Evidence Accumulates for Ancient Transoceanic Voyages, Says Geographer
Theories on the fringe of science sometimes slowly work their way into the core as the evidence accumulates.
“A classic example is the continental drift [theory],” said cultural geographer Stephen C. Jett, professor emeritus at the University of California–Davis. “In 1955, if you believed in continental drift, you were laughed at. In 1965, if you didn’t believe in continental drift, you were laughed at.”
He was a geography student while this dramatic change in opinion occurred, and he took the example to heart. Encouraged by a professor of his at Johns Hopkins University, Jett started a decades-long investigation into another controversial theory.
Mainstream anthropology and archaeology holds that Norse expeditions around 1000 A.D. were the only ones to make it to the New World before Christopher Columbus landed in the 15th century. But on the fringes are multiple theories about other successful pre-Columbian expeditions. These theories are placed under the umbrella of “diffusionism.”
“At the outset, I supposed that accumulating the evidence and … putting it out there would change the point of view, at least gradually,” Jett said. “But there hasn’t seemed to have been a lot of that. There’s a good deal of inertia, a good deal of resistance to the whole concept.”
According to Jett, one of the reasons it has been difficult for the concept of early transoceanic voyages to penetrate mainstream history is that it requires a multidisciplinary perspective.
“If you confine yourself to one field, you won’t see it,” he said.
Jett has a multidisciplinary perspective. “Geography is a very broad discipline,” he explained. For example, physical geography gives insight into climate, oceans, landforms, and other elements relevant to long-distance travel. Cultural geography, Jett’s specialty, has helped him see many similarities between ancient Old and New World cultures. But, he said, more biological evidence is emerging to supplement the cultural evidence.
As a graduate student, he discovered precise similarities of blowgun construction in various cultures. The similarities could not, in his opinion, have arisen independently; they clearly point to transoceanic contact and influence. But, he said, more biological evidence is emerging to supplement the cultural evidence. Research into the spread of diseases and plant species, for example, suggests ancient transoceanic contact.
Jett outlined what he calls “six evidentiary revolutions” across several fields that have greatly boosted the diffusionist theories. “We’re getting close to what could be a turning point,” he said.
It is beyond the scope of this article to explore every “evidentiary revolution” in depth, but we will briefly look at each as discussed by Jett.
‘Evidentiary Revolution’ No. 1: Maritime Archaeology and Navigation Traditions
A major objection raised against the so-called diffusionist theories is that transoceanic travel would not have been possible with the watercraft and navigation techniques available to ancient peoples who supposedly made it to the New World.
But many replica boats have made the journey in modern times, successfully using only the technology available in antiquity. One famous example is that of Dr. Thor Heyerdahl, who built a boat similar to those used by ancient Egyptians, made of papyrus, and sailed it from Morocco to Barbados in 1970.
Hokule’a ( Phil Uhl/CC BY-SA )
Some 20 or more similar, successful voyages have been made, Jett said. He cited as another example the 1985 voyage of Hokule’a, a reconstructed ancient double canoe, from Hawai’i to New Zealand using traditional methods of navigation.
‘Evidentiary Revolution’ No. 2: Parasites and Pathogens
The swapping of parasites and diseases between the Old and New Worlds may have occurred before Columbus. For example, researchers at the National School of Public Health (Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública-Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, conducted a review in 2003 of documented parasites found at archaeological sites.
The study, “Human Intestinal Parasites in the Past,” states: “Ancylostomids [hookworms] have been found in archaeological sites from both New and Old Worlds. … Human infection has been present in Amerindians far before Columbus. It strongly suggests some kind of transoceanic contact before 7230 ± 80 years ago. … Ancylostomids … require warm and moist conditions to complete their life cycles outside their host, [and] could not have survived during human migration by land through Bering Strait during the last ice age.”
A hookworm ( Fernand Olive/Public Domain )
Jett mentioned that tuberculosis and syphilis are among the diseases apparently present in both the Old and New World in antiquity. The theory that they were spread by pre-Columbian human contact remains controversial.
The spread of tuberculosis has been said to have taken place via seals. As for syphilis, it was long thought to have been brought to the Old World by Columbus’ crewmen, who contracted it in the New World. Some evidence in Old World skeletal remains has suggested, however, that it was present in the Old World before Columbus.
Researchers at the University of Vienna, for example, published a paper titled “A probable case of congenital syphilis from pre-Columbian Austria,” in 2015, after studying the remains of a child. The paper states: “Our findings contribute to the pre-Columbian theory, offering counterevidence to the assumption that syphilis was carried from Columbus’ crew from the New to the Old World.”
But many experts say the evidence for pre-Columbian syphilis in the Old World is inconclusive, that the symptoms evident in these skeletal remains may have been left by conditions other than syphilis.
‘Evidentiary Revolution’ No. 3: Domesticates
Jett said: “Now we have archaeological remains of cultivated plants, probably around 20 of them, that have been found in the wrong hemisphere—that is to say, New World domesticates found in archaeological sites in South Asia and here and there.”
“A lot of it has been published in overseas journals that most Americans don’t read,” Jett said.
For example, custard apple ( Annona squamosa ) seeds found at an archaeological site in north-central India were analyzed by Anil Kumar Pokharia at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany and other Indian researchers in 2009. The custard apple, native to South America and the West Indies, was previously thought to have been brought to India by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Pokharia wrote, however, in his study published in the journal Radiocarbon: “Dates of the samples push back the antiquity of custard apple on Indian soil to the 2nd millennium B.C., favoring a group of specialists proposing diverse arguments for Asian-American transoceanic contacts before the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 A.D.”
A file photo of a custard apple. ( Elijah van der Giessen/CC BY )
Carl Johannessen, a retired University of Oregon geography professor, and John Sorenson, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University, have also collected many biological references, Jett noted.
The chicken is one domesticate that has received a lot of attention even in American media, Jett said.
In 2007, anthropologist Alice A. Storey at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, led a study titled “ Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre-Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile .”
Chicken bones found in Chile seemed to prove Polynesians introduced chickens to the Americas before Columbus. In 2014, a study led by Alan Cooper , director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, took a different approach to DNA analysis of the chicken bones and suggested they were genetically distinct from Polynesian chickens.
But Storey stands by her analysis and criticizes Cooper’s study for using DNA from modern South American chickens in its comparison.
She told National Geographic : “The bulk of their research focuses on modern DNA. Using modern DNA to understand what people were doing in the past is like sampling a group of commuters at a London Tube station at rush hour. The DNA you get is unlikely to provide much useful information on the pre-Roman population of London.”
Research on other domesticates found at archaeological sites in South America and elsewhere continues to tantalize experts.
David Burley, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, has no doubt Polynesians reached the New World. He told National Geographic: “The evidence for Polynesian contact with the New World prior to Columbus is substantial. We have the sweet potato, the bottle gourd, all this New World stuff that has been firmly documented as being out here pre-Columbian. If the Polynesians could find Easter Island, which is just this tiny speck, don’t you think they could have found an entire continent?”
‘Evidentiary Revolution’ No. 4: Human Genetics
Human genetic evidence for transoceanic contact, found in indigenous New World populations, is often dismissed as being contaminated by colonial European genetic material coming in after Columbus.
“But the patterns, especially those characteristic of South or East Asia, do not closely match those of the sources of the colonizers,” Jett said, “because there wasn’t any significant colonization from those areas in colonial times.”
He also pointed out that the genetic markers are found in the same areas there are cultural manifestations that suggest early transoceanic contact.
Dr. Donald Panther Yates has analyzed Cherokee DNA and culture to find links with the Old World he says must have been forged long before Columbus arrived.
In a paper titled “Anomalous Mitochondrial DNA Lineages in the Cherokee,” Yates discussed two genetic groups, known as haplogroups T and X, in the Cherokee.
He wrote: “The level of haplogroup T in the Cherokee (26.9 percent) approximates the percentage for Egypt (25 percent), one of the only lands where T attains a major position among the various mitochondrial lineages.”
Of haplogroup X, he wrote: “The only other place on Earth where X is found at an elevated level apart from other American Indian groups like the Ojibwe is among the Druze in the Hills of Galilee in northern Israel and Lebanon.”
Yates also observed parallels between Cherokee language and ancient Old World languages. For example, the Cherokee word, karioi—meaning “leisure” or “ease”—is literally the same word in Greek for “amusements.”
‘Evidentiary Revolutions’ No. 5 and No. 6: Linguistics and Calendar Systems
Jett referenced the work of Brian Stubbs—a linguist at Utah State University Eastern, Blanding Campus—as suggesting a link between the Old World and the New. Stubbs recently published a volume showing an overlap between Uto-Aztecan languages of the New World and Afro-Asiatic languages, such as ancient Egyptian and Semitic languages.
Many other connections have been made but haven’t received much professional attention yet, Jett said. He hopes linguists will follow some of these promising leads.
Jett edits a journal titled Pre-Columbiana. In the forthcoming issue, he will publish an article written 30 years ago (but which has remained unpublished until now) by the late prominent archaeologist and epigrapher David H. Kelley that shows similarities between the Mayan and Eurasian calendar systems. Kelley argued that these similarities would not have arisen independently. Kelley earned fame in the 1960s for major contributions toward deciphering Mayan script.
Though some of the objections to diffusionist theories have been evidentiary—that is, questioning the validity of the evidence—Jett has seen other kinds of obstacles as these theories work their way into the mainstream.
Some people feel that diffusionists belittle indigenous American populations by suggesting that those cultures would not have formed independently, but instead required input from the Old World. Some diffusionist studies are also not sufficiently rigorous, marring the reputation of diffusionists in general, Jett said.
Furthermore, diffusionism calls into question scientists’ efforts to make generalizations about how cultures develop. If all civilizations are historically related, then there are no independent examples to compare to one another in order to formulate generalizations. This acts as a psychological obstacle in the minds of anthropologists, Jett said. It undermines much of the seeming progress made in this field of study.
As evidence continues to accumulate, and with a continual influx of young scientists replacing the old, Jett feels we’re on the cusp of an overall breakthrough for the diffusionist perspective. Jett’s book, “Ancient Ocean Crossings” is in press at the University of Alabama Press and is expected early next year.
Top image: Credit: April Holloway
The article ‘ Evidence Accumulates for Ancient Transoceanic Voyages, Says Geographer’ was originally published on The Epoch Times and has been republished with permission.