How We Discovered That Christopher Columbus Didn't Get to America First
And why it doesn't really matter if he was 500 years too late.
Today is the country’s official celebration of the 521st anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing at 2 o’clock in the morning on October 12th somewhere in the Bahamas. President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially declared this day a federal holiday 75 years ago, in 1937, though people began celebrating Columbus' voyage before the American Revolution. Since 1970, the holiday has occurred on the second Monday in October.
As Roosevelt said on this day in 1940: “Columbus and his fellow voyagers were the harbingers of later mighty movements of people from Spain, from Columbus' native Italy and from every country in Europe. And out of the fusion of all these national strains was created … America.” And as the patriotic song “Hail Columbia” puts it: “Hail Columbia, happy land!/Hail, ye heroes, heav'n-born band,/Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,/Who fought and bled in freedom's cause.”
The Viking theory is not necessarily the most compelling. Stories of New World visits come from places as diverse as Polynesia, Japan, Egypt, Scotland, Denmark, Portugal, Arabia, Mali, China, and Ancient Rome.
But Columbus’ reputation didn’t fare so well over the course of his own life. He died at the age of 55 in 1509 in the midst of a dispute with the Spanish Crown over his share of profits from the New World. In the words of the American poet Ogden Nash: “Columbus said, somebody show me the sunset and … he set sail for it/And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it/And the fetters gave him welts/And they named America after someone else.” But by the 20th century, with the Italian-American community eager for an official celebration of one of its own in the United States, most of that was forgotten.
So we commemorated the day in the middle of October, more or less happily, as the official discovery of the Western Hemisphere. Despite atrocities committed by the Spanish in the Americas, not to mention, well, everyone else of European descent, it was, after all, the first time any European had reached the New World. And then things got complicated.
By the 500th anniversary celebration, in 1992, when I was in middle school, teachers were adding supplementary—or corrective—lectures to outdated textbooks. When I was first officially introduced to the New World discovery, in 5th grade, the teacher explained that, well, no, this Columbus story was actually all wrong. An archeological discovery and extensive scholarship had by then confirmed that Columbus was not the first person from Europe to reach the New World. Not at all. The Vikings had reached Canada 500 years prior to his arrival.
While rumors of an early Scandinavian landing had been a longstanding, if obscure, Norse tale, research had confirmed it by the 1960s. In “Vinland Ruins Prove Vikings Found the New World,” published in the November 1964 issue of National Geographic, Helge Ingstad, an archeologist, wrote of his discovery of ancient Norse settlements in Canada:
Just as this article goes to press, a soapstone spindle whorl has been dug up at LAnse au Meadow, Newfoundland, indicating Viking settlers there included women.
Unquestionably Norse, the small weight acted as a flywheel, spinning a wooden shaft to twist raw wool into yarn. The implement, of a type common at Norse sites in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway, was fashioned from a fragment of a charred cooking pot.
This spindle whorl thus becomes the earliest-known European household artifact yet found in North America, It was unearthed at the L’Anse au Meadow site during the cleanup work.
L’Anse aux Meadows is a remote site in Newfoundland. The Vikings occupied the area for less than a decade and were likely expelled by hostile natives, who they called "skrælings." Research seems to indicate Norse explorers and settlers didn’t really much impact indigenous technologies or culture.
Ingstad on what he found at the island:
The smithy where I stood betrayed itself by a queer hollow in a sandbank close to the brook. Careful digging yielded fragments of worked iron and of the natural, local bog iron. Several hundred pieces of slag looked like the refuse from iron smelting.
This was important evidence in favor of the site being Norse, for neither Eskimos nor Indians in the area knew how to smelt of hot-forge iron. Carbon-14 dating assigned the smithy to Viking days. And it is very unlikely that later Europeans, coming to these shores, would have employed such a primitive smelting technique.
There were artifacts. They were made using European technology. And they were very old.
Eventually Ingstad recovered hundreds of Norse artifacts—a soapstone spindle whorl and a bronze-ringed pin process, as well as other iron, bronze, stone, and bone items—at L'Anse aux Meadows. Carbon dating confirmed that the items were made between 990-1030 C.E.
How did he come upon this? Ingstad, a Norwegian explorer who had spent most of his archeological career studying Northern and Arctic civilizations, listened to the Norse sagas and interpreted what some saw as mythical maps literally.
A decade is a short period of time. Indeed, the occupation may have lasted as little as three years, a shorter period of time than our own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was enough time for even the settlers to start families. The first European child born in the New World was probably not Martín de Argüelles, born in St. Augustine in 1566 to one of the colonists who went to Florida with Captain General Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, but, rather, an Icelandic man named Snorri Thorfinnsson (probably born between 1005 and 1013), the son of Thorfinnur Karlsefni and Gudrídur Eiríksdóttir, in Newfoundland.
The fact that this Vineland news traveled around the world so quickly, before the Internet, is a testament to the power of compelling scholarship.
October 9 was Leif Ericson Day, an unofficial celebration of the day the Norse explorer landed somewhere in Canada, though the actual date is still unknown.
It's not just the Scandinavians that told stories about travels to the New World. Various cultures have legends about landing west of Europe. In fact, Columbus may have heard some of these while growing up, giving him reason to think his prospect of sailing west of Spain might yield impressive results, Cathay not withstanding.
The historical premise behind Madeline L’Engle’s 1978 young adult science fiction novel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet—a book very much geared toward America’s 10-year-olds learning about Columbus—is that early Welsh settlers came to America. One Madoc or Madog ab Owain Gwynedd was supposedly a Welsh prince who sailed to America in 1170. This, rather than mere random genetic mutation, is supposed to explain the occasional presence of blue-eyed Indians.
Mormon theology posited that the Native American population came to the continent not from a land bridge to Asia but, rather, from the 10 lost tribes of Israel, who supposedly came over in boats from Jerusalem in about 600 B.C.E. and split into two warring factions.
Even the Viking theory is not necessarily the most compelling. Stories of New World visits come from places as diverse as Polynesia, Japan, Egypt, Scotland, Denmark, Portugal, Arabia, Mali, China, and Ancient Rome.
Who got to America first? We don’t really know the answer to this question. As Alasdair Wilkins put it at io9 back in 2011:
Between the first wave of human settlement of the Americas all those thousands of years ago and the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, how many other groups reached the Americas? And, for that matter, did any indigenous groups from the Americas ever travel to other continents? To those questions, science offers one easy answer, one shaky but decent possibility, a whole lot of racist claptrap, and even more crazy speculation based on the flimsiest of evidence.
None of the evidence is very good, but that doesn’t mean that early interaction didn’t occur. (The Mormon lost-tribes-of-Israel theory is probably the most implausible. They did archeological research about this in the 20th century and came up empty handed.)
But as Russell Freedom, author of Who Was First? Discovering the Americas, explains: "It's a human instinct to know where you came from and what preceded you. How did they get here? Who were they? The fact that we don't know for sure makes it quite fascinating."
What Columbus Day commemorates is not, any more, the actual discovery of the two continents that are North and South America, but, rather, but the ambiguous “landing.” The holiday the New World celebrates is the transition of the region from a isolated and (relatively) primitive region of hunter-gathers to the modern nation-state. And it really was Columbus who set that process in motion, even if he didn't get here first.