"Discovering America:" A Matter of Point of View

How do you discover something if there's already people there?

An Issue with the Question

The very question of "Did Columbus discover America?" presents a problem that many people seldom recognize: the problem with perspective. I am certain that few out there don't already know the history that ensued after the European's landed in the Americas, and the subsequent demise of many Native American cultures along the way. It is not my purpose to discredit the Europeans for having had the wherewithal technologically to go out and discover lands that were far from their own. History happened. However, the two hemispheres were going to find each other no matter what; it was just a matter of who and when.

The "when" is subject to timelines and point of view. The Vikings (Leif Eriksson) actually got to America before Columbus did, as I wrote in another article answering a request along that vein. However, technically, if we allow for the possibility of the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, then people discovered America from Asia many, many thousands of years before Leif Eriksson ever did - somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 25,000 years before depending on what you read, which seems to push their discovery into prehistory and thus imbuing them with "native" status instead. The land bridge is reasonably well established by archaeology, though some people still disagree. My intention is not to start a debate over the Bering thing. Personally I accept it as fact, but readers may feel free to believe or not as they choose. None of that is precisely what I want to talk about today. The purpose of this article is to point out that the real issue in our modern world is one dealing with people's point of view

The Problem with Verbs

By asking, "Did Columbus discover America?" the questioner establishes an entirely European point of view. By using the verb "discover," the question is grounded in a set of assumptions about America that are interesting when broken out, the most significant to my mind being that America was somehow lost or hidden from humanity. To discover something means that you find something never found before. Which, for the Europeans, was true of the America's when Leif Eriksson showed up, and perhaps when Columbus did too, given that he and Leif hadn't been sharing notes. But that was not true of humanity as a whole.

Here's why: the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs (Mexica) people already knew exactly where America was, and there were many more. There were numerous cultures that "discovered" America every morning when they woke up each day, and they had been doing so for thousands of years. They discovered America long before old Leif or Christopher C. ever floated across the sea.

Now, again, my point is not to argue the essence of land bridge discovery vs by boat. My view on that is that if the people living in the Americas had been doing so for twenty thousand years, I'm invoking their status as "native" for the purpose of this modern discussion and the relevent attitudes. Which gets us to the point of point of view.

Taking a World View

For many descendents of these ancient American peoples, or even just folks with a more open world view, the question of "Did Columbus discover America?" seems an arrogant one, one that completely writes off the accurate history. A better question might be, "Was Columbus the first European to find his way to the Americas?" At least this way the implications are more precise. The answer would still be "No, Eriksson did," but this way the questioner is not ignoring the historical reality from a more global point of view.

Technology bridges sky and sea

Oceans and Mountain Ranges no longer really separate us anyway.
Oceans and Mountain Ranges no longer really separate us anyway.

And that's the point, really. The us-them thing has pretty much played itself out now that the world has gotten as small as it is today. Planes and ships and the Internet have made this planet very, very small. We have to, in the name of accuracy, pull our planetary focus, our cultural view, out a little further if we are going to really understand our common human history. We can't say "we" and mean just a singular country's course, or just those of a dominant few.

Not now. Not since airports and sea ports are shuffling us all together culturally. Yes, we all have our own unique histories, and perhaps even our favorite ancestry too, but the thing is, archeology has already got some pretty good evidence suggesting we share the same ancestry if we take it back far enough in time . This whole European, Asian, African, American thing may just turn out to be us selecting how far back we choose to look, drawing arbitrary lines around ourselves in the sands of time.

Again, how do you discover something if people are already there?
Again, how do you discover something if people are already there?

A Matter of Respect

So my point is simple really, and that is to help facilitate camaraderie. I'd like to see folks better get along. A good place to start is to look at what we say and what our words, our verbs, might actually mean if we gave them any thought.

Think about the quesiton of Columbus "disovering" America again in the light of so many different peoples already living in the Western hemisphere when he arrived. If I showed up on your street and planted my flag on your front lawn, and then I told everyone that I had just discovered your house, wouldn't that make you mad? Ok, maybe not at first, not if nobody was listening to me. But what if my claims became what passed as "truth" and what was fed into the history books? Then you might have a few things to say; you might not like it very much.

So that's all I really wanted to point out. It's not about cultural pride or activism or anything approaching politically correct. It's not even really a matter of respect, although it certainly ends up that way. No, mainly it's a simple matter of accuracy. It starts with picking a better verb. And perhaps with a bit of re-education, of "discovering" a more global point of view.

Great Books and Movies from the"Other" Point of View

There is lots of great literature and film out there that view the world from a lens other than a European one, and that still manage not to make anyone too mad. And even if they do make you mad, it's still good to learn from someone else's point of view. And some of them are just plain awesome works of art. (I highly recommend Annie John).

Deep and Philosophical

More by this Author

Comments 25 comments

sixtyorso profile image

sixtyorso 8 years ago from South Africa

Not to put too fine point on it, Columbus was actually trying to prove that the world was not flat and that there was an alternative route to India by travelling West instead of East. To his dying day he believed that he had landed in India, hence the name indians. The Caribbean spices and vegetation had him fooled. so you are quite right he never discoverred America. There was one other character, a Spanish maritime man named Amerigo Vespucci who also claimed to have predated the Columbus' landings in the America's. However lets not be too nitpickey this is a great hub. Good read.

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California Author

Yeah, Sixty, for sure on the "not too fine a point" thing. Intention is an entirely different thing all together. I tried to stay away from the voyages and timetables as much as possible and stick to the message of world view. Hard to do without bringing up timetables though lol. Thanks for the comment.

desert blondie profile image

desert blondie 8 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

Wonderful point of view to enlighten us more on our points of view! Good hub!

gjcody profile image

gjcody 8 years ago

Well, Shadebreath ..I have to throw my two cents in too.  As an full blooded Italian!! ....(No, no, no, ...it is not about what you eat! LOL :-)))) )  I have my views on this subject.  You are right on the fact about planting a flag in my lawn.  I would be angry.  But the agenda of planting a flag in a lawn of others is going on still today and there is definite agendas.

As Columbus sat in jail ...don't it make you wonder ....he must have said to himself ..."self, what have I done wrong.  Was there an agenda from the Queen that made me do this?  Or was it really my idea!"  And don't it make you wonder was the Queen really thinking of power.  And do you really think that we have ever broken away from the power at hand?

This thing about believing that we are free and have a choice is really getting narrowed down to a small list of choices.  I can't even leave the house without a seat belt ...or even cross the border without a passport.  Sort of wonder when will it be that I can't come to visit a friend in another state without a passport.

Okay ...I am going on about this ...but yes, I agree ...when did and who did discover any land.  Good hub and a lot to think about.  And as many of us do THINK (and that is again one of the choices that is getting narrowed down)...that is what makes this so much fun ...thanks for making me think again!!

My best to you and your health ...here's to you!!!! 

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California Author


First and foremost /cheers and here's comin' right back at you.

The agenda thing you spoke about, there is absolute certainty that Columbus had an agenda. In fact, as you alluded to, he had more than one. He had is own agenda, which was likely a convolution of old Issie and Ferd's agenda, and the agenda of the seabearing/navigational community, and perhaps the scientific community, and the agenda of wealth and fame. Humans always have an agenda.

That fact is so true that it underlies the point of the article completely. If we are to examine the nature of agendas, historical or modern, to accurately comprehend the motivations of who is planting which flag where and why, then it is of utmost importance that the language we use to discuss things is distanced enough to encompass a global human view. As an artist, I strive for truth and meaning (nebulous constructs, yes, but still I strive). And to have any hope of approaching anything even close to such an elusive thing, we must distance ourselves from the events emotionally as much as we possibly can for the purpose of reason, logic and open dialogue (I believe you were getting at this with the capitalization of the word "THINK").

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

Just great,shadesbreath. I couldn't agree more. The Euro-centric POV inherent in the notion of who "discovered" America is oh so day before yesterday. History is always written from the point of view of those in the driver's seat and that point of view can be pretty narrow. I remember being surprised,for example, when I discovered that the French think of Napoleon as a great and noble man, while I, having studied European history from an anglo-saxon perspective, had been taught that he was a tyrant and a monster LOL. I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored, doesn't it? It pays to keep an open mind and listen to a variety of opinions always. Really good and thoughtful hub.

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California Author

Thank you for that, Robie2. It's almost impossible (perhaps totally so) to extract ourselves completely from our own contexts, but the least we can do is make an honest attempt.

that one girl profile image

that one girl 8 years ago from Washington state

What an awesome and provocative hub. I really enjoyed the alternative point of view put forth. It's odd, for years I've been frustrated at what "we" did to the natives upon arriving in this land; but I've never thought to question the usage of the term "discover" in this context. Despite my love of history and language; despite my awareness that this land was once very under a very different and varied social structure . . . I just never thought about the power of words in this particular situation. Thanks!

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California Author

For sure, That One girl... language is a brutally powerful thing. It's got it's own philosophy and Anthropology (as I'm betting large sums you already totally have read a ton about). Everything we "know" is processed through language if it isn't something we've seen ourselves. And even our internal dialogues become subject to language when we aren't watching carefully. Pretty interesting stuff though. I can't read enough on it to satisfy the fascination that it holds.

Thanks a ton for your kind words.

Constant Walker profile image

Constant Walker 8 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

Shades, good hub. I've never understood this whole "discovering" America issue.  Even in grade school when we were still being told Columbus was the first to "discover" North America, I asked, "Well, if there were people here already, didn't THEY discover it?"  I don't remember anything about the teacher's response, only that it didn't answer my question.  Very few of my teachers liked me. 8-)

Since then, I've always used the verb you use:  Columbus FOUND this continent, but only after Leif Eriksson FOUND it hundreds of years earlier. 

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California Author

Kinda makes you wonder what else our teachers taught us that is skewed, eh? lol. Thanks for the comments. Everyone's been very cool on this, I figured I'd take more crap from the hardliners or something.

Constant Walker profile image

Constant Walker 8 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

A couple months ago there was a lot of discussion about "lies taught to us in history class." There were even a couple hubs on the subject (I made a general request).

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California Author

Hmm, I'll have to look those up.  The distinction between lies, propaganda or spin, and error or ignorance can be fun.  'Be curious to see what you guys came up with.  This is the down side of coming late to the HubPages party for me though.  Unless I read everything ever written on here, I risk redundancy. 

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

My request asking "Did Columbus really discover America" drew three responses that pretty much took different approaches, but your hub is unique, Shadesbreath. We have a lot of schools named for Columbus in the U.S., but I don't know of any Ericson schools. I don't know if teachers have changed their stripes today, but I think they unanimously used the term "discover" back a few decades ago. Language is changing rapidly in our present technological revolution as is our view of nations, heritage and social and racial differences. We look at pretty much everything differently today, and, unfortunately, only a few of us are careful as to how we use the language.

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California Author

As a salesman, manager, reader, writer, husband and father (and even as a son), I have learned a lot about the power of language.  The more I study the nuance and impact of even singular words when they become "diction" or "rhetoric" the more you begin to stare in awe at the lines of the great writers, poets and orators and recognize their mastery.  And, ironcially, the more in awe I grow of the endless seeming resolve to misunderstand and misconstrue meaning  by those who are resolutely obtuse.

While I think we should be careful what we say so as to ensure our meaning is expressed through the words we use, I am equally certain that communication will never happen if half the conversation is focused more on finding fault in your intent based on their expectations than they are spending any time listening to what you are actually trying to say.

trooper22 profile image

trooper22 7 years ago from Chicago

I am a new fan. Not only because of this brilliant hub, but for the way you have dealt with the responses. I am in awe of your prose.

Especially the last message. Very well said...bravo!

amanda 7 years ago

a lot of info to take in there well that diagram sure is funny :)

De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

It is such a pleasure to read your work :-)

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 6 years ago from California Author

Thans, De Greek. I appreciate the reads too. :)

Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 6 years ago from Los Angeles

Great way to look at history with an open mind and heart.

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks, Petra Vlah. The planet could do with more people having open minds and hearts, eh?

profile image

Motown2Chitown 6 years ago

What a weird coincidence. I was just discussing the issue of discovering what's already there with my husband a few hours ago. And then I stumble upon this hub. Are you stalking me? ;-)

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 6 years ago from California Author

Funny how that works sometimes, ain't it?

Aishah Bowron 5 years ago

Vikings rule !. Long live Leif Eriksson !. Forget Christopher Columbus !.

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 5 years ago from California Author

Well, I'm not sure I'm willing to say "forget Christopher Columbus" but I'm with you in celebrating the accomplishments of the Vikings!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article