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Viking explorers  Source: Vlastimil Šesták / Adobe Stock

Pre-Columbian Explorers in the Americas: The Hard Evidence


These days, few people still believe Christopher Columbus was the first explorer to travel to the “New World.” But there is still a debate over whether adventurers and explorers from Europe, Asia, and Africa all landed on North and South American shores prior to 1492.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Anomalous Coins and Artifacts

Americans using metal detectors found Roman bronze coins in Maine that dated to the reign of the Emperor Severus Alexander who was murdered in 235 AD. In 1974, a similar coin was found not far from that location dating from the same period. Fourth century coins were found at a sand dune in Beverly, Massachusetts, located on the North Shore and 26 miles (41.84 km) from Boston.

A Roman coin depicting Septimius Severus, who ruled Rome from 193 to 211 AD was plowed up in Grafton, Massachusetts, and another, dating to 80 AD, was uncovered near the Presumptscot River in Westbrook, Maine. Two more, dating to 72 AD, were dug up using a metal detector at Bethel, Vermont.

Roman coins. (Manuel Gross /Adobe Stock)

Roman coins. (Manuel Gross /Adobe Stock)

Other artifacts have been found suggesting the American Indians were trading with the Romans. In 1976, a Brazilian skin diver found a large glass jar covered in mollusks near Rio de Janeiro. Eventually, 14 jars ended up in his garage. Over the years, the Brazilian government decided to bring in a world-renowned underwater archaeologist to determine the jars’ origin.

The archaeologist discovered amphorae (jars with two handles typical in the Greek and Roman period) that were unquestionably spilled cargo from a vessel that had traveled to Brazil when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power in the third century AD. The archaeological expert located two underwater Roman shipwrecks, as well.

Ancient Roman amphorae. (Juan Aunión /Adobe Stock)

Ancient Roman amphorae. (Juan Aunión /Adobe Stock)

Likewise, Roman coins were discovered washed up on the northern coast of Venezuela. The age of the coins spanned an enormously long period from the reign of Caesar Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD) to approximately 350 AD.

Seaworthy Ships and Seafaring Cultures

The bigger question, however, is: Could Roman ships in the first few centuries AD have been seaworthy? Some historians say yes. Ships were driven by sail and one or more banks of oars. In addition, they were large.

One grain cargo vessel was described as being 420 feet (128.02 meters) long, some took a thousand tons of freight, and another carried 600 passengers and crew. Historians at the time tell us another carried 200 sailors and 1300 passengers. Compare this to Columbus’ ships that ranged in size from 50 to 58 feet (15.24 meters).

Were the Romans the only ones that traveled here? Let’s look at the Phoenicians.

In 600 BC the Phoenicians from Carthage were said by the Roman historian Herodotus to sail from Egypt around the continent of Africa in three-decked 80-foot (24.38-meter) galleys. They reported, when they returned three-years later, that when they were circumnavigating the continent the sun shone on the right side not on the left.

South of the equator, of course, the sun crosses the sky in the north creating this phenomenon. A New England voyage would have been less than half the distance of their cruise around Africa.

The Phoenicians flourished as marine merchants. (Public Domain)

The Phoenicians flourished as marine merchants. (Public Domain)

Graffiti, Tobacco, and Cocaine

Graffiti on various rocks in New England have inscriptions on the wall in various languages of various people that traveled to the New World. For instance, one in Iberic read, “Hanno takes possession of this place.” Hanno was a merchant mariner from Carthage who sailed off seeking new lands from the west coast of Africa in 425 BC. He was never heard from again.

It is likely these ancient cultures traded with the New World. For example, the mummy of Ramses II (1290-1224 BC) had tobacco in its wrappings, which was not known to the ancient world (being native to the Americas). Likewise, cocaine appears as well.

An examination in the 1970s of the mummy of Rameses II revealed fragments of tobacco leaves in its abdomen. (CC BY SA 3.0)

An examination in the 1970s of the mummy of Rameses II revealed fragments of tobacco leaves in its abdomen. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Since the coca plant was exclusively cultivated in the New World it is likely that those responsible for supplying tobacco and coca to the Egyptian royal courts and temples from around 1200 BC onwards were the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. With their thirst for open commerce, their sense of exploration, and their accomplished marine capability, no other nation would have been in the same unique position.

Ancient Copper Mines and Carthaginian Coins

In 1787, workman employed in the construction of a road from Cambridge to Malden in Massachusetts unearthed a large number of Carthaginian coins. They were brought to the attention of president John Quincy Adams. Surviving specimens of the copper and silver pieces were identified as coins minted in the third century BC.

They bore short inscriptions in Kufic, a script used by the Carthaginians. Other Carthaginian coins were found in Waterbury, Connecticut in more recent times. They belonged to an earlier issue of Carthage and were minted for military use in Punic, the Carthaginian language, and bore the image of a horse’s head.

Punic-type jars, used to carry olives, liquids, and other items in ancient times, were dragged up by a Newburyport, Massachusetts fisherman in 1991, and two or more were dug up in Boston proper. Others were found at Castine and Jonesboro, Maine.

A Punic jar. (ContinentalEurope/CC BY SA 4.0)

A Punic jar. (ContinentalEurope/CC BY SA 4.0)

Approximately 5000 ancient copper mines have been found around the northern shore of Lake Superior and adjacent Isle Royale. Radiocarbon dating indicates the mines were in operation 6,000 to 1,000 BC, corresponding to the Bronze Age in Europe. Likewise, tin was needed since bronze requires both copper and tin - and it was mined high up in the Andes mountains in Bolivia.

Traveling Bananas and Other Evidence

The banana, an Asian plant, which botanists say has no American genetic history, was found from Mexico to Brazil when the Spanish explorers arrived; and it was later found in Peruvian tombs dating to 8,000 BC.

The American sweet potato was found throughout the Pacific by 12,000 BC, as was the American coconut, American cotton, and many other plants and animals. They had to have been spread by people trading with one another in ancient times.

Thor’s Theories

Some theorists propose that we should begin to appreciate our ancestors for what they were: great open-ocean navigators who circumnavigated the planet. Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated that the ocean currents act as silent conveyor belts, like the moving sidewalks in airports.

Therefore, it may not have been that difficult to journey across the seas as shown, for instance, by the Polish kayaker Alexander Doba who crossed the Atlantic three times in the 21st century.

So Which Explorers were First?

The evidence points to the Phoenicians and Romans as being in the Americas many centuries before Christopher Columbus. And it certainly appears as though a whole chunk of history has been lost to us. We did not even have a clue that these earlier civilizations were capable of such exploits.

‘Landing of Columbus’ (1847) by John Vanderlyn. (Public Domain)

‘Landing of Columbus’ (1847) by John Vanderlyn. (Public Domain)

It begs the question: historically, what else are we missing? Were there others? Were there earlier civilizations we don’t even know about? It is important we open our minds and look at all evidence in a new light.

Top Image: Viking explorers  Source: Vlastimil Šesták / Adobe Stock

By Pat Hanratty, PhD



”Roman historian Herodotus” ??? Herodotus was greek born in Halicarnassus (south coast of minor Asia) and lived before the Roman times (5th century BC)

To take just one example, why can’t the coins be explained by the presence of collectors in modernity?  There are plenty of modern people who like to collect Roman, or other pre-modern, memorabilia.  That would explain the coins, swords, etc., that are found periodically, and would explain the absence of more evidence.  Such as documentary evidence back in Rome (they werne’t shy about bragging about conquests); the leftovers of the unique institution of the Romain military encampment; etc. 

-An Anonymous Nerd

Gary. There have been analysis and studies done in Europe showing copper ox hide ingots made from Lake Superior copper. The last one I saw was done on a recently found ship wreck near Greece. Just google search it and you’ll see what you’re looking for.

Gary Moran's picture

I am impressed with the huge amounts of copper estimated to have been removed from Isle Royal area. Several copper artifacts have been found in North American burials, but no where near enouch to account for the many thousands of tons removed from those mines. However, I am not aware of chemical analyses of copper or bronze items in Europe to determine whether their source could have been those famous mines. 

There are many more examples of pre-columbus contact on the American side, but confirmation on the European side seems pretty vague. Romans kept lots of written records. Could documentation of excursions to the Americas be held in the Vatican? Surely the Church would have been interested.

It's also very likely the Chinese made it to the Americas. It's always so hard for us to believe the ancients were as modern in their era as we are in ours. There's a lesson to be learned from this.

Dr Pat Hanratty's picture


Dr. Pat Hanratty received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in psychology, master’s degree in counseling psychology from Marquette, and PhD in clinical psychology from Saybrook in San Francisco. He did clinical work much of his career.

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