If not Columbus, then who?
There are several theories as to who discovered America, some more documented than others. We know for sure that Vikings were there centuries before Columbus. There is some (disputed) evidence that Polynesian explorers also visited the continent before the Spaniard, and technically, Nomadic Asian tribes first discovered America over 15,000 years ago.
But let’s take it step by step.
The Columbus Expedition
In 1492, Columbus departed from the Spanish city of Palos de la Frontera with three ships. Ironically, the citizens were forced to contribute to the expedition, against their will. Fast forward a few weeks, and a lookout on one of the ships saw land. The captain of that ship (not Columbus) confirmed the sighting and alerted Columbus. Columbus later maintained that he himself had already seen a light hours before that, because the first man to see land would earn a lifetime pension from the Spanish crown. Already, you’re probably starting to see that Columbus wasn’t really the nicest of people.
What island they found will remain a question for the ages. They called it San Salvador; the natives called it Guanahani. It was an island in the Bahamas, though we don’t really know which. They encountered peaceful natives, who welcomed them. Columbus noticed the natives were wearing golden bracelets and necklaces, so he took six of them as slaves. He wrote in his diary:
“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”
Columbus also noted that they didn’t seem to have any weapons or army.
“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
What happened later is well-known history. For the locals, it was genocide. For the Europeans, it was a quick way to get incredibly rich, and they seized it quickly. Columbus paved the way for all of this… is this really the person we want to celebrate for discovering America?
… especially as it’s not true. Sure, Columbus made America known to the Europeans who ultimately conquered it, but he didn’t discover it by any means.
Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, was a Norse explorer from Iceland. Erik the Red founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Discovery and expansion ran through their blood, as Leif went on go much farther: to America.
Leif and his crew traveled from Greenland to Norway in 999 AD, where he converted to Christianity. Not long after that, he sailed the Atlantic. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, which is (debatably) in Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. For many years, this was thought to be only a mythological story, a myth more than history — but archaeological evidence has shown, beyond a doubt, that Vikings reached Canada.
The first Viking archaeological site in the New World is L’Anse aux Meadows, a thousand-year-old way station discovered in 1960 on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The feature was a clear indication that Vikings had visited North America centuries before Columbus — at least partially, the myth was proven to be true. Archaeologists actually used clues from the sagas to guide their research.
When archaeologists discovered another site, things became much clearer. It appears that not only have Vikings visited the American continent, but they actually attempted to colonize parts of it.
“The sagas suggest a short period of activity and a very brief and failed colonization attempt,” says Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist specializing in Norse settlements. “L’Anse aux Meadows fits well with that story but is only one site. Point Rosee could reinforce that story or completely change it if the dating is different from L’Anse aux Meadows. We could end up with a much longer period of Norse activity in the New World.”
So, we have solid evidence that Vikings — Leif and his extended family — visited America and remained then for at least 10 years. There is some evidence that they tried to establish an outpost, but the natives didn’t seem to appreciate their presence. Feeling threatened and outnumbered, the Vikings left, and then probably only returned for trade.
Polynesian yams and shakier claims
Another population who probably visited America way before Columbus are the Polynesians. The main clue for this behavior is the inconspicuous sweet potato (yam).
The oldest carbonized sweet potato evidence in the Pacific hails back to about 1,000 A.D.—500 years before Columbus sailed to the Americas. But it wasn’t a convincing enough proof, so it remained as a hunch more than anything else.
However, French scientists found better samples from a herbarium collected by early European explorers. Through genetic analysis, they were able to show that Polynesians took the sweet potatoes from America and spread them across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where they are now ubiquitous. There are also studies which link Brazilian DNA to that of Polynesians, though another recent study put the findings under question. It seems very likely that Polynesians did reach America and established some kind of trade route. If this happened, it was before Columbus’ time, but it’s not clear if it was before the Vikings.
There is also a “China first” theory, but that’s highly speculative. While a massive Chinese fleet explored Africa, reaching present-day Kenya, there’s no real evidence to support that idea. Several explorers also claimed to have discovered the continent a few years before Columbus, but there’s almost no way to prove such claims.
The first true Americans
So, we’ve established that while Columbus made America known to Europe’s colonial powers, he definitely wasn’t the first one. Polynesian sailors probably also visited South America. But if we really want to get true here, every time these explorers reached the continent, natives were already there. Because America was first discovered by humans over 15,000 years ago.
Exactly when this happened is also a heated debate, but recent studies place the earliest migration rate between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. Technically, you could say they were the first ones to discover America.