5 Controversial Theories About the Discovery of America

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Once upon a time, American schoolchildren learned how Christopher Columbus discovered America. Of course, then we had to qualify that “fact,” because Columbus “discovered” a land where Native Americans had already lived for thousands of years. Then it turned out that Columbus wasn’t even the first European to reach the New World, as evidence emerged proving the Vikings had reached North America hundreds of years earlier. Several other theories exist that still others may have reached American shores before Columbus. Some of the cases below are dubious at best, while a couple seem quite plausible.


5. Did Phoenicians Sail to America 2,500 Years Ago?

Did the Phoenicians have the skill to sail to America 2,500 years ago?

British adventurer Philip Beale hopes to sail this replica of a Phoenician ship from Europe to America to prove the Phoenicians could have made the journey 2,500 years ago. © Phoenicia.uk.org

If any group could be considered most likely to sail the ocean blue thousands of years before Columbus, it would be these “Kings of the Sea” that ruled modern-day Palestine, Lebanon and Syria for around 1,000 years. Artifacts track like bread crumbs the culture’s supposed journey from the Arabian Peninsula to the Americas; Portuguese archaeologists tell of Phoenician temples and burial grounds in The Azores, the midway point between Old and New Worlds. Other supposed Phoenician creations include petroglyphs, coins and ancient jars, found throughout the Americas. Several of these finds have been dismissed as fakes.

While the concept of Phoenicians sailing to America is considered a fringe theory, British adventurer Philip Beale hopes to make the journey across the Atlantic in a replica of a Phoenician ship, at least proving that the culture had the maritime knowledge and resources to successfully make the trip. Don’t bet against him — in 2010, he sailed his replica ship, Phoenicia, around the southern tip of Africa, proving the Phoenicians could have done so 2,000 years before the first European. Even if Beale proves the Phoenicians theoretically could have made such a voyage to America, the question will remain: did they?


4. English May Have Reached America Before Columbus

At least one historian believes the British reached America before 1470.

A replica of John Cabot’s famous ship, The Matthew. Did the British sail to America in a ship similar to this sometime before 1470? © Chris McKenna

As if Columbus wasn’t controversial enough these days, one modern theory claims the Italian explorer wasn’t even the first 15th century European to reach the New World. British historian Alwyn Ruddock proposed the theory in 1966, upon discovering a letter to Columbus written by John Day, a merchant based in the English port of Bristol. Dated 1498, Day wrote it was “considered certain” the North American mainland had been “found and discovered in the past” by Bristol-based sailors. Still other documents surfaced supporting that Englishmen had already been there, done that on the American coast — likely before 1470.

Even Italian researchers inclined to support accepted beliefs about Columbus came upon papers suggesting the country’s explorers of the era had been dispatched only to confirm earlier explorers’ findings. While Ruddock could have been the driving force behind editing world history, she perplexingly ordered 78 bags of research be shredded and burned upon her death at age 89 in 2005. Research continues today, through The Cabot Project, to explore Dr. Ruddock’s findings.


3. Did Chinese Sail to America in 1421?


A copy of a Chinese map, reportedly created in the early 1400s, showing the New World.

While early 15th century exploits of Zheng He are well documented in China, the admiral’s name doesn’t register with most Westerners. Amateur historian Gavin Menzies hopes to change that. In his 2002 book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, Menzies contends Chinese led by an admiral named Zheng He beat Columbus to the New World by more than 70 years. One of the key pieces of evidence Menzies points to is a Chinese map from the 1760s showing North and South America; the map is believed to be a recreation of a map originally made in the early 1400s. Titled in Chinese characters, “General chart of the integrated world,” it notes on the West Coast of America, “the skin of the race … is black-red and feathers are wrapped around their heads and waists.”

Most historians harshly dismiss Menzies’ theory, citing a lack of hard evidence. The theory’s fiercest opposition comes from Chinese historians, with critics noting that those supposed maps from Zheng He’s voyage are a departure from traditional Chinese mapmaking. But the 77-year-old retired British submarine commander presses on. In 2013 he published yet another book on his theory, Who Discovered America: The Untold Story of the Peopling of the Americas. He also operates a website where he further outlines his claims.


2. Did the Vikings Sail into the American Midwest?

An 1893 painting of Leif Erikson discovering America. © Christian Krohg

An 1893 painting of Leif Erikson discovering America. © Christian Krohg

For centuries, the Icelandic sagas of Leif Erikson seemed larger-than-life, until archaeologists unearthed a Viking settlement at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in 1960. Today L’Anse aux Meadows is the only widely accepted evidence of pre-Columbian, trans-oceanic contact. Dating to 1000 A.D., it’s uncertain how Erikson and his crew made their way to what’s now Atlantic Canada; some say the Norseman accidently sailed off course on his way back to Norway, while others say an Icelandic trader piqued his interest with tales of sailing past this unknown territory. While the Vikings did reach the New World before Columbus, legends and theories abound that the Vikings did more than just reach the tip of North America.

Most of these theories are considered shaky at best. Others are outright hoaxes; in 2014, news surfaced that archaeologists had discovered a Viking ship in the Mississippi River near Memphis. While reported around the blogosphere as “legitimate” news, it turns out the story originated as a faux article in the World News Daily Report. That brings to mind the Kensington Runestone. Discovered by a farmer in Minnesota in 1898, the stone created a sensation at the time. Covered in Scandanavian runes, or engravings, the 200-pound stone supposedly proved that Vikings had reached the American Midwest in 1362. But the stone has been pronounced a hoax by most scholars who have examined it. In a similar vein, claims that Vikings landed on Cape Cod, Connecticut or Rhode Island, or sailed and portaged their way across the Great Lakes to the Midwest, are not supported by evidence.


1. Did Ancient Europeans Travel to America More Than 15,000 Years Ago?

The similarities between Solutrean spear points (top) from Europe and Clovis spear points found in North America has led some to wonder if prehistoric Europeans came to America.

The similarities between Solutrean spear points from Europe (bottom photo) and Clovis spear points found in North America has led some to wonder if prehistoric Europeans came to America.

Whether you believe Phoenicians reached America 2,500 years ago or the Chinese came ashore decades before Columbus, the fact remains that there were already people, Native Americans, living on the American mainland. When did they arrive? And how did they get there? The most accepted theory is that nomads from East Asia ventured across the Bering land bridge connecting what is now Russia and Alaska (that bridge has since been submerged by the ocean). This migration is believed to have happened beginning around 16,000 years ago. But in the late 1990s, a theory emerged proposing that America’s earliest peoples migrated across the Atlantic from Europe. The Smithsonian Institution’s Dennis Stanford and University of Exeter’s Bruce Bradley contend prehistoric people from what is now France and Spain made their way to North America, possibly as long as 20,000 years ago. They argue those early Europeans had much better seafaring skills than originally thought, enabling them to follow the edge of pack ice in the North Atlantic during the last Ice Age. The crux of the theory comes down to the shape of prehistoric spearheads discovered in Europe and the Americas; Stanford and Bradley note that the same types of leaf-shaped, flint spear points common in the Solutrean culture in prehistoric Europe bear a striking resemblance to the Clovis projectile points found throughout the Americas.

Opponents say it is mere coincidence the Solutrean and Clovis spearheads are so similar. Although Stanford and Bradley continue to expound on their Solutrean theory, most recently in the 2012 book Across Atlantic Ice: the origin of America’s Clovis culture, the theory has been discounted by most scientists. Perhaps the biggest blow to the Solutrean theory came in 2014 when Nature reported the full genome for an infant that had lived around 12,600 B.C. in what is now Montana. The DNA testing reveals he descended from a group in Siberia, supporting the dominant Clovis theory of settlement via the Bering Strait land bridge.


One More: Did Ancient Egyptians Visit the Grand Canyon?

This one is as wacky as it gets, the story of two Smithsonian-funded archaeologists who allegedly came upon Grand Canyon-area caverns boasting a hodge-podge of cultural treasures — a Buddha-like idol sharing a large tomb with mummies and Ramses-era carvings. Some believers have gone so far as to claim these caverns as the stomping ground of Reptilian overlords. Yet there remains no record of these explorers being funded by the Smithsonian, and there is considerable doubt they even existed. Conspiracy buffs maintain the vaunted institution destroyed these artifacts as part of a cover-up. It’s more plausible, however, that the reporters who wrote the story for an issue of the Arizona Gazette in 1900 made up the whole story to boost sales and add a little spice to an otherwise slow news day.


Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.