25. The Columbus Myth
The myth that Columbus discovered the Americas is still subscribed to today and was reaffirmed in 1992 in North America on its 500-year anniversary. It is a resilient myth, and great interests are vested in maintaining it. A sure sign of this is the general academic refusal to research the matter seriously or to consider evidence undermining the Columbian creed.
Denial of the validity of evidence is insufficient, even though some claims made for pre-Columban trans-oceanic contact are inconclusive or dubious. There is strong evidence for such contact. It is unjustified to reject this quite plausible hypothesis on the basis that some inconclusive evidence implies that all evidence is spurious – a classic sceptic's technique.
My own interest in this was aroused in 1986 when I met a farmer in Cornwall (SW Britain) on whose land lies the ancient Merry Maidens stone circle. He recounted that, when grubbing up an old earthen field boundary some years before, he had found a deeply-buried greenstone arrowhead which his son then took to school to show his teacher. The teacher sent it to the British Museum for identification, and the reply returned that it was at least 5,000 years old and derived from specific rock deposits in Minnesota.
The possibility of this being a hoax was minuscule: there is little point planting evidence in a place where it is unlikely to be found or to be accepted as valid evidence – hoaxers need a pay-off. The farmer had little interest in prehistory – he was a classic farmer. What was interesting to me was that this evidence suggested west-to-east travel, from the 'New' to the 'Old' World, while one would tend to expect east-to-west travel. West Cornwall was frequented in ancient times by tin traders from the Mediterranean, particularly Phoenicians.
Cornwall was a major trading place for tin, a valuable metal in alloy production in Roman times, so this region was a seafaring node. In Megalithic times West Cornwall left a rich legacy of ancient remains. In other words, it had some centrality. The Phoenicians were intrepid travellers with a penchant for keeping their trade-sources and destinations secret. They are known to have travelled around Africa and as far as Scandinavia, and there is reasonable evidence they reached the Azores too. As intrepid seafarers, America is not out of the question as a destination, and there are slivers of evidence to support this idea.
Evidence of ancient contacts over both the Atlantic and the Pacific is certainly sufficient to deserve greater attention and a preliminary acceptance that Columbus was not the first to 'discover' America. We know that the Vikings and the Irish (St Brendan) had been there, together with Nicholas of Lynn in 1360. The Vikings actually spent a few centuries visiting eastern North America, penetrating well into the Great Lakes and possibly as far as the Gulf of Mexico. Ian Wilson points out that Columbus had gained his navigational information from English fishermen and from traders in Iceland. However, this is not the full story.
Much of the evidence for trans-oceanic contact is circumstantial and debatable – for example, the use of parallel building styles and techniques on both sides of the Atlantic (such as pyramids and burial mounds), the existence of specific species on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific and the existence of similar items of vocabulary or other cultural traits connecting specific cultures in the Americas with those of Eurasia.
However, some evidence is much more definite, taking the form of definite remains found in the Americas which seem Old World in origin. One of the most contentious areas lies in the field of epigraphy, the study of ancient rock-carved motifs found in America, spearheaded by the enthusiastic Harvard scholar Barry Fell and his associates.
Amongst these remains are included Iberic-Roman amphorae of the 100s-300s CE found in Maine, Honduras and Rio de Janeiro; late Roman coins found in Texas, Massachusetts, off Venezuela, in Brazil, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia and Oklahoma; Roman lamps in Alabama, Connecticut and Peru; inconclusive though possible Hebrew inscriptions in Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, New Mexico and Arizona; Phoenician inscriptions in West Virginia, Cape Cod and Rhode Island and Brazil; Muslim coins at Cambridge, Massachusetts (which could however have been left by Vikings ) and Venezuela; and Arabic tokens in Tennessee, Indiana and New York.
This is not all. There seems to have been extensive visitation to the Americas by two major groups: Africans (specifically Ghanaians and/or Malians) and Chinese, Annamese (Vietnamese) and Japanese. The High Chief of Ghana is reputed to have sailed to the Caribbean with a flotilla in the 800s BCE, according to later Islamic scholars. It is solidly arguable that the enormous heads carved by the Olmecs of Mexico around that time, and Mayan murals of dark-skinned beings at Bonampak and Chichen Itza were depictions of Africans. Burials of negroid bones have been identified at Tlatilco, Cerro de las Mesas and Monte Alban in Mexico.
The black Carib and Arawaki peoples of the south Caribbean and Panama, who lived there long before the slave trade from Africa started, leave a big question as to their origin, together with the 'Mandinga' language of minorities from Venezuela to Nicaragua. In addition, the use of American maize and cassava in west Africa before Europeans arrived needs some explaining.
Sultan Abubakari of Mali was recorded in a 1300s Arabian History of Africa to have led 200 vessels westwards – favourable currents make such navigation quite rapid, and West Africa to the Caribbean is actually the shortest crossing-point across the Atlantic. It was shown by Thor Heyerdahl in the raft Ra to take 55 days, and by Hannes Lindemann, who crossed the Atlantic in 56 days by dugout canoe. There are also carvings at La Venta and Monte Alban in Mexico and Guatemala which show bearded Caucasian-type people.
Contact between Asia and America is marginally easier than from Europe, following the line of the Aleutian islands from Siberia to Alaska and down the American west coast. It is estimated that thousands of wrecked junks were washed ashore on the north-west coast of America between 200 CE and 1800, by dint of the Kuro Shio ocean currents. If wrecked junks can get there, so can seaworthy junks – not to mention unsinkable bamboo rafts recently demonstrated to have been capable of sailing from Vietnam to Canada.
Genetic and artefact links in America deriving from Japan and Shang and Zhou China are established and suspected to be extensive, especially amongst the north-western Haida people (in today's British Columbia), the ancient Valdivia culture of Equador, at various places in Peru, at Vera Cruz in Mexico and at some of the Yucatan Mayan remains. Repeated Chinese chronicles give details of Fu-Sang, the 'Isle of the Blest', so named by them around 100 CE.
Chinese visiting America in more recent times have reported an ability to communicate with Sioux, Apache, Bolivian Quecha and some Peruvian peoples. The Shan Hai Ching was a Chinese world survey comprising 32 geographical journals, compiled around 2250 BCE (during the megalithic period in Europe) in the reigns of Shang emperors Huang-ti and Yao.
Inscriptions and linguistic connections between Asia and American peoples exist also, as noted by mythographer Joseph Campbell, who compared Chinese and Mexican motifs in detail. The emergence around 500 BCE of the Izapan culture of Mexico is connected by some to maritime contact with the Chinese. Chinese motifs appear at Izapan, Mexico and Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala.
The Celts have American traditions too, ranging from the westward sailing of the Irish hero Cuchulainn (whom some theorise on a longshot to be Quetzalcoatl) to the voyages of St Brendan and the Welshman Madoc. Brendan was a well-loved abbot whose voyage to America in a curragh was emulated by Tim Severin in 1977. While sceptics use the more fanciful parts of the stories recounted in Vita Brendani and Navigatio Sancti Brendani to demonstrate that the tradition was spurious, many of the records correspond topographically to the likely journey from Ireland, via the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland to Labrador – with some embellishment thrown in which should not be used to negate all of the information.
It was this tradition of Brendan's voyage which drew the Vikings westward, only to meet Celtic monks living in Iceland and Greenland. Even the Arabian geographer Al Idrisi mentioned 'Great Ireland' (Irlandah-al-Kabirah) west of Iceland in his atlas of 1154. Many medieval maps showed Brendan's Isle and the mythical Celtic land of Hy-Breasail, up to the time of Columbus. But was Brendan the first Celt to cross 'the Pond', or was he himself working from prior navigational information?
There are hints of earlier Celtic visits to America. Fell and others make extensive claims identifying rock glyphs in Colorado, Oklahoma, Mexico and other places – even Japan – as Ogam, the ancient Druidic magical script. Stone chambered mounds of New England (such as Calendar I) satisfactorily resemble British megalithic mounds, obeying similar principles of alignment to the rising and setting points of the sun and moon as are found in Britain. This can, of course, be 'coincidence', but such coincidence needs explaining too!
Welsh remains have been identified in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri. Welsh-speaking natives were noted by early settlers in New Jersey and the Carolinas, and an ongoing dispute has gone on over the white-skinned Mandan Indians of North Dakota, who honoured an ancestor called Madoc Maho and who understood Welsh. Convincing Welsh traditions record that Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd sailed westwards in 1170 from north Wales, to return later to collect more people and return to Alabama. Structures investigated by Mallery in Ohio showed quite clear signs of Celtic technologies.
Then there are assorted contacts made during the Middle Ages, the best known of which was the voyage of Leif Eriksson from Iceland to 'Vinland' or 'Markland' (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or Cape Cod), landing in 1003. The second expedition under Thorvald Eriksson landed up in conflict with Algonquin warriors, leading to abandonment of the project. Incidentally, Muslim linguistic links with the Algonquin have been suggested – these are not disconnected, since the Vikings traded with the Arabs of Baghdad, and it is conceivable that they could have carried Muslim sailors or travellers with them.
It is suggested that the Viking colony possibly numbered some thousands of people. Adam of Bremen, a historian, noted that Vinland was well known for its wines. This transatlantic traffic seems to have continued until the late 1340s, when bubonic plague hit Iceland, Norway and presumably the American colony, decimating the scant population. However, a runestone dating to 1362 (quite late for Vikings) was found in Minnesota, and Mallery discovered further sites along the St Lawrence and in Virginia – though these are greeted with a mixture of ridicule, disinterest and doubt. The best known site is at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, although there is reason to believe Irish settlers of around 700 CE preceded Vikings at this site. Note that Columbus visited Reykjavik in Iceland in 1477, before his famed voyages.
Late Medieval European mapmakers seem to have possessed information about far-off lands to the west – especially Martellus and Behaim. The Zeno and Piri Reis maps hint at much greater knowledge of the geography of the world than we think. Apparently a forefather of Nicolo Zeno accompanied Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, to spend nine years in America from 1395 onwards, following the old Viking north Atlantic route. This cartographical issue is a complex area, though it deserves further research. The Catholic church held a flat earth to be true doctrine, and geographers who questioned this were persecuted, not least Mercator. Behaim and others, however, marked significant lands west over the Atlantic on their maps.
In the period immediately preceding Columbus' celebrated landfall, there seems already to have been some European activity in North America. In 1472, Diedrich Pining and Johannes Skolp appear to have landed in Newfoundland and charted numerous islands. There are signs that the Portuguese had discovered the Americas before Columbus, holding their voyages secret until a near-war broke out between Portugal and Spain when the Pope gave the Spaniards exclusive rights to colonise the 'Indies'.
The known Portuguese voyages of Diogo de Sevill in 1427 and Cabral in 1431 to the Azores, and the several voyages of Joao Fernandez between 1431 and 1486 can be construed as possible secret visits to the Americas. There is also incomplete evidence, including notes by Columbus himself, to suggest that merchant adventurers from Bristol were visiting the Americas in the 1470s, twenty years before Columbus, with the Genoese John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) amongst them.
As an aside to this, Ian Wilson suggests that the name America was not, as is commonly held, named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Portuguese explorer who mapped the coast of South America 1499-1502. Rather, it was named after Richard Ameryk (ap Meryke), a Bristolian merchant and customs collector of Welsh extraction, later immortalised by the mapmaker Waldseemueller.
All these bits of evidence and signs of transoceanic connections can, of course, be taken to be fantasy, or the work of some sort of conspiracy of unpatriotic Americans or foreigners to construct a case against the US policy of 'isolationism'. Or they can be taken as signs of something genuine, worth investigating. Since the prevailing ideology is that Columbus 'discovered' America, and since this ideology is important to the notion of white supremacy in USA, there is a disinclination to accept such evidence as valid for further research or even for consideration. Latino South Americans aren't too enthusiastic to embrace this stuff either.
However, the extent of evidence, from artefacts, remains, anthropological and linguistic data, Old World records, maps and traditions, from modern-day re-creations of historic seafaring craft and voyages and – dare it be said – from sense, suggests that the Americas have been quite well connected to the Old World for millennia. It might have been going on for more millennia than historians would care to consider.
Why should Americans and historic traditions so aggressively hold to the idea that, after initial academically-accepted migrations to the Americas over the glacial land-bridge from Siberia to Alaska tens of millennia ago, there was no contact until 1492? Surely it would be ennobling to the American heritage to acknowledge and investigate this? Surely it would offer more of a sense of historical continuity to the history of the Americas?
The answer is found in the early days of American history, when the Conquistadors in Central and South America and the European settlers in the North were establishing themselves on the continent. The philosophies of each were somewhat different – the Conquistadors were undoubtedly plunderers and imperialists while the early Europeans in North America were predominantly settlers seeking a new life. From the beginning, the Conquistadors sought to overcome the native civilisations of the Aztecs, Incas and others, and to gain as much power and booty as possible, fabricating many myths to justify this outrage. Cortes created a story to portray the Aztecs as passive in action and fatalistic in attitude, which has been disputed only in recent times.
In North America, relations with the local Indians were initially tolerant-to-friendly, with tales of Indians saving settlers from famine or disaster, and a few intermarriages. However, an initiative to push out West and later overcome the Indians was eventually taken as settlement and colonial government grew. This led to the Indian Wars of the 1630s and 1670s, which led to increasing containment, forced migration and elimination of Indian tribes across the continent up to the 20th century.
These were historically very important choices. The story of the Americas would have been very different if white settlers and Conquistadors had instead elected to fraternise, trade and cooperate with the indigenous Americans. In most cases the native Americans were initially friendly with the settlers, and it was their initial trust and gentility which made them vulnerable. However, a fatal mixture of governmental and mercantile greed, plus the settler urge to start a new life whatever the cost – often following from great hardship, oppression and disruption in Europe – caused an enormous ethnic decision to be made.
A discontinuity was imposed on the history of the Americas which not only disempowered and devastated the native Americans, but also founded a bundle of new nations – the nations of the Americas – which were rootless and disconnected from their environment. There is no inherent logic in the way that the USA and Canada divide North America, for example, except inasmuch as that is the way European power-politics made it so.
In USA today, arguments over whether to permit Spanish – the language of recent immigrants from Latin America – as an official language now challenge the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, raising fears and a sense of outrage which smack of a rebound from the days of the violent immigration of Europeans in preceding centuries.
The European imposition has set the tone of life in the Americas ever since: the expansion of the whiteskins led to the severe contraction of the indigenous Americans, and the new-found freedom of colonists meant oppression and genocide for the natives. Settlers from the Old World have seen the American 'New World' as a land for taking and exploiting to the maximum. It has been a land for the fulfilment of European dreams, epitomised in late-20th century Californian culture.
Had the settlers chosen to act as guests, developments in America would have been very different. American civilisation would now, theoretically, be much more attuned to the land and to the native peoples, and the native peoples would not have been exterminated to the degree that they were. In addition, mass immigration of settlers in the 1800s, during which period USA emerged as a world power, would have been smaller in volume, since the land would not have presented itself so strongly as a 'land of opportunity' – settlers would have had to accommodate to American indigenous cultural changes more than they did.
The white-supremacist notion arose from an amoral psychological basis on which USA, in particular, was founded, despite the strong religious element amongst its founding fathers. America was seen as a land of refuge and freedom for Europeans, where there were no limits to their expansion-possibilities. These limits have been discovered only when the continental space filled up, when the paradise of California began taking the form of a smoggy and endless housing development, exposing shadows in the Sunshine State. In USA, rights were given to white Americans and denied to natives, who were seen simply as obstructions to progress. The respecting of native rights and ways would have implied a massive change in the nature of white civilisation in the Americas. This in itself, considering America's global influence in the twentieth century, had worldwide implications.
Even in the 1800s, the discovery of advanced civilisations in Mexico could not be accepted for decades until the evidence became so overwhelming that it could not be ignored. Recognising the greatness and sophistication of native urban civilisations would implicitly call the nascent white culture into question. New England was so named because of the pastoral landscape and economy of the north-eastern native peoples, who developed a fields-and-woodlands landscape reminiscent of England (even though the area is ecologically more Scandinavian than English).
After initial cooperation, the growing numbers of white settlers cleared native Americans from their lands by sheer firepower and use of the forceful psychology of private property, which the Indians did not possess – this was a repetition of the manner by which the Saxons, Vikings and Normans overcame the indigenous British and Irish some 800-1500 years earlier. Many white settlers were incapable of behaving otherwise: God was on their side, the government sectioned out the land and all available wealth and resources were there for the taking. There were those who argued for respecting the Indians, but they were overwhelmed.
Even today, in New England, native peoples are presumed extinct. Yet they discreetly live and work in modern society, even today leaving remains of recent and present-day ceremonial activities within but a short distance of Boston and New York. However, if native peoples were to be fully recognised for their rights and prerogatives, and if an adjustment were made on a fair and accommodating basis, a massive redistribution of land and resources would have to take place, undermining the very basis on which modern American life stands. Indian 'reservations' would rightly expand to cover vast territories – not only the poorest ones. Indian holy places standing atop ore deposits would remain so, and not just a few military bases would have to close.
Such a constitutional settlement would be a legal and constitutional nightmare – which is why no one wishes to broach the subject at all. White-people's priorities for interstate highways and shopping malls would need to be subordinated to many of the priorities of the Indian nations. The position of black Afro-Americans would be awkward, since they weren't even voluntary settlers who claimed land rights as the white people had – even though most of their foreparents were there before most whites.
The story in Latin America is the same: Latinos form an overclass with control of the best land, resources and the political and economic order, while Indians, be they Amazonian tribes or the remnants of Mayans, Aztecs or Incas, form a seriously dispossessed peasantry, fit in Latinos' eyes only for manual work and marginalisation.
Thus, the 'isolationist' theory of the history of the Americas is ideologically important for the dominant classes of the modern Americas. The Columbus myth justifies the approach Anglo-Saxons and Latinos have taken to colonising the 'New World' – which is in truth culturally as old as anywhere. Not only this, but the Americas would psychologically be more connected to the rest of the world – isolationism and the principle of the Monroe Doctrine rest heavily on Columban mythology.
Not only this, but Afro-Americans, mostly brought over as slaves, would find a deeper emotional connection with the land and cultures of the Americas, through their highly probable ancient transatlantic links, predating the Europeans. Not only this, but the Sino-Japanese, even Vietnamese, ancient connections with West Coast America, now developing in a new way through the Pacific Rim boom, would give modern integration of the Pacific coast of Asia and the Americas a greater historical scope.
Even though much of the evidence for ancient linkages with the Americas is patchy, inconclusive to the sceptic, and subject to the unscientific enthusiasms of alternative researchers, it is sufficient, prodigious and varied enough to deserve massive attention. Yet the equally unscientific reluctance to do so betrays ideological discomfort.
America of today would prefer not to have deep cultural roots: with such roots, the culture would have to mature and reintegrate drastically. It is far better to maintain the myth – to spend millions on it if necessary – than to acknowledge the primacy of native peoples, and to be willing to ask them whether the immigrants of the last 500 years actually are welcome.