American advances

'Various claims have been made over the decades for knowledge of the Americas long before 1492, the year in which Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue'.'

Over the last few years there has been a small but growing body of evidence to show that humans arrived in the Americas some 7,000 years before the accepted date of c.13,000 BC for the emergence of the Clovis culture. Most of the evidence for an earlier date is contestable: stones that might be tools or might have been shaped by natural processes, or fires with food remains that could be interpreted as hearths but that might also be the remains of a lightning strike or bush fire.

The latest evidence is vividly human, however. A team from the US Geological Survey has found numerous footprints formed in soft mud on the margins of a shallow lake at Alkali Flat in White Sands, New Mexico. Writing in the journal Science, the team reports that the layer in which the footprints were found was sandwiched between seed-bearing sediments. Radiocarbon dates for the seeds place the footprints at 23,000 to 21,000 years old.

above The footprints found in White Sands National Park have been dated to 23,000-21,000 years ago, providing evidence that humans were present in the Americas by this time.
The footprints found in White Sands National Park have been dated to 23,000-21,000 years ago, providing evidence that humans were present in the Americas by this time. IMAGE: Bournemouth University/ National Parks Service.

It is highly likely that there were many migrations into the Americas in prehistory, but none of these older settlement episodes seems to have been long-lasting, as they have left no record in the genome of today’s indigenous Americans. It is likely that the numbers involved were too small to form sustainable communities.

First literary reference to America

Various claims have also been made over the decades for knowledge of the Americas long before 1492, the year in which Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’. The latest discovery comes in a new study by Paolo Chiesa, of the Department of Literary Studies at the University of Milan, who has found a reference in the writings of the Milanese monk Galvaneus Flamma (d. c.1345) to a terra que dicitur Marckalada (‘a land called Marckalada’). In the third book of his Cronica universalis (Universal Chronicle), in which Flamma describes exotic lands in Africa, Asia, and the Arctic, he says that Marckalada lies west of Greenland.

The name is an echo of Markland, the name given to the Atlantic coast of North America in the early 13th-century Vinland Sagas. Flamma’s use of the name is the earliest evidence so far that the existence of the American continent was known in the Mediterranean region, and that knowledge of the sagas had extended beyond the Nordic lands.

Flamma’s text is an interesting mix of myth, gossip, and fact. The relevant passage reports that ‘sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway say that northwards, beyond Norway, there is Iceland. Further ahead there is an island named Grolandia [Greenland], where the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. In this land, there is neither wheat nor wine nor fruit; people live on milk, meat, and fish… there live huge white bears, which swim in the sea and bring shipwrecked sailors to the shore… further westwards there is another land, named Marckalada, where giants live; in this land, there are buildings with such huge slabs of stone that nobody could build with them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals, and a great quantity of birds. However, no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.’ Dating the Vinland Map

The attempted settlement of America described in the two short Vinland Sagas is not, of course, in dispute. One of the settlements they describe has been archaeologically attested at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, confirming that explorers from Iceland reached the Canadian coast in the 11th century. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that short-lived settlement consisted of three small dwellings, a forge, and a woodworking workshop. According to the Sagas, the community succumbed to infighting and chose to return to Iceland.

A reconstruction of a dwelling at the Canadian site of L’Anse aux Meadows, which is now known to date from AD 1021. IMAGE: TravelingOtter.

The authenticity of the Vinland Map is a different matter, however. The map attracted much publicity when it was acquired by Yale University in 1965 because it included part of the coast of North America. Experts dated it to the 1440s on the basis of the handwriting style and the age of the parchment on which it was drawn. If genuine, this was evidence that Scandinavians, not Christopher Columbus, were the first Europeans to ‘discover’ the New World.

Many have since questioned the map’s dating and authenticity, and small samples of ink had been tested, but with inconclusive results. Now, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the ink has been examined across the entire map using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. This technique has detected titanium, which only became a component of ink in the 1920s.

Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the map, has issued a statement on behalf of Yale to say that there is no longer any doubt that the map is a forgery. ‘This new analysis should put the matter to rest,’ he said.

The map first came to attention in 1957, when it was offered to the British Museum on behalf of Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry, a dealer based in Spain. The British Museum turned the sale down, but Paul Mellon later bought the map and donated it to Yale. The lack of provenance was attributed to the fact that post-war Europe was ‘awash with manuscripts sold off by desperate priests to cover debts and rebuild their churches.’

Commenting on the map’s original reception, Smithsonian Magazine points out that it emerged at a time when Viking nostalgia was especially strong among Scandinavian and Protestant migrants living in the United States, who promoted the idea of a Viking America as a counterpart to the Catholic Spanish Columbus version of America’s colonisation. Some 30 years earlier, in 1898, Swedish migrant Olof Öhman ‘discovered’ a carved runestone in Minnesota (now also known to be a fake), which was claimed as proof that Vikings had travelled inland and built communities in the same area where 19th-century Swedish and Norwegian immigrants were then settling down.

left The Kensington Runestone, ‘discovered’ by Olof Öhman in 1898, was originally interpreted as evidence that Vikings had settled in central Minnesota. It is now recognised as a forgery.
The Kensington Runestone, ‘discovered’ by Olof Öhman in 1898, was originally interpreted as evidence that Vikings had settled in central Minnesota. It is now recognised as a forgery. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons, Mauricio Valle.

The downfall of Columbus

Meanwhile, activists in Mexico City are claiming that the arrival of Columbus in America opened the door to European oppression and colonialism. The Mexican capital’s former Columbus monument was removed last year after indigenous rights protestors threatened to tear it down. Now Mexico City’s governor has confirmed that the place of Columbus will be taken by a replica of a pre-Columbian statue known as the Young Woman of Amajac. The announcement was made on 12 October 2021, the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, widely celebrated as Columbus Day in the USA.

The original Young Woman of Amajac was discovered as recently as January 2021 by farmers ploughing the ground in a citrus orchard in the town of Hidalgo Amajac, in Álamo Municipality, Veracruz. It is now on display in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology and, on stylistic grounds, it has been dated to the Postclassic Period, from 1450 to 1521. Carved in limestone, it depicts a leading female member of the Huastec people: she is elaborately bejewelled, and wears a blouse and ankle-length skirt. Her hollow eyes probably held coloured stones.

Earliest tobacco use

At least Columbus cannot be blamed for the introduction of tobacco, whose use was already well established among some indigenous communities in America long before he and other Europeans arrived. The earliest documented use of tobacco until now comes from pipes excavated in the Alabama region dating from 3,300 years ago. That timescale has now been extended back more than 9,000 years by the discovery of four charred tobacco seeds in a hearth dating from 12,300 years ago.

According to the report in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the hearth forms part of a hunter-forager camp at Wishbone, in Utah, not far from Salt Lake City. The seeds were found among stone and bone artefacts, including so-called Haskett-style spear tips made from obsidian. At other sites, such seeds have been interpreted as the result of chewing wild tobacco. Since tobacco would not have grown in what was then a marshy habitat, the seeds must have been purposefully gathered from at least eight miles away.

Tobacco was introduced to Europe in 1556, and the first commercial crop was cultivated in Virginia in 1612 by the English colonist John Rolfe. Within seven years, it was Virginia’s largest export. Some 500 years later, its sale is set to be banned in many parts of the world.