Skeptic Vol. 2, No 4, 1994, pp 88-97
Reproduced with permission
Who discovered America? It seems like an innocuous question. We all know that Columbus “discovered” America, in the sense that Europeans first heard about a New World through him. And we all also know that the Indians were here first, and thus they “discovered” America before anyone, if one considers migrating peoples discoverers.
A 1992 CNN poll, however, revealed that only 20% of Americans thought that Columbus was the first to discover America. An overwhelming majority of the respondents (70%) thought that other people had preceded Columbus in reaching the Americas, while 10% did not know. The problem is that a question which simply asks – who first discovered America? – is badly posed. Among that 70% of people who deny Columbus’s priority in the discovery of the Americas are undoubtedly many people who possess a sophisticated understanding of the pre-Columbian history of the Americas. They are right. Columbus was not first. The prehistoric hunters who were the ancestors of the Native Americans and crossed the Bering Landbridge some 15,000 years ago were the true discoverers of the Americas. Furthermore, Leif Ericsson and other Norse seafarers reached the Americas in the decades after 1000 CE (Common Era). The testimony of the Norse sagas has been confirmed by the discovery of a genuine Norse archaeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland which may have even been Leif Ericsson’s own camp.
Unfortunately many other people who deny the priority of Columbus are not thinking of either the prehistoric wanders who crossed the Bering Landbridge or Leif Ericsson. Instead, they credit the first discovery of the Americas to various peoples from the ancient and medieval eras, including: Egyptians, Phoenicians, Africans, Trojans, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Irish, Welsh, Germans, Poles, and various groups of Jews such as the wandering Hebrews, one or more of the Ten Lost Tribes, and refugees from the Bar Kokhba revolt. All of these people have been proposed as having crossed the Atlantic Ocean well before 1492. On the other side of the world various Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Polynesian, and Mongol explorers, and travellers along with a lost fleet of Alexander the Great, all supposedly crossed the Pacific and found the Americas prior to Columbus.
Lay writers on these subjects [pre-Columbian contacts] have one great bias in common: they all scorn, ridicule, and complain bitterly about the professional anthropologists of American museums and universities, whom they regard variously as stupid, stubborn, hopelessly conservative, and very frequently plain dishonest.
Numerous books and articles have been published which advocate one or more of these dubious theories of pre-Columbian contacts between the Old World and the Americas. In 1990 the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies published Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography, edited by John L. Sorenson and Martin Raish. This massive two volume work lists 5,613 items and is not exhaustive. New works are being published all the time. Sadly, the vast majority of these works are poor pieces of scholarship in which the same errors of method and fact keep appearing again and again, year after year. It is a situation that professional anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians all find to be quite discouraging. Furthermore, these professional scholars often find their own writings and opinions rejected and disdained by these advocates of various pseudohistories of the pre-Columbian Americas. The distinguished anthropologist Robert Wauchope described the situation as follows:
It is a claim all too familiar to skeptics, who are frequently told by pseudoscientists that those who oppose them are ignorant or fraudulent. At the same time, these very same people profess to be following the strictest scholarly standards in their own work. That claim is not true. The following is a survey of the types of errors committed by the adherents of various pre-Columbian contact theories. While it covers most of the main ones, it is by no means comprehensive, let alone exhaustive. (See my newly published book Legend and Lore of the Americas before 1492, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1993.)
Diffusionism Made Simple
1. Diffusionism and Hyper-Diffusionism. Diffusionism is an anthropological concept that seeks to explain cultural change on the basis of unilateral or reciprocal borrowing between different cultural groups that occurs as a result of trade, migration, or conquest. All theories that explain the rise of higher civilizations and their various cultural traits primarily on the basis of supposed contacts with the Old World are inherently diffusionist.
Anthropologists universally accept the phenomenon of diffusion as a partial explanation for cultural change. Some advocates of diffusionism, however, have been extreme in their claims about the extent of cultural exchanges between different societies. As a result they have been labeled hyper-diffusionists. Hyper-diffusionists deny that parallel evolution or independent invention of tools or ideas took place to any great extent at all throughout prehistory. They claim that humans were remarkably uninventive and that history never repeats itself During the early 20th century, the British anthropologist W. J. Perry and the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith took hyper-diffusionist theory to its ultimate extreme by tracing the origins of all higher civilizations throughout the world back to one source – ancient Egypt. Both men wrote numerous books and articles postulating the influence of ancient Egyptian culture on various societies throughout the world. Though hyper-diffusionist theories never dominated anthropological and archaeological thinking, moderate diffusionism did in the early 20th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that various fringe theories postulating visits to the New World by one or another group from the Old World (e.g., the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, Mongols) found support in the rise of diffusionist concepts. After all, Grafton Elliot Smith’s theory that Egypt was the source of all other ancient civilizations was simply a somewhat more restrained version of Augustus Le Plongeon’s earlier theories about the ancient Maya being the mother culture of world civilization including the Egyptians.
The development of radiocarbon dating after 1946, and its calibration using correlations with dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) during the 1960s, completely undermined the hyper-diffusionist reconstructions of prehistory. These techniques revealed that cultures once thought to be the beneficiaries of cultural diffusion from ancient Egypt were actually as old or older than the oldest Egyptians. Archaeological thinking was revolutionized. The independent invention of various cultural traits had obviously taken place far more frequently than diffusionists had supposed. But hyper-diffusionists have refused to give up and continue to revive the same flawed evidence, demonstrating that they are really doing pseudohistory, not scientific history.
Hyperdiffusionist thinking – the concept that culture must spread from a single source – gives rise to the idea that crested helmets of Hawaiian chiefs must have been inspired by the crested helmets of the Greeks.
2. Pyramids and Statues. Egypt is famous for its pyramids but so is Central America with its great pyramids at Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, and other places. A casual observer might easily conclude that the ancient Egyptians and Americans were in contact because these great structures look so much alike. Indeed, the general similarity of the pyramids, and the “negroid-like” features of the Olmec statues of Mexico, have led extreme Afrocentrists to conclude that black Africans (they also claim the Egyptians were all black) were the first to discover America. Unfortunately two basic problems make any Egyptian – American contacts impossible. The first objection is chronology. Many centuries separated the Pyramid Age of Egypt from the time when the pyramids of Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza were constructed. Second, while the form of the pyramids may be similar, the functions are totally different. Egyptian pyramids primarily served as tombs while the American pyramids were temples. Furthermore, archaeological research has reconstructed the independent evolution of the pyramids in both regions, leaving no room for diffusionist explanations. Finally, while features on Olmec statues do indeed resemble those of African peoples, they also look similar to those of native Americans. What one “sees” in a statue, however, is hardly historical evidence of origin, since one can easily see what one wants or expects to see, especially in such generalized forms as artwork.
What race do the giant sculptured heads found at San Lorenzo and La Venta in Mexico represent?
Egyptians, Phoenicians, Africans, Trojans, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Irish, Welsh, Germans, Poles, and various groups of Jews such as the wandering Hebrews, one or more of the Ten Lost Tribes, and refugees from the Bar Kokhba revolt. All of these people have been proposed as having crossed the Atlantic Ocean well before 1492.
3. Supposed Pre-Columbian Diffusion of Plants. If a cultivated plant of Old World origin could be traced to the Americas before 1492 or vice versa, it would be strong evidence for human contact between the two hemispheres. Many such claims are associated with cotton, maize, and the sweet potato, but they have proven in most cases to be fallacious.
There are over 20 species of cotton of which four are cultivated for their fibers. Two of the cultivated species are Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbaceum, which have 13 chromosomes in their cells and are known as the Old World cottons. The other two species, Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium bardadense, possess 26 chromosomes and are known as the New World cottons. Genetically, the two cultivated New World cottons are hybrids that contain the 13 chromosomes of another wild species of New World cotton and the 13 chromosomes of the cultivated Old World cottons. The wild New World cottons are not capable of producing useful fibers. But when these two sets of chromosomes are combined, a cotton plant is created that produces lush clumps of useable fibers. Obviously somehow and sometime in the past the cultivated Old World cottons came into contact with the wild New World cottons and the result was the hybrid, cultivated cottons of the New World. The mystery is whether this process occurred naturally or was assisted by humans.
The creation of the cultivated New World cottons definitely took place a long time ago. Archaeologists have found remains of cotton at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus River valley dating from 3,000 BCE. In the Americas, cotton fabrics dating from 2,000 – 3,000 BCE have been recovered from archaeological sites at the Tehuacán Valley in Mexico. Obviously the creation of Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium bardadense took place in the distant past. So distant, in fact, that human assistance by means of transoceanic contact between the Old World and the Americas seems very unlikely. Instead, natural means seem to have produced the cultivated New World cottons. Scholars have developed two possibilities for how this process occurred. First, they suggest that the cultivated Old World cottons Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbaceum had grown in the Americas at one time but became extinct sometime before 1492. No archaeological evidence has yet been found to support this theory. Second, they suggest that the unopened cotton bolls of the Old World cottons are capable of floating across the oceans. The prolonged exposure to salt water will not always destroy the seeds ability to germinate successfully. Either of these scenarios brings Old World cottons into contact with wild New World cottons so that hybridization can take place. Neither depends on human travellers to carry the seeds.
Maize, or corn as it is more commonly known in North America, is almost universally accepted by the scholarly world to have originated in ancient America and later spread throughout the world after Christopher Columbus’s voyage of 1492. At the same time, many diffusionist writers have suggested that maize actually originated in Asia or that it was of American origin but travelled to Africa, Asia, and Europe before 1492, thus indicating the existence of pre-Columbian contacts between the Americas and the Old World. George F. Carter, the distinguished geographer, has made such claims for pre-Columbian maize in China. Extensive research into the voluminous and detailed botanical literature of pre-Columbian China, however, has failed to reveal any evidence of the cultivation of maize before the early 16th century. The archaeological and historical record for South Asia also has provided no indication of the existence of maize in that region prior to 1492. The same observation applies to Europe where maize first received notice in 1532 in a herbal written by Jerome Buck. From that point onward, maize appeared regularly on the pages of European herbals and botanical works from the 16th century. No such mentions occurred in European botanical works written during the 14th and 15th centuries. This omission would be highly suspicious if maize had already reached Europe before 1492, which it apparently did not do. The literature concerning pre-Columbian maize in Africa is extensive, although the chief exponent of that theory is the South African anthropologist M.D.W. Jeffreys. Jeffreys believes that Arabic – Black African contacts with the Americas took place about 900 CE and after. But as Paul Mangelsdorf, the leading authority on the evolution and history of maize/corn, has suggested, the ambiguities in the terminologies used by Jeffreys’ historical sources appear to have caused a confusion between maize and the similar sorghums that did grow in pre-Columbian Africa.
Mangelsdorf has also pointed out that the most telling evidence for the post?Columbian introduction of maize into the Old World is the total absence of pre-Columbian corn cobs outside of the western hemisphere. Pre-Columbian corn cobs are very commonly found in archaeological sites throughout the Americas. They survive readily under many climates and conditions, but so far none that can be convincingly dated to before 1492 have been found in the Old World. Maize cannot be cited as evidence that pre-Columbian contacts took place between the Old World and the Americas because no pre-Columbian maize appears to have existed in the Old World.
There are two divergent claims regarding the sweet potato as evidence for pre-Columbian contact between the Americas and the Old World. One theory is that the sweet potato originated in Africa and was carried to the Americas. The other places the origin of the sweet potato in the Americas but claims that it was carried into Polynesia during the era before European contact.
The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is considered by the vast majority of scholars to be a native of the Americas. It is a member of the morning glory family of plants, and research indicates that it evolved from a wild plant in tropical Central America with the scientific name of Ipomoea trifida. In 1954, the botanist Elmer Drew Merrill speculated about a possible African origin for the sweet potato, although other botanists have either rejected his idea as unfounded or ignored it. That has not stopped some diffusionist writers from occasionally using Merrill’s theory of an African origin for the sweet potato to bolster their own ideas about African voyages to pre-Columbian America. It should be remembered, however, that the botanical and archaeological evidence overwhelmingly puts the original home of the sweet potato in the Americas.
Except for a few Spanish landings in the 16th century, sustained European contact with Polynesia began in the 18th century with Jacob Roggeveen’s discovery of Easter Island in 1722, and Captain James Cook’s visits to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 and New Zealand in 1769. When the Europeans arrived, the natives of these islands were all cultivating the sweet potato. Obviously the plant came from the Americas, but how and when did it get to Polynesia? Some people have suggested that a natural transfer occurred in which a sweet potato seed or tuber floated from the Americas to the various Polynesian islands by accident. Most experts, however, feel that the sweet potato’s seeds or tubers were not capable of floating such vast distances across the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, prolonged exposure to salt water would also destroy the fertility of the seeds and tubers. As a result, the presence of sweet potatoes in Polynesia would seem to indicate that Polynesian – American contacts similar to Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki voyage occurred during the pre-Columbian era.
Besides the physical presence of the sweet potato in Polynesia, supporters of Polynesian – American contacts also cite linguistic evidence. They claim that in the Lima region of Peru, the native Quechua word for sweet potato is kumar or kumal. The Polynesians know the sweet potato by variations of these Quechua words so that it is called uwala in Hawaii, kumara in New Zealand and Easter Island, umara in Tahiti, and unala in Samoa. Unfortunately, this impressive linguistic evidence is inaccurate. Kumar or kumal was not the Quechua word for sweet potato. In reality, the Quechua word for sweet potato is apichu. Kumar does not refer to sweet potato anywhere along the coastal region of Peru. So, the best linguistic evidence does not support the occurrence of Polynesian – American contacts.
Donald D. Brand, a geographer from the University of Texas, has advanced a subtle theory that claims that the spread of the sweet potato occurred entirely during the post-Columbian times. According to his scenario, Spanish settlers carried the sweet potato home to Spain. From there it reached Portugal in 1500. The Portuguese then carried it to their trading stations in India before 1505. From there Asian traders – Persians, Arabs, and Hindus – took the sweet potato into the Moluccas, or the Spice Islands. At that point, the sweet potato entered a trading network connected to Melanesia. After spreading quickly across these islands, the sweet potato then reached Polynesia before any Europeans set foot on those islands.
1. The Wordlist Game. In 1846 the future historian Francis Parkman made the following observation while travelling on the great plains:
The Indians raised in concert their cries of lamentation over the corpse, and among [which was] … clearly distinguished those strange sounds resembling the word ‘Hallelujah,’ which together with some other accidental coincidences, has given rise to the absurd theory that the Indians are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel.
What seemed an “accidental coincidence” or “absurd” to Parkman, however, has seemed to be sound evidence to many, more credulous theorists of pre-Columbian contacts between the Americas and the Old World. Algonquins and Irish, Maya and Egyptians, or Peruvians and Polynesians are among the groups for which fallacious wordlists have been compiled. Countless other lists of similar sounding words with similar meanings between one Native American language and another Old World language have appeared to prove various theories of pre-Columbian contacts.
Unfortunately the compiling of such wordlists is an overly simplistic form of comparative linguistics. Linguistic scholars consider the study of grammar to be the more reliable way to make comparisons between different but possibly related languages. Grammatical structures tend to change slowly. In comparison, the words used in any language change over time, often quite rapidly. If two languages contained significant numbers of words borrowed from each other, it would indicate a fairly recent contact. Otherwise, wordlists are fairly useless as evidence of contact in the more distant past.
It is possible to compile lists of similar sounding words with similar meanings for every language in the world with every other language in the world. These lists can be larger or smaller depending on how generously one allows the words to sound alike or have similar meanings. In the end, however, all these lists really prove is that there are a limited number of sounds (phonemes) or combinations of sounds that human beings can make to form words. That number may be a large one but when compared to the vastly larger number of words in all the languages of the world that exist or have existed, there will be many cases where the same sounds have roughly the same meaning in two different languages even though there are no historical connections between those two languages. The similarity is not merely a coincidence but one that has a high probability of happening one way or another. Truly significant connections between words in different languages can only be determined by studying the etymology (the changing history of a word’s usage) of the individual words. When proper linguistic methods are applied to the problem of pre-Columbian contacts between the Americas and the Old World they invariably show that nothing significant took place.
2. Inscription Mania and Illegitimate Epigraphy. Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions left by ancient peoples. It is one of the major sources of information that historians use to study the ancient Mediterranean world. Various ancient cultures in Central America, notably the Maya, also produced large numbers of inscriptions of use to epigraphers. Outside of Central America, the various cultures of Native Americans did not possess systems of writing and so would have left no inscriptions for epigraphers. Recently, however, the Harvard marine biologist and amateur archaeologist Barry Fell has theorized that various ancient Celtic peoples and other groups of Mediterranean people colonized North America in the pre-Christian era. He claims that numerous inscriptions in the ancient Celtic script called Ogam are scattered throughout New England and other regions. He and his supporters are constantly on the lookout for such inscriptions and they claim to have been quite successful. The problem is that Ogam script basically consists of combinations of straight lines. So what Fell and his supporters claim is an ancient Celtic inscription looks like natural scratching and wear on rocks to mainstream archaeologists. Fell’s case is further compromised by his regarding such proven archaeological frauds as the Davenport Tablets as a genuine artifact left by his “ancient colonists.” Basically Fell and other amateur epigraphers are guilty of seeing what they want to see among the weathered rocks of New England. Their unquestioning belief in the existence of these pseudo-inscriptions has been labeled “inscription mania” by professional archaeologists.
3. The Game: Patolli-Pachesi Parallels. A frequently discussed and superficially compelling evidence for pre-Columbian contacts between Asia and America is the similarities between the Aztec game of patolli and the Hindu game of pachesi. In both games the players move pieces around boards with cross-shaped tracks divided into segments. The number of moves a piece can make is determined by throwing lots; the Hindus used cowrie shells while the Aztecs used beans. Similarities between these and other games have been noted as early as 1724. Later in 1879 the great English anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) wrote a paper suggesting that patolli has actually been derived from pachesi as a result of ancient contacts between Asia and the Americas. Tylor added the authority of probability to his argument in 1896 and stated that it was highly improbable that two such similar games could have been invented independently.
Tylor’s contemporaries, the American scholars Stewart Culin and Daniel Brinton, rejected his conclusion that patolli came to ancient America as a result of cultural diffusion from Asia. They stressed that it was independently invented in the Americas without any Asian influences and went on to cite evidence of geographical distribution and variations to bolster their contention. On the other hand, in the next generation of scholars A. L. Kroeber (1876-1960), the doyen of American anthropology, supported Tylor’s conclusions for many years although not because of any particularly sound reasons.
Some anthropologists have developed a theory of limited possibilities to explain similarities between different cultures as an alternative to diffusion. Basically, this theory states that the number of cultural choices may not be large in some cases. Seemingly complex and similar institutions and artifacts could develop independently because the probabilities against it happening are not all that great. In the case of patolli and pachesi, the dice or lots must have at least two flat sides to be functional, while the cross shape of the board is really quite a common and universal shape. Furthermore, with cultures all over the world engaged in gaming, it is not surprising for similar games to appear independently. The anthropologist John Charles Erasmus has cautioned against the facile calculating of possibilities or probabilities for the development of similar cultural traits. Large numbers of people at all times and all over the world are engaged in the process of cultural evolution. That variable, however, is seldom taken into consideration when the probabilities of independent invention are discussed. Furthermore, patolli is the only aspect of Aztec culture that shows any indication of possible Hindu contact. The absence of other Mexican cultural traits of probable Hindu origin is another strong evidence against any pre-Columbian contacts between Mexico and India.
4. Coin Finds. Over the years, 41 documented reports have appeared of Old World coins with pre-Columbian dates being found in the Americas, particularly North America. There may be others. These finds have been used to argue for pre-Columbian visits by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and Norse sailors although so far only the Norse find has managed to stand up to scholarly scrutiny.
Lucio Marineo Siculo (1460-1533), a somewhat credulous Italian humanist, in 1533 reported the finding of a Roman coin from the time of Caesar Augustus in a gold mine in Panama. He concluded that the presence of this coin proved that the Romans had reached the Americas before the Spanish. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés touched on Siculo’s story in his Historia general y natural de las Indias of 1535 and showed that it was ridiculous.
Significantly, no one found any more pre-Columbian coins in the Americas until several Roman coins from the imperial era were found in the Fayetteville area of Tennessee between 1818 and 1823. The early archaeologist Caleb Atwater was immediately skeptical and suspected that the coins were deliberate plants. The Tennessee antiquarian John Haywood, however, considered the find to be authentic. It is interesting that even Haywood reported that after a Mr. Colter, a man known to possess Roman coins, left Tennessee for Alabama in 1823 that no more coins have ever been found in Tennessee. Modern archaeologists generally agree with Atwater’s original assessment and think that the Tennessee coins were part of a hoax.
Only one other documented coin find took place in the 19th century. It occurred in 1880 on an Illinois farm and involved the finding of a Seleucid Greek coin from c. 173-64 BCE. Otherwise all of the remaining 32 coin finds took place in the 20th century, and of that number, 24 were found after 1945. With the exception of the Norse penny found in Maine, all of these coins appear to have been brought to the Americas after 1492. Some of the coins have actually turned out to be forgeries such as the three Bar Kokhba coins found at various places in Kentucky in 1932, 1952, and 1967.
Other genuine ancient coins have been located in archaeological situations that indicate they may be losses from modern collections rather than remains from the distant past. Many coins have been found on the surface of the soil rather than having been dug up. The most common natural tendency for a coin on the ground would be slowly to sink down into the soil rather than to work its way up to the surface after it was buried. It is estimated that some one million Roman coins are in the coin collections of the late 20th century United States. Most of those were brought back from Europe after World War II. Many of these Roman coins are only worth $10.00 or less and so are not looked after all that carefully. The possibility of accidental losses is quite real, and that appears to be what has happened in most of these 20th century finds of pre-Columbian coins.
Jeremiah F. Epstein’s 1980 study of coin finds basically concluded that none of them provide legitimate evidence for pre-Columbian contacts. One exception to his conclusion, however, is the Norse penny from the reign of Olav Kyrre (1066-1093) of Norway found in Maine in 1957. Tests have established that it is genuine. But since no one now denies that the medieval Norse reached Newfoundland, it is not implausible that they visited Maine as well.
1. Kensington Rune Stone. This famous but fraudulent Norse artifact was first discovered in Minnesota in 1898 and still has supporters of its authenticity in spite of considerable debunking scholarship to the contrary.
In 1898, Olof Ohman “discovered” the Kensington Rune Stone while clearing trees from his farm in Douglas County, near the town of Kensington, Minnesota. It contained an inscription in runic characters, the ancient alphabet of Scandinavia. Unfortunately, the physical appearance of the inscription belied its supposed antiquity; e.g., its cuts showed none of the weathering associated with a stone carving over 300 years old. It has even been suggested that the inscription was added after Ohman first unearthed the stone.
The Rune Stone’s inscription told of a party of Norse making its way through the wilderness during 1362 and suffering the loss of 10 of its members from attacks by hostile Indians. Such a find would have been of immense interest to the Scandinavian immigrant community of the Upper Midwest. In 1898 they were anxious to find proof of Norse precedence over Christopher Columbus in the European discovery of America. The World Columbian Exposition at Chicago during the 1890s had aroused their ethnic ire. Scandinavian Americans wanted to believe that the Kensington Rune Stone was authentic so local support was strong. The scholarly reception of the Kensington Rune Stone, however, was negative from the start on the basis of anachronistic usages of both runic characters and Norse words. Eventually enthusiasm for the Rune Stone stalled and Ohman took it back to his farm where he used it as a steppingstone. True believers in the Scandinavian community, however, continued to claim the Kensington Rune Stone was genuine.
In 1907 Hjalmar R. Holand, a young researcher, came to Douglas County to gather material on the Norwegian immigration to the United States. During his researches, the locals told him about Ohman’s rune stone and a curious Holand went to see it. Rejecting earlier scholarly opinion, Holand decided it was a true Norse artifact and Ohman even gave it to him. Starting in 1908, for the rest of his life, Holand attempted to prove that the Kensington Rune Stone was really a medieval Norse inscription. He even got the Minnesota Historical Society so interested that when they issued a report on the stone’s authenticity, they ignored additional scholarly opinions to the contrary and pronounced it genuine. Efforts by Holand in 1911 to secure favorable judgments from European scholars met with failure as they all considered the stone to be a hoax. But Holand remained undaunted. In 1932 he published his first book, The Kensington Stone, which defended the stone’s authenticity. The stone travelled to the Smithsonian Institute in 1948 for further scholarly investigation which again produced negative results. Holand, however, continued to believe that the Kensington Rune Stone was a true medieval Norse artifact.
The 1950s saw the beginning of a wave of scholarly publications denying the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone. The two most devastating attack came from books by experts on Norse studies Erik Wahlgren in 1958 and Theodore C. Blegen in 1968. Their studies convincingly showed that the Kensington Rune Stone was a fake. Blegen even suggests how Olof Ohman may have collaborated with his neighbor Sven Fogelbad to produce the inscription. None of this scholarly activity has managed to stop some true believers from continuing to have faith in the Kensington Rune Stone. For the vast majority of historians and archaeologists, the Kensington Rune Stone is no more than one of the most persistent hoaxes in the history of American archaeology.
The Kensington Rune Stone – “The scholarly reception of the Kensington Rune Stone, however, was negative from the start on the basis of anachronistic usages of both runic characters and Norse words. Eventually enthusiasm for the Rune Stone stalled and Ohman took it back to his farm where he used it as a steppingstone.”
2. Paraiba Stone. In 1872, the most enigmatic of the supposed Phoenician artifacts in the Americas came to light – the Paraiba Stone. A man named Joaquim Alves da Costa claimed to have found, “near the Paraiba” river, a broken stone which had an inscription in a strange alphabet carved on it. After transcribing the inscription, Costa sent the copy to Rio de Janeiro for study. But Brazil had no experts in ancient semitic languages. Instead the conscientious naturalist Ladislau Netto took up the assignment, learned Hebrew, and ultimately determined that the writing on the stone was Phoenician and then translated it. His translation described how 10 Phoenician ships were blown by storms to the coast of Brazil in 534 BCE. Immediately the French scholar Ernest Renan attacked the Paraiba inscription as a fake and others soon joined him. By 1885 the hapless Netto felt compelled to publish a retraction of his original conclusions and even suggested five possible suspects who might have engineered the hoax. Meanwhile Costa disappeared with the stone and no accredited scholar ever saw it first hand. Even the original location of the find was in great doubt since Brazil had two different Paraiba regions. During the 1960s, Cyrus Gordon, a professor of semitic languages and an ardent diffusionist, revived the Paraiba Stone’s claims to authenticity. Basically, Gordon had asserted that the Paraiba inscription contains Phoenician grammatical constructions that were unknown in 1872. Other equally qualified specialists in semitic languages disagree with his conclusions and continue to declare the Paraiba Stone to be a hoax. That judgment is the opinion of archaeologists and prehistorians in general.
1. Portuguese Policy of Secrecy or Silence. This controversial historical thesis, formulated in the first quarter of the 20th century by various historians, primarily Portuguese, states that Portugal made many voyages and discoveries in the Atlantic Ocean, including the discovery of the Americas sometime before 1492, but chose to keep those discoveries secret.
Before the 19th century, the historical record contains many gaps and breaks. This condition certainly applies to the surviving records from the Great Age of Discovery. None of the original logs for Christopher Columbus’s four voyages survived, although a partial transcript exists for the first voyage. John Cabot’s voyages to North America in 1497 are practically without any contemporary documentation and the same situation applies to Bartolomeu Dias’s discovery in 1487 of the Cape of Good Hope. Such losses of primary sources are tragic but all too common and they usually occur quite innocently as the result of accidents or neglect. Some historians, however, have questioned whether the gaps in the Portuguese records are all that random. They suggest that some design or policy may lie behind the disappearance of some documents.
If one is inclined to believe Cortesão, quite a lot of information was suppressed, including a Portuguese discovery of America prior to 1448. Jaime Cortesão was not alone in his support for the existence of a policy of secrecy. In Portugal the thesis has become a historical orthodoxy and a pillar of national pride. School textbooks at all levels teach it as fact. Lisbon’s city government has even decorated its Avenida da Liberdade with a mosaic inscription which reads: “João Vaz Corte-Real – Descobridor da America.”
The thesis of a deliberate and systematic Portuguese government policy of secrecy concerning overseas exploration is a product of 20th-century historians. Jaime Cortesão, a Portuguese historian, first formulated the thesis in 1924. He contended that the surviving Portuguese chronicles about overseas explorations show definite signs of truncation and censorship.
Outside of Portugal, historians, including Samuel Eliot Morison, generally reject Cortesão’s thesis of a policy of secrecy and its various claims of monumental but previously uncredited Portuguese achievements during the 15th century. Dissent exists even in the Portuguese historical community where the respected historian Duarte Liete attacked Cortesão’s theory as early as 1936. But in spite of all the controversy, the thesis of a Portuguese policy of secrecy still possesses enthusiastic supporters, and so continues to attract equally determined opponents.
The basic complaint of skeptical historians concerning the policy of secrecy is the almost complete absence of solid evidence for its existence. Historians admit that monarchs and countries throughout history have attempted to protect their overseas commerce by maintaining secrecy about the how and the where of their sources. But ultimately these efforts have failed. Supporters of the policy of secrecy reply that the lack of evidence is in itself evidence of the existence of a policy of secrecy that was extremely effective. Of course, their opponents, particularly Samuel Eliot Morison, find such an argument both circular and ridiculous. Ultimately Morison feels that Cortesão’s thesis requires the Portuguese to maintain their secrets apparently for the sake of secrecy alone and often against their own best interests. He rightly argues that the Portuguese government’s pursuit of a policy of secrecy needs to make sense and be of benefit to the national interests. If Portugal already knew about the Americas before 1492, why did João II abdicate virtually all of that new land to Spain in the Treaty of Tordesillas?
Another argument repeatedly brought to bear against the existence of such a policy of secrecy is the well documented and sustained participation of a substantial number of foreigners in Portugal’s overseas explorations. Martin Behaim of Germany and Christopher Columbus of Genoa are simply the best known of a host of foreigners who served in Portugal’s overseas ventures. With so many foreigners involved in Portugal’s overseas enterprises, it would have been impossible to keep important discoveries a secret. Details of Portugal’s jealously guarded African trade leaked out with amazing rapidity. Furthermore, little attempt was made to keep secret Bartolomeu Dias’s discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 or Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1497. Why did the Portuguese let these important discoveries become public knowledge if they had such an effective policy of secrecy? Not surprisingly, outside of Portugal, the thesis of the policy of secrecy and its accompanying suppression of information about various discoveries, most notably a pre-Columbian discovery of America, has found little support among historians.
2. White God Legends. This group of Native American myths purportedly describes vague memories of pre-Columbian visitors from the Old World. Most of these legends supposedly relate to peoples from the ancient Mediterranean or Western European cultures. Some adherents of pre-Columbian contacts between the Old World and the Americas claim that these same legends actually refer to visitors from Africa or China, which would more accurately make them yellow or black god legends.
The Native American gods commonly identified as white gods are Quetzalcoatl, Kukulcan, Itzamna, Votan, Viracocha, and Sume. According to various popular writers, all of these deities were bearded, white-skinned, departed from the Americas with a promise to return, and established civilization and higher humanitarian values during the time they ruled over the various indigenous tribes and kingdoms. It is claimed that these legends of white gods are almost universal among the aboriginal peoples of both North and South America. These legends supposedly aided the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayas, the Chibchas, and various other peoples since they mistakenly took the Spanish conquistadors to be their returning white gods.
Although there were many supposed white gods among the various groups of Native Americans, there are even more candidates to serve as the inspiration for the white god legends among the supposed pre-Columbian visitors to the Americas. The list includes St. Thomas, St. Brendan, Prince Madoc of Wales, and even Jesus Christ.
The problem with all of these theories is that they are not based on original and authentic Native American legends. Most of the so-called white gods are actually humans who filled the role of being culture heroes. Like the Greek culture-hero Prometheus who brought civilizing fire to humanity, the Native American culture heroes brought the benefits of agriculture, writing, the calendar, and true religion to their peoples. Generally these gods are described as bearded but that is no proof of their being white. Native Americans can sometimes grow beards, and these beards, such as the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II’s, were observed by the Spanish. The problem is that many versions of these legends have been contaminated with post-Columbian additions by the Spanish. The whiteness of these white gods is not mentioned in the most authentic versions of the culture-hero legends. Quetzalcoatl is actually described as having a black or a black and yellow striped face. It also appears that the white god’s departure from and promise to return to the Americas are usually post-Columbian additions. In the case of Quetzalcoatl, some historians, such as Nigel Davies, think that the belief that Hernan Cortes was the returned Quetzalcoatl was a delusion concocted by the nervous Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. There was no general belief among the Aztecs that Quetzalcoatl would return. David Carrasco, a historian of religion, disagrees and instead claims that during its final years the Aztec empire lived in dread anticipation of Quetzalcoatl’s return. But in the case of the other Native American gods Votan, Viracocha, and Sume – the legend of the white gods was a Spanish fraud.
Other problems with linking white god legends to historic persons or peoples are chronological. Quetzalcoatl lived sometime during the years 900-1100 CE which eliminates most of the supposed ancient pre-Columbian visitors, including Jesus Christ, as candidates for inspiring his legend. Furthermore, the white god legends, like most tales of pre-Columbian visitors to the Americas, lack a convincing foundation in the archaeological and documentary evidence. Close study of the Native American myths simply makes the white god legends seem less and less credible.
Why do people continue to believe in dubious theories about pre-Columbian contacts between the Old World and the Americas? One reason is that it is a common characteristic of human nature to have a fascination with the strange and fantastic and these theories are, for the most part, very strange and utterly fantastic. They also claim to be based on lost or even suppressed knowledge which provides yet a further source of fascination. There are hints and even outright claims of some sort of conspiracy to suppress such knowledge. Ultimately pre Columbian contact theorists and their adherents can believe that they are embattled intellectual heroes. Since it is difficult, if not impossible, to disprove a secret conspiracy (it is, in essence, a nonfalsifiable claim), adherents are fairly safe in their belief.
Sadly, there is also an element of racism inherent in many of the theories of pre-Columbian contact. The 19th-century supporters of the theory of a lost white race of moundbuilders were basically denying that the Native Americans possessed the ability to create a higher civilization. But any modern theory that attributes the fundamental development of higher civilization in the Americas to visiting Egyptians, Hebrews, Phoenicians, Romans, Africans, Chinese, Japanese, or some other ancient Old World peoples is also unfairly downplaying the manifest creativity and intelligence of the Native Americans. Such theories ignore a substantial archaeological record which fully documents the achievements of the Native Americans. Too many theorists of pre-Columbian contacts have their own racial or ethnic agenda which ignores the legitimate achievements of the pre-Columbian Native Americans and is insensitive to the feelings of their descendants.
In spite of their logical and scholarly problems, theories about pre-Columbian contacts between the Americas and the Old World continue to thrive, while books supporting those theories are steadily proliferating. Sloppy and inappropriate methodologies and inadequate or non-existent evidence have never stood in the way of the concoction or the survival of the most preposterous theories about pre-Columbian contacts. Just in the past few years several new books concerning this realm of pseudohistory have appeared or are scheduled to appear. In 1992 two books appeared which surveyed the whole gamut of theories about pre-Columbian contacts: Patrick Huyghe, Columbus was Last: From 200,000 B.C. to 1492, A Heretical History of Who Was First (Hyperion) and Gunnar Thompson, American Discovery: The Real Story (Misty Isles Press). Apparently the various theories of pre-Columbian contacts can mutually coexist in relative peace with each other, at least in the pages of these two tomes. Meanwhile in the same year R. J. Jairazbhoy published Rameses III: Father of Ancient America (Karnak House) which continues his earlier efforts to establish the role of travellers from ancient Egypt in the rise of higher civilization in the Americas. Publication of two additional books is expected at any time. Ivan Van Sertima, the author of They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (Random House, 1977), is supposed to be close to publishing African Voyages Before Columbus. Even more imminent is Jim Bailey’s Sailing to Paradise: The Discovery of America in 5,000 B.C. (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming) which appears to extend the theories he first put forward in The God-Kings and the Titans: The New World Ascendancy in Ancient Times (St. Martin’s, 1973). But in spite of all the hype, these books are all plowing or will be plowing the same old, tired, and infertile fields of evidence. It is truly a never ending story.
The following are excellent overviews of the theories and errors of the theorists of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas:
Nigel Davies, Voyagers to the New World (1979)
Kenneth L. Feder, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology (1990)
Robert Wauchope, Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents. Myth and Method in the Study of American Indians (1962)
Stephen Williams, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (1991).