SCANDINAVIANS are preparing to celebrate the 1,000 years since Leif Ericsson sailed to the New World from Greenland. However, the idea that Norsemen were the first to reach America by sea is widely contested.
For instance, Mark McMenamin, a professor of geography and geology at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, is convinced that the Carthaginians discovered America between 350 and 320 BC. In an issue of the Numismatic magazine, and at a meeting of the American Friends of Tunisia Association last May, he interpreted a series of puzzling gold coins of that period as depictions of the known world, which includes a land mass to the west of Spain.
Experts on ancient trade routes believe that the Carthaginians reached the coast of Brazil; Punic amphorae have been found underwater in a bay near Rio de Janeiro and 4th century BC Punic coins have been excavated at seven sites in the eastern United States.
American archaeological finds offer a riot of anomalies, including ancient coins and many epigraphic puzzles. The Bat Creek Stone from Tennessee bears a Hebrew inscription said to date from about the second century AD; an inscription found near Philadelphia and dated to 800-600 BC seems to be in Basque.
The maverick historian Farley Mowat has just published The Farfarers: Before the Norse, in which he argues that the first Europeans to reach America were Albans who set off from the north of Scotland in the 8th century AD in search of walrus ivory. The 78-year-old Canadian author maintains that the remains of long houses far above the tree-line in northern Quebec were built by these immigrants. His 36 books on the life, history and ecology of North America have sold 15 million copies, and he shrugs off the scorn of conventional historians.
Evidence suggests that America has long been visited both across the Atlantic and the Pacific. The earliest human remains yet discovered in the New World, the skeleton of a young woman found in Brazil and carbon-dated to 11,500 years, shows distinct Australoid features, while the 9,300-year-old Kennewick Man from Washington State most closely resembles Polynesians of the South Pacific.
In August Xinhua, the Chinese press agency, reported that similarities between almost 300 markings found on pottery, jade and stone at unspecified ancient native sites in central America closely resemble 3,000-year-old Shang dynasty characters for the sun, sky, rain water, crops, tress and stars. American and Chinese pictographs in 56 matching sets were shown to senior academics at a symposium in Anyang, former capital of the Shang dynasty.
These impressive similarities add fuel to theories that Chinese arrived in the Americas before the end of the Shang dynasty in 221 BC. Shang legends state that a king led his people on a journey to the east, with some historians believing that he took them across the Bering Strait to North America.
The Chinese classic, the Shan Hai King of about 2250 BC, contains what seems to be an accurate description of the Grand Canyon. Peanuts and maize have been found at ancient Chinese sites dating back to 3000BC. The orthodox view is that neither of these plants left their native America before their export by European colonists in 16th century AD.
In AD 499, a Chinese monk, Hui Shen, returned to China claiming to have spent 40 years in the land of Fu Sang. He left a record of the country he visited, which has been recorded in official histories a land thought by some modern scholars to be ancient Mexico.
Then there is the 3,000-year-old pottery found on the Valdivian coast of Ecuador, decorated and incised in exactly the same way as pottery from the Jomon area of Japan, and not preceded in Ecuador by plainer and simpler bowls and urns.
Sieveking is editor of Fortean Times.