The Discovery of America

In history classes all around the world we learn how Christopher Columbus gained the blessing of Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and eventually went on a quest to find a way to India over the ocean westward. In 1492 he set out with three ships, the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta, and sighted what he believed to be the Indian coast in early October.

    The Vinland map, uncovered in the 1960's is claimed to prove the Vikings were in America 1000 years ago.    

We all know that story, and future generations will probably also learn that story in school even though it seems he was not the first guy to set his foot on American soil. People will continue to be amazed by this guy's courage, and Hollywood will continue to make films about the fantastic journey across the Atlantic.

Some things simply seem to stick in people's minds and stay "true" for generations no matter what other facts are available or if new facts are discovered. Just like people believe the computer was invented in the 1950's, while it was in many important ways a copy of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine from the 1830's. Some things stick, other things don't.

A new map, recently discovered in Shanghai, PRC, suggests the Chinese could have discovered and mapped the Americas decades or perhaps centuries before Columbus is news in 2006. It is exciting to think of the Chinese having crossed the Pacific or rounded Cape Horn to investigate and map out the Americas a century before Columbus or even before that. And it is fascinating that such achievements were not discovered until now.

However interesting, neither Columbus nor the Chinese were the first ones to discover the Americas. It is a well-known and documented fact that North America was discovered by the Vikings already in the 9th century. The Vikings were great sailors and their vessels, the "long boats," were superb for exploration and trade. Setting out from Scandinavia they investigated both rivers and oceans, frequently trading with people in the Mediterranean and Middle East as well as with Russians, the French and the Irish.

To the east, the Vikings went as far as Iran and Kazakhstan. To the west, Iceland was discovered in the year 860 and Erik “the Red" discovered Greenland in 982. Mainland North America was discovered by mistake by the not so impressed merchant-ship owner Bjarni Herjolfsson in 986, who immediately went back north to trade according to plan with the people in Greenland. He probably never even bothered to get ashore.

Erik the Red's son Leif Eriksson ten years later led an expedition to discover trading opportunities in North America and probably went as far south as Nova Scotia. After returning to the Viking settlements on Greenland a great many ships crews set out to further explore Leif's findings.

Considering the theories of Norwegian marine biologist Thor Heyerdahl, the Vikings may very well not be the first to discover the American continent. According to Heyerdahl, there is reason to believe the Ancient Egyptians could have communicated with the Americas already some four thousand years ago. (To verify his theory could be true, he set sail from Morocco on a small papyrus boat to sail across the Atlantic ocean in 1970. He actually made it all the way to Barbados – 4000 miles in only 57 days.)

So from a European perspective, the Americas should have been a well-known fact for a thousand years, if not more. Even though being at least five centuries too late, I am sure our grandchildren will also learn about the great explorer Columbus setting out for that great journey to discover America. Some great stories are worth telling, even though they may be just that: great stories.

January 18, 2006