Who Really Got to the Americas First? (After Native Americans, of course)


So, I’ve been on a conspiracy theory kick lately- aliens, alternate universes, Bigfoot, etc. That’s been really fun, but before I lose anyone, I want to make it clear that this post is going to be based off of “real” science and history. I’m only going to rely on verified and accurate archaeological and historical accounts, but we’re going to explore some seemingly really crazy ideas and wade through what is not factual.

I’m assuming everyone has heard by now that Leif Eriksson beat Columbus to North America by almost 500 years, but was he the only one? I recently heard (on Ancient Aliens) that the Knights Templar may have gone to North America. What about the Romans, did they go? We’ll look at the evidence and see what we can piece together or rule out.

Let’s start in chronological order. When were the Americas first settled by the indigenous populations that lived here for thousands of years without intrusion from anyone abroad? This is a hotly debated topic in archaeology and genetics, even to this day. Genetically, indigenous North and South Americans are descended from Asian populations, and it has been thought that they traveled from Asia to North America around 13,000 years ago. However, there is a site in Chile that doesn’t match this timeline. Monte Verde has been dated to around 14,500 years ago. It doesn’t make sense to think they were descended from a people that wouldn’t be even close to that continent for another 1,500 years (1).

New genetic evidence suggests that early Native Americans spent several thousand years in Beringia ( the ancient land mass that connected Siberia and Alaska, now the Bering Strait) before moving down into North and South America around 15,000 years ago. It’s possible they could have sailed down the coast to have reached Monte Verde by 14,500 years ago. (2) Over the next thousands of years, these populations continued to diversify genetically and develop their own cultures. So who was the first group to visit them here?

The first theory is that the Romans sailed to Nova Scotia. It was reported that a supposed Roman shipwreck was found off the coast of Oak Island (which is a whole other mystery in itself), and artifacts such as a gladiator sword were recovered. I have a lot of problems with this theory. I did some searching and there weren’t any scholarly articles studying this find. The only person I could find researching the supposed gladiator sword was J. Hutton Pulitzer, who seems to be an inventor and radio host. While he claims an XFR study ( Xray flourescence) confirms the sword is from Rome, I couldn’t find anything actually detailing this study. (3,4) While it is interesting to speculate that the Romans could be behind the mystery of Oak Island, there is no evidence that Roman ships could even cross the Atlantic, making the whole theory highly unlikely (5).

While I was researching Roman ships, I came across a hypothesis that the Phoenicians made it to the Americas in about 600 BC. The Phoenicians were an ancient sea-faring people in the Mediterranean and Levant. They were possibly the biblical people called the Canaanites. The Phoenicians lived in city-states that developed between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, which remained strong up to the Hellenistic era around 300BC. They were known for trading across the Mediterranean, and developed trading posts such as Carthage, which was established in 814 BC. It is recorded that they sailed all around the Mediterranean, possibly even to Britain, and circumnavigated Africa. Genetic evidence shows a connection between the so-called “young man from Byrsa” who lived in Carthage in the 6th century BC. and a modern individual from Portugal. This is possibly very good evidence of the Phoenicians ability to traverse the seas.

Philip Beale, a former Royal Navy officer, sailed a replica of an ancient Phoenician ship around Africa in 2010 to prove that it could be done. In September 2019, he is going to attempt to cross the Atlantic in the same vessel, the Phoenicia, to add more support to the theory the Phoenicians visited North America. We’ll have to wait and see how that turns out. Other than that, I didn’t find any compelling archaeological evidence of the Phoenicians in North America. (6,7, 8, 9)

So, that takes us to the next hypothesis for visitors to the “New World”. There is a tale of an Irish monk named Brendan who visited North America in the 6th century. According to the tale, which was passed down orally for about 300 years before being written down, St. Brendan the Navigator built a “currach”, an Irish boat sealed by leather, and went on a 7 year journey to a place he called Paradise. It’s possible that Brendan went on a path similar to the Vikings that went along the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and landed in Newfoundland. This was proven to be possible in 1976, when Tim Severin sailed from County Kerry, Ireland and arrived safely in Newfoundland, using the same kind of currach St. Brendan would have used. The Vikings did claim that the Irish had been there first, and called that land “Irland it Mikla”, meaning Greater Ireland. It could just be that we haven’t found any archaeological evidence to support this scenario yet, but that we could soon. The Viking settlement in Newfoundland wasn’t discovered until 1960. This History article about Brendan’s Voyage is great and gives more details. (10)

I’ll skip the Vikings because that has been confirmed that they did reach Newfoundland hundreds of years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Here is a link to an article about “Vinland” which is the what the Vikings called the area they discovered. (11)

So by this point in history we know that people were visiting the Americas, but were there more visitors between when the Vikings left and Columbus arrived? Some people say the Knight’s Templar visited, and that they left more concrete evidence behind. This theory is pretty tangled up, and combines the Knights Templar and Lord Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Roslin. It suggests he sailed across the Atlantic to New England and left behind some evidence. One of these is the “Westford Knight”, which supposedly shows a knight in medieval armor. This possibly was a grave marker for a knight who died there or some other kind of marker. In the style of the Da Vinci code, perhaps Sinclair was working with the Knights Templar to protect the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant, to go way out there in the realm of conspiracy theories.

Reigning it back in, the Westford Historical Society says the stone is “of unknown origin”, so there’s not really any evidence to show the carving is really from the 14th century. There is a whole book about this connection, which is on my reading list, but is definitely more fringe than academic. (12,13) One thing that could be an interesting connection is the flag of the indigenous people of Nova Scotia, the Miꞌkmaq. This flag looks pretty similar to the red cross on white of the Templar Flag because it is in fact a red cross on a white background. I couldn’t find any information of when this symbolism developed in their culture, so that could be a stretch, or it could be a connection. (14)

To recap, there are some peoples who definitely got to the Americas before Columbus, including the indigenous peoples (obvi) and the Vikings. Likely candidates would be the Irish monks, although more archaeological evidence is definitely needed. Possible, although unlikely, candidates include the Phoenicians and Knights Templar. And highly unlikely candidates would be the Romans. Later this year, when Philip Beale sales the Phoenicia, we could have more evidence we need, but for now, we can only speculate whether anyone other than the Vikings visited the Americas before Columbus.

Notre Dame de Paris

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Notre Dame de Paris

Last week, the world was shocked to watch the famous cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris burning before our eyes. Plastered on every news channel were the fiery images of hundreds of years of history falling apart. It was a very sad day for Parisians, historians, scholars of art history, Christians, and everyone who recognized the name of Notre Dame, even if only from the Disney movie. One thing that was continually repeated throughout the week was how significant this cathedral is to everyone, not just for its history, but for its cultural and religious significance as well.

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Notre Dame on fire, Apr. 15, 2019

I do want to focus on the history of the cathedral, however, since cathedrals are one of my favorite things to study. Whenever I’m in Europe, I always drag my family and friends to as many churches and cathedrals as possible every day. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve been to, but I love them all. Unfortunately, I never got to visit Notre Dame de Paris, but I have studied it, among many other iconic cathedrals of the Gothic age.

The Gothic age of cathedrals began in France, close to Paris, with the renovation of the abbey church of St. Denis. In 1135, Abbe Suger initiated the renovation of the abbey church with a different perspective than that of the architects of the Romanesque era- Suger began an initiative that laid the foundation for the characteristics of Gothic that reigned for centuries, and continues to influence design today.

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St. Denis

The main things that Suger focused on during his renovation were light and height. Ever since, the most notable features of Gothic architecture are the tall buildings with big windows that allow for a lot of light to enter the interior spaces. The previous Romanesque style that dominated Europe up to this time is recognized by shorter buildings with thicker walls and less window space; they could be very dark inside, which suited a monastic lifestyle.

A significant step towards this change was in the innovative addition of buttresses during construction. These exterior supports, and later the flying buttresses in particular, provided extra strength to the walls so that they could be taller and thinner, which meant more window space and more light could enter. The goal with using this architectural design was to become closer to God and closer to Heaven through high ceilings and exposure to light. Gothic churches also were designed with the aim of accommodating more people- especially pilgrims, which were growing in numbers at this time.

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Orleans Cathedral

Other significant aspects of Gothic architecture include pointed arches. When we were all in grade school or high school we all learned the difference between rounded Roman arches and pointed Gothic arches. In fact, pointed arches are much better at distributing the weight of taller walls than rounded arches are. Another feature that could also be effective in distributing weight is rib vaulting, which is the sometimes very intricate network of arches that create ribs along the nave, choir and side aisle vaults.

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Plan of a Gothic Church
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Simple Rib Vaulting at Durham Cathedral
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Intricate Rib Vaulting at Gloucester Cathedral

Notre Dame de Paris was begun several decades after St. Denis by Bishop Maurice de Sully in 1160. It took 100 years for the majority of the main structure to be completed. Over the centuries since, it has been renovated and changed according to the times, particularly during the French Revolution. In the last decade of the 18th century, Notre Dame became the Cult of Reason (among other such things as a warehouse) before being restored in 1801.

Following last week’s fire, we are about to witness the next cycle of regeneration of this magnificent building; this building that saw kings and queens and sacraments of parishioners across centuries is about to enter a new phase. While it is sad that such a meaningful building has been broken, it is even more meaningful that we are going to put it back together. It can now continue its own journey and be a witness of all it has seen to the people of the next centuries who will still be able to visit it because of our care.

Photos from Google image searches.


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This year’s big travel plans include visiting Munich and celebrating Oktoberfest. I’ve been to Oktoberfest celebrations here in the states before, but I don’t think they really hold a candle to the real deal in Germany.  Oktoberfest typically occurs at the end of September to early October.  Cities around the world will gather crowds of people to eat sausages and Bavarian pretzels and drink as much beer as possible; but what are the origins of this festival?

Oktoberfest began in Munich, with the wedding of the future King Ludwig I to Princess Therese on Oct. 12th, 1810.  All the citizens of Munich were invited to festivities held on the lawns by the city gates.  The celebration was ended by a horse race, which was celebrated again the next year- and so began the tradition.  It was built upon every year after that by adding an Agricultural Show, carousels, and of course, beer vendors, among other things.  The giant beer tents or halls that we associate with Oktoberfest celebrations didn’t develop until 1896 to promote the brewing industry. 

Today, the Oktoberfest grounds have activities such as roller coasters in addition to the  beer tents.  There is also live music and multiple parades.  The mayor of Munich even participates in tapping the first barrel of beer to open the festivities.

As a cultural stereotype, Oktoberfest is the epitome of traditional German culture and the love of good beer (or  “bierernst”).  Munich is in the Bavarian region of Germany, which is the typical leiderhosen and beer stein style of German that we associate with Germany and Oktoberfest, and there is a long history of loving good beer in Bavaria.  Perhaps most well-known, Bavaria instituted the Reinheitsgebot, or the “beer purity law”, in the 16th century in order to ensure the quality of the beer being produced in the region.  Issued by Duke Wilhelm IV in 1516,  it allowed for only four ingredients in brewing beer: hops, barley, water, and yeast.  While today this might not be necessary considering modern food safety laws that are in place, many are still steadfast believers in the traditional method and in making traditional German beers.

Leading up to Oktoberfest later in the year, I’ll discuss other aspects of the history of beer and of Germany.  Thanks for coming along! -Lauren

Sources I used and links for more information:

  1. https://www.oktoberfest.de/en/article/Oktoberfest+2018/About+the+Oktoberfest/Oktoberfest-Calendar+2019/4928/
  2. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/04/29/475138367/germanys-beer-purity-law-is-500-years-old-is-it-past-its-sell-by-date
  3. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36110288
  4. https://www.oktoberfest.net/history-oktoberfest/
  5. http://www.ofest.com/history.html
  6. https://www.muenchen.de/int/en/events/oktoberfest/history.html
  7. https://www.britannica.com/place/Bavaria

Welcome Back!

Hello again! It’s been a few years, and I’ve been busy! I just wanted to take a minute to let you know what I’ve been up to since my last post.

Well to start, I’ve graduated college. I finished my undergrad in Anthropology, with minors in Latin and history. I did two study abroad trips, which I will talk more about later. The first was in Belgium doing an archaeological field school, and the second was a semester abroad in London.

This year, I got a job at a travel company that focuses a lot on immersion in the destination, as well as history and culture. I hope to spend some time describing these destinations from a travel and history perspective now. It’s important to me to travel and learn about other cultures and places, especially since the world is so integrated and more connected today, and it has become even more vital to understand each other and have respect for other cultures.

My hope is that people like me with a passion for history and travel will find these posts both informative and inspiring- that they will make you want to travel to experience these amazing places and cultures for yourself.

Thanks for coming along on the journey with me!


Memorial on Tower Green

Memorial on Tower Green

This picture was taken in the Tower of London on the Tower Green.  It is right in front of the chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula and is on the site where the scaffold was supposedly located.  It was there that two of Henry VIII’s wives were executed- Anne Boleyn in 1536 and Catherine Howard in 1542.  The Lady Jane Grey, sometimes referred to as the Nine Days’ Queen, was also executed there.  When Edward VI, the only son of Henry VIII, was king, he named Jane Grey to be next in line for the crown instead of his sisters.  Edward died young in 1553 and Jane became queen, although it was only for nine days before she was overthrown and imprisoned.  She was eventually executed in 1554.  All three women are buried in the chapel.




Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

This photo was taken in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral.  The church, sponsored in part by Henry III, was founded in 1220 and completed around 1266.  It was built in the Early English Gothic style.  The two shades of marble and stone, along with the Gothic arches and ribbed vaulting are characteristics of this style.  The cathedral houses an original copy of the Magna Carta, although the royal seal is no longer attached to it.


The Murder of Thomas A Becket

The Murder of Thomas A Becket

This is a beautiful box enameled with a depiction of Thomas a Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and his funeral. It was made in France around 1180 in memorial to him and at one point could have held a relic associated with Thomas. Thomas Becket was Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury for Henry II. The two couldn’t get along after Thomas became Archbishop. Supposedly four of Henry’s knights took it upon themselves to get rid of Thomas- as seen on the box.

From the Victoria and Albert Museum
London, England

“Since distinguished heart and brilliant deeds go together, it is not appropriate for a mean heart to hold the open hands back, No; may the hand follow a bounteous heart in giving.”

-From Book 5 of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, translated by Helen J. Nicholson in The Chronicle of the Third Crusade, describing the generosity of King Richard I