“There’s an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but its good” – Stephen Colbert
These days we feel compelled to emphasize two generally accepted facts: (1) Columbus was not the first non-Native American to set foot in the Americas, and (2) Columbus was a jerk. Hard not to think the two are related. Of course, by modern standards, 15th – 16th Century A.D. European explorers were all fairly unpleasant people, what with their lack of bathing, enthusiastic support of slavery, genocidal tendencies, missionary fervor, and superiority complexes. Come to think of it, there were stunningly few folks of any ilk during the Western Age of Exploration that you would invite to a party or introduce to your sister. The likelihood that they would plant their flag in either case would inevitably give most of us pause. When I was in grade school, back before the flood and written records, we had it drilled into our heads that “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. For many years, an anti-Columbus stance was regarded as the product of bad historiography or pseudoarcheology, but now everyone (who isn’t a Grand Marshall of a Columbus Day Parade) more or less shrugs and gets behind one of the many other theories about pre-Columbus trans-oceanic contact with indigenous people in the Americas. We’re all pretty clear that there were Vikings in Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows somewhere around 1000 A.D. There’s a little bit of evidence of some Polynesian contact with the people of South America in the 1300’s. And then there is the rumor that Chinese monks were wandering down the Pacific coast hobnobbing with Olmecs. Then you can pretty much line up the conspiracy theorists and include ancient Egyptians, Muslims, Medieval Scotsmen, Welshmen, and Irish, Phoenicians, Africa’s Mali Empire, Romans, and the lost tribes of Israel. Basically, it comes down to the fact that anybody with seafaring chops, decent navigational skills, adequate financing, a watertight vessel, skepticism about the world being flat, and a serious death wish could have put in an appearance in the Americas prior to Columbus. What’s particularly curious is that the possibility that there was a big, honking landmass (that wasn’t Asia) somewhere between Europe and China may likely have been common knowledge as early as the 8th Century A.D., so common that a savvy scribe in Syria offhandedly jotted down a few notes to that effect in 708 A.D.
In 708 A.D, Jacob of Edessa, the famous Syrian ecclesiastic, encyclopedist, and writer, wrote his work entitled Hexameron. Attention has been called to its importance by the Abbe Martin in two papers published in the Journal Asiatique (1888). One point is of especial interest. He remarks: “I have already said that this learned Syrian had some idea of the existence of a vast continent between Spain and Tingitana, on one side, and China. This appears from his remark concerning on unknown land situated to the East of China, but he speaks of it still more clearly in treating another subject, that of the dimensions of the earth. Jacob says: “The length (of the earth) is measured beginning at the Western Ocean; at the gulf placed outside Gadira (Gades?), an island placed in the fifth degree of longitude, at the Western extremity of the inhabited earth. It is said (literally written) that in front of Spain and the columns of Herakles, between them and the country of the Chinese, which is to the East of India, there is an unknown and uninhabited land.” It is evident, then, that rumors of the existence of America had reached the Syrians, before the time of Jacob of Edessa. Whence could these rumors have come? Possibly from China. It is well known that the Syrian missionaries, especially those belonging to the Nestorian sect, spread over the Far-East and had numerous settlements in India and in China, along the seacoast. This had been an accomplished fact for over two centuries before Jacob of Edessa; and, even at the present day, memorials of their present are found in China. Communications between the Far-East and Syria were therefore likely to be not infrequent; and these countries seem to have been better known at that time, than they were later, to Arabian travelers and geographers. These facts suggest the interesting enquiries, whether the rumor of an unknown continent reached Syria from China; whether at this early time, the Chinese were acquainted with the coast of Alaska; and whether their knowledge of America went any further (Frothingham, 1888, p456).
Us humans get around. It’s one of our few endearing qualities. There’s always that guy with the wanderlust who has a hankering to see what’s over the next hill. Sometimes you get eaten by a sabretooth tiger, and sometimes you come back with a fantastic tale to tell. When we get around to documenting our own history as a species, we have a puzzling tendency to assume that our ancestors either had some sort of secret knowledge that we are only now beginning to rediscover (or that a carefully crafted cabal has instrumentally hidden from us), or that our forefathers were clueless morons. While it may be true that if someone thinks they can get a leg up or make a buck by withholding information they will give it a whirl. And it’s equally true that we have never truly plumbed the depths of human ignorance, but by and large we just meander along inventing cool stuff, picking up interesting details about the universe, and sharing wacky theories with the class. Historians find it staggeringly important to precisely know who did what when, and to whom, and where they got their tips. Otherwise, how do we know who to name the holidays after? In just the few thousand years we’ve been writing things down, humanity has discovered and lost and rediscovered countless parcels of useful information. Heck, it took us at least a millennium to start using concrete again after the Roman Empire fell. The truth is it doesn’t matter who discovered what. No doubt, someone discovered it before them. And then lost it. And then another bright bulb found it again. It is the hubris of every age to imagine we see a little clearer, or a little farther, or deeper into life’s mysteries, sweeping away the superstitions and mistakes of the past. Let’s not get overly depressed about the possibility that history is actually just a never-ending cycle of loss and forgetting, doing the same things over and over again, declaring ourselves “first” and smugly patting ourselves on the back as we write down our version of events, when in fact we are trying to guess the original color of a wall that’s been repainted a dozen times. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes and sometimes we don’t, for as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. Still, Columbus was a jerk.
Frothingham, A.L. “The Existence of America Known Early in the Christian Era”. Archaeological Institute of America, et al. American Journal of Archaeology v4. Boston, MA: Archaeological Institute of America, 1888.