Did Phoenicians beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas by thousands of years?
It has already been established that Columbus was not the first European to lead an expedition sailing to the “New World,” across the vast Atlantic Ocean to the continents that later came to be known as the Americas. The Viking Leif Erikson is now accepted to have been the first, establishing a settlement in modern day Newfoundland, Canada, some 500 years before 1492.
Since the 19th century, a claim has been staked on behalf of the Phoenicians. In 2019 The Phoenicians Before Columbus Expedition set sail in a replica of a Phoenician ship from the Mediterranean across the Atlantic in an attempt to establish that the Phoenicians may have sailed to the “New World” as long ago as the 10th-century B.C.E.
There is no compelling archaeological evidence that the Phoenicians ever reached the Americas. The Paraiba inscription1, found in Brazil in 1872, was written in Phoenician, describing the voyage of ten Phoenician vessels, one of which was cast astray and then unintentionally crossed the Atlantic. As Frank Moore Cross explained in “Phoenicians in Brazil?” published in Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1979, the writing was too completely preserved, the mix of characteristics of Phoenician writing across various time periods impossible for an authentic inscription. Cross concluded unequivocally that the Paraiba inscription was a forgery. Various other indicators, from coins that showed the Americas to pre-Columbus Hebrew in the Southeastern U.S. have also failed to hold up under close scientific scrutiny.
However, such a voyage is difficult to disprove. As Dan L. Davis discussed in “Sailing the Open Seas,” published in Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2003, ancient mariners did not hug the land on their trade voyages, as had generally been presupposed. The Phoenicians, among others, sailed into the Ocean Deserts of the Mediterranean–vast areas where no coastline was visible–on a regular basis. The Iron Age Phoenicians were the most famous ancient mariners. If circumstances were right, or very wrong, a Phoenician trading ship could possibly have ended up lost in the Atlantic, and might even theoretically have sailed to the “New World”.
Undaunted by the lack of evidence, the Phoenicians Before Columbus Expedition set out in 2019 to “prove” that Phoenicians reached the Americas by sailing a traditional Phoenician ship, and blogging their route and experience. The Phoenicia was modeled on a wreck dating to around 600 B.C.E., found in the Mediterranean. It was built using traditional methods and materials that would have been available at the time. The ship had already completed a successful 20,000 mile voyage, circumnavigating Africa in 2010.
The Phoenicia, after 39 days at sea, did in fact reach the Dominican Republic on December 31st, 2019. Even if the actual Phoenicians never reached the Americas, the journey demonstrates their impressive boat-building skills, and their capability to have done so. There is good reason they were famous mariners.
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1Paraiba Inscription: This tracing of Ladislau Neto’s copy of the purported Phoenician inscription was discovered in the 1960’s in a scrapbook belonging to Wilberforce Eames, director of the New York Public Library at the end of the last century.
Professor Cross’s translation of the inscription is as follows:
“We are sons of Canaan from Sidon from the city of the king. A storm cast
us on this distant shore, a land of mountains, and we gave a young man to the gods
and goddesses, in the nineteenth year of Hirom, our great king.
We went from Ezion-geber on the Red Sea and departed with ten ships.
We were at sea together two years circling the land belonging to Ham but were separated
From the (protecting) power of Baal and were no longer with our company. We arrived here twelve
men and three women on the new shore of which I Mat’astart, the captain have taken possession. May the gods and goddesses grant us grace.”
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily on October 14, 2019</sup>
The Phoenician Alphabet in Archaeology
Biblical Sidon—Jezebel’s Hometown
The Samaria Ivories—Phoenician or Israelite?
Phoenician Tombs Discovered in Southeastern Cyprus
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First, a comment to Dr. Colin Naturman’s post that Ham was a late Christian reinterpretation as representing Africans.
Flavius Josephus interpreted the descendants of Ham as having populated Africa. The Bible refers to Egypt as the land of Ham (Psalm 78:51 “He smote every first-born in Egypt, the first fruits of manhood in the tents of Ham”; Psalm 105:23, 105:27 & 106:22″ Then Israel came to Egypt and Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham.” Yes, later controversy in the Christian era over the skin color of the Hamites, and whether they were the ancient Egyptian, did indeed occur, but the earlier references relating Ham to Africa is documented well before the Christian era.
Whether the Phoenician’s reached the Americas in 600 BC:
The Greek historian of the first century BC, Diodorus of Sicily, describes such a voyage: a vast “island” off the coast of Africa, many days’ sailings to the west, much of it mountainous, but favored with beautiful plains and navigable rivers. This island, he goes on to explain, remained undiscovered because of its great distance from the known world until the Phoenicians of Carthage, while sailing along the shores of Africa, were driven by a storm a great distance into the ocean and chanced upon it. After initially announcing their discovery, the Carthaginians then prevented the Etruscans from dispatching a colony to the island and henceforth kept it a secret, in part to keep their own citizens from migrating there in large numbers and in part to save it as a place of refuge in case some unforeseen disaster should overtake Carthage.
With regard to the Paraiba Stone and inscription, the French historian and philologist, Ernest Renan, did declare the inscription a forgery and fake. Renan based his conclusion on the fact that the text contained certain grammatical errors and incorrect expressions that forced him to question its authenticity.
However, a century later, an American scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon, revisited the Paraiba inscription and arrived at the opposite conclusion. The inscription, he claims, contains grammatical forms and expressions that have been recently discovered and were unknown to linguistic experts of the19th century like Renan. Therefore, he contends, the document could not have been a fake. Gordon’s translation reads, in part: “We are sons of Canaan from Sidon… We sailed from Ezion-geber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years around Ham (Africa) but were separated by the hand of Baal and we were no longer with our companions. So we have come here, twelve men and three women…may the exalted gods and goddesses favor us.”
Consequently, not only was the Phoenician voyage in a then contemporary sea-built vessel proved possible (The Phoenicia, a replica Phoenician ship built in 2008 lead by British explorer Philip Beale, reached the American continent from Carthage in 2019), but historical records document the ancient voyage.
So far, no physical artifacts have been found of Phoenicians in the Americas. Thus there is no solid proof that they made it there. However, they COULD have made it across the Atlantic and given their centuries of long distance ocean sailing, there are reasonable odds that they did, for some reason or another. Analysis of Cherokee Indian DNA shows a surprising and hard to explain partial ancestry from the Near East and North Africa. That could be remaining traces of Phoenician presence some two thousand years ago.
Years ago I read a book by Arthur C. Clark, who was an avid scuba diver. The book was about salvaging sunken ships with his friend Bob Mars, and underwater archaeologist. Mars spoke of having discovered an ancient Roman ship off the coast of Brazil. When he applied to the Brazilian government to salvage the wreck, the Brazilian navy promptly covered the site with mud and covered it forever. If true, there is a lot more nautical history than we ever dreamed of.
Pretty obvious fake. A dead giveaway is the idea that Africa would be called belonging to Ham (a late Christian reinterpretation of Ham as representing Africans when in fact in the Bible he is simply the ancestor of city dwellers).
The Vikings reached North America 500 (not 600) years before Columbus
Thanks for correcting our mistake.
That the Phoenecians reached the Americas, by accident, is very possible, but that they made a round trip is far fetched.
Let’s try this again, as my original post has disappeared: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Phoenicians DID make it to the Americas since 50 years ago Thor Heyerdahl proved the Egyptians could have made it in their papyrus boats.
Approaching Gibraltar and continuing east???