Who really discovered the Americas?

Some thoughts about history

Advertisements

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.

Reconstructed Norse buildings in L’Anse aux Meadows

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.

from monovisions.com

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.

2/3 Wildlife to Disappear by 2020. That’s Disturbing!

A commentary on climate change and endangered species.

A few weeks ago, an article on CBC.ca caused me some distress. The article is called; Two-thirds of wildlife will disappear by 2020, WWF. The news report says that according to the WWF conservation group, “worldwide populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have plunged by almost 60% since 1970.” It then goes on to say, “the decline is yet another sign that people have become the driving force for change on Earth”. Specifically, according to the article, this change is due to “the rising human population…threatening wildlife by clearing land for farms and cities”. It also lists other causes as “pollution, invasive species, hunting and climate change”. Think about that for a second. The year 2020 is only three years from now and according to the WWF 2/3 or 67%; more than half of the worlds wildlife will be extinct. I grew up seeing many of these animals in the wild or in zoos. To think my grandchildren will only be able to see pictures or videos of these animals is upsetting.

I went on to research this topic further. Another CBC report; A third of birds in North America threatened with extinction, states that “the first State of North America’s Birds report finds that of 1,154 bird species that live in and migrate among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, 432 are of ‘high concern’ due to low or declining populations, shrinking ranges and threats such as human-caused habitat loss, invasive predators and climate change”. Still another CBC report, Hundreds of animals, plants locally extinct due to climate change, reveals that a “new study found local extinctions (this is when a species can no longer be found at a location where it once lived) related to global warming have occurred in half of species studied”. But the article that alarmed me the most was CBC’s, Giraffes threatened by extinction, put on watch list. Giraffes! Really! The article blamed shrinking living space as the main cause. It says the giraffe situation is worsened by poaching and disease. There seems to be a common theme here, that is, that we humans are the problem. Another common theme is climate change.

Now I understand that climate change is not the sole cause for the loss of wildlife but I’ve read enough articles to come to the conclusion that it is definitely a big part of the problem. We’ve all heard the stories about polar bears. The chief threat to the polar bear is the loss of its sea ice habitat due to global warming. The National Wildlife Federation’s article; Effects on Wildlife and Habitat,  goes into detail of how climate change is affecting wildlife.

There are still people who have “their head in the sand”. There is still debate about the cause of climate change. Is it due to human activities or is it a natural phenomenon? There is no doubt that climate change is happening as the CBC news article, ‘It’s a little scary’: On Lennox Island, no one debates whether climate change is real, says. If you are at all skeptical watch the documentary Chasing Ice. It’s a 2012 documentary film about the efforts of nature photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey to inform the public to the effects of climate change. My wife and I, on recommendation of my sister, recently watched it on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, I would strongly encourage you to. In case you haven’t, here it is.

According to Wikipedia, a 2013 paper in Environmental Research Letters (a scientific journal) reviewed 11,944 abstracts of scientific papers matching “global warming” or “global climate change”. They found 4,014 which discussed the cause of recent global warming, and of these 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. To me that says that the vast majority of environmental scientists agree that climate change is due to human influence.

global_warming_0It concerns me when the president-elect in the United States tweeted in November of 2012 “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and who promised during his campaign to roll back President Obama’s efforts to combat climate change. According to CNBC, a business news site, “president-elect Donald Trump’s Energy Department transition team sent the agency a memo this week asking for the names of people who have worked on climate change…alarming employees and advisors”. The fear is that Trump is preparing a political enemies list. At least I can proudly say that the Canadian government is working on implementing a national climate change plan (see Manitoba will not sign).

Historically, the European immigrants came to North America with their Eurocentric world view; a view that tended to interpret the world in terms of European values and experiences; a view that saw European values as better than Aboriginal values.  In reality, the aboriginal people had the right values as they had the far superior values. Before European influence, many First Nation communities believed everything was connected. The spirit world was connected to the earthly world; the sea was connected to the land and that the sky was connected to the land. Consequently, humans co-existed with animals and plants, with equal rights to life. In this belief lies commitment to respect all living things. George Blondin, a highly respected Dene Elder who was born in the Northwest Territories, put it this way.

“We are people of the land; we see ourselves as no different than the trees, the caribou, and the raven, except we are more complicated.”

First Nations people were very religious and respectful of the Great Spirit, and other spirits that they believe inhabited the land and animals all around them. These people were taught from a very young age to respect and give thanks to the animals, birds, plants, land and water which gave them everything they needed to stay alive.

Maybe it is time to take a serious look at aboriginal spirituality. These people once had a sacred relationship with Mother Earth and had a reverent respect for the plants and animals.  The reality is if we don’t, we may end up living on a planet with 2/3 less plant and animal species or worse. That would be shameful and a complete lack of respect for our future ancestors. But then again, maybe, just maybe, science can come to the rescue. CBC has a news article called, Reviving extinct species within reach, which quotes Hendrik Poinar, a scientist at McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Centre, who says, “The revival of an extinct species is in reach.” He is referring to a new field of science called ‘de-extinction’.

What to believe?

Napoleon Bonaparte was once reported to have said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”   George Kitson Clark once said, “No historian should be trusted implicitly.”  Norman Pearson is quoted as saying, “To look back upon history is inevitably to distort it.” There was a time whenever I read something in a history book or was taught something in a history class, I believed it to be the “Gospel truth.”  Now being older and wiser I no longer do.  So why would I say that?

imagesI recently read a book titled, Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. What surprised me, was that Mr. King claims that the massacre that allegedly occurred at the Alamo was a fabrication, a story created over the years. But that is not what history says.

I did some internet research and Wikipedia says this about the Alamo massacre: “In the early morning hours of March 6, 1866,  the Mexican Army advanced on the Alamo. After repulsing two attacks, the Texans were unable to fend off a third attack… Between five and seven Texans may have surrendered; if so, they were quickly executed. Most eyewitness accounts reported between 182 and 257 Texans died, while most historians of the Alamo agree that around 600 Mexicans were killed or wounded.”  I checked other websites which say more or less the same thing. So who is right?

Mr. King also says, the story about Pocahontas and John Smith, perpetrated by Disney’s movie Pocahontas  is also a myth, or in other words a fabricated story. He claims that John Smith would have been 24 years old and Pocahontas maybe 10 or 12 years old at best.

Now Disney’s version of the story is one of romance between an American Indian woman named Pocahontas and John Smith, who journeyed together to the New World with other settlers to begin new lives.  Do the children, or even adults for that matter, who have watched this movie believe they have watched a historically accurate depiction of events of the past?  Probably.  My experience as a teacher has been most young people think what they see in movies and on television is truth or is real history. At least Wikipedia sets the record straight about the story of Pocahontas as it says, “In a well-known historical anecdote, she [Pocahontas] is said to have saved the life of an Indian captive, Englishman John Smith, in 1607 by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him. The general consensus of historians is that this story, as told by Smith, is untrue.”  So we know Mr. King is likely right about the Pocahontas story.

In July of 2007 while on a family trip to Eastern Canada,  we visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, NS. At that time there was an exhibition on pirates. It was interesting to learn that commonly held belief that pirates make their enemies walk the plank as well as the belief that  pirates often have parrots on their shoulders are myths. We learned that these are myths. There apparently is no historical evidence to support these commonly held beliefs about pirates. Also, the wide held belief that pirates buried their treasures is also a myth. I guess I was somewhat disappointed to learn about these untruths as I always thought pirates did bury their treasures.

So what else have we been taught that is NOT a historical truth?  According to the article, Facts Prove Everything You Thought You Knew About History… Is Dead Wrong, Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He only discovered the Caribbean Islands.  I don’t know about you, but I was taught in school that Columbus discovered America.  It has been proven that the Vikings were in North America before Columbus as there is an archeological site at the northern tip of Newfoundland where they discovered the remains of the Viking’s houses. In fact, they reconstructed a replica of the settlement about 100 yards away from the site. It has been unquestionably determined that the Vikings were there for about 10 years, specifically, Leif Erikson and his extended family. I guess I can erase that untruth from my memory.

Dictonary.com defines the “Napoleon complex” as the condition of being small in stature but aggressively ambitious and seeking absolute control. It could just as easily be called the “Short Man Syndrome.” In other words, this complex is named after Napoleon Bonaparte because of the widely held belief that Napoleon was short. But according to the 16 facts article I referred to earlier, the truth is Napoleon Bonaparte was not short at all. He was five feet, seven inches. That was slightly taller than average for a Frenchman at the time. Another historical inaccuracy to erase from memory.

The idea that Albert Einstein failed math in school is an urban myth (see 20 things you need to know about Einstein). It turns out that Einstein didn’t fail math in school, it was a false claim published by Ripley’s. The truth be known is that when he was 15, he mastered differential and integral calculus which makes sense since he is widely held as one of the world’s few geniuses.

Then there is the History Channel series called Hunting Hitler that proposes that Hitler faked his own death, escaped through the Berlin underground to an airport, flew to Spain where he was smuggled onto a U-boat and taken to Argentina with a stop at the Canary Islands. He then lived hidden in the Argentina jungles and was eventually seen in Brazil and Columbia. Now I was always taught that Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin in 1945 although this apparently has never been confirmed. Now I must say after watching eight episodes and considering the evidence provided, I am now thinking what I’ve been taught about Hitler is wrong. I am now leaning towards the premise that Hitler did not die in his bunker in 1945.

Louis_RielIn Canada, history has always taught that Louis Riel, a Canadian Métis trailblazer, who led two resistance movements against the Canadian government and its first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald was a traitor. He was a traitor because he led two rebellions known as the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870 and North-West Rebellion of 1885. In July of 1885 Riel was charged with treason. Riel was publicly executed by way of hanging in November of 1885. Since that time, the majority of Canadians have held the belief and been taught in school that Louis Riel was a trouble maker; someone who betrayed Canada which is why he was hung for treason. This is what I was taught in school and I have always believed that he was an insane traitor of Canada.  Ironically, on March 10, 1992, the Parliament of Canada passed a unanimous resolution that named Louis Riel as founder of the Province of Manitoba, because of his role in defending the interests of the Métis people and contributing to the political development of Western Canada.  So what is the truth?  Was he a traitor or was he one of Canada’s founders?  Personally, I now side with Riel as a hero who was willing to stand up to the government of the day for the rights of his people; the Métis people.

So what is a person to believe?  Should we trust what we read in the history books or what we see on the History Channel? I think not.  We must at the very least be skeptical. It is interesting how a person can grow up learning about historical events only to discover later in life that those events are untruths, or at least they have been exaggerated.  Having taught Social Studies for years, I have always taught my students to be skeptical.  History involves interpretation of the events that occurred in the past.  Therefore, interpretations can be slanted, exaggerated, and falsified.   To quote the Roman poet Phaedrus, “Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.” Things are seldom what we’ve been led to believe. I guess now I have become a bit of a skeptic.

A New Beginning!

As a now retired school teacher who taught high school social studies, I have taught about the indigenous (First Nations or aboriginal) people for about 30 years. I have always been drawn to the indigenous people especially to their spirituality and their tremendous respect for Mother Earth before contact with the European explorers. For several years I had the privilege of working with aboriginal people when I taught courses to adults a few weekends during the year. I have always been sympathetic to the plight of the aboriginal people in North America. From the moment the Europeans landed on this continent to the present day, aboriginal people have been exploited and treated unjustly, so when I read about improved relations between our leaders and indigenous people, I cheer.

According to a CBC article, Aboriginal’s top newsmakers of 2015, it was an exceptional year for indigenous people in Canada, a year that included truth and reconciliation, a year when ten indigenous Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected to Canada’s parliament and the year the long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was announced.

In case you are not familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), here is a little history lesson. The Commission’s five-year mandate was to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS).  The TRC hopes to guide and inspire Aboriginal people and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect.  After travelling about the country for six years, the committee collected 6,740 statements from survivors of the Residential Schools and recorded 1,355 hours of testimony.  The Commission completed its task on June 2, 2015.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report makes 94 recommendations for change in policies, programs and the “way we talk to, and about, each other.” These recommendations include the creation of a National Centre and Council for Truth and Reconciliation and the drafting of new and revised legislation for education, child welfare, aboriginal languages, and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.

ch-3-p40-41-old-sun-classroom-p7538-1005If you don’t know much about the legacies of Residential Schools, here is another lesson. (It’s the teacher in me. I just have to teach). After the closing of the schools, which operated from the 1870s to 1996, and held some 150,000 aboriginal children over the decades, many former students made allegations of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, plus accusations of neglect. The sole aim of residential schools was to assimilate First Nations children into the European culture. There were also student deaths at these institutions as well as burials of numerous deceased students in unmarked graves without the notification or consent of the parents. I personally have heard residential school survivors tell their stories and break down weeping when doing so. It is a very painful topic for many of them. This is not a part of our history that I am proud of. I have also taught about the atrocities that have occurred in these schools and witnessed students distraught because of it. Students instinctively know, as all of us do, that the way the indigenous people were treated was unjust.

CBC reports that on December 14,2015, the completed Truth and Reconciliation report was released in an emotional ceremony that had commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair choked with emotion and newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wiping away tears. Kudos to our leaders who recognize the wrongs done to the aboriginal people.

missing-and-murdered-aboriginal-womenThen there is the missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, an issue that First Nations people have been lobbying our government to conduct an inquiry on for at least a decade. The following statistics are from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) fact sheet based on March 2010 statistics. The association gathered information on about 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Of these:

  • 67% are murder cases (death as the result of homicide or negligence);

  • 20% are cases of missing women or girls;

  • 4% are cases of suspicious death—deaths regarded as natural or accidental by police, but considered suspicious by family or community members; and

  • 9% are cases where the nature of the case is unknown—it is unclear whether the woman was murdered, is missing or died in suspicious circumstances.

The number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada is disproportionately high. NWAC’s research indicates that, between 2000 and 2008, Aboriginal women and girls represented approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada. However, Aboriginal women make up only 3% of the female population. What is interesting is the NWAC has found that only 53% of murder cases involving Aboriginal women and girls have led to charges of homicide. This is dramatically different from other homicide cases in Canada, which was last reported as 84% solved cases according to Statistics Canada.

On December 8th, 2015, Canada’s new Liberal government announced that the first phase of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls would begin. This is great news for those grieving families who lost their children. They have a right to know what happened to their loved ones.

liberal-cabinet-20151104The October 2015 federal election saw  54 indigenous candidates enter the race, and a groundbreaking push to have First Nation, Inuit and Métis people head to the polls. When it was over, ten indigenous MPs were elected to Canada’s House of Commons; the most ever. Newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations, “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations people. One that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.”  This is great news for Canada. I cannot say it any better than Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde who said, “It sends a powerful statement about inclusion and it sends a powerful statement about the reconciliation that is going to be required in rebuilding a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.” A new kind of relationship with our First Nations people has been long overdue. Kudos to Canada’s new PM for initiating a new kind of relationship; a relationship that can only make this a better country.

Now I know many people do not feel the same as I do about these events. There has been, and still is, much racism between our people. Having said that, racism stems from ignorance, and so much of that racism is due to misinformation and misunderstanding between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. I am hopeful that the TRC and the National Inquiry will educate and eradicate that ignorance, bringing about a new relationship. They were the first people on this continent and rightfully deserve to be treated with the same respect and privileges as non-aboriginal Canadians. It has been a long time coming! 

Interesting reads: 

Source: The Two-Sentence View of History                                                                  SourceDEAR MEDIA, I AM MORE THAN JUST VIOLENCE