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Before Columbus: The Forgotten Expeditions to North America

Updated on December 17, 2016
Christopher Columbus Was Not the First
Christopher Columbus Was Not the First

The expedition led by Christopher Columbus opened up a new world and led to an era of European dominance over the planet.

Financed by the Spanish Crown, Columbus had been trying to reach India in order to establish a westerly trade route which avoided the Moslem empire which had controlled the eastern trade routes through the Red Sea and overland through Iraq and Persia. His expedition took into account that the Earth was round, and so it would be possible to reach the same point – in his case India and the Spice Islands – by going West, the opposite direction of the traditional trade routes of the time, which all went East.

Contrary to modern myth, Columbus did not prove that the Earth was round, nor did most of his contemporaries believe it to be flat. All educated people during the Middle Ages knew that the Earth was a sphere. In fact, the roundness of the earth had been established by Greek scientists using sophisticated measurements. So there was never any fear on the part of Columbus or his backers, that his ships would fall off the rim of a flat earth.

What Columbus had not counted on, was the existence of a large continent in the middle of the ocean separating Europe and Asia. If not for the inconvenient placement of North America, Columbus’s plan would have worked perfectly and he would have been able to sail from Spain to India, opening up a direct and very lucrative trade rout. But the discovery of the resource-rich West Indies in the Caribbean, was nothing to complain about. When news reached Spain of his discovery, it set off a scramble for the Americas by Spain followed by Portugal, England, and the Netherlands.

But we now know that Columbus was not the first to visit or even settle in North America. Several earlier expeditions appear to have reached North America much earlier than Columbus.

When referencing earlier expeditions, I am choosing to focus on exactly that: organized expeditions aimed at exploration, trade or conquest, and not the prehistoric migrations of people over the Bering Strait, who would come to be original inhabitants of North America. While these people certainly reached North America first, they were likely part of an unplanned wandering in search of food and new hunting grounds, much like the original, unorganized spreading out of the original humans from Africa to the rest of the world. These pre-historic settlements of people, while certainly remarkable achievements in themselves, fall outside the subject of this article.

The Vikings - Fearsome Warriors and Brave Explorers
The Vikings - Fearsome Warriors and Brave Explorers

The Viking Discovery of North America

The Vikings

The Vikings led by Leif Erickson certainly reached North America around 1000 A.D., almost 500 years before Columbus, but they were probably not even the first expedition to do so.

The Viking legends and sagas spoke of expeditions to a place called Vinland across the western sea, where they had planted colonies. For a long time, these legends were regarded as nothing more than myths or fiction. But it has now been conclusively proven that the Norsemen reached North America around the year 1000 and established settlements in present day Newfoundland. Canada. They have left behind undisputable archeological proof of their presence including ruins of long houses, tools and weapons.

It is likely that the Newfoundland settlement was not their fabled “Vinland” because it does not match the physical description or the general location set out in the Viking sagas, which means that their main settlements – probably near present day Boston – have yet to be discovered.

What is interesting about the Viking presence in North America is that most academics and historians regarded the Viking sagas as fictional until unmistakable Norse artifacts and archeological finds were discovered in Newfoundland around 1960, shattered their world view. Think about it: for almost 500, the common wisdom was that Columbus was the first. The Vikings’ historical records of expeditions to the western continent were simply ignored. If archaeologists had not unearthed physical proof of the Norse presence, our understanding of history would still be based on a fiction.

But what about all the other “myths” and stories of earlier, pre-Columbian, expeditions to the New World? Are they just myths, or are they based on fact?

Ancient Egyptian Expeditions
Ancient Egyptian Expeditions

Did the Ancient Egyptians Discover North America?

The Egyptians

Although the ancient Egyptian civilization tended to be confined to the valley of the Nile, and was not known as a great sea-faring people, it did carry out at least one extremely audacious voyage of discovery. Around 600 B.C. an Egyptian expedition manned by Phoenician sailors circumnavigated Africa, travelling Westward through the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar, and then down along the coast of Africa, rounding the Cape, and then turning northward towards the Red Sea and back home. It was an incredible feat, considering the primitive these Egyptian sailors lacked compasses and were using primitive boats powered by oars and small sails.

There is no specific mention of any Egyptian expedition to the New World, but there are some tantalizing clues that they may have reached it. There is of course the uncanny similarity between Egyptian pyramids and the pyramids used by Aztec and Mayans. While this may be only a coincidence, it is noteworthy that similar coincidences are rare; for example we do not find pyramids being used extensively in any other part of the world.

Some scholars have also pointed out that there are some similarities between Aztec and Mayan legends and religious ideas and Egyptian concepts. The question of whether the Egyptians had any influence on the shaping of

But the most telling clue that the Egyptians may have reached North America comes in the form of the Cocaine Mummies. Cocaine is made exclusively from the coca plant and as far as we can tell this plant does not grow outside of South America, and yet chemical analysis of the ingredients used to embalm some Egyptian mummies shows the unmistakable and unexplainable presence of cocaine. The same analysis has detected the presence of nicotine, derived from the tobacco plant, which was not imported to Europe and Africa until after Columbus.

If the only source for cocaine and nicotine was the New World, then it means that somehow there was a trade link between Egypt and the Americas, thousands of years before Columbus. However some critics believe that the tests may have been flawed because of hoax contamination of the samples, or that if genuine, the substances come from plants which used to be native to Egypt but which have somehow died out. The idea that the Egyptians might have traded with North America, is too difficult to accept.

Does This Pre-Columbian Statue Depict a Man of African Origin?
Does This Pre-Columbian Statue Depict a Man of African Origin? | Source

Did People from Africa Discover North America?

The African Colonists from the Empire of Mali

Al-Omari, an Arab author writing in the 14th century, states that between the 12th and 13th centuries, the Emperor of Mali is decided to explore the western ocean. He outfitted two expeditions: the first consisting of 200 ships, which found land across the sea. The second expedition is said to have consisted of an enormous fleet of 2000 carrying thousands of people including soldiers and colonists across the western sea where he established a new kingdom.

Like the legends of the Viking journey to Vinland, this traditional history is largely regarded as a fictional story. However it is noteworthy that statues found in the area of what is now Mexico seem to portray people with African facial features. Could some of these African explorers have settled in Mexico?

The Mysterious Finds of Roman Coins in North America
The Mysterious Finds of Roman Coins in North America

The Romans Discovered America

There are no Roman records of contact with North America. But hordes of Roman coins keep being discovered buried in odd places throughout North America. The prevailing wisdom is that these stashes are modern hoaxes or treasure troves hidden by colonists which were later forgotten. No one really wants to admit that they may have been brought over by Romans.

But consider this: these hordes of Roman coins never contain other, more modern coins. And there is no doubt that they have been buried there for a long time, in many cases from early colonial times or at least from before the Civil War. So what are the chances that multiple people, in various parts of what is now the United States, all had access to large numbers of Roman coins? Most colonists would not have had the means to even acquire them. And why would they hide just those coins, and not – for example Spanish gold coins or English pounds? This is a very tantalizing clue which may prove that Roman traders had established links to North America.

Even more interesting is a stone carving of a human head found in a grave site near Mexico City, named the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head. The head depicts a European man, with a thick beard (which Aztecs could not grow) and a pointed hat similar to Roman fashion. The grave site dates back to between 1476 and 1510 AD. Columbus did not sail to the West Indies until 1492. Experts have dated the figure as being much older, and having been manufactured around 800 B.C.

Did a Roman expedition reach Mexico? We know for certain that at least one ship did reach the New World. A wreck of a Roman ship, full of cargo, has been discovered in Guanabara Bay, off the coast of Southern Brazil. It has been conclusively dated to around 190 B.C., almost 2000 years before Columbus.

The prevailing wisdom is that this is a Roman wreck which was blown far off course and not evidence of Roman knowledge of the New World. But while its journey may have been accidental, did any of the occupants survive the trip, perhaps ending up marooned on a foreign shore?

The Mysterious Visitor to the Aztec Empire
The Mysterious Visitor to the Aztec Empire

The Unknown Visitors of the Aztecs

When Hernando Cortez led his Spanish conquistadors into the heart of the Aztec empire and seized its land and riches, he was aided by the peculiar belief of the Aztecs that ages before they had been visited by a white man who was a God or at least a messenger of the Gods, and that this man had taught them many skills and then departed in great ships across the sea. The legends foretold that one day he would return from the West in great ships, and reclaim his kingdom. In fact, the Aztec Emperor regarded himself as merely holding office in place of this God, until he returned.

As a result, when Cortez and his men arrived in great ships from across the Western sea, the Aztec Emperor was not sure whether to welcome him as a God or to resist. This hesitation delayed Aztec resistance and contributed to Cortez’s victory despite his huge numerical inferiority.

Little is known about this legendary white visitor from across the sea. But the fact that the legends say that he came from the west, clearly point to some European explorer.


The Voyage of Prince Peter Sinclair

Legend has it that in 1300, Prince Peter Sinclair, Earl of Orkney led an expedition to what is now Nova Scotia in Canada. The story rests on some dubious connections to the Knights Templar, and legends that when the Order was banned, the survivors took their treasure across the sea and hid it, perhaps at Oak Island.

His fame rests primarily on oral legend, and partly on some carvings in the Sinclair family chapel which may or may not depict plants and animals found in North America. There may also be a connection to the legendary and perhaps fictional Prince Zichmi, who is also said to have discovered North America, or may not have existed at all.

If Sinclair did travel across the Atlantic, he left no written records of his expedition – which perhaps is to be expected if one was leading a secret expedition to hide treasure.

Skeptics however believe that the whole story is fictional. As one historian, William Thomson, has stated: "It has been Earl Henry's singular fate to enjoy an ever-expanding posthumous reputation which has very little to do with anything he achieved in his lifetime."

The Fabulous Voyage of Saint Brendan

The Voyage of Saint Brendan

Saint Brendan was an Irish Christian monk who lived around 484 A.D. to 577 A.D. According to a manuscript entitled The Voyage of Saint Brendan, written around 900 A.D., Saint Brendan decided to head west across the ocean, with 16 companions, to seek the Promised Land. He is said to have encountered many adventures, and to have made land fall on various islands located in the Atlantic ocean.

Many of the elements of the story are clearly fable, but was nevertheless influential. Whether or not Saint Brendan ever discovered new lands across the sea, the idea that these lands existed was an important factor in motivating others to search for them. In fact, the story of Saint Brendan was widely known in Columbus’s time and was referred to by him when planning his expedition.

It is also interesting that the voyage itself is possible. According to tradition, Saint Brendan is said to have sailed in a small currach, which is little more than a wooden basket covered in leather. The idea that such a flimsy craft, which was typically used on rivers and close to the sea shore, could have made it across the stormy Atlantic seems implausible. But researchers have proven that it can be done.

In 1976, the adventurer, writer, and historian Tim Severin decided to test whether it was possible for someone to sail across the ocean in a coracle. He built a replica with traditional materials and set off from Ireland, reaching North America. So we know it could have been done. But did it happen?

The Chinese Expeditions to the New World

The Pacific Ocean is immense and difficult to cross. However, there is evidence to suggest that the great Chinese naval explorer Zheng He may have reached the eastern coast of North America, near California, over 60 years before Columbus reached the western part of the continent.

Zheng He was an Imperial Eunuch in the service of the Chinese Ming Emperor. Between 1405 to 1433 he led fleets to explore the South China Sea, India, and even the east coast of Africa. He fleets were composed of massive ships which dwarfed in size anything that Europe could produce at the time. Under his leadership, China stood poised to become the world’s leading maritime power, extending its influence as far as India, Africa, and the Persian Gulf. But the expeditions proved costly, and China was beset by internal troubles, so these seaborne voyages were abandoned and the Chinese Empire turned in on itself and attempted to shut itself off from the world.

The author Rowan Gavin Paton Menzies has made extraordinary claims that in addition to the known voyages, the Chinese circumnavigated the globe long before Magellan, reached Antarctica, Europe, and North America by sea. There are no records of this except possibly a map which purports to show the North American continent, but which is probably a later forgery.

But there are some tantalizing clues to suggest Chinese contact with North America long before Columbus. For example, Chinse annals record the existence of a land called Fou-Sang in the extreme east, which some scholars have identified with North America: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35134/35134-h/35134-h.htm.

As well, several wrecks of what appear to be Chinese ships have been found off the coast of North America. Though like the Roman ship that sank off of Brazil, these may have been boats that were blown off course by storms.

Conclusion

There are many myths and legends concerning the discovery of North America before Columbus, and many explorers have laid claim to the honor of being the first. As the true legends of the Vikings have shown us, what may appear to be only myth often turns out to be based at least partly on fact. Chances are that the New World was not as new as Columbus thought, and that many other explorers had already touched those shores.

Who do you think was the first to discover North America?

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