples already living in these areas when the Norse arrived, and what would later become known as Native Americans in the case of those encountered in Newfoundland. The exact meaning of this word as it was used at the time is debated but it’s thought to range from “barbarian” to “weakling”, or perhaps it was even used to describe these people’s clothing, skin, or behavior. Regardless of what the Norse thought of them however, the fact is that they were already living in these arctic areas by the time the Norse arrived, which begs the question…from where and when did THEY come?
This question has no easy answer, especially if one were looking to know about the exact peoples encountered by those Viking voyages considering that there have been a number of different groups that have lived in the area from time to time over the centuries including the Thule, Dorset, Inuit, and others. The precise time ranges for which each of these cultures thrived and when they collapsed (and why) aren’t clear, but what is clear is that the pre-Columbian history of the Americas is long and rich at the very least.
Just like things used to be as simple as “Columbus discovered America“, which we now know to not quite be the case, the initial human population of America is also becoming more complicated as time goes on. What used to be the consensus was that the first people to inhabit the Americas (and only people, until European contact) walked across land connecting Asia and North America that was then exposed due to lower sea levels as a result of more water being tied up in ice at the time. While either this and/or a coastal migration along a similar route is generally accepted to have occurred – due both to archaeological and DNA evidence – the question remains, was this the only way humans arrived to the new world?
Evidence continues to mount that the historical human migration to the Americas might just be more complicated than that single theory alone accounts for. One category of evidence supports potential pre-Columbian and pre-Norse European contact with North America as outlined in the ‘Solutrean Hypothesis’. Certain stone tools found in the Eastern United States and just off of its East Coast appear to be some of the oldest artifacts yet discovered in the Americas, potentially conflicting with the time tables of when people were crossing over from Asia. Not only that, but the artifacts in question show a style of stone-age technology that not only strikingly resembles artifacts discovered in western European locations such as France and Spain, but that also pre-date by thousands of years their usage by known Native American cultures such as the Clovis.
The Clovis had been traditionally thought of as the oldest peoples to inhabit the Americas as a solidified culture, however sites such as the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, Cactus Hill in Virginia, Buttermilk Creek Complex in Texas, and Page-Ladson in Florida – among others – all point to a pre-Clovis presence of humans in North America – sometimes by thousands of years. The existence of this older evidence largely concentrated along the eastern coast of The United States, along with the similarities with European Solutrean artifacts suggests that there may have been human contact with North America up to twenty-two thousand years ago or more and that these people may very well have been some of, or potentially the first humans to set foot onto the continent.
The Beringia migration from Asia makes sense enough and remains undisputed, but how could Europeans have gotten to America in pre-history without a similarly exposed land bridge? Evidence shows that during the time of the Solutreans the seasonal presence of the northern ice cap in the Atlantic reached as far south as France, and continued all the way across the ocean to North America. The ice wasn’t constant year-round, but that may have actually contributed to the Solutreans getting westward…
Just as the ice would have started to recede with the approach of warmer spring temperatures, it also would have moved in a western-flowing direction due to currents caused by the melting itself. Solutreans would not necessarily have intended to make the trip across the Atlantic, but after going a certain distance in search of food that the ice would have provided (seals, etc), they may have accidentally gotten caught up in the melting pack ice currents and eventually been deposited near or onto the East Coast of North America. This is a plausible explanation for how they got across the ocean, and also provides many opportunities for such an event as each year would’ve provided for that scenario.
Such phenomenon of accidentally crossing an ocean is actually not unheard of, strong sea currents can very well result in boats travelling thousands of miles off course and to unintended destinations. There are several known examples in the Pacific of Japanese seafarers being blown off course and then carried by the Kuroshio Current all the way to the the West Coast of North America – some as far south as California. This has happened literally dozens of times that we know of and probably happened countless times over past millennia as well.
In addition to the several known and documented cases where Japanese sailors have inadvertently made it to North America, there are also other types of potential evidence of this contact historically. Examples such as similarities in pottery between the Ecuadorian Valdivia culture and their Jōmon counterparts in Japan at the time, as well as peculiar differences between the Zuni tribe of New Mexico and their neighbors regarding linguistic characteristics and religious beliefs (seeming to potentially have been caused by Japanese influence) add to the probability that Pacific pre-Colombian contact – while not widely known about or understood – is gaining in the probability of having occurred. This appears to support a similar possibility/probability with regards to the same having happened with pre-Colombian Europeans such as the Solutreans.
Evidence of pre-Columbian migration to or contact with the Americas continues into South America and perhaps is even more convincing. The Pedra Furada sites in Brazil suggest evidence of human habitation going as far back as twenty-two thousand years or further depending on the interpretation of certain artifacts and charcoal dating. These spans of time are well before most ranges theorized for Beringian crossings to North America – not to mention the time it would then take for humans to migrate as far south as Brazil etc.
Some South American evidence is less about human remains or tools, but instead relies on the presence of some of the the same plants or animals in both South America and locations in Oceania. It’s fact that humans found ways to populate the thousands of islands strewn across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. Ancient techniques of reading the ocean currents and wave patterns along with navigation using the stars allowed Micronesians, Melanesians, and Polynesians to travel thousands of miles and eventually populate islands as remote as Hawaiʻi and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). In the case of Rapa Nui, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision that if humans could get from Asia to eventually as far as Easter Island, then it would seem logical that they could also get to the coast of Chile.
One piece of evidence supporting intermingling between Pacific Islanders and South Amerindians is the sweet potato. It is known and has been genetically proven that the sweet potato is native to South America, however by the time European sailors arrived in the Pacific, the sweet potato was already present across the region. Phylogenetic evidence supports at least two introductions of the sweet potato to Oceania with the first potentially as far back as 700 AD. It’s unclear exactly how this happened but the edible evidence doesn’t stop there. Chicken bones found in Chile dating to the late 1300’s at the latest show through DNA analysis to be related to chickens from Southeast Asia and islands in the Pacific. Chickens were not thought to exist at all in the Americas before Columbus and others introduced European varieties, therefore, how did chickens get to South America before European contact, and how is it they are related to Asian breeds if it weren’t for some sort of contact between the peoples of these regions?
Evidence upending traditional theories on how the Americas were initially populated as well as evidence supporting various pre-Columbian contact between settlers of the Americas and Asian, European, or other peoples later in the timeline continues to mount and isn’t confined to only just what’s been mentioned here but spans other categories such as lingual similarities and artifacts whose presence remains as yet unexplained. Research will continue and we’ll no doubt also continue to discover new archaeological finds which in some cases may answer questions, and in other cases raise even more, but one thing remains certain…we must continue to search for the truth.
edit: New genetic evidence supports pre-Columbian contact between Native American peoples and Polynesians
The truth is out there…