Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact

From Academic Kids

The expression "pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact" refers to interactions or claims of interactions between Native American peoples and peoples of other continents — Europe, Africa, Asia - or Oceania — before the historically recorded European discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

Beginning in 1926 when a cowboy discovered a mammoth skeleton with a spear-point in its ribs near Folsom, New Mexico, archeologists have focused on the theory that Ice Age migrations across Beringia and the Bering Strait approximately 9,000 to 12,000 years ago settled the Americas. The discovery of more artifacts near Clovis, New Mexico in the 1930s led to the name for these people - the Clovis culture. Linguistics suggests that there were three waves of contact from Siberia, the most recent being that of the ancestors of the Inuit. Recent evidence from molecular genetics suggests that the entire Amerind population of the Americas may be derived from an effective founding population that was as small as 80 (Hey, 2005).

For the past 75 years, the mainstream conclusion, called the "Bering land bridge theory", has been that the native cultures of America developed in complete isolation from the rest of humanity until the voyages of Columbus initiated contact from Europe. This theory interprets the archaeological record to show in situ, original cultural development through that period, with people interacting across local regions but not with other continents.

The sole exceptions mainstream archeology has accepted are visits by the Vikings to Newfoundland at the L'Anse aux Meadows site. These are presumably the basis of the Vinland Sagas and this was accepted once physical evidence of Norse artefacts had been discovered.

A significant minority of scholars assert that ocean crossings impacted peoples in the Americas, and that migrations could as easily have been by sea as by land. Some of these diffusionists, see enough cultural parallels to justify them, including discoveries at Monte Verde in southern Chile approximately 2,000 years older than Clovis. New evidence from the Gault site discoveries [1] ( offer some evidence that the Clovis culture bears more resemblance to European than to Siberian cultures.

This article summarizes the main claims that have been made for Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic content. Some of these claims are no longer seriously defended, and none are widely supported. Nonetheless, archaeology is always changing as new discoveries, techniques, and technology add new evidence and engender new theories. While the land bridge theory of America's settlement has dominated archeological thinking for years, like any scientific theory it is open to change.


The isolationist theory

The first detailed studies of Mesoamerican and South American archaeology appeared after the 1830s, in books such as the travels of Stephens in Mesoamerica and Prescott's accounts of the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru. Gradually, those reports convinced historians that the ancient monuments of the Americas were built by the ancestors of the current Native Americans.

For about a century, any suggestion of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contacts was automatically dismissed by most mainstream historians. The general belief was no trans-oceanic voyages to the Americas could have occurred before the age of European exploration, which culminated in Christopher Columbus's voyage of 1492. The presumed technical impossibility of such trips was supposedly confirmed by the lack of any solid evidence of cultural influences.

Possibility of ocean voyages

Over the last few decades, however, this theory has seen several challenges, and been somewhat weakened by various developments. For one thing, historians have found many reports and evidence of long ocean voyages prior to the European explorations. Ironically it seems that the Eurocentrism that the Western scientific community has been trying to cast off — which was largely the logic behind the belief in Old World culture as the source of culture in the New World — may also have caused, and is continuing to cause, many scientists to dismiss theories of ancient non-Western contact with the New World.


Linguistic evidence has demonstrated that Madagascar, for example, was settled by Austronesian peoples from Indonesia: their navigators were able to cross the Indian Ocean and large sections of the Pacific before the year 1000. Compared to the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Indian Ocean is a very easy one to travel on: centuries before Europeans arrived in the area, Arab traders had conducted a trade that linked East Africa, the Middle East, India, and China. This trade has been well documented with written records and archeological finds such as Chinese pottery in Zimbabwe.

The Vikings

Some ancient Viking chronicles talked about a land called Vinland to the west of Greenland. Historians debated the meaning of these chronicles, and whether the Vikings had ever visited the New World in Pre-Columbian times, yet they may have been some of the earliest European colonists in North America. These debates were settled by archeological evidence in 1961. In that year Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad discovered the remains of a Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. This was clear proof that the Vikings had crossed the Atlantic by way of Iceland and Greenland around the year 1000.

According to some historians, Polish sailor John of Kolno, serving for Denmark reached the shores of America before Columbus. However, it is not clear, whether this really happened and whether John was really Polish.

Asian castaways to America

During the 19th century, Japanese castaways drifting along the Northern Pacific current for months in a disabled junk, are recorded to have reached the American Continent. This is the story of Otokichi, whose ship had lost its mast and rudder in a typhoon on a coastal navigation to Edo, and landed 14 months later in Washington State in 1848. Such peripeteia likely happened to other Chinese and Japanese sailors in previous centuries as well.

Modern experiments

In the mid-20th century, several attempts were made to demonstrate the possibility of long survival on ocean voyages, like that of Alain Bombard. Norwegian writer Thor Heyerdahl used light reed boats (named and Kon-Tiki), similar to those used in North Africa and Bolivia. By successfully crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with these craft, Heyerdahl demonstrated that there was no technical reason why the Americas could not have been settled from Africa, or the Pacific Islands from South America. The archeological significance if any of such voyages is debated, but these demonstrations made many of the general public curious about Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. In 1977, adventurer, author and filmmaker, Tim Severin constructed a boat fashioned from oxhides stretched over a wooden frame, and based on 6th century designs and materials. He sailed from Brandon Creek on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula to Newfoundland to prove that it was possible for Brendan the Navigator (see below) to have made his voyage.

Conjectured contacts

Religious dogmas and speculation

A number of diffusionist theories involving ancient visitors are mandated by or inspired on religious beliefs. The Book of Mormon, for instance, holds that a number of Israelites migrated from the Middle East to ancient America around 600 to 700 BC. Others have speculated that one of the lost tribes of Israel may have ended up in America.

Legendary trips

The medieval legend of Saint Brendan the Navigator claims that an Irish monk and a few companions crossed the Atlantic in a leather boat to a "blessed land" of many wonders. A 1977 Expedition (National Geographic Volume 152, Number 6 - December 1977) has reenacted this crossing in a leather boat thereby proving the feasibility of such a voyage. In a similar vein, although apparently unrelated to any such legend, followers of epigrapher Barry Fell claim that Irish Christian missionaries visited the Americas in the sixth century AD. These claims have been widely discredited in the academic community, although its proponents are still undeterred.[2] (

Madoc (Madawg ab Owain Gwynedd), a Welsh prince was said to flee Wales because of a succession war. In 1170 he sailed to the west and found an unknown, fertile land. He left 120 men there, and returned to Wales to get more people. In 1174 he had collected more ships and people, including women, and sailed to the unknown land again. No-one heard of him again. Although this story is most likely a legend, DNA tests and linguistic similarities have led some people to identify the Mandan tribe as descendants of Madoc's settlers. [3] (

Historically-based claims

Since the early 19th century, some scholars have tried to use historical records to prove that several Old World civilizations could have been capable of a trans-oceanic voyage to the Americas. Candidates included Egyptians, Sumerians, Afro-Phoenicians, Romans, Islamic West Africans, the Knights Templar, Venetians, and more.

Only recently have the Western scholars become aware of the navigational exploits of the Chinese, such as the voyage of Zheng He's fleet. Gavin Menzies popularized this idea in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered The World. This awareness has led to proposals of Chinese-American contacts, e.g. by off-course Shang Dynasty ships. The possibility of Muslim trips from Asia (see Sung Document) were also discussed.

A mixed crew of Highland Scots (Clan Sinclair & Clan Gunn) and Scottish Knights Templars were listed among the crew of Henry Sinclair's (Earl of the Orkneys) legendary voyage from Scotland to North America in 1398. Sinclair held titles to lands in Scotland, and to islands belonging to the Norse. Fluent in Gaelic, Norse and Latin, Sinclair gained knowledge of the Viking voyages to the New World and set out to expand his dominion. Possible evidence of the voyage is preserved by the grave of a Scottish Knight found in Westford, Massachusetts. The "Westford Knight" lies below an inscribed stone effigy of a knight bearing the arms of Clan Gunn upon his shield. Some speculate that the Scottish Templars shared information of the voyage with their Portuguese brethren, and that the knowledge found its way to Columbus' Portuguese navigators. Notably, the sails of Columbus' ships were emblazoned with the Templar cross.

In 1472, the Portuguese navigator João Vaz Corte-Real was granted the title "discoverer of the Land of the Codfish". There is evidence suggesting he visited Newfoundland. The presence of Basque cod fishermen and whalers in North America, just a few years after Columbus, has been well established. It has therefore been conjectured that they may have made such trips earlier.

In 1963, what appeared to be Roman coins were discovered in Ohio, across from Louisville, Kentucky. All but two have vanished; the remaining ones appear to depict Roman Emperors Claudius II and Maximinus. More recently, what appear to be Roman coins from the same period have been found on the other side of the Ohio River.

In 1999 thermoluminescence (TL) tests were carried out on a small ceramic head, "The Calixtlahuaca Head" (found in 1933 at a site in the Toluca Valley, 72 kilometres west of Mexico City), appeared to prove that it was Roman in origin. However, the significance of this find is disputed (and it should be noted that the accuracy of the TL dating is also disputed). Of course, even if this did prove a Roman ship accidentally discovered Mexico, it would not prove that they managed to find their way back.

Others have conjectured that Columbus was able to convince the Catholic Monarchs of Castile to back up his proposal only because they were aware of some earlier trip. Some suggest that Columbus himself visited Canada or Greenland before 1492, because he wrote he had visited Thule once.

Farley Mowat in his book The Farfarers postulates that there was trans-Atlantic explorartion and migration of the Albans who were a Celtic people from the British Isles. Under pressure from the Vikings invasions, they migrated to Iceland and Greenland before settling in Ungava and Newfoundland. Once there they inter-married with the native populations and were assimilated. He claims there is physical and documentary evidence of these voyages.

Transatlantic contact during the Ice Age

There is a theory that resemblances between the Aurignacian culture in Ice Age France and Ice Age Amerindian cultures, can be explained by occasional travel across the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, living conditions and available technology in the area were much like the recent traditional Eskimo culture, and there was a continuous ice barrier across the Atlantic Ocean from Scotland or Scandinavia via Iceland and Greenland to North America; it would have been possible for men in Eskimo-type boats to make the crossing occasionally, getting food by fishing, and water by melting ice, and hauling out on ice floes each night.

Lost continents and flying saucers

The 19th century saw the spread of several "lost continent" theories such as the Atlantis of Rosicrucians and Theosophists, and James Churchward's proposals of Mu and Lemuria.

In the 20th century, extra-terrestrial civilizations have been added to the long list of conjectural visitors to the Americas. According to popular writers like Erich von Däniken, these celestial visitors were the real builders of the ancient monuments of the Americas, or at least the masters who taught the natives how to build them.

Some have even proposed that a human species distinct from Homo sapiens sapiens had lived in the continent in a period overlapping with the Native Americans. Irrespective of the validity of that proposal, such contacts do not appear to have left any trace.

Trans-Pacific contact by Polynesians

The realization that Polynesians had been able to spread as far as Easter Island by boat led to theories of trans-Pacific contacts with Oceania, an hypothesis that Thor Heyerdahl proved possible by experiment. The presence in Polynesia of the kumara (sweet potato), a plant native to the Americas, has been cited as possible evidence of contacts, although alternative explanations are also put forward.

More recently, the efforts of linguist Kathryn A. Klar of UC Berkeley and archaeologist Terry L. Jones of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo have gained support for the trans-pacific theory using new evidence and research, to be published in the journal American Antiquity in July 2005. They believe Polynesians may have been in contact with southern California's Chumash tribe between 500 and 700 AD. Their evidence includes the construction and use of sewn-plank canoes by the Chumash and their neighbors, the Gabrielino, a technique used throughout the Polynesian Islands. These two tribes were the only ones in North America to use this technique, which was far more advanced than traditional Native American canoe-building methods. Linguistic research also indicates that the Chumash word for "sewn-plank canoe", tomolo'o, may have been derived from the Polynesian word for the Redwood logs used in their sewn-plank construction, kumulaa'au, logs which in fact reached the Polynesian Islands by drifting from North America across the Pacific. Other evidence includes newly-calibrated carbon-14 dating of abalone shells used in a Chumash headdress. Previous datings indicated that the shells were over 2,000 years old, implying that the Chumash had been fishing in deep sea waters before Polynesians allegedly arrived. The dating did not take into account varying levels of atmospheric carbon-14, however. John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where the shells are currently stored, recalibrated the dating and found that the shells dated to approximately 600 AD. He announced his finding in April 2005 at an archaeology conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. [4] (

Native American trans-oceanic voyages

Roman Times

Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder wrote that Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, proconsul in Gaul got 'several Indians' (Indi) as a present from a Germanic king. The Indians were driven by a storm to the coasts of Germania (in tempestatem ex Indicis aequribus). Since it is not very likely that people from India would have been driven to Germania by a storm, they could possibly have been Native Americans.

Middle Ages

According to the Portuguese seafarer Antonio Galvano 'certain Indians' (certos Indios) were picked out of sea in 1153 and sent to Lübeck. Galvado said they were probably from Bacalao, a mythical island.

According to Bartolomé de las Casas there were two dead bodies that looked like Indians found on Flores (Azores). He said he found that fact in Columbus' notes, and it was one of the reasons for Columbus to assume India was on the other side of the ocean.

Contested evidence

Various artifacts which some think suggest other Pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contact have been found, but in no case — other than the discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows — have these presented clear enough evidence to convince mainstream archeologists and historians.

External links


  • Barry Fell, America B.C. : Ancient Settlers in the New World (New York: Simon & Schuster , 1984);
  • Gavin Menzies, 1421 : The year China discovered America ( ? , 2003);
  • Geoffrey Ashe, The Quest for America (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971);
  • Fagan, Brian M. The Great Journey. Thames and Hudson. 1987);
  • E. Harry Gerol, Dioses, Templos y Ruinas;
  • William Howgaard, The Voyages of the Norsemen to America (New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1914, Kraus Reprint Co., 1971);
  • Helge Ingstad, Westward to Vinland (New York: St. Martins, 1969);
  • R.A. Jairazbhoy, Ancient Egyptians and Chinese in America (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974);
  • Adrian Johnson, America Explored (New York: The Viking Press, 1974);
  • Arlington Mallery and Mary Roberts Harrison, The Rediscovery of Lost America (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979);
  • Farley Mowat, The Farfarers (Toronto, Key Porter Books, 1998) ISBN: 1550139894;
  • Frederick J. Pohl, The Lost Discovery (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1952);
  • Frederick J. Pohl, The Viking Explorers (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1966);
  • Zoltan A. Simon, Atlantis: The Seven Seals (Vancouver, 1984);
  • John L. Sorenson & Martin H. Raish, Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography. 2v. 2d ed., rev. (Provo, Utah: Research Press, 1996) ISBN 0934893217;
  • Robert Wauchope, Lost Tribes & Sunken Continents. (University of Chicago Press. 1962);
  • Man across the sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian contacts (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1971).
  • Hey, J. (2005). On the number of New World founders: A population genetic portrait of the peopling of the Americas. Public Library of Science Biology, 3, e193.

See also


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