Who Discovered the New World?
Which of all the many claims of Europeans being first to the New World is true?
by Brian Dunning
November 5, 2013
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The Piri Reis Map (fragment)
Public domain photograph
In 1492, Columbus sailed the blue; and was, for a time, considered to be the first European to set foot on the Americas. And then came evidence that Viking explorers, led by Leif Ericson, had beaten him to it by some five centuries. Early archaeological uncertainty resulted in a minor controversy over which explorer was first, but the story was yet to thicken. Along came authors who suggested that Chinese admiral Zheng He had also beaten Columbus, though only by a few years (not European, but since he came by boat and not by the Bering Strait land bridge, we'll let him enter the contest). And then, someone discovered petroglyphs in West Virginia that seemed to indicate that 6th-century Irish navigator St. Brendan had beaten everyone to the continent. Finally, this wrestling mass of Spaniards, Italians, Vikings, Chinese and Irish were joined by Muslims, when researchers presented both archaelogical and documentary evidence that West African Muslims were in fact first to the New World.
These are the five main contenders for the honor. There are always other fringier claims to this (and just about everything else), but these are the five we're going to look at today. They can't all be right. So among these five, who was actually the first to arrive in the Americas? And of those who weren't the first, did any of them not make it at all?
So there's no real doubt anywhere about the familiar Columbus story. He landed in the Bahamas in 1492, and although he believed he'd reached India, he'd actually reached some big continent that was blocking the way. In three subsequent voyages over the next twelve years, he explored the Caribbean, the top of South America, and the coast of Central America. On his heels came colonists and other explorers, and ever since he first set foot on land, the New World has been connected with Europe. So now, let's look at the other claimants one at a time, working backwards from Columbus' own time.
The Muslim claim is not of a specific explorer, but of general knowledge of the New World that predated Columbus and could have only been obtained by previous European visitors. Piri Reis was an Ottoman Turk mariner and naval cartographer who died in 1553. His name means Captain Piri. He's best known for a map he drew in 1513, known today as the Piri Reis map. The map is often referenced by alternative historians who say that it depicts an impossibly accurate representation of the entire world, thus indicating that Piri must have had knowledge far superior to that of Columbus, and thus traditional history must be wrong and early Ottomans must have traveled the entire world, including the Americas from Cuba all the way down through Brazil, and even Antarctica. The Piri Reis map forms the basis for almost all modern claims about Islamic sailors being the first to the New World.
There is no doubting the historical importance of the Piri Reis map, however most of the sensational claims surrounding it are inaccurate. Mainly, it does not at all upset traditional history; it fits right in where we'd expect. In his notes on the map, Piri wrote that he'd compiled it from about 20 existing maps from seafaring nations all around Europe and Asia. These included ancient Greek maps of the Meditteranean and Indian Ocean, Arabic maps of India, Portuguese maps of Pakistan and China, and the latest map from Columbus showing the Caribbean islands and a bit of the American east coast.
The map is nowhere near as accurate or comprehensive as usually claimed. At a glance it's obvious that major features are wrong, and the consensus to explain this is that Piri didn't have context for all the individual charts he assembled. Piri showed Brazil as connected to Antarctica, and we believe this was either just an effort to include the presumed Terra Incognita, or was just the coast of South America twisted around to fit on the page. Portuguese sailors, following Prince Henry the Navigator, had thoroughly explored western Africa and had made sorties west across the Atlantic prior to Columbus. Columbus himself studied navigation in Portugal, and was closely followed by other Portuguese sailors when he arrived in the New World. From his base, these explorers quickly developed a sketchpad knowledge of the eastern Americas from Newfoundland to Argentina, and by the first decade of the 16th centuy, there was more than adequate source material from which Piri could draw.
In short, there is no need to introduce an Islamic voyage to the Americas to explain the Piri Reis map; and insufficient archaelogical or documentary evidence to support such a voyage either. I give early Islamic explorers 0.5 out of 5 Skeptoid Plausibility Points.
Zheng He was a great Chinese admiral in the 15th century, who died just 18 years before Columbus was born. We've talked about Zheng before on Skeptoid in connection with various urban legends surrounding his travels and his ships. It's always been well known and well documented that Zheng traveled south and west from China as far as Africa, but there had never been any evidence that he ventured east across the Pacific to reach the New World. This changed in 2006 when a Chinese lawyer, Liu Gang, announced the discovery of a map copied in 1763 from an original dated 1418, titled Overall Map of the Geography of all Under Heaven. The map shows the Americas in all their glory, proof that Chinese cartographers, sailing under Zheng He, had beaten Columbus to the New World by coming from the other direction.
Unfortunately his announcement of the map did not go over very well. Virtually nobody takes the map seriously. It is evidently a copy of a well-known French map from the 1600s, as shown by its depiction of California as an island. It also has textual errors. One of the Chinese characters in the title is misused; an unsurprising error from a modern forger more familiar with simplified Chinese, but not an error that would have been made by a Qing dynasty user of traditional Chinese.
Liu Gang has proven to be his own worst enemy in this enterprise. He published a book in China in 2009 called The Ancient Map Code to promote his map, but in it he goes more than 400 years earlier, claiming to have discovered another Chinese map from 1093 that also depicts the entire world. This particular "map" is even sadder. Liu shows a photo taken inside the 1093 tomb of Zhang Kuangzheng that shows paint and plaster flaking off of a wall. Liu superimposed his own concept of a world map over the pattern of damage, in such a way as to almost beg pity, and calls this deterioration a map. Zheng He, intrepid explorer though he was, gets 1 out of 5 Skeptoid Plausibility Points, and Liu Gang has a deficit of about 15 points.
Leif Ericson was the son of Erik the Red, the Viking who first settled Greenland. Leif followed in his father's mighty footsteps, and founded the first colony in Vinland. Much of Leif's doings west of Iceland are known from two Norse sagas, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. Now the problem with sagas is that they were not exactly reliable historical documents; they focused on individuals in a narrative, storytelling fashion. The primary destination in these sagas was Vinland the Good, which is believed to have been settled around 1000 CE.
Fortunately, a second line of more empirical evidence was added to Leif Ericson's tale. In 1960, archaeologists discovered ruins at the northern tip of the Island of Newfoundland. It's called L'Anse aux Meadows, Jellyfish Cove, and of a number of Norse sites believed to have been discovered along the east coast, it's by far the best. The village was built of sod rooves on wooden frames, and the buildings include a forge complete with iron slag, a boathouse with all sorts of wooden scraps and iron hardware, and sufficient relics to tie it beyond any reasonable doubt to the Norse. We don't know for sure whether L'Anse aux Meadows was part of Vinland or not, or whether it was associated with Leif Ericson, but we do know the Norse lived in this village at the same time the sagas placed him in the vicinity.
Since you can hold the L'Anse aux Meadows rivets in your hand, that are consistent with those from Viking longships of the day, and they date to 1000 CE, Leif Ericson gets 4.5 out 5 Skeptoid Plausibility Points, and the Vikings as a group get 5 out of 5.
St. Brendan the Navigator was a legendary 6th century Irish monk who sailed around the British Isles in leather boats. He's known only from two ancient annals called theVoyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot and the Life of Brendan. It's said that he sailed to the Isle of the Blessed, or St. Brendan's Island. Supposedly this was off the coast of Africa; but both Brendan and his island are really only known from legend.
But in 1983, the promotional magazine Wonderful West Virginia published three articles claiming that some ancient petroglyphs found there prove that St. Brendan actually reached the New World around the year 525 and left the petroglyphs, said to be written in the old Irish script Ogam. They're called the Horse Creek petroglyphs. They were translated by a Dr. Barry Fell, and found to be Christian. Ever since, a loyal following has claimed St. Brendan to be the first European to the New World, beating even the Vikings by some five centuries.
However, sadly, the list of problems with this claim is a long one. No serious archaeologists have ever bothered to study the carvings, because nobody thinks they look like writing. The prevailing feeling is that are simply marks left where native Americans had sharpened tools. They were originally discovered by amateurs with no language expertise, and filled with chalk according to which markings the amateurs thought were probably intentional lines, and photographed. Dr. Barry Fell, a retired marine biologist, saw only these photos, and never inspected the site. Actual Ogam experts have universally disagreed with Dr. Fell's translation and even with the depictions of the characters themselves. So who knows, better information may surface in the future, but for now the West Virginia petroglyphs have no archaeological credibility. St. Brendan's voyage to the New World gets 0 out of 5 Skeptoid Plausibility Points, and the carvings get 0.5 points until such time as a proper expert analysis is done.
And so tallying up the score, we have a winner: the Vikings, under the leadership and probable physical presence of Leif Ericson. The Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, and Turks did all make it here soon thereafter. Zheng He wouldn't get credit for being first even if he had beaten all of those guys though; since the New World was already thoroughly populated by northern Asians via the Bering Strait, he still would have been a few tens of thousands of years late to the party.
Correction: An earlier version of this said Leif Ericson founded the first colony in Iceland. This was just a spell-check from Vinland that I didn't catch. Leif was born in Iceland; he couldn't have founded it.
Also, I called the Atlantic the Pacific. This is because I am an idiot, not because the oceans were reversed at the time.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Who Discovered the New World?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
5 Nov 2013. Web.
18 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4387>
References & Further Reading
Crosby, A. The Columbian Voyages: the Columbian Exchange, and their Historians. Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1987.
Lesser, W. "Cult Archaeology Strikes Again: A Case for Pre-Columbian Irishmen in the Mountain State?" West Virginia Archaeologist. 1 Mar. 1983, Volume 35, Number 2.
Lovgren, S. "Chinese Columbus Map Likely Fake, Experts Say." National Geographic News. National Geographic Society, 23 Jan. 2006. Web. 3 Sep. 2013. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/01/0123_060123_chinese_map.html>
McIntosh, G. The Piri Reis Map of 1513. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
Pringle, H. "Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada." National Geographic News. National Geographic Society, 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 3 Sep. 2013. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/121019-viking-outpost-second-new-canada-science-sutherland/>
Traditional. "The Saga of Erik the Red." Icelandic Saga Database. Sveinbjörn Þórðarson, 27 Sep. 2007. Web. 3 Sep. 2013. <http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en>
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