The Discovery of America: Fantastic Voyages Before Columbus?

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While American history books had long contended that Christopher Columbus discovered America (an idea still perpetuated every Columbus Day), documents now prove that not only did Columbus not discover America, there may have been a long procession of expl

While American history books had long contended that Christopher Columbus discovered America (an idea still perpetuated every Columbus Day), documents from a number of sources prove that not only did Columbus not discover America, there may have been a long procession of explorers who visited America, beginning with North America’s indigenous population who are thought to have arrived about 12,000 years ago.

Although there have been several theories supporting the possibility of earlier European, Asian, and Africa explorers--some of which contend long-term trading with the indigenous people centuries before Columbus arrived, most hinge on legend rather than physical proof.  But that’s not to say there isn’t impressive evidence to indicate numerous possibilities of pre-Columbian discovery, and perhaps occupation of the area now called America.  And many scholars look first to the story of St. Brendan who is known to have sailed the northern seas centuries before the accepted “discoverer” of America, Leif Erickson.

St. Brendan and His Ox-Hide Boat

Saint Brendan (484--577 CE), known as Bréanainn of Clonfert but commonly called "Brendan the Navigator,” is one of the early Irish monastic saints, chiefly renowned for his many sea-going journeys and discovery of the legendary “Land Promised to the Saints.” One of history’s Twelve Apostles of Ireland, Brendan spent a good part of his lifetime seeking places of quietude where he and his fellow monks could worship god in seclusion.

Illustration from Navigato

According to journal entries recorded three centuries later in a finely-preserved text called the Navigato, Brendan made several sea voyages to parts unknown in a craft he and his fellow monks constructed from ox-hide, during which he chronicled observing “floating columns of crystals,” “sea cats,” “smoking mountains,” “pygmies,” “talking birds,” and ultimately, the now legendary “Land Promised to the Saints.”

Based on documentary as well as archaeological evidence, archaeologists are now certain that wandering Irish monks known as anchorites did in fact accomplish quite remarkable feats of navigation during the sixth through eighth centuries, with verifiable proof that Brendan reached the islands of Orkney and Shetland to the east of Ireland.  (The anchorites even beat the Vikings to the island of Faeroes, in 659 CE, and Iceland, settling it in 795 CE.)  But did they also reach America?  Many scholars believe it’s highly possible.

While historians recognize that a certain degree of fanciful misapprehension certainly colored Brendan’s journal entries, the probable sighting of icebergs (floating columns of crystals) and sea cats (sea lions) along Greenland’s shores, as well as his physical description of many of the lands he claimed to have visited, adds a degree of credence to his other claims, causing scholars to further speculate.

Known and speculated voyages of St. Brendan

Presupposing that he may indeed have witnessed volcanic activity, (smoking mountains), as well as pygmies and talking birds had he successfully navigated southward to western Africa, scholars have formulated possible navigational routes that could easily have brought the monk quite naturally to North America, meaning the “Land Promised to the Saints” may well have been along the coast of the United States.

The Chinese Legend of Fusang

In 1973, a commercial vessel dredging off the coast of California, brought up a sizable rock carved in the shape of a donut.  Thinking nothing of the oddity, it was simply set aside. Within the next two years, however, twenty similar stones were discovered by divers off the Palos Verdes peninsula in southern California, which began to generate a great deal of publicity and speculation. Several historians suggested that the stones were identical to anchor stones used by Chinese sailing vessels as far back as 500 CE. For scholars, this immediately recalled the famous Chinese legend of the Land of Fusang, a place supposedly visited by Buddhist monks about 1500 years ago.

According to oral legend and the writings of many Chinese and other Buddhist scholars, some 15 centuries ago, Chinese Buddhists sailed east, arriving in Fusang (America), and also proceeded north to Alaska and south to Mexico (encountering people they termed “barbarians,” whom they described in detail).  But because of the great distance and their inability to create a sustainable permanent settlement, the monks had no choice but return to China where their fantastic tales of discovery became part of Chinese lore--lore that became infused into many culture’s history, including the French who included Fusang on their 18th century maps. 

Many archaeologists familiar with Chinese prehistory, supported the likelihood that the stones found off the California coast could indeed represent physical evidence that the Chinese had reached the coast North America 1000 years before Columbus.

Eighteenth Century French map showing Fusang (area in green)

Upon geological examination of the stones, two very interesting discoveries were made. Firstly, the stones were actually of a type of rock indigenous to the California coast and as far as geologists know, is not found in the South Pacific. Secondly, and perhaps much more telling, although salt water degradation had made carbon dating inconclusive, the design was clearly Chinese in style, but there was no historic link to any such production since the colonization of America.  In short, there is no known historic reason for these stones to have ever been carved in the past 400 years. 

Additionally, the location of the anchor stones places them a considerable distance from the California shore, at what scientists now know would have been an appropriate depth for sea-going ships 1500 years ago. (The western shoreline of America has moved considerably.)  So, if the Chinese didn’t make and use these anchor-shaped stones, then who? And if they were not carved for large sailing ships, then for what?

Coming Soon, “The Discovery of America: Fantastic Voyages Before Columbus? Part II”


“Analysis of the Legends,” Quest for America, G. Ashe.

“The Palos Verdes Chinese Anchor Mystery,” Archaeology, 1982, F. Frost.

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