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.