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.