In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in what is now the Bahamas, changing the world forever. But was he first non-indigenous person to reach the Americas? Vikings got there before him, and possibly Polynesians too...and those are just the sane theories.
Before we get started on this, I want to make one thing clear - this isn't about who "discovered" the Americas. That, of course, happened somewhere between 13,000 and 40,000 years ago when human beings first traveled from northern Asia to the Americas, probably by boat. It's certain that indigenous people discovered America.
Here's the question I want to consider: between the first wave of human settlement of the Americas all those thousands of years ago and the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, how many other groups reached the Americas? And, for that matter, did any indigenous groups from the Americas ever travel to other continents? To those questions, science offers one easy answer, one shaky but decent possibility, a whole lot of racist claptrap, and even more crazy speculation based on the flimsiest of evidence. So let's dive in, shall we?
These days, the fact that Vikings reached the Americas is almost as well-known as Columbus's own voyage. But just fifty years ago, the Norse exploration of the Americas was still just a theory, rooted in an interpretation of the old Norse sagas. These were tales, often filled with epic poems, written roughly between 1190 and 1320. Sagas purported to describe events of a couple hundred years before, from about 930 to 1030, the events of which had previously only been recounted in oral histories.
You can probably see the problem here. The sagas were, at best, recording events some 150 years after they happened, and the authors were working from some combination of oral tradition and the authors' own literary inventions. And yet a specific subset of these works - the Icelandic Sagas, written by the descendants of the island's original colonists provided the main pre-archaeological evidence for Norse contact with the Americas.
Whatever the exact truth of the matter, the Icelandic sagas tell us that the famous Viking explorer Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland in the 980s after committing manslaughter. He sailed westward, landing on southern Greenland and setting up a new home there, giving the island its blatantly inaccurate name in a bid to attract potential settlers. We know the Vikings lived on Greenland until somewhere between 1350 and 1450, when a changing climate made the island too cold even for Vikings. These basic facts are well-attested by recent archaeological investigations.
But what about the Americas themselves? The sagas say that the Greenland colonists started traveling westward just a few short years after Erik the Red founded the settlement. The story goes that, during a migration voyage to Greenland in 985, a ship commanded by the merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson was blown off course, and after three days of sailing westward he sighted an unknown land. If any of that's true, then Herjólfsson deserves to be remembered as the very first European to ever set eyes on the Americas.
Still, Herjólfsson was not an explorer, and he returned to Greenland as soon as the winds changed. He described his experiences to Erik the Red's son, Lief Ericson, who set off around the year 1000 in search of these lands. The sagas say Ericson and his crew sailed about 1,800 miles westward, discovering three distinct regions: Helluland, "The Land of the Flat Stones", Markland, "The Land of Forests", and Vinland, which has generally been translated "The Land of Wine" but is now suspected to actually mean "The Land of Meadows."
Ericson wintered in Vinland in 1001 and 1002, and the sagas say that squashberries, gooseberries, and cranberries all grew wild in the region. Lief had no great troubles in the Americas, and he sailed back to Greenland to be by his father's side. Lief's brother Thorvald Ericson returned to these lands with 30 men in 1004, but his expedition did not go nearly as well. The sagas say Thorvald attacked nine indigenous people who were sleeping under their canoes. Eight were killed, but the ninth escaped and returned with an attacking force. Thorvald was killed in the skirmish, and the rest of the expedition stayed another winter before finally leaving.
The only real attempt by the Vikings to set up a permanent settlement in the Americas came in 1009, when Thorfinn Karlsefni set off with roughly 200 men and women and plenty of livestock. The sagas record some successful bartering between the Norse and the Native Americans, but for some reason peaceful relations broke down. Ultimately, the Norse were driven from the Americas.
There are some shreds of evidence that the Greenland settlers occasionally returned to Markland for foraging, timber, and to trade with the indigenous groups, and this may have lasted some 400 years, but this is far from proven and the more spectacular evidence for this have all been shown to be hoaxes.
So how did the Norse exploration of the Americas pass from the stuff of legend to archaeological fact? The shift started in 1837, when the Danish scholar Carl Christian Rafn argued the purported voyages west of Greenland might really describe expeditions to the Americas. But the matter wouldn't be settled until 1960, when the Norwegian husband and wife team of Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, the former an explorer and adventurer and the latter an archaeologist, discovered the L'Anse aux Meadows site in the northern tip of Newfoundland.
The site dates back about 1000 years, and the remains of eight buildings survive. The structures and artifacts found at the site have definitive similarities to those in corresponding sites in Iceland and Greenland. This settlement and the surrounding Newfoundland area was most likely the Vinland referred to in the sagas. Archaeologists have also speculated that Helluland was Baffin Island and Markland was Labrador.
L'Anse aux Meadows remains the only non-indigenous settlement in the Americas that predates Christopher Columbus. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, and it remains open to any visitors willing to trek to the very tip of Newfoundland in order to see it.
On the face of it, the idea that Polynesian explorers reached the Americas at one point or another doesn't seem entirely far-fetched, if only because the places they definitely did manage to reach seem so improbable too. Starting from islands in the eastern Pacific, ancient Polynesian navigators sailed as far afield as Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island, all of which required them to cross thousands of miles of open ocean in relatively small boats.
The remarkable maritime prowess of Polynesians and other Pacific Islander groups really deserves its own separate article (indeed, I wrote quite a bit of my college thesis on just that topic), but the crucial thing is that, for thousands of years, these master navigators have possessed the knowledge to guide ships across the vast Pacific without compass or maps, using only the stars and their expert knowledge of the various signs of land nearby. If ancient Polynesians traveled at least 2,000 miles eastward just to reach Easter Island, is it really unreasonable to think that they would travel another couple of thousand miles to reach what is now modern Chile? But their maritime prowess isn't evidence. And that's where we get to the chicken bone.
In 2007, researchers at New Zealand's University of Auckland discovered a chicken bone during an archaeological dig at the El Arenal indigenous site on Chile's southern coast, an area which was inhabited for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. There, researchers discovered some chicken bones. Chickens aren't native to the Americas, and they're flightless birds who couldn't have crossed oceans without human assistance. Researchers had assumed that all chicken bones found in the Americas date to after 1492.
But radiocarbon dating on one of the bones revealed it actually dated back to anywhere between 1304 and 1424 - almost certainly long, long before the arrival of the Europeans. What's more, the DNA found inside the El Arenal bone was a close match for that of chicken bones found in pre-European sites in Pacific islands like Tonga, American Samoa, Hawaii, and Easter Island.
This is the first tangible archaeological evidence for pre-Columbian contact between Polynesians and the indigenous peoples of South America. But it fits well with a growing body circumstantial evidence in favor of limited cultural exchange between these two groups. As the researchers run through the list in their paper:
Some prehistoric contact between the Americas and Polynesia is evident from the presence of South American sweet potato in pre-European archaeological sites in Polynesia, most notably from Mangaia, Cook Islands, where it is dated indirectly to AD 1000. Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggest that the bottle gourd, also from the Americas, was present in Eastern Polynesia before AD 1200. Voyaging from Polynesia to the Americas has been proposed , and debated recently in relation to linguistic and archaeological evidence for the occurrence of some watercraft, namely sewn plank canoes, and fishhook forms found in southern California which resemble Polynesian types. Sewn plank canoes have also been documented in Chile by ethnographers and claims have been made suggesting artifactual and linguistic evidence for Polynesian influence in the Mapuche region of south central Chile.
We need to be careful here. Similarities in fishhook or canoe designs can be interesting evidence - they're certainly worth some consideration, but it isn't nearly strong enough to build a case for contact around these items. Humans have been known to independently invent key technologies and even come up with similar-sounding words that mean the same thing in different languages. The notion of pre-Columbian contact between any groups is an extraordinary claim and requires extraordinary evidence, which means more than mere similarities in technology or language.
The sweet potato case is more intriguing. This crop originates in the Americas and it was already in use throughout the Pacific by the time Europeans first landed on places like Easter Island (1722), New Zealand (1769), and Hawaii (1778). Sweet potatoes don't usually reproduce from seeds, and instead need access to their storage root, or tubers, in order to reproduce.
These tubers spoil in seawater, which makes it unlikely - but not totally impossible - that the crop was simply carried from the Americas into the Pacific islands by ocean currents. As UCLA botany expert Arthur C. Gibson suggests, Polynesian explorers either landed on the Peruvian coast and took some of the crops back with them, or perhaps indigenous Americans themselves set off from ancient Peru on balsa rafts and introduced the crop to the wider Pacific that way. Considering the relative oceanic skills of the two groups, the former seems more likely, but neither is impossible.
We could say that the chicken bone and these South American sweet potatoes in Pacific archaeological sites - not to mention the fact that Polynesians and South Americans appear to use the same name for this crop - are pretty compelling evidence for Polynesian contact with early Americans, but it's still far from proven.
The Roman Head
Now it's time to leave plausibility behind and enter rank speculation territory. Although the evidence for limited Polynesian contact with the Americas is still patchy at best, it's incredibly well attested compared to the evidence for ancient Roman travel in the Americas. The evidence for that comes down to a single, highly controversial artifact known as the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head.
The head is a tiny terracotta figure that appears to be a strong similarity to ancient Roman pieces. It was first discovered in 1933 by archaeologist José García Payón, who found it buried with a bunch of other artifacts under two cemented floors that had gone undisturbed since at least the year 1510, eleven years before the first Spanish conquistadors are thought to have reached that area of ancient Mexico.
In 1961, Austrian anthropologist Robert Heine-Geldern declared the head to be unquestionably Roman in origin, dating it specifically to around 200 CE. The head then languished in obscurity until 1990, when archaeology student Romeo Hristov decided to track it down. He found it two years later in a forgotten storage area of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and with Santiago Genovés he began extensive study of the head.
Their work led Professor Bernard Andreae, then the director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, to declare:
"It is Roman without any doubt... The stylistic examination tells us, more precisely, that it is a Roman work of the second century after Christ. It presents, in the cut of the hair and the shape of the beard, traits typical of the Severian emperors, exactly the 'fashion' of the period. On this there is no doubt."
Rather less certain were Peter Schaaf and Günther Wagner, a pair of scientists at the Max Planck Institute who ran thermoluminescence tests on the head to determine how long ago it was made. They could only provide a very inexact date due to various technical difficulties, but they came up with a range between 870 BCE and 1270 CE - whatever else, this would seem to suggest it had indeed been made before Europe made contact with the Americas. But still, the pair refused to push too far, saying of their result:
"[It] is of only limited use in the debate about the head's origin. It probably rules out a Colonial manufacturing date for the figurine. Although it does not disprove the alleged Roman manufacturing date, it certainly should not be used in support of such a date in view of its relatively low accuracy."
So what should we make of this? Well, for a start, the evidence is pretty shaky, in no small part due to the circumstances of José García Payón's initial excavation. García Payón has been heavily criticized for his unprofessional excavation of the Calixtlahuaca site where the head was discovered.
As Arizona State archaeologist Michael Smith points out, García Payón failed to photograph the excavation process or the objects in their original context, and he also failed to provide any plan maps, drawings, descriptions, or catalog entries for any of his finds at Calixtlahuaca, despite the fact that such steps were already being taken by contemporary archaeologists elsewhere in Mesoamerica.
These problems affect all of García Payón's findings at Calixtlahuaca, even the non-controversial ones, and they certainly create huge problems for taking the terracotta head seriously as evidence for ancient Roman contact with Mesoamerica. Smith concludes:
While these problems do not invalidate the "Roman figurine" as a potentially valid Precolumbian find, their implication is that it is impossible today to reconstruct the archaeological context of the find. It certainly cannot be claimed that this find is "well documented" or that it comes from "a good archaeological context." The excavation of the "Roman figurine" fails to meet even the minimum standards of archaeological reporting.
There are plenty of simpler explanations for the presence of the head. It might well have been a hoax - one popular account says that Hugo Moedano, a student working at the site in the 1930s, placed the head there for García Payón to find. It's also possible that the head really is European - whatever the researchers involved might say, there's still no consensus that the head is specifically ancient Roman, let alone specifically 2nd century. Maybe it was introduced by an early Spanish visitor to the Americas, with the seemingly pre-contact archaeological context being just a misleading error.
It still can't be conclusively ruled out that the head isn't evidence of ancient Roman journeys to the Americas, but that's mostly because it's practically impossible to prove a negative. While the Romans did use ships in the Mediterranean, they did not take to the seas like the Greeks or Phoenicians before them, generally preferring to travel overland when possible.
They did have settlements on the Canary Islands, which are about sixty miles west of Morocco. And yes, the Canaries were frequently used by the Spanish Empire as a launching point for transatlantic voyages due to the favorable prevailing winds. But it's a pretty massive jump to suggest that just because the Romans could sail 60 miles west to the Canaries that they were also capable of traveling the thousands of miles it would take to get them to ancient Mexico.
It's unlikely that we'd have no written record of such an incredible journey, when both the Romans and the various peoples of Mesoameria tended to be excellent recordkeepers. Plus it's extremely far-fetched that a single tiny terracotta head would be the only surviving record of such contact. For his part, Romeo Hristov has remained steadfast in his support of the head's ancient Roman origins, but he admits that perhaps it was carried over the Atlantic by a drifting shipwreck. That might be slightly more likely, but it's still massively improbable.
While the idea of Romans and Mayans mixing is an intriguing one, it almost certainly doesn't have any place outside alternative history stories.
The Cocaine Mummies
One of the more entertaining - but probably worthless - recent theories of supposed contact between the Old and New Worlds are the so-called "cocaine mummies." Back in the early 1990s, German researchers published a short paper that mentioned, among other things, that they had found cocaine and nicotine on Egyptian mummies dating back as much as 3,000 years. The problem with this is that tobacco and coca are only found in the Americas, which means something seriously strange was going on.
Indeed, "seriously strange" is a pretty good description for the researchers' papers. The first paper was very short and didn't even acknowledge the apparent impossibility of their findings, presenting it as an interesting but basically mundane result. Their next, longer paper ignored the storm of controversy that had greeted the announcement of their findings, reiterating nothing more than the fact that they had, in fact, found these mysterious crops on the mummies.
So what's going on? Well, there are some fairly obvious explanations - the researchers made a mistake, they accidentally contaminated their samples, or perhaps they were deliberately perpetrating a hoax. But let's leave that aside for just a moment and at least consider the possibility...could ancient Egyptians have maintained trade routes with groups in the America such as the Maya? Is it completely impossible?
Yeah, it pretty much is. It isn't just that there's zero archaeological or historical evidence for these journeys, or the fact that neither the Egyptians or the Mayans had a seafaring culture. It's a simple logical problem - if, just for the sake of argument, if Egypt was trading for cocaine and tobacco from the Americas, then why on earth didn't they bother trading anything else?
Biologist Duncan Edlin lays down a fairly devastating argument against this idea of ancient trade routes:
Historians remain entirely unconvinced of ancient trade links between the old and new worlds because none of the principle domestic species (other than the dog) are found in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. Native Americans had no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys or camels whilst new world domesticates such as the llama, guinea pigs, maize, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, squash (incl. pumpkin), pineapples, papaya and avocados were absent from the old world.
In addition iron, steel, glass and silk were not used in the Americas prior to 1492. If trade had existed between Egypt and the Americas it would be incredibly unlikely that it would be restricted to plants that produced drugs and not essential food crops and farm animals. Furthermore, the differences between Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs and the vast differences in the designs, building materials and purpose of pyramids between Egypt and the Americas indicates that there was not a shared legacy between these cultures.
And anyway, there are plenty of explanations for the nicotine and cocaine that don't require something as colossally unlikely as a completely unrecorded transatlantic trade route. Nicotine is actually found in plenty of crops from both the Old and New World, and most human remains will have some trace amounts of nicotine even if the person never once came into contact with tobacco. Coca is a bit harder to explain, and experimental error is probably the simplest answer, but it's entirely possible that the Old World had coca-like crops thousands of years ago that have since gone extinct. That's admittedly a bit unlikely, but it's a virtual certainty compared to the more sensational alternative.
A Loaded Question
At least the Roman and Egyptian theories had some tangible evidence to support them, however impossibly flawed. All of the other theories are based almost entirely on oral traditions and legends. While the Icelandic sagas had archaeological evidence to back them up, these can only rely on wishful thinking. Worse, a lot are wrapped up in some decidedly unsavory prejudices.
A good example of this is the legend of Madoc. In Medieval Britain, an oral tradition sprang up around a Welsh prince named Madoc who had undertaken a great sea voyage. Modern scholars agree that Madoc almost certainly didn't exist, but in the Elizabeth age, English and Welsh scholars rediscovered the story, deciding Madoc had in fact reached the Americas in 1170.
This was a politically expedient claim to make - it allowed England to claim their rights to the Americas superseded those of Spain, because they had actually been the first Europeans to "discover" the New World some three centuries before Columbus. (In what can be considered a mercy for all involved, the Vikings were no longer around to dispute this point.)
These attempts to distort Spain's claims on pseudohistorical grounds weren't great, but that was nothing in comparison to what happened next, as pre-Columbian explorers from the Old World became the preferred explanation for anything in the Americas that was thought to be too advanced for the "primitive" natives. This happened throughout the Americas, but one of the most notorious examples is the Mound Builder culture who lived for thousands of years along the Mississippi River.
We now know that, starting as early as 3500 BCE - a thousand years before the first pyramids were built in Egypt - indigenous groups along the Mississippi began building giant earthen mounds and creating huge settlements around them. The Mound Builder culture had collapsed by the time the first Spanish explorers reached the Mississippi, and their memory was not well-preserved in the traditions of the Native Americans that the Europeans encountered.
This apparent discontinuity between the Mound Builders and contemporary indigenous groups was all that European antiquarians needed. They decided that these present Native Americans were too simple and savage to have built the mounds, and until well into the 19th century the scholarly consensus was that a race of ancient Europeans were the real builders.
These nineteenth century scientists suggested Greek, Viking, Israelite, African, Chinese, and even Atlantean origins for these supposed builders. None of their ideas had the slightest archaeological support. Most of these theories simply served to deny the accomplishments of Native Americans and, in so doing, provide justification for the European expansion into the Americas.
By the late 19th century, archaeology had become a serious enough science that it was now possible to conclusively demonstrate the indigenous origins of the mounds, which rather neatly pushed all these pre-Columbian contact theories from respectable inquiry to the pseudoscientific fringe. It's worth noting that not everyone was on the wrong side of history here - in fact, Thomas Jefferson had actually performed some careful excavations in the 1780s and managed to demonstrate the obvious similarities in burial patterns between the Mound Builders and contemporary Native Americans.
Obviously, it's not inherently racist to wonder whether Europeans or other groups reached the Americas before Columbus. Indeed, if that question was never asked, then we'd still remain ignorant of the Viking voyages to Vinland and the possible cultural exchanges between Polynesians and ancient South America. But, historically speaking, a lot of the theories about pre-Columbian contact have had, at their base, the aim of undermining the accomplishments of Native Americans, of suggesting that all their achievements could not have happened without the assistance of their Old World cultural superiors.
It's why, as fascinating a question as this is to ponder, it's crucial that we keep in mind its larger historical context. If pre-Columbian contact did exist - or, more accurately, if it existed outside the Viking voyages to ancient Newfoundland - then these are, at best, historical curiosities, footnotes in the human story that left no lasting impression on either the Old or New Worlds. It's fun to root around in the forgotten corners of history, but only if we don't let it overshadow what's truly important - namely the remarkable achievements of indigenous cultures throughout the Americas, as well as the world-altering ramifications of the permanent contact that was established, for better or worse, in 1492.