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 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 600 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 reached the Americas 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 reached the Americas.
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
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