Day 608: Who Knocked On Our Door First?

originally published August 30, 2013

Yesterday I marveled at the frantic scramble (or, ‘framble’) to be the first to fly across the Atlantic. It seems only right that I dial back the clock and look at the previous trans-ocean pioneers, those who packed their loved ones and a whole wack o’ pestilence onto rickety wooden boats and set their course for the new world, hoping not to fall off the edge of the old one.

We all know the story of Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 steered three vessels from Europe to Nebraska, trying to prove to the girl he loved that he was more bad-ass than Reggie the blacksmith, and also that he looked good in a buckled hat. Or something. It doesn’t matter – this isn’t about him.

I’m interested in peeling back the known history. Our Native population has been calling this particular chunk of rock home since around 10,000 BC, but I’m more interested in the rumored appearance of other peoples. I’m talking about those who didn’t saunter across the Bering Strait back before it dipped its nose into the sea, never to return. These are the ones we can’t quite confirm – the debated pre-Columbian pioneers.

Let’s start with what we know. The Norsemen (also known as Vikings, but without the horns – we have learned those helmet-horns are a myth) set up shop on Greenland back in the 10th century, and they hung around until sometime in the 15th century, even venturing into Canada where they dropped off some archeological evidence for us to scoop up a few centuries later.

Between 1961 and 1968, Norwegian archeologist Helge Ingstad uncovered the remains of eight full houses from a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. Helge found homes, an ironsmith workshop, a boat repair area with worn rivets, and a number of trinkets which could only have originated from visiting Norsemen. Along with the discoveries in Greenland, this is the only verified evidence of a pre-Columbian exploration of the new world. But if we allow the bug of speculation to burrow into our bloodstream, the pre-Columbus Americas might get a whole lot more crowded.

When German toxicologist Svetlana Balabanova was poking around the mummy of an ancient Egyptian priestess named Henut Taui, she discovered something rather quirky. Two items – coca and tobacco – were found in repeated tests of the mummy’s hair follicles. Both plants are indigenous to our part of the world, and have no business showing up in ancient Egypt. Skeptics say there may have been some form of tobacco in Asia and Europe back then, and the coca may have been a mistake.

Okay, but when they cut open Ramesses II in the 1970’s, they also found tobacco leaves in his stomach. One investigator pointed out that Remesses’ gut had first been opened in 1886, and that anything found inside should be discarded as it may have fallen in during a previous examination. So was a 19th-century scientist a little careless while he was rolling his smoke, or was Ramesses chowing down on the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a Marlboro shortly before he checked out?

And what about the damn sweet potato?

The Polynesians were spreading their domain all over the place between 300 and 1200 AD, scooting as far as Easter Island, New Zealand and Hawaii. They may have even ventured all the way to the west coast, as evidenced by the popularity of the sweet potato – a North and South American delicacy – in Polynesia when Europeans first showed up to check them out. It’s believed either the canoe-paddling Polynesians made it as far as South America, or else that some savvy South American natives ventured westward, potato plant in hand.

Even the word for the sweet potato provides a swab of linguistic support to this theory. The Polynesians called them ‘kumala’, the Easter Islanders ‘kumara’, the Hawaiians ‘’uala’, and the Maori went with ‘kumāra’. This isn’t proof that anyone on either side actually packed up their stuff and moved either to or from South America, but it seems there was enough contact made to constitute a slightly shared vocabulary.

Another hint that the Polynesians were buddying up to the folks in South America is the discovery of chicken bones in the Arauco Peninsula in south-central Chile, which had been populated by the Mapuche people. The chickens were carbon-dated to between 1304 and 1424, years before the Spanish showed up, and their DNA was matched with chickens from American Samoa and Tonga. Sure, it’s a stretch (and a repeat of that DNA test was inconclusive), but the proof might be in the chicken. As they say.

A team at the University of York also came across a Peruvian mummy that had been embalmed using tree resin. Not a big deal, except that Peruvian mummies were thought to be naturally preserved. Oh, and the resin appeared to have come from the ‘Monkey Puzzle Tree’, which is native to New Guinea.

So maybe Columbus should get partial credit for being one of the first Europeans to slap his shoe-leather onto North American soil, but it seems like South America was a pre-Columbian tourist mecca.

Some believe that Scottish nobleman Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, was poking around Greenland and North America a full century before Columbus put the wind in his sails. This seems far-fetched, but Henry’s grandson built the Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, and that chapel clearly has carvings that appear to be corn, or maize. That particular crop should not have been known to Europeans at the time.

One theory states that the only way Columbus could sway his backers into funding his trip was because there had been some previous voyage. Some have suggested (and when that ‘some’ is making the suggestion I tend to listen with a doubting ear or two) that Columbus himself took a sneak-peak at the new world before his grand 1492 excursion.

There are a number of other fringe ideas of pre-Columbian contact, including of course the Mormon belief that Jesus himself took a holiday in this side of the world. I don’t know how much of any of this should be believed, nor am I optimistic someone will uncover a massive new chunk of evidence that proves any of these theories. But it’s possible. And just a little bit exciting.

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