Who first discovered America?

Answering the question "Who discovered America first?" will be a continuous struggle. History is never certain. While we can know dates and names and events, we can never be certain when a "first" happened. This is because archaeology is continually revealing new evidence on our origins and historical events.

For a very long time, everyone assumed that Columbus had first discovered America. Yet in recent years, the very term "discovery" has come under fire. There were people in America before Columbus. More importantly, there are ancient texts that refer to various explorers who reached America from Europe (and possibly China) before Columbus.

So who really discovered America? To answer this question, we need to go back in time...

In 1492...

Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In the year 1492 AD, Columbus "discovered" America. Well, not really. He actually bumped into a giant land mass that had been visited by Europeans (and possibly others) before. It also happened to be inhabited, at the time, by anywhere from 2 million to 112 million people. The population estimates are still under debate by scholars, such as Henry Dobyns and Douglas Ubelaker. However, what is certain is that Columbus - and all the fabled tellings of his "discovery" - was not the first time to set foot on the soil of the Americas.

Christopher Columbus...or someone else?
Christopher Columbus...or someone else? | Source

Were Africans first?

There is some evidence of African contact in pre-Columbian civilizations. In Mexico, stone head portraits of basalt on the eastern coast bear a striking resemblance to African peoples. Arab sources from the eighth century also detail contact between Africans and the Americas.

Additionally, Portuguese sources speak of migrations from West Africa between 1311 and 1460 CE. These sources tell us that Africans (and most likely Arabs as well, who inhabited the northwestern portions of Africa as well) had sailed to Haiti, Panama, and possibly Brazil. Columbus, after his first contact, encountered the Arawaks who told him of obtaining guanine spear points from black traders that came from the south and east. Captain Balboa provided further evidence in his account of natives who had black slaves.

Sailing to Vinland

Ah, the Vikings. Fabled seamen and storytellers. In the Nordic sagas, the Vikings have recounted the tale of Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson (son of Erik the Red) who sailed to a land called "Vinland." Little credit had been given to the reality of this story until archaeological discoveries started yielding surprising information.

In 1362, the Kensington Stone was inscribed, referring to an expedition of Norweigens and Goths who reached southwestern Minnesota in 1362. The stone was discovered in 1898 by a Swedish-America farmer near Kensington, Minnesota. Scholars initially labeled this stone as a fraud, but research done by H. R. Holad in 1907 showed that the inscription could be from the 1300s based upon its word forms and numerals. This evidence was further corroborated when an account dating to 1355 by a king of Sweden/Norway referred to a western settlement ("Vest Bygd") in Greenland that helped colonists in Vinland.

The Kensington Stone
The Kensington Stone | Source

Other accounts - notably of Gudrid, found in The Far Traveler - also mention Vinland. Gudrid, as a side note, is thought to be the first European woman to have a baby in America.

The sagas refer to Leif Eriksson making landfall in Vinland as early as 1000 CE and his father, Erik the Red, making landfall about 984 CE. They refer to Native Americans as "Skraelings" in the sagas. Most of these come from Nordic folklore, but many other aspects of their folklore have been proven true in recent decades. Is it plausible that the Vikings could have reached America? Yes, their ships were fully capable of such a voyage.

But is there hard evidence? Actually, yes. A Viking-era settlement, bearing striking resemblances to Viking settlements in Scandinavian countries, was found at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1960. Since then, digs at the site have revealed over 300 years of sporadic contact between the Vikings and Native American peoples, concentrated primarily in the Canadian Arctic. A good series of articles, with artifacts, can be found at this Smithsonian website, further detailing what may have occurred at the settlements.

Gudrid: First European Woman in America

Irish Monks and Giant Sea Turtles

The Vikings, unfortunately, were not first.

St. Brendan, an Irish monk, claimed in his writings to have found "enchanted islands" far out in the Atlantic around 400 CE. Most legends claim that St. Brendan traveled across the Atlantic on the back of a sea turtle, but ancient descriptions claim that he traveled in a tiny currach (a traditional Irish boat of wood and leather). One reason St. Brendan rose to popularity was due to the account of his travels in the 9th century The Voyage of St. Brendan, a Latin book full of fantastic tales about his journey.

No hard evidence of his visit has been found, though it is plausible that ship technology of the time might have reached Nordic settlements on Iceland or Greenland. This was tested in 1976 by historian Tim Severin, who built a traditional currach named Brendan and attempted to sail to North America from Ireland. Severin was successful.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that St. Brendan's tale is true. It is more plausible that the accounts of St. Brendan reflect stories of visits to the Americas, since these stories were written down centuries after they had occurred (and likely had been passed down orally, and thus may have been elaborated with each retelling). However, St. Brendan's story did have a direct effect on the search for America: his tale was used by Christopher Columbus as a reference to support his assertion that lands were reachable across the Atlantic.

Cleopatra and the Chinese

In 600 BCE, there is the possibility that Phoenicians or Egyptians may have visited the Americas. There is speculation that Egyptian technology could have travelled as far the Canary Islands (off the coast of Spain) or Ireland, though it has been untested (to date) as to whether their technology could have reached the Americas. However, Negroid and Caucasoid likenesses in sculpture and ceramics of the Americas, as well as some accounts in Arab history, suggest that contact may have occurred.

Additionally, in 1000 BCE, it is thought that the Chinese may have reached Central America. The evidence is of fairly low quality. However, some Chinese legends and cultural similarities exist between Native Americans and the Chinese. No hard evidence has been found, to date. (Additionally, evidence has been found that the Chinese may have reached America in 1421 CE - 70 years before Columbus.)

Walking on Thin Ice

However, if we are asking who truly "discovered" America - the first person to set foot on the soil of any of the American continents - then we must venture into prehistory. In the Pleistocene era, the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets formed a narrow corridor and land bridge between Russia and what is now Alaska.

So far, archaeological evidence suggests that the first people - who would become the "first Americans" - walked this land bridge and through the corridor into North America. Traveling south, these peoples would have encountered northern deciduous forests of oak, hickory, and beech lining what is now the Gulf Coast. These migrations took place over long periods of time, as the ice sheets opened and closed the corridor.

Map of potential migration routes into America.
Map of potential migration routes into America. | Source

But who were these people? Most likely, they were groups from Asia. In order to find out, paleoanthropologists utilize many different methods: language, dental records, and mitochondrial DNA testing. There are some debates between these methods, revealing that the "first Americas" most likely spoke languages of the Amerind family, had dental records that matched those of Southwest Asians (the Sundadont family), but whose mitochondrial DNA had very different characteristics than those of modern Asians (suggesting that the "split" between modern Asians and Native Americans occurred at least 21,000 years ago).

What we do know for certain, however, is that after the ice sheets melted and the Ice Age came to an end, those who had migrated to the Americas - whether by foot or, possibly, by boat - became relatively isolated from developments in the rest of the world. This isolation resulted in a loss of immunity to diseases, which would come back to haunt the natives when Europe came calling.

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Comments 21 comments

JKenny profile image

JKenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

A very interesting and informative hub. The part about St. Brendan and his sighting of enchanted islands was particularly fascinating. I wonder what those first Native Americans thought when they encountered the American Megafauna, probably thought they'd entered the Garden of Eden.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Excellent Hub. Very interesting and informative.

Your Home Page does not have the connection, for someone to send you an email. HP sends it and your email address is not revealed unless you choose to respond. I am a fellow historian and would love to discuss a couple of issues with you. It is done confidentially through the HP servers; no one can contact you directly.


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great hub. It's between Erickson and Columbus, so I've been told. Furthermore, I don't like the term "discovered," as there were people living here already.

Enjoyed your hub and gave it "thumbs up"

John


molometer profile image

molometer 4 years ago

What an interesting summing up of the various groups that have visited America. The Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, sailed across the Pacific in a boat based on an Egypt design, made from reeds.

It is possible that the Egyptians made it to America, 5,000 years ago too. Great hub voted up and interesting.


shea duane profile image

shea duane 4 years ago from new jersey

Fantastic hub!


Island Tropical profile image

Island Tropical 4 years ago

you got lots of readers, this is indeed a great topic to write about...


Southern Muse profile image

Southern Muse 4 years ago from USA Author

@phdast7 - Thanks for letting me know about that, I had forgotten! Hopefully the e-mail link is working now. I'm always happy to engage in conversations with fellow historians - passion is such a wonderful thing!

For everyone else, thank you so much for your lovely comments. I'm always happy to provide interesting and informative hubs for the public, and hope to continue to do so as my own knowledge base develops! :)


Southern Muse profile image

Southern Muse 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you! I tried to turn on the link, so hopefully it is working now! I'm always happy to meet new colleagues in the field. Our passion is such a wonderful starting point for collaborations and friendships, and it certainly makes for interesting discussions!


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Hi Southern Muse - just read this hub again, and it is just as good as it was the first time I read it. Well written, very interesting, and full of lots of information about a variety of visitors and discoverers. Well done. SHARING


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

This has some fascinating information. The possibility of so much activity on what we thought was the last frontier. Cleopatra in America! She might have discovered Hollywood! LOL!


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago

I imagine that as time passes and new information comes to light, the textbooks of the future, when addressing this topic, will be very different from those today.

Instead of describing Columbus as the discoverer of America, it is best to think of him as the man who introduced Europeans of the late 15th century to the "New World." And this introduction of the Old World to The New would ultimately transform the entire planet. So whether he is referred to as a discoverer or not, he is still one of the most important historical figures of the last 500 years.


Island Tropical profile image

Island Tropical 4 years ago

you know people, it is me who ask this question but it is her that get all the glory :)


wba108@yahoo.com profile image

wba108@yahoo.com 4 years ago from upstate, NY

My theory is that most discoveries occur because there is an economic or military advantages associated with it. Columbus discovered America because he wanted a shortest route from which to trade with the far east. Megellan had much the same profit motive as Columbus.

The Chinese really didn't need to try to find a short cut to Europe because they had the most sought after goods in their own country so they were content to stay put. The Chinese had hands down the most advanced society in their region wheras the Europeans were forced to compete with many other similar nation states in order to survive. This is why the Europeans were in a desperate race to get a leg up on new trade routes and their monarchs were willing to risk much to accomplish their goals.

Its really surprising the viking were able to reach America because their culture was fairly primative other than their weaponry.

I've never heard that Arab sources from the 8th century

wrote about contact between Africa and the Americas.


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 4 years ago from the Ether

Very intriguing! Loved this article. I've always been one to root for the Natives..they were really the first, after all. And from what I've heard, Columbus wasn't that nice of a dude anyway...raping and pillaging? Those two words take away "explorer" to me. Thanks and voted up!


anna141 profile image

anna141 4 years ago from India

Such a interesting article......


caitlin newsome 4 years ago

I want to know who discovered america first


Southern Muse profile image

Southern Muse 4 years ago from USA Author

@caitlin newsome -- this is the beauty of history. We never know the full answer. So there is no "one" answer to who discovered America, because it's all about who actually got to the continent first (and hence, we will never have a name/face for the Bering Strait travelers). This hub is meant more to show that Columbus wasn't the first, and history knows it, because there are all these wonderful clues in history that point to lots of "discoveries" of America over a long period of time.


dereon puryear 4 years ago

This was a very informational text and the vidoes and pictures helped me understand it even more.


Derp 3 years ago

I believe that the Indians Possibly found America first, I don't really know though.... I have a Social Studies Assignment on this and I haven't even started! AHHH! Help me please everyone :P


Derp 3 years ago

Thank you Hub!

I wanted to thank you for the information that you gave to me excellent work on the way you put every bit of information for me and without I wouldn't have got an A+ on my Social Studies Report! I will go here more often now that I have found a site that has given me the correct answers and details to make it easy for me to explain what I have researched. If you guys are reading this now, This site is #1 to go to at a last minute project, Thank You Hub!


Southern Muse profile image

Southern Muse 3 years ago from USA Author

@Derp - Thank you! I'm glad the information was so helpful! I hope to teach university courses one day, so knowing that how I'm writing and presenting information is helping students now is great feedback!

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