Image credit: Jason Vanderhill
Until recently, conventional archaeologists and historians rejected out of hand any suggestion that anyone save the ancestors of the Amerindians (via the Bering land bridge) could have travelled from the Old World to the Americas prior to Columbus. Even Viking accounts of "Vinland" were dismissed by many historians, until the ruins of a Viking colony were discovered in Canada. Even now, suggestions that Basque and Portuguese fisherman, Irish monks, or Phoenicians or Romans might have, now and then, crossed the Atlantic are routinely dismissed despite considerable evidence. Likewise most historians scoff at any suggestion that the Chinese, the Japanese, or even those intrepid sailors, the Polynesians, could ever have crossed the Pacific, or, for that matter, any speculation that the first Amerindians might have crossed the Bering Sea on boats after the Ice Age and journeyed down the West Coast of the Americas on the water as well as moving inland on foot. The conventional view is that, during the Ice Age, their masochistic ancestors, not satisfied with life in the more southerly regions of Asia, migrated north into Siberia, a region that is bitterly cold even today, and did so when it was colder still. Supposedly, they then wandered across Beringia and somehow made their way south past the ice sheets covering much of North America. Right.
To be sure, it is unlikely that there were frequent contacts between the Old World and the New in the time between the end of the Ice Age and the time of Columbus. If there had been, there would be more historical records, and the exchange of food crops and diseases and domestic animals that took place after 1492 would have taken place much sooner. But occasional crossings are possible, even probable, and there could have been much more extensive contact in prehistoric times.
Many archaeologists and historians act as though an ocean crossing is virtually impossible without modern technology, or at least Renaissance caravels, and, to be sure, the ocean is a rough neighborhood and even today ships sink or simple vanish. But human beings thrive on challenges. People have sailed alone around the world on small sailing yachts, and so many have rowed (yes, rowed) across the Atlantic that organized races are held. A few people have, incredibly, rowed across the Pacific. In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed a balsa raft, the Kon Tiki, from Peru to the Tuamotu islands, some 4,300 miles. Tim Severin and his crew sailed a replica of an Irish leather-skinned boat, or curragh, from Ireland to the Hebrides, Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland in 1976-77. The ancient Phoenicians sailed everywhere in the Mediterranean, and past the Straits of Gibraltar at least as far as Cornwall, to trade for tin. They may have circumnavigated Africa long before the Portuguese navigators of the Renaissance. And let us not forget those Stone Age sailors, the Polynesians. So the automatic rejection of any possibility of pre-Viking crossings tells us more about the mindset of conventional historians than it does about real human history. A certain amount of skepticism and conservatism is necessary in any field of study...but not a mindless adherence to the status quo.
At least as far back as Ignatius Donnelly and his books on Atlantis, people have pointed out the multitude of cultural and technological similarities between Eurasia and pre Columbian America, and there is neither the space nor the need to list them here. But, adding to all the other connections, in recent years Egyptian mummies have given at least some evidence for an ancient drug trade. German anthropologists Dr. Franz Porsche and Dr. Wolfgang Pirsig and Dr. Svetlana Balabanara in the nineteen eighties found traces of cocaine in Egyptian mummies, as well as tobacco. They found THC (tertrahydrocannabinal, the active ingredient in marijuana and hashish) in Peruvian mummies. Supposedly, marijuana was not found in the pre Columbian Americas, nor tobacco and cocaine in the Old World, although there is a possibility that some form of tobacco was used.
And the existence of people on various islands from the very earliest of times is proof positive that entire family groups made at least relatively short sea voyages. Malta, some 93 miles from the nearest land (Sicily), was settled at least as far back as 7,200 BP (before present). Crete, fairly close to other Aegean islands that could have served as stepping stones from Anatolia (the ancient Minoans had Anatolian genetics and we now know that there were prehistoric civilizations in what is now Turkey) was inhabited by 8,000 BP at the latest, and Cyprus, some 105 kilometers from Syria, by 12,000 BP. When Spanish explorers reached the Canary Islands, some 100 kilometers west of Africa, they found a group of people there collectively known as the Guanches, who seem, based on linguistic and genetic evidence, to be related to the Berbers of North Africa. In Roman times, not only did the Romans reach the Canary Islands, but so did King Juba II of the African kingdom of Mauritania, who reported stone buildings and no people. So the Romans and Africans were sailing out into the Atlantic long before the Vikings or Columbus. In the town of Guimar on Tenerife in the Canary Islands are six rectangular step pyramids of mostly undressed stone, some as high as forty feet. The "skeptics" suggest that they were merely piles of stones removed by Spanish colonists from their fields...but no farmers have the time, energy, or inclination to build such structures...they would simply have used them for walls around their fields, like the later New England colonists. Note (and this was pointed out by Thor Heyerdahl) their similarity to New World pyramids.
Columbus travelled first to the Canary Islands to catch the westerly trade winds and the favorable current. In addition to deep ocean currents driven by thermohaline convection, there are five mainly wind driven oceanic gyres, or roughly circular currents, due to coriolis forces. As winds in the northern hemisphere move south they are driven west...or rather the Earth, turning faster at the equator, moves east beneath them. So the Gulf Stream and the north Pacific gyre move clockwise, and the south Pacific and Indian Ocean gyres turn counter clockwise. The first inhabitants of the Canary Islands were thus in a perfect position to sail west to the Americas, although there is no proof that they did so.
Iceland was visited by Vikings from Norway and finally settled by Ingolfur Arnarson in 874 AD; it is 420 kilometers from the Faeroe Islands and 970 kilometers from Norway. The Vikings sailed these cold and stormy seas, remember, in open boats far smaller even than Columbus' caravels, and their square sails did not permit them to tack very closely into the wind. The Vikings said that they found Irish monks already living in Iceland, and this fits with Saint Brendan's claims that he sailed far into the Atlantic in the early sixth century; he described an island at least resembling volcanic Iceland, and, conceivably, may even have reached America. Tim Severin's voyage at least proves the feasibility of such a journey.
Now even some mainstream archaeologists are beginning to consider the possibility of prehistoric sea voyages from Europe to America. Ancient skeletons like Kennewick Man have a bone structure resembling that of Europeans, and predate any clearly Asian remains. All over what is now the United States and as far south as Venezuela, researchers have found a particular style of spear point called the Clovis Point, since the first one was found in Clovis, New Mexico. Some of these date back to 13,500 BP, during the last Ice Age, and the oldest are found in the eastern part of North America. These points are identical to those made by the Solutrean culture at that time...but the Solutreans (possibly descended from the Cro Magnons) lived in what is now southwest France and northwest Spain. Skeptics would be quick to point out that the Solutreans were hunter-gatherers, not fishermen and seamen, but the only remnants of their culture we can access are from inland, because, during the Ice Age, sea levels were much lower and the European coast extended far out into what is now the Bay of Biscay. The coastal Solutreans' remains are thus under water, and they could well have been (and probably were) fishermen and canoe builders.
About 10,000 BP the Clovis points in America began to be replaced by the shorter Folsom points. Note that this was after the Ice Age in a period when the Earth was actually substantially warmer than today, making it relatively easy for people from northeast Asia to cross the Bering Sea and the North Pacific. So did the ancestors of the Amerindians steal America from the Europeans long before the Europeans stole it back? They might easily have overcome the Clovis People, for these possibly European settlers had been weakened and almost wiped out by a catastrophic event.
The last Ice Age was gradually ending, with warmer temperatures melting the great ice sheets when, quite suddenly around 12,900 BP, the Earth became much colder during a period known as the Younger Dryas. This mysterious cooling might conceivably have been caused by a disruption in North Atlantic thermohaline currents due to the sudden release of fresh water from the prehistoric Lake Agassiz. But there has always been another mystery...the sudden extinction of great Pleistocene animals in North America, including lions, cheetahs, mammoths, and camels. The later Clovis sites are covered by a "black mat" of organic debris. Immediately below these mats is a layer containing magnetized iron particles, iridium, nano diamonds, and Buckminster fullerenes (submicroscopic carbon lattices) containing helium isotopes rare on Earth. It has been suggested that a comet exploding over the Laurentide ice sheet would explain all of this, including the mass extinction, the virtual end of Clovis culture, and the climatic cooling (due to dust in the upper atmosphere reflecting sunlight).
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, early Man was sailing regularly over immense stretches of open water. The earliest (conventionally recognized) human remains in Australia date to about 50,000 BP (Mungo Man), and in New Guinea to at least as far back as 40,000 BP. Remember that during the Ice Age, with its lower sea levels, Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea were one continent...but that continent was still separated from the Southeast Asian peninsula and archipelago by at least thirty miles of deep water. Stranger still, the few surviving Tierra del Fuegan Indians have, per DNA studies, a close resemblance to Australian Aborigines. Skulls of people resembling Australian Aborigines have been found as far away as Brazil and even Baja California (although, supposedly, DNA shows the remains in Baja to be of standard Amerindian (northeast Asian) origin. Skeletons of people resembling Aborigines have been found also in eastern Brazil, and cave paintings resembling the art work of Australians. So did people related to Australian Aborigines cross the Pacific in prehistoric times? From a point north of New Zealand early sailors could have caught the South Pacific gyre to help them reach South America...but even getting as far as New Zealand would have been a difficult undertaking.
Yet no journey seems too difficult for the early Pacific islanders.Micronesians and Melanesians spread throughout the Southwest Pacific. The Polynesians went much further, settling Samoa and Tonga by 3,000 BP, and ultimately reaching Hawaii (by 2,300 BP) and New Zealand and even Easter Island (Rapa Nui) some 1,289 miles from the nearest land, Pitcairn's Island, and only 2,180 miles from Chile. Did the Polynesians cross some five thousand miles of the Pacific and then stop there? Prehistoric chicken bones of Southeast Asian origin have been found in South America, and South American sweet potatoes were all over Polynesia. The Pacific Northwest Indians made sixty foot canoes of Douglas fir and had some cultural resemblances to the Polynesians; perhaps Thor Heyerdahl was partly correct and voyages were made in both directions.
The Polynesians made dugout canoes, and also enlarged them with strakes above the gunwales, and later made boats entirely of planks stitched together with rope and then caulked. They made outriggers for stability, masts, and triangular sails of pandanus matting, which would have allowed them to sail fairly closely into the wind. And they made catamarans 40-60 feet long. Their highly skilled navigators, who belonged to guilds, had to memorize vast amounts of information about the stars, wave directions, weather, and the flights of sea birds, enabling them to find tiny atolls in the vast and seemingly trackless ocean. Hitting a continent would be child's play.
And wherever the Amerindians came from, once in the Americas many of them continued to be sailors. The Carib Indians were all over the Caribbean before 1400, and the Arawaks were there much earlier, and were part of a language group stretching from the islands to as far south as Bolivia. There is at least one stone age site on the island of Trinidad, the Bannori Trace, which dates to 7,000 BP.
It is easy to see how our ancestors might have become such accomplished navigators, even if we can only speculate. The seacoasts, especially near river mouths, are obviously prime habitat, with milder climates as a rule than is the case inland, and abundant food resources, and plenty of salt to trade. People fishing in the surf might soon learn to float and paddle about by hand on logs; eventually they could have developed paddles and oars shaped like a human hand and arm. They would have learned to flatten the tops of their logs for better seating, and then to streamline them more and to hollow them out, so that they evolved into dugout canoes. They could not help but notice the effects of wind upon them, and eventually to use mats for sails, and then to develop masts. A dugout canoe, remember, may seem primitive to us, but it is inherently stronger and more leak resistant than any boat made of planks.
And now, if our current civilization does not collapse or degenerate into global fascism, we may be poised to leave this island planet and sail out upon the greatest sea of all...outer space. And, speculating further, perhaps we should ask ourselves, as evidence of prehistoric civilizations continues to mount, if people from right here, related to our own ancestors, might not have already done so, thousands of years ago. And perhaps one day they will return to visit us, their distant relatives. Or perhaps they already have.
William B Stoecker