July 15, 2010

Did Natives discover Europe first?

Here's a book published in 2007 that I just heard about:

The American Discovery of Europe
Author: Jack D. Forbes

An independent and indigenous revision of established history
The American Discovery of Europe investigates the voyages of America’s Native peoples to the European continent before Columbus’s 1492 arrival in the “New World.” The product of over twenty years of exhaustive research in libraries throughout Europe and the United States, Jack D. Forbes employs a vast number of primary and secondary sources to paint a clear picture of the diverse and complex societies that comprised the Americas before 1492 and reveals the surprising Native American involvements in maritime trade and exploration.

Starting with an encounter by Columbus himself with mysterious people who had apparently been carried across the Atlantic on favorable currents, Forbes proceeds to a detailed discussion of ocean currents and then to exploring the seagoing expertise of early Americans in the Caribbean, on the coasts of Greenland, and beyond. He also discusses theories of ancient migrations, the evidence for human origins in the Americas, and other early visitors coming from Europe to America, including the Norse. The book closes with a discussion of Native travelers to Europe after 1493, when they came mostly as slaves. The provocative, extensively documented, and heartfelt conclusions of The American Discovery of Europe present an open challenge to received historical wisdom. This book will be of lasting importance to Native peoples and will redefine the way future scholarship views American history.
Forbes describes the merits of his own book:

The American Discovery of EuropeThe story of Native American voyages and adventures in the Caribbean and Atlantic, some going back perhaps thousands of years, can be seen as part of a revolution taking place in the very notion of what constitutes the history of the Americas. Here we see the Original Americans as being actors in the drama of human history, as discoverers in fact (a title seldom heretofore reserved for them).

Readers may be amazed at the information about American maritime activity, with advanced sea-going cultures extending back in time to at least 7,500 years ago in the area of northeastern New England through Labrador (where, apparently, the first toggle-headed harpoons were used anywhere on earth). The Atlantic Seaboard generally, southward to Brazil, and the Caribbean region, provide evidence of vital sea-going cultures largely unknown to modern historians and the general public. But also the Inuit or Eskimo-related peoples of the Greenland region provide data indicating superb maritime accomplishments, including the circumnavigation of Greenland and navigation in difficult polar waters, extending apparently to the North Sea of Europe.
Critics aren't satisfied

Sounds good so far, but here's what the critics are saying:

The American Discovery of EuropeThe strongest aspect of this book is that it calls attention to the neglected role of the sea in American Indian history. Although indigenous peoples of the Americas lacked seafaring traditions comparable to Western Europeans or East Asians, oceanic navigation did play a role in the shaping of pre-Columbian civilizations. More work also needs to be done on the histories of Aboriginal fishermen, sailors, and transatlantic travelers after 1492. Forbes’s study reminds us to integrate American Indians more fully into maritime history.

Unfortunately, the book’s largest weakness is its speculative character. Most of Forbes’s arguments about indigenous pre-Columbian voyages remain debatable in the absence of persuasive documentary or archeological evidence. A case in point is the author’s frequent assertion that Aboriginal Americans may have widely intermarried and produced offspring with Europeans in the Old and New Worlds before 1492. As evidence for this process in Ireland, Forbes describes that the blood type found among one Australian woman of Irish descent resembles that of a blood type predominantly found among indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and South America. Although it may be possible that a lone Native American navigator reached Ireland and intermarried with an Irish woman before 1492, there is no documentary evidence whatsoever to suggest that these intercultural unions were frequent and large scale. Moreover, Forbes admits that it is unknown when this blood type first emerged in Ireland.
Book ReviewThere is plenty of underexploited material on the indigenous side of the story of the New World's encounters with Europe, and Forbes has the audacity required to make the attempt to use it. But his book is narrow in focus, short of evidence, weak in argument, inattentive to much of the scholarship, and heedless of the most interesting problems.Comment:  I thought Forbes's book sounded "speculative" when I watched the video below. The only semi-solid evidence seemed to be Columbus's encounter with the strangers in Ireland.

Still, calling attention to "the neglected role of the sea in American Indian history" is good. We know Indian cultures had ocean-going vessels on the Pacific Coast and in the Caribbean. It's hard to imagine that this technology didn't spread to every shore. And that someone didn't use it to travel from Newfoundland to Greenland to Iceland and beyond.

It also provides an effective counterweight to the Solutrean hypothesis I discussed before. You know, the claim that ancient Europeans voyaged to America and introduced Indians to Clovis points? Who's to say it wasn't the other way around?

For more on the subject, see Egyptian Mummies with Tobacco and Cocaine.

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