I was taught in school that Christopher Columbus was the first person to “discover” America. I never gave that a thought until recent years after learning about the Viking settlement that archeologists discovered in Newfoundland, Canada. My wife and I are presently touring the province of Newfoundland and Labrador; a wonderful province filled with natural beauty, fine sea food, and wonderful, friendly people. We recently visited L’Anse aux Meadows where excavations of a Norse settlement occurred. This got me thinking. Who really discovered the Americas? Was it Columbus? Was it the Norse? Was it the Irish? Was it the Chinese? Or was it someone else? Truth is, no one can really answer that question with certainty. Of course, we must not forget that there were indigenous people here long before North America was “discovered”. Scientists know that First Nations people have lived in North America for at least 12,000 years because they have found bones and artifacts that go back that far.
L’Anse aux Meadows, whom the Norse explorers and traders called Vinland, is really a fascinating place. It is located on the northern tip of the Great Northern Peninsula in the province of Newfoundland in Canada. ThoughtCo is a website about learning which says in 1961, archaeologists Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine discovered an irrefutably Viking settlement. Eleventh-century Norse artifacts recovered from l’Anse aux Meadows numbered in the hundreds and included a soapstone spindle whorl and a bronze-ringed pin process, as well as other iron, bronze, stone, and bone items. Carbon dating placed the occupation at the site between 990-1030 C.E.
The site consisted of three building complexes and a bloomer, a building where they made iron products such as nails used to repair their ships, but there were no barns or stables that would be associated with farming. It is inferred that the elites, such as Leif Eriksson, resided in one end of the large hall, ordinary sailors slept in sleeping areas within the halls and servants, likely slaves, resided in the huts. L’Anse aux Meadows housed between 80 to 100 individuals, possibly up to three ship crews.
Leif Eriksson is generally credited as the first European to set foot on the shores of North America, nearly five centuries before Christopher Columbus would arrive in 1492. Most scholars agree that Eriksson was most likely a member of an early Viking voyage to North America, if not, in fact, the leader of that first expedition. Our interpreter told us that it was the Norseman who established the settlement, and not the Vikings as Vikings travelled about raiding and pillaging. Norsemen refers to explorers and traders.
So why were we taught that Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot in North America. According to LiveScience, Columbus didn’t even set foot in America since he actually landed in the Bahamas, an island later named Hispaniola. Today that island is split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On his subsequent voyages, he went farther south, to Central and South America. He never set foot in North America in what is now Canada, the United States and Mexico.
So why does the United States celebrate Columbus day? I was surprised to learn that this is because the 13 colonies (the beginnings of the United States) rebelled against and fought with England. It was John Cabot who “discovered” Newfoundland in England’s name around 1497 and paved the way for England’s colonization of most of North America. This is why the American colonialists turned to Columbus as their hero, not England’s Cabot. This is also why the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C. which stands for District of Columbia and not District of Cabot.
What about China being the first to “discover” the Americas? An amateur historian and author Gavin Menzies in his controversial book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World” (William Morrow, 2002), claimed that a Chinese fleet helmed by Admiral Zheng had sailed to the Americas in 1421 and left behind ample archaeological and genetic evidence of their journey. Menzies’ claims were roundly criticized by respected researchers and historians (see LiveScience). Now this begs the question: Did the Chinese discover America before the Norse? Just how credible is this hypothesis?
The article, Did China discover AMERICA? claims researchers have discovered ancient scripts that suggest Chinese explorers may have discovered America long before Europeans arrived there. They have found pictograms etched into the rocks around the United States that appear to belong of an ancient Chinese script. These pictograms could have been inscribed there alongside the carvings of Native Americans by Chinese explorers thousands of years ago. This means ancient Chinese people were possibly exploring and interacting with the Native peoples over 2,500 years ago. John Ruskamp, a retired chemist and amateur epigraph researcher from Illinois, discovered the unusual markings while walking in the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Our interpreter at L’Anse aux Meadows mentioned that St. Brenden, an Irish monk, was another European who potentially “discovered” North America. According to Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, a case can be made for transatlantic voyages made by medieval Irish monks. During the fifth and sixth centuries CE, Irish monks ventured out into the North Atlantic in pursuit of some kind of divine mission. According to legend, Brendan was in his seventies when he and 17 other monks set out on a westward voyage in a curragh, a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The monks sailed about the North Atlantic for seven years, according to details set down in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis in the tenth century.
But would a trans-Atlantic voyage have even been possible in the sixth century? According to the History Channel’s story, Did an Irish Monk “Discover” America? a modern-day adventurer, Tim Severin, attempted to answer the question. In 1976, based on the description of the curragh in the text, he crafted an identical vessel and began his voyage where St. Brendan had been entranced in prayer prior to his voyage (now named Mount Brandon in the saint’s honour). He followed the prevailing winds across the northernmost part of the Atlantic Ocean, and crossed it using landing points such as the Aran Islands, the Hebrides, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland as stepping stones before arriving in Newfoundland, proving that is was a possibility. As of yet, there is no reliable evidence to indicate that Brendan ever reached Greenland or America.
I love learning about history, but keep in mind that history is merely a person or person’s interpretation of the past. Do we really know who was first to “discover” North America? No, we don’t. We can, however, confidently say that the First Nations people have lived in North America for 12,000 years or longer. Perhaps we should be celebrating and emphasizing that fact along with our colonial roots. Canada is 150 years old as a nation this year but she has been a nation for much longer than that because of our indigenous peoples who were our nation long before the Chinese or Irish or Norse ever arrived.