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Before Columbus: The Forgotten Expeditions to North America

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Robert writes about interesting and lesser known historical events and unusual places and people.

Christopher Columbus was not the first.

Christopher Columbus was not the first.

Pre-Columbian North American Expeditions

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, in 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 route. 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 the 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 discovered in Newfoundland around 1960 shattered their worldview. Think about it: for almost 500 years, 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 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 Aztecs 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.

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, 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?

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 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 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 that 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 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 landfall on various islands located in the Atlantic ocean.

Many of the elements of the story are clearly fable but it 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. His 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, and 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:

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.

A Shared Quest for Discovery

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 a 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.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why haven't you mentioned evidence of copper mining in the Great Lakes area?

Answer: Two reasons: 1) There are so many traces and stories of pre-Columbian contact that I couldn't cover everything in one article. 2) The traces of old mines in the Great Lakes area are debatable. They have not been conclusively established to be pre-Columbian.

Question: Do you think that the so-called white man who the Aztecs believed would come was a really smart Roman scam artist who lost his map to America while escaping from the Visigothic invasion of Iberia?

Answer: I think that there were multiple contacts between what is now Mexico and Europe long before Columbus. I don't know if the legends about a bearded white man visiting the Aztecs coincides with the Visigothic invasions. However, it is interesting that some of his teachings resemble some Christian doctrines, suggesting that he may have been a missionary monk. It is also interesting that paintings and drawings throughout North and South America depict animals that do not exist on those continents including the lamb, in the context of the teachings of this person and even elephants. So I think that there was more than one visitor.

Question: What about Sumerians? Chief Joseph of Nez Perz Indians had 1-inch square clay tablet from white ancestor dated to 2040 BCE in his medicine pouch. Other Sumerian artifacts by Lake Titicaca and elsewhere North, Central, and South America.

Answer: It depends who you believe. According to historians, the story about the Sumerian tablet is fake:

However, if he did have such a tablet, it would suggest that contact between the Old and New Worlds went back even farther than my article suggests.

By the way, thanks for pointing this fact out to me. I had never heard of this before.

Question: What about Plutarch's De Facie, where a traveler from a great continent west of Britain mentions Greek colonies there?

Answer: This is a very intriguing reference and deserves more discussion. The actual story is that a rebel Roman general in Spain considered escaping to the lands of the west across the oceans, but he was assassinated by the Romans before anything could come of this. There is also the suggestion, in other writings, that the Phoenicians, who had earlier colonized Spain, may have been aware of the lands across the Atlantic. A lot of the ancient knowledge was lost during the barbarian invasions, and so we cannot be sure to what extent the Romans knew about North America. They were certainly aware that there were lands across the western ocean since they knew about Ireland, and probably about the Azores.

Question: Is Mystery Hill a fake?

Answer: The prevailing view is that Mystery Hill, in New Hampshire, also known as America's Stone Henge, is not an ancient site but may have been built by early settlers to the area, or that it may even have been created on purpose as a tourist attraction. However some archaeological digs have uncovered stone implements consistent with the site having been constructed by American Indians. There is however, as far as I know, no connection between Mystery Hill and Stone Henge, apart from a superficial similarity in the way that the stones are arranged. Even if Mystery Hill is ancient, it was not built by the same people who built Stone Henge and therefore it is not proof of any Druid contact with the New World.

Question: Was King James black?

Answer: No. King James was a native of Scotland and European (Caucasian). There are many contemporary portraits of King James both as a child and as an adult depicting him as a white man:

Question: Did Arab sailors go to the Caribbean before Christopher Columbus?

Answer: There is no evidence of any Arab expedition to the New World. However, it is always possible that a ship or two might have been blown off course and reached it by accident.


Robert P (author) from Canada on April 08, 2019:

I am not aware of anyone using aerial or satellite photography specifically to look for Roman settlements but they have been used to find shipwrecks and even lost cities in the Yucatan and in the deserts of Arabia. So who knows what may turn up.

I am curious about your reference to Roman settlements on the Texas coast. Can you tell me more about that?

david on April 08, 2019:

Has anyone tried looking for roman settlement remains using aerial photography? This shiould be done over the texas coast line, and northeaster United States coastline.

Gae on September 02, 2018:

All these legends track anyway the conviction for the existence of other lands over those already known.

Surely the evidence archaeological are proofs of a landing on these lands already to begin as soon as around the year 1000 AD.

So the Vikings are the first people to have getting the shore of North America and the Continent.

About other people before, as Romans or Egyptian, aren't tracks evident of, though some findings of ships' wreck show out at least any offshore landing but not leaving witness further. This has been the case for a Roman ship, but null reveal the arrive of any human being, though some findings of coins in North America perhaps can even be considered misleading.

About the Chinese it is possible, though isn't documented but would be happened close the Columbus discovery.

So we are at the year 1000 AD and perhaps this date might come up to date at Roman period whereas coming discovered consistent proofs at least of a presence though without return and awareness for all the Empire.

Robert P (author) from Canada on May 09, 2018:

Your coin find is very interesting. There have been a lot of caches of Roman coins found in North America. Most experts say that they were buried after the Discovery and belonged to Americans. However they keep turning up in odd places, and I personally think that old Europe had contact with North America long before Columbus.

There have been some sunken Roman ships found off of the coast of Brazil. It is not known if they were just blown off course or if they are evidence of ancient trade.

I personally think that finds like yours may be evidence of ancient contact between Europe and North America, long before Columbus.

David Bogdon on May 09, 2018:

I found a Roman coin dated 46 BC with the head of Juno Moneta, this was found with my metal detector in a park on the southern shore of Lake Ontario in New York State