Earlier, we learned how most of us were given false information by our grade school teachers when they told us the leaders of Europe believed the earth was flat in the fifteenth century. Thanks to Ptolemy, Columbus knew the world was a sphere and that he wouldn’t fall off as he sailed across the Atlantic to Asia, or the Americas. But our teachers were right when they told us Columbus was the first outsider to discover America, right?
Well, not really.
Of course, the Americas were populated by numerous indigenous tribes and peoples, some of them quite sophisticated, such as the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. But those people were, for the most part, native to the land and therefore didn’t “discover” it. For centuries, Christopher Columbus was believed to have been the first nonindigenous person to discover the Americas, but in the 1960s that idea began to be challenged by different theories.
Let’s start with some of the stranger theories.
One theory that has come up from time to time is that the ancient Phoenicians landed on the east coast sometime in the first millennium BC. The Phoenicians were known for their seafaring prowess, but their activities were primarily limited to the Mediterranean Sea. Those who believe the Phoenicians discovered America think that one or more of their ships were blown off course and ended up in the northeast United States. As proof, advocates point to some potential pieces of evidence, such as the “Dighton Rock” in Massachusetts. The Dighton Rock is a rock originally discovered in the seventeenth century that has what appears to be undeciphered writing on it.
Other theories have placed the Romans, Greeks, and even the Hebrews in the Americas based on little to no evidence.
One of the most interesting theories of Old World contact with the Americas came from Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl believed that the ancient Egyptians could have made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean on boats made of papyrus. Based on ancient Egyptian depictions of their boats, Heyerdahl constructed a boat he named the “Ra”. In 1969, he left Morocco with a small crew for the Americas. The Ra failed, but one year later, he and his crew left Morocco again in the “Ra II” and made it to the Caribbean.
Heyerdahl’s voyage fascinated the world and proved that such a trip could have been done. But scholars were quick to point out that it didn’t prove the trip was ever made.
Still another theory is that Chinese explorer Zheng He discovered the west coast of what would become America in the early fifteenth century, about fifty years before Columbus landed in the Caribbean. As with the other alternative theories, there is no documentation that proves this theory, and nearly every mainstream Chinese historian has stated that it is a “pseudo history.”
So that leaves us with the Vikings.
More than five hundred years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, the Vikings were making their own incredible journeys: They discovered and colonized many islands in the North Atlantic on their way to colonizing Greenland in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. The Vikings’ presence in Greenland is well-documented through archaeological evidence and “sagas” that were written by Icelandic poets in later decades and centuries. Among the sagas written about Greenland were ones that described “Vinland.” To many scholars, Vinland sounded a lot like North America: It was home to “Skraelings” who sounded very much like American Indians, and the flora and fauna also matched that of North America.
Historians and archaeologists searched and searched for evidence of Vinland in America, sometimes coming up with false leads. Finally, in the 1960s, the remains of a small Viking Age settlement were discovered near L’Anse Aux Meadows, Labrador, Canada. The structure and style of the homes found at the site, in addition to unearthed iron artifacts, proved that Vikings did in fact settle in North America.
And they did so nearly five hundred years before Columbus made his voyage.