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They Discovered America

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Statue of Leifr Eiriksson, discoverer of America, at Poulsbo, Washington.

Many people have discovered America. Only one can claim to be the real discoverer, because all the others discovered a land already occupied by people. Sadly, the original discoverer's name is lost in the mists of time, so it's now left to the reader to decide which of the following to believe.

The First Native Americans

Some time in about 10,000 BC, a group of people made the difficult journey across the ice from Siberia to Alaska. They discovered a land which was just as good as Siberia but without any people. Gradually more people followed. Over the years, they advanced down the west coast of the Americas, and spread out eastwards, eventually occupying the whole of North and South America. These people changed over time, becoming the Native Americans. In some places, mainly in the tropical regions, they developed sophisticated civilisations, such as the Maya, Nazca and Inca.

The Egyptian Pyramid Builders

According to Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian sailor and anthropologist, a group of Egyptian pyramid builders crossed the Atlantic on a papyrus boat and landed in Central America, teaching the locals how to build pyramids. To prove that it was at least possible, Heyerdahl had a boat constructed from papyrus which he called the Ra. He attempted to cross the Atlantic in this and almost succeeded. Later, in 1970, he successfully conquered the ocean, making it the whole way across in his second papyrus boat, the Ra II. The Ra II is on display in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Bygdø, Oslo, Norway.

The original journey of the pyramid builders must have happened before about 2000 BC, as the art of pyramid building died out in Egypt at that time. Strangely, the people of Central America waited for about two and-a-half thousand years before they tried to build any pyramids. At this stage, they had of course forgotten the exact details, and American pyramids are totally different from Egyptian ones as a result.

The Lost Tribe of Israel

According to Joseph Smith Jr, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group of Israelites made the difficult journey from the Eastern Mediterranean to America. There they wrote down an extra book of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and engraved it on gold plates. According to the Testimony of Eight Witnesses, Smith showed these plates to some people:

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.

Convincing stuff, indeed!

The Carthaginians

In classical times, Carthage was a major city on the north coast of Africa. The people of Carthage (the Carthaginians) had originally come from Phoenicia in the Eastern Mediterranean. They were great sailors and inherited their seamanship from their Phoenician ancestors. As well as sailing throughout the Mediterranean, it is known that they went through the Straits of Gibraltar and explored the Atlantic coasts of Spain and North Africa. The Greek historian Herodotus records that they eventually sailed the whole way around Africa.

Another Greek historian, Diodorus, reported in 100 BC that the Carthaginians knew of a large island far out in the Atlantic which had many mountains and large navigable rivers. This island was a great source of wealth to them but they kept its location secret. They had discovered it by accident when a ship sailing down the coast of Africa was blown off course by a storm.

In recent times, a historian by the name of Mark McMenamin claims to have discovered a map of the world on coins made in Carthage in the period 350 - 320 BC. At the bottom of the coin are some unexplained blobs, which McMenamin says show the Mediterranean, with Africa below, Asia to the right and Europe on top. Great Britain and Ireland can be seen to the north of Europe. To the left is another continent, which could only be America. In typical American fashion, it appears to be displaying an extended middle finger to the 'Old World'.

St Brendan the Navigator

The ancient annals of Ireland include a detailed account of St Brendan the Navigator, who in the 6th Century sailed across the sea to a new world with a group of acolytes. He used a currach, which is a type of boat still used in the west of Ireland. It consists of a frame of wood covered in animal skin and then tarred.

Tim Severin, author and explorer, was inspired by the story and by the feats of Heyerdahl. He built a replica, called it the 'Brendan' and in 1976 he sailed across the Atlantic in it with a crew of five, proving that it could be done. Severin's boat is on display in the Craggaunowen Project, Quin, County Clare, Ireland.

Eirík the Red

Around the 10th Century AD, the Norwegian Vikings sailed the whole of the North Atlantic. As their boats were equipped with keels, they were much more stable than any of their predecessors. There is no doubt that the Vikings were great navigators. They established colonies in Scotland, Ireland, the Faroe islands and Iceland.

In 982 AD, a Viking by the name of Eirík the Red discovered Greenland, which is geologically part of the continent of North America. Although Greenland is mainly covered in ice, there is habitable land around the edges. Eirík invented the name Grænland to make the country sound inviting and to encourage people to live there. In the 10th century the climate was milder than it is today and a colony of Vikings survived in Greenland for about four hundred years.

Leif Eiríksson

The Vínland Saga tells how Eirík's son, Leif (or Leifr), sailed south from Greenland and discovered a temperate land. Because the berry known as vínber grew there in abundance, he called it Vínland. We don't know where Vínland was, or what berries he was talking about when he said 'vínber'. It is often translated as 'grapes', making the name mean 'Wineland', but there are no grapes growing anywhere close to Greenland. Some people say that he must have sailed all the way to Virginia where there are wild grapes growing, but it seems unlikely that he would have missed all of the coast in between. Vínber might refer to cranberries or some other sort of berry.

Leif recorded meeting (and slaughtering) natives, but he also said that the natives were white-skinned. Perhaps these were the descendants of the Irish Saint and his followers.

In recent times, many Viking artefacts were discovered on mainland America, but most, if not all, of these were subsequently proved to be hoaxes.

Junk Theory - The Chinese

In 1421, Chinese Emperor Zhu Di reckoned he had finally settled the defence of his empire. The Great Wall had just been completed and it was considered the perfect defence against the Mongolian Hordes. In celebration, he ordered a huge fleet of junks to set off on a voyage of exploration, to bring back treasure for their emperor.

According to historian Gavin Menzies, they explored the whole world, arriving at Brazil by way of the Indian Ocean, rounding the southern tip of Africa and crossing the Atlantic (while this may sound like the long way around, it is about the same distance as the uninterrupted trip across the Pacific Ocean and far easier to manage, as the ships can call into ports along the way).

Menzies claims that carved stones in Asian languages around the world date from this time and that various hitherto unexplained phenomena, such as a Chinese junk in the back yard of a man in Sacramento, California, are neatly explained by the fact that the Chinese were everywhere.

Like all theories that claim to explain everything, this one is not widely believed, but historians are being challenged to find alternative explanations for these phenomena.

Amerigo Vespucci

Vespucci was a merchant from Florence. In 1505, he published a letter claiming that he had led four expeditions to the Americas. On the first of these, in 1497, he had visited South America, making him the first person to explore that continent. There is no evidence other than this letter that he led such an expedition. It is more likely that he accompanied Spanish and Portuguese trips.

Such a ludicrous claim should have been long forgotten. But a German map maker called Martin Waldseemüller, from the town of St Dié in the Vosges Mountains (now in France), believed Vespucci's claim. He decided that the continent should be named in honour of its discoverer, so he made up the name 'America', by converting 'Amerigo' into Latin, the language of scholars, and then making it feminine to match the other continents (Europa, Asia and Africa). The name America first appeared on Waldseemüller's map of the world, referring only to what is now South America. Gradually, the name caught on and eventually became applied to North America as well.

Christopher Columbus

It was known since the time of the Ancient Greeks that the world was round. One Greek, Eratosthenes, had even calculated the size of the planet by careful observation of the sun and a bit of elementary mathematics. By the time of Christopher Columbus, not everybody remembered the size of the Earth and Columbus seriously believed that he could get to Japan and China in a few weeks by sailing west from Spain. He didn't know about America and the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean in the way.

In 1492, Columbus set sail and went down in history as discovering America. He landed in the Caribbean and saw various islands before returning to Europe, but never even saw the mainland of either North or South America. He never knew what it was that he had discovered, being convinced that he was in Asia and that Cuba was in fact part of the Asian mainland. Columbus takes the credit for naming the islands 'The Indies' and the inhabitants 'Indians' because he thought he was in south-east Asia. Nowadays, the islands are called the West Indies to distinguish them from the East Indies.

Giovanni Caboto / John Cabot

The Italian sailor Giovanni Caboto worked for the English. He was normally known by the Anglicisation of his name, John Cabot. He has the distinction of being the last person to discover America. He set sail from Bristol in 1497, five years after Columbus, also believing that he could sail all the way to Japan. He discovered Newfoundland, giving it its present name. In subsequent voyages, he went on to explore the coast of the North America from Labrador down as far as Maryland. This means that he was the first modern European to discover the mainland, a dubious privilege which allowed England to lay claim to the entire continent.


So don't be put off, all you fledgling explorers! Just because something has been already discovered, that doesn't mean it can't be discovered again. Perhaps for starters, you could try discovering something simple, such as the Isle of Wight, before attempting a bigger prize, such as Pennsylvania.

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