History's Ignored Travelers - the Case for Pre-Columbian Explorers

By Kehoe, Alice Beck | The World and I, February 2003 | Go to article overview

History's Ignored Travelers - the Case for Pre-Columbian Explorers


Kehoe, Alice Beck, The World and I


Is it possible that Polynesians, who found and sailed again to settle on Easter Island, a speck of land more than two thousand miles from anywhere, never discovered the American continents? Many archaeologists who study Polynesian colonization of the Pacific islands take it for granted that these superb explorers must have sighted evidence of this continent and investigated. Nevertheless, most American archaeologists consider the topic scandalous. Bring up the idea, and someone will likely respond: "Don't you think American Indians could invent civilizations on their own? You're being racist!"

Of course they could and did. What is racist is denying pre-Columbian explorers and migrants their place in world history. Regardless of medieval European scholars' Jerusalem-centered maps, the evidence suggests that some humans knew the Americas were part of the world.

Like the Polynesians, Asians crossed the Pacific where the Japanese Current flows east to Ecuador. From there, they moved north along the American coast to southern Alaska. Long before Russians crossed into Alaska, people of Far Eastern origin may have beaten the original path across Siberia to the Bering Sea and North America. In fact, it was only during a few decades at the height of the Cold War that the Bering Strait could have been considered a barrier to crossings between Siberia and Alaska. Soviet-American tensions cut off active and long- established traditions of visiting and intermarriage between Chukchi and Inupiat living along the two shores, for example.

Five centuries of Norse use of the Canadian Maritimes were also dismissed as myth until documented by archaeology in the 1970s. Basque fishermen, trading for furs as a sideline, used Canadian waters perhaps as early as the 1380s. Carthaginians, Phoenicians, and North Africans may have sailed to Mexico, only to have their discoveries obliterated when Rome won the Punic Wars and declared, in 146 b.c., "Carthago delenda est" (Carthage is destroyed). Romans preferred putting their money into roads, not ships. West Africans may have crossed the narrowest part of the Atlantic to Brazil and Mexico, where, as in tropical Africa, conditions leave little preserved for archaeologists. Native Americans, too, may have sailed or paddled out on the ocean currents. Many engaged in deep-sea fishing, and Columbus saw Mayan trading vessels in the Caribbean.

An investigation

Talk to the ordinary American archaeologist about pre-Columbian ocean contacts, and you're warned that only nutty fanatics believe in them. Barry Fell will be mentioned, the late marine biologist and self-taught epigrapher who claimed to identify inscriptions in obscure alphabets on American rocks. Fell did have a good eye for noticing patterns of lines, but his translations were off-the-cuff and his books are grab bags of photos of engraved, or sometimes just scratched, rocks. A dozen or so trained scientists once intrigued by his ideas are now going through his files, reaching out to other researchers to separate data from puffery.

A few avocational archaeologists, mostly in New England, have been analyzing some of Fell's claims through fieldwork. The best persevere despite the blunders of overeager enthusiasts who may proclaim farmers' root cellars to be Bronze Age goddess temples.

It's easy for professional archaeologists to dismiss such romantics. Rejecting the few archaeologists and historical geographers who bring good scholarship to the data should not be so easy. But the matter of transoceanic contacts--even contacts between Mexican and U.S. Indians across the Gulf of Mexico--is always problematic. Part of the conventional dismissal of such concepts is fear that espousing an unfashionable topic will harm one's reputation and career. There also tends to be a rather outmoded notion of science, which stipulates that scientists have to test their interpretations (hypotheses) against independent experiments. …

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