Did Native Americans Discover Europe: In 60 BCE?

By Colavito, Jason | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Did Native Americans Discover Europe: In 60 BCE?


Colavito, Jason, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


DID YOU KNOW THAT NATIVE AMERICANS DISCOVERED Europe in 60 BCE? No? Well, you aren't reading the right websites and alternative history books. On May 15, Cracked.com, an online humor site run by former ABC News producer Jack O'Brien, published a piece on the "Six Ridiculous Lies You Believe about the Founding of America." Cracked.com articles present humorous or satirical discussions of fact-based material. O'Brien and co-author Alford Alley claimed that their article would expose the facts behind government and media distortion and simplification of American history. The authors sparked widespread discussion online by writing that "Columbus wasn't the first to cross the Atlantic. Nor were the vikings. [sic] Two Native Americans landed in Holland in 60 B.C. and were promptly not given a national holiday by anyone." (1) Within one week of publication, more than 1.7 million people had viewed the article and its shocking report of a Native American voyage to Roman-era Europe.

As a long-time observer of alternative histories, when I read this I wondered how I had missed such an important ancient record of trans-oceanic crossing. Surely, such a claim must have a solid basis in fact. Well, as it turns out, the Cracked.com writers are uncritically repeating a piece of centuries-old speculation that is widespread in alternative publications and online. In the original ancient texts on which this claim is ultimately based, the people were not Native Americans, were not two in number, and did not land in Holland. 60 BCE is about right, though, give or take.

Roman Around Europe

The alleged Native American encounter with Europe in 60 BCE winds its way through alternative history like kudzu. It begins, however, with a pair of ancient texts that seem almost completely unrelated to the modern claim, though they are the only facts on which the claim rests. The first of these texts comes from 43 CE and the pen of the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela in De situ orbis (3.45), referencing material Mela is quoting from a now-lost earlier work of the Roman writer Cornelius Nepos (c.100 BCE-c. 25 BCE) on events that took place when Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer was a proconsul in Gaul (62%9 BCE):

   When he [Celer] was proconsul in Gaul, he was presented with
   certain Indians as a present by the king of the Boti; asking whence
   they had come to these lands, he learned they had been seized by
   strong storms from Indian waters, that they had traveled across the
   regions between, and that at last they had landed on the shores of
   Germany. (my translation)

The following parallel passage from the Natural History of the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (2.67) from 77-79 CE also preserves the same quotation, and many scholars believe that Pliny derived his version from Mela (a source he used elsewhere in the Natural History) rather than from Nepos himself:

The same Cornelius Nepos, when speaking of the northern circumnavigation, tells us that Q. Metellus Celer, the colleague of L. Afranius in the consulship, but then a proconsul in Gaul, had a present made to him by the king of the Suevi, of certain Indians, who sailing from India for the purpose of commerce, had been driven by tempests into Germany. (trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley)

These texts do not immediately seem to refer to America, and there is no indication that the Indians were exactly two in number. Mela, like Pliny, insisted that this event referred to a voyage from the east--from "beyond the Caspian gulf" in his words, not the Atlantic because both Mela and Pliny believed that there was a water route between India and the Baltic. (We could argue that this is a mistake on Nepos' part, but if so, then we have no warrant to accept any of his testimony in the affair.) The difference in accounts between Mela's Boti and Pliny's Suevi is due to Mela using the specific name of an otherwise unattested tribe (though some amend this to the Boii or the Baeti) and Pliny using a more generic term with two distinct meanings: a Rhineland tribe, or central Germans in general. …

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