Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Rest of the World

columbus-map

Columbus Map, drawn ca. 1490 in the Lisbon workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus. (Photo: Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons)

How We Discovered That Christopher Columbus Didn’t Get to America First

• October 14, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Columbus Map, drawn ca. 1490 in the Lisbon workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus. (Photo: Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

L'Anse aux Meadows. (PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

L’Anse aux Meadows. (PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

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.

Daniel Luzer

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.