Old World people in the New World before Columbus?

Cristoforo Colombo

Cristoforo Colombo (1451-1506); not the discoverer of America or even the first European discoverer of America

In posing the question, I’m not asking about Native Americans: although their origins in East Asian Upper Palaeolithic populations is not in doubt (even if the date of their arrival in the Americas remains hugely controversial), it is claims that people from Europe crossed the Atlantic Ocean before 1492 that I want to examine. It’s a huge area, with claims ranging from Magdalenian hunter-gatherers to late medieval fishermen from Bristol (England), and supported by a variety of evidence, from artefacts to inscriptions. Claims have been made both by professional archaeologists and by amateur enthusiasts, often with a murky overlap in white supremacist subcultures.

In this post, I won’t be looking in detail at the claims made by academic archaeologists, for whom the first peopling of the Americas is still very much open to serious debate. The long held orthodox view, that the users of Clovis Points were the earliest humans in the New World, is coming increasingly under fire as new sites are discovered that appear to pre-date the earliest sites with Clovis Point technology. Even the origins of the points arouses controversy, with some suggesting a West European origin for the technique of production; there are certainly no a priori reasons why small numbers of Late Upper Palaeolithic Europeans could not have crossed the Atlantic, hugging the ice sheets that extended much farther south than today and subsisting on fish, seal and whale meat. However, ideas like this are currently just speculation: evidence to back them up is required before they will become accepted.

Barry Fell

Howard Barraclough (Barry) Fell (1917-1994)

Howard Barraclough (Barry) Fell (1917-1994)

The one name that you are perhaps more likely to come across than any other as a proponent of pre-Columbian contact with the Old World is Howard Barraclough (Barry) Fell (1917-1994). Born in England, he emigrated with his mother to New Zealand in the 1920s, but returned to the UK to gain a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1941; his thesis was titled Direct Development in the Ophiuroidea and its Causes (Ophiuroidea are the class of brittle stars). By then, he had already developed an interest in petroglyphs, publishing ‘The pictographic art of the ancient Maori of New Zealand’ (Man 61, 85-8) in 1941. After a spell in the British army, he returned to New Zealand in 1946, where he took up a post as Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the Victoria University College in Wellington, being promoted to Associate Professor in 1957. He became a world authority on echinoderms and in 1964, he was offered and accepted a post as Curator in Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at the University of Harvard. Later, he became Professor of Invertebrate Zoology.

In 1973, he made a life changing decision to abandon his echinoderm research and turn to the study of epigraphy, founding the Epigraphic Society in July 1974 with his wife Rene and their friend Peter Garfall. Barry Fell was elected as the Society’s first president with the historian Norman Totten of Bentley College (now Bentley University) in Boston as vice president (he is now the Society’s president). His book America BC: Ancient Settlers in the New World, first published in 1978, brought him to wide attention and he soon developed a following of devoted supporters. He claimed to recognise a variety of Old World scripts in rock-cut inscriptions across the USA, supposedly created by transatlantic voyagers from Egypt, the Iberian Peninsula, Ireland, Carthage and elsewhere. This was followed in 1980 by Saga America, an exposition of supposedly Viking era remains, and in 1982 by Bronze Age America, concentrated on recognising ‘Bronze Age’ Scandinavian texts, two thousand years older than any known runic inscriptions in Europe, at Peterborough, Ontario (Canada). His supposed abilities ran to a translation of the unique Phaistos Disc and the Rongorongo boards of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), neither of which has won acceptance among linguists.

America BC: Barry Fell's best known work

America BC: Barry Fell’s best known work

One of the claims made by his supporters is that mainstream academics reject his findings because he was an amateur and lacked the long experience necessary to master the variety of scripts he claimed to be able to decipher. This is true to the extent that there are few, if any, linguists competent in as many ancient languages and scripts as Fell claimed to be, even though there is no denying that he was multilingual. His amateur status, though, is a red herring: Michael Ventris, one of the co-decipherers of Linear B, was an amateur and professionals listened to him because his arguments were based on solid evidence and were convincing. Fell’s arguments are not. His analysis of supposedly Celtic elements in Native American placenames and languages is fanciful; his identification of scratches on rock surfaces as Irish Ogham script shows his lack of familiarity with real Ogham. It is possible to go on, but the point is that Fell’s belief in his own linguistic abilities was not matched by genuine linguists’ faith in him; indeed, Fell worked in a scholarly vacuum, not engaging with genuine experts, publishing in his own society’s journals and monographs not subject to peer review by professional linguists. Rejection of his ideas is not because other scholars are closed-minded and unwilling to accept such ideas but because the evidence on which he based his radical hypotheses about widespread contact between the Old and New Worlds long before Columbus does not stand up to even the slightest critical scrutiny.

The Kensington Runestone

The Kensington Runestone

The Kensington Runestone

In 1942, Matthew Stirling, Director of the American Bureau of Ethnology, described this stone, unearthed in Minnesota in 1898 as “probably the most important archaeological object yet found in North America”. It appears to relate a story of exploration deep into the heart of the continent by a party of Swedes and Norwegians in 1362; if genuine, it would certainly deserve Stirling’s fulsome praise. Although the stone still has its supporters, especially in the area where it was found, the opinion of the majority of scholars since 1950 has been that the inscription is a crude fraud. How did it go from being regarded as one of the greatest discoveries of North American archaeology to something tainted with fraudulent origins in so short a time?

Considerable doubt exists surrounding the circumstances of discovery, which has been exploited by sceptics, but it is likely that it was unearthed by Olof Ohman, a farmer of Swedish origin, on his farm in rural Minnesota in November 1898 (doubts exist about the precise date and accusations have been made that the inscription was made after the slab was uncovered). Ohman was clearing poplar trees from a hillock in the swamps to the north-north-east of Kensington on land that he had owned since 1890. Although there was initial excitement at the discovery, the stone faded into brief obscurity after scholars expressed their scepticism about it. In the meantime, Ohman seems to have forgotten about it and the stone was used as a step.

In 1907, the social historian Hjalmar Rued Holand (1872-1963) ‘rediscovered’ the stone. He allegedly started out as a sceptic but was quickly convinced by the authenticity of the inscription and spent the remainder of his long life trying to win it mainstream acceptance. The high point came when the stone was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum in 1949, and although the Institution was careful to avoid endorsing it as a genuine Viking artefact, its supporters see its temporary exhibition in the capital of the USA as evidence that scholars were treating it seriously.

Hjalmar Holand (1872-1963)

Hjalmar Holand (1872-1963): the Runestone’s greatest champion

Nevertheless, the linguistic peculiarities of the inscription have dogged it since it was first examined by Olaus Breda (1853-1916) in 1899. He pointed to its strange mixture of Swedish and Norwegian forms, its apparent inclusion of English words and its use of a word not attested before the nineteenth century, opdægelse, to mean “voyage of discovery”. Supporters have claimed that advances in scholarship since 1899 have shown these peculiarities to be normal for the fourteenth century. While this is true to a limited extent, it is also over-stating the case: the mixture of languages still needs to be explained away, while there is still that niggling opdægelse. This is not to mention the lack of case endings: fourteenth-century Norse nouns were still declined, but not one is on the Runsetone. Then there are the numerals. Although they are claimed to be types found on primstave, runic calendar sticks, they are not: they are a form not attested before the nineteenth century, when they were used in Swedish folk contexts.

There is the very odd coincidence that the inscription claims that ten Norse explorers were killed by Native Americans in Minnesota in 1362, while ten Scandinavian settlers were killed by Native Americans in Minnesota exactly five hundred years later, in 1862. This is odd, but not conclusive evidence for fraud. The biggest problem is in explaining what Scandinavians were doing in the middle of the North American continent in the middle of the fourteenth century. This was a period when the Norse settlements in Greenland were in decline, when contact with the Norwegian homeland was sporadic and failing. Moreover, it was a period when voyages of exploration were at an end. Hjalmar Holand was forced to construct an elaborate (and implausible) scenario for the presence of Scandinavians in Minnesota that ignores their known mode of coastal exploration. No archaeological evidence for these explorers has been found beyond a series of claimed “anchor stones” said to mark mooring spots. We are not given details of the distribution of these stones or accurate drawings of different types; instead, we are asked to accept on trust that they resemble similar stones found in Norway. The problem with these stones is that the holes were not chiselled (the standard practice in Norway) but were drilled, using the one-inch (25.4 mm) bit that was standard for blasting operations in the nineteenth-century USA.

The Paraíba Inscription

Transcript of the Paraíba Inscription

Transcription of the Paraíba Inscription: the sole evidence for its existence

While the Kensington Runestone undoubtedly exists, the same cannot be said for the so-called Paraíba (or Parahyba) Inscription, for which the sole evidence is a transcription accompanying a letter sent to Cândido José de Araújo Viana (1793-1875), the Visconde (later Marqués) de Sapucahy, President of the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasiliero in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) in 1872, who passed it to Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto (1838-94). Although Netto was a botanist, he was also the interim director of the Museum Nacional and had a knowledge of Punic archaeology and the Hebrew language. The following year, the discovery was reported by the newly formed London Anthropological Society in Anthropologia (1, 208) in a letter sent by A F Jones from Rio de Janeiro, who said that “[t]he published accounts of this find are so vague and unscientific that I can form no opinion of my own about it”. At a meeting of the Society on 6 January 1874, three translations were compared and there was considerable discussion about its authenticity; on the 11 August 1874, A F Jones wrote again to the Society, saying that Ernest Renan (1823-1892), the Semiticist, considered it a hoax. Other experts in Semitic languages, including Konstantin Schlottmann (1819-1887) and Julius Euting (1839-1913) were also of the opinion that the supposed inscription was a fake.

Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto (1838-94)

Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto (1838-94)

In the meantime, Netto had tried to locate the original inscription. The letter writer was one Joaquim Alves da Costa, a plantation owner from a place named Pouso Alto, near Paraíba; several places called Pouso Alto were found, while two places named Paraíba are known (one in the province of the same name, the other near Rio de Janeiro). Alves da Costa and his estate proved impossible to locate and Netto concluded that the whole affair was nothing more than a hoax, publishing a report as Lettre à Monsieur Ernest Renan à propos de l’Inscription Phénicienne Apocryphe soumise en 1872 à l’Institut historique, géographiqe et ethnographique du Brésil (“Letter to M Ernest Renan concerning the fake Phoenician inscription submitted in 1872 to the Historical, Geographical and Ethnographic Institute of Brazil”) in 1885. Netto blamed the hoax on foreigners who were trying to discredit Brazilian scientists and although he claimed to know the identity of the hoaxer, declined to reveal it.

However, the story was revived more than eighty years after Netto’s debunking work was published in 1885, when Jules Piccus (1920-1997), professor of Romance languages at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst, USA), bought a scrapbook at a jumble sale in Providence (Rhode Island, USA) in 1967. It contained correspondence sent by Netto to Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937), a librarian at New York Public Library, which included a copy of the alleged inscription and a translation made by Netto in 1874. Piccus, who seems to have been unaware of Netto’s 1885 report, sent a copy to Cyrus Herzl Gordon (1909-2001), head of the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham (Massachusetts, USA) and an expert in ancient Semitic languages. Unlike Renan, he thought the Paraíba inscription contained elements of Phoenician style that were unknown in the nineteenth century and concluded that it was genuine.

Gordon was quick to release the story to the media, with a report appearing in The New York Times by the science writer Walter Seager Sullivan (1918-1996) that was widely syndicated to other newspapers, and a sensational report by A Douglas Matthews in Life. This is a tactic widely used by pseudoscientists and regarded with suspicion by scholars. Despite Gordon’s certainty about the genuineness of the inscription, he failed to find support from other linguists. He conducted a long and acrimonious dispute with Frank Moore Cross Jr (born 1921), Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus at Harvard. Cross was scathing in his criticisms of Gordon, pointing to problems with the script, vocabulary and spelling. Gordon continued to champion this text and others as evidence for numerous transaltantic contacts in Antiquity but failed to convince sceptics.

Like the Kensington Runestone, the Paraíba Inscription was quickly denounced by linguists, subsequently to be revived by those claiming that its peculiarities could be explained by more recent discoveries that would have been unknown to a nineteenth-century hoaxer. Unlike the Runestone, though, there is no artefact to examine, no physical evidence and not even an accepted findspot. It has all the hallmarks of a crude fraud.

The Newark “Holy Stones”

The Newark 'keystone'

The first of the Newark “Holy Stones”, debunked within two months of discovery

During investigations of a group of mounds south of Newark (Ohio, USA), the retired surveyor and amateur archaeologist David Wyrick (1806-1864) discovered an unusual wedge-shaped object with Hebrew writing on each of its four faces. He immediately took the stone to his friend Israel Dille (1802-1874), who happened to be entertaining the geologist Charles Wittlesey (1808-1886), also an amateur archaeologist with an interest in the mounds of North America. Although the three agreed that the lettering was Hebrew, none of them could read it. They knew that the young local Episcopalian Minister, Reverend John Winspeare McCarty (1832-1867), could read the language fluently, so they took it to him. McCarty read the stone as saying קדשקדשים | מלךארץ | תורתיהוה | דבריהוה, which translates as “Holy of Holies” | “King of the Earth” | “The Law of God” | “The Word of God”. Its discovery was reported in Harper’s Weekly by David Francis Bacon, who dismissed it as a fraud, Charles Wittlesey having pointed out that the Hebrew letters were modern.

Within five months of this discovery, a second inscription turned up in a coincidence that seems almost too good to be true. Again, it was David Wyrick who made the discovery, this time of a sandstone box containing a carved black limestone slab. On the centre of the front of the slab is the image of a man surrounded by an inscription, again in Hebrew letters, although this time of an archaic type, unlike those on the earlier find. The text, which covers the whole of the stone not occupied by the figure (labelled in Hebrew as Moses), is an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments.

The Newark Decalogue

The Newark ‘Decalogue’: the second discovery, which countered the objections to the first stone

These discoveries appeared to confirm a belief long held by a number of American antiquaries that the mounds found throughout the watershed of the Mississippi/Missouri were not of Native American origin but were built by Israelites who fled the destruction of their kingdom by the Assyrians. It also appeared to confirm the Book of Mormon’s contention that a vanished people of Israelite origin had settled in North America. Unfortunately, the letter forms of the two inscriptions were too modern (although both of different date) to support these ideas and the inscriptions were soon dismissed as outright frauds. Wyrick, as the discoverer of both, was naturally the principal suspect, his suicide in 1864 seeming to lend weight to the accusation.

However, it is not as clear-cut as it appears. Nothing ever is in Bad Archaeology! Wyrick took an overdose of laudanum, which he was using as a painkiller for the crippling arthritis that had led to his early retirement in 1859. His publication of the two inscriptions in a pamphlet in 1861 included his own illustrations that were so riddled with errors that it is impossible to believe that he could have created both the muddled drawings and the much better – if fraudulent – inscriptions on stone. Nevertheless, the first stone was undoubtedly of nineteenth-century date (both the letter forms and the use of a mechanical grinding wheel to create its smooth surface make an earlier origin impossible), while grave suspicion must fall on the second.

Although the epigrapher Rochelle Altman has suggested that the objects may be of late medieval date and imported to North America by a nineteenth-century Jewish settler from Europe (her reconstruction of events is highly detailed but entirely circumstantial), this does not explain the mechanical tooling on the first stone to be discovered. Instead, a more plausible scenario is that the hoaxer was unhappy that his first attempt to fool Wyrick had been detected and therefore planted a second object that met the objections raised to the original stone. More convincingly, the research of Brad Lepper and Jeff Gill during the 1990s suggests that the hoaxer was the Reverend McCarty, an ambitious young man with the knowledge to create fake Hebrew inscriptions. They link the inscriptions with his political views, shared by his local bishop, Charles Petit McIlvane (1799-1873), that Native Americans were descendants of the ancient Israelites, which would help to undermine the idea that they, along with negroes, were a separate creation from European humanity, and could be enslaved or exterminated.

The Newark “Holy Stones” are not evidence for an ancient Israelite migration to the New World, any more than the Kensington Runestone is evidence for Vikings in the centre of North America or the Paraíba Inscription is evidence for Phoenicians in coastal Brazil. Their context is that of nineteenth-century politics and antiquarian speculation and they, like the two previous examples, are quite clearly hoaxes designed to promote particular views of the past.

Why this sort of evidence doesn’t work

I could be accused (and quite possibly will be) of cherry-picking three objects that are easily debunked. Supporters of widespread contacts between the Old and New Worlds before 1492 will point to other inscriptions, finds of Roman sculptures, Jewish coins, mysterious structures and so on, which they believe I have not dealt with here because I can’t dismiss them so easily. That’s not the case at all.

The purpose of this lengthy post is not to criticise every piece of supposed evidence for transatlantic contact: I don’t deny that such contact before Columbus was possible (and, in the case of Vinland, certainly did happen). What I do believe, though, is that, with one significant exception, the evidence is far too weak to support the claims being made. Much of the evidence brought forward is epigraphic in nature; it depends almost entirely on inscribed texts. Any supporting artefacts are recovered either without context or with very dubious context. These artefacts are rarely unambiguous.

Herein lies my objection. Archaeology is all about the material culture of human beings. We create a lot of stuff and we are generally quite careless about how we dispose of it. Even if we are careful, we still lose things accidentally. We litter the world with our creations. From potsherds to ocean-going ships, from butchered animal bones to weapons of slaughter, we make things and dispose of them. If we are careful, we dispose of them in special places (middens, rubbish pits and so on); if we are careless, we simply toss them aside when we are done with them. Ancient Old World explorers of the New World (whether they arrived by design or accident) would have been no different. They would have had the material culture they brought with them, especially if, like the purported Phoenicians of the Paraíba Inscription, they had come as merchants in search of objects to trade; they would have created new material culture in forms familiar to them from their homelands, using their accustomed technologies.

Thus, if there were Scandinavians in Minnesota in the fourteenth century CE, we would expect to find their material remains. Not just a Runestone and some highly dubious “anchor stones”, but things like ironwork, timber-framed houses, glazed pottery and so on. In the short-lived site at L’Anse Aux Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada), iron ring-headed pins and typical Viking houses were found: truly exotic material that confirmed the Vinland Sagas. Where is this sort of material around Kensington?

Too much of the ‘evidence’ consists of inscriptions (or purported inscriptions, such as Barry Fell’s ludicrously over-interpreted scratches that resemble Ogham to no-one but his followers). This is textual evidence, the stuff of historical documents. It appeals to people who believe in the power of words, in the authority of texts. Unsurprisingly, many of the fraudulent inscriptions, like the Newark “Holy Stones”, have a politico-religious sub-text. They hold great sway among people for whom the Bible or the Book of Mormon is inspired, authoritative, unchallengeable; these discoveries not only confirm the religious texts but provide additional information, which was particularly important for Christians who needed to understand how the Americas were filled with people who apparently went unmentioned in the Bible. By linking the indigenous peoples of the Americas with Old World peoples, it becomes possible to draw the New World into a Biblical world view.

This becomes all the more worrying when there is the possibility that a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints has a chance to become the president of the United States of America. I don’t discuss politics on this blog (and, being English, the politics of the USA is something I do not pretend to follow closely), but we must ask ourselves how far we can trust the opinions of a man whose religious beliefs include such easily falsifiable ideas as synagogues in first millennium BC North America. Other American politicians have expressed support for the Newark “Holy Stones”; there is a movement in Lebanon that seeks to use the Paraíba Inscription as evidence for a Phoenician diaspora preceding the Jewish; white supremacists have used the Kensington Runestone and Barry Fell’s supposed Ogham inscriptions to insinuate that there were large numbers of Europeans in North America in the first and second millennia BC and perhaps even before the Native Americans. These can be dangerous views: who thinks that archaeology is irrelevant to the contemporary world?

To return to the main subject of this post, why do I find the evidence for all pre-Columbus contact between the Old and New Worlds unconvincing, with the one exception of L’Anse aux Meadows? Because of the lack of rubbish. If there is one thing that humans do well, that is to litter the surface of our home planet (and we’re beginning to spread out litter to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere…). If there were large numbers of Europeans (or Asians, or Africans) in the Americas before Columbus, they couldn’t have avoided leaving their litter. Forget texts: they are too easily forged. It’s rubbish that we need!