It’s one of the most celebrated moments in history – “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue”. It was on August 3, 1492, that the fateful voyage departed Europe. The next year, he returned to Europe proclaiming the land for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. But was he really the first European on American shores? What physical proof exists today? Did Columbus discover America?
THEORY 1: THE VIKINGS
PHYSICAL PROOF: L’Anse Aux Meadows
It is accepted among historians that around 500 years before Columbus sailed, the Vikings actually had settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland. The Norse Saga’s (stories about ancient Nordic history and travel) tell us that after the heroic expeditions and settlements of Erik the Red, founder of Greenland, his son Leif converted to Christianity and began making diplomatic voyages eastwards.
This is where the history gets hazy – the sagas give two differing accounts of what happened next. 1) He arrived in America after sailing off course while returning to Greenland from Norway, and 2) a trader had told him stories of a strange land west, and Leif decided to go in search of it. What’s not disputed is that Norsemen certainly did reach – and settle – and area of modern-day Newfoundland known today as L’Anse aux Meadows. The sagas tell us that Eriksson originally called the area he landed ‘Helluland’, Norwegian for “Stone Slab Land” – possibly present-day Baffin Island.
The Norsemen then voyaged south to a timber-rich location they called Markland, before finally setting up a base camp likely on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. They called the area ‘Vinland’.
Eriksson returned to Greenland the following year for supplies; and although he himself never returned, there remains evidence of a Viking settlement there. In the 1960s, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad discovered Viking remains at L’Anse aux Meadows. The remains of the Viking village are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
So whether or not you believe the story of the Sagas¸ what’s not disputed is the fact that Norsemen settled in North America at least 500 years before Columbus.
THEORY 2: THE IRISH
PHYSICAL PROOF: Tim Severin’s 1976 voyage in the Currach
Anyone who grew up in Ireland (like me!) will know the story of St. Brendan which comes from Navigatio, a ninth-century account of Brendan’s travels in the Atlantic Ocean. Many versions of the story exist, with much crossover in other mythology (especially Welch).
St Brendan allegedly travelled tirelessly to establish monasteries, continuing the work of Ireland’s patron Saint, Saint Patrick. He is told to have frequently sailed to places such as Scotland, Wales, and Brittany to preach the Gospel. And the, one winter, he is told to have embarked on a mission that would remain in historic memory for more than 1500 years. For 40 days St. Brendan fasted and prayed atop a mountain on the rugged Dingle Peninsula, before going in pursuit of a fabled land over the horizon. He is told to have crafted a traditional Irish boat called a ‘currach’, with square sails and leather skins stitched together to create a watertight seal over the vessel’s wooden skeleton. Then along with a crew gleaned to be somewhere between 18 and 150, depending on the account, he sailed out into the Atlantic, encountering towering crystal pillars afloat in the oceans, an island of sheep, among other fabled encounters.
Finally, as the boat drifted through a fog – landed was cited – Paradise! A lush land of vegetation, fragrant flowers, and an abundance of fruit. After staying for 40 days, an angel told the men to return home. When St. Brendan came back to the Emerald Isle after the seven-year voyage, pilgrims who heard the sensational story flocked to his side in remote County Kerry until he died around 577 A.D.
The story comes with an immediate word of caution – Navigatio was written some five hundred years after the purported voyage took place. Yet that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t highly revered – it became so widely known that cartographers began to include Paradise, recorded as “St Brendan’s Island”, on maps. Columbus himself is said to have taken note of the elusive island as he embarked to on his own voyage in 1492.
Could St. Brendan have influenced some of Columbus’ voyage? Similarities on what St. Brendan saw – and where they might have been. Think of what Columbus’ crew claimed to have seen on their journey – ‘towering crystal pillars’ could have been icebergs. The ‘island of the sheep’ could have been the Faroes, and foul-smelling fireballs have been sulfuric dioxide spewed by Iceland’s volcanoes.
But would a trans-Atlantic voyage have even been possible in the sixth century? In 1976, modern-day adventurer Tim Severin attempted to answer the question – and succeeded.
So whether or not you believe the story of St. Brendan finding America before Columbus – one thing is known – it’s not entirely impossible.
THEORY 3: THE POLYNESIANS
PHYSICAL PROOF: The Chicken Bone
Moving to the other side of the world, we can’t forget the Pacific neighbours of America – those of the Polynesian Islands. It’s known that they definitely sailed as far afield as Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island in relatively small boats. These navigators had the tools and knew how to sail using only the starts and their ability to detect land nearby. So is it in inconceivable that they reached South America?
In 2007, an ancient chicken bone was discovered in Chile – chickens aren’t native to America and they can’t fly, so they could only have been brought there by other settlers. The bone was dated anywhere between 1304 and 1424 – so well ahead of Columbus’ era and the subsequent European settlement of the southern part of America. DNA extracted from the bones also matched closely with a Polynesian breed of chicken, rather than any chickens found in Europe. The bone was a close match for chicken bones found in Pacific Islands such as Tonga, American Samoa, Hawaii, and Easter Island.
And arguers for the case claim that’s not the only tangible evidence: Scientific arguments based on linguistic evidence and fish-hook styles suggest increasing evidence of multiple contacts with the Americas. And in the style of Tim Severin, in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian anthropologist, made the voyage from Peru to Polynesia aboard his Kon-Tiki raft to prove that the trip was doable in a rudimentary vessel.
So again, whether or not you believe that the Polynesians could have reached American land before Columbus, one thing that’s known for sure is that it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
The one thing we do know for sure, is that Columbus was NOT the first non-native American to reach the continent.