(WHTM) — The short answer? A lot of people.
To say that Christopher Columbus is somewhat controversial is kind of like saying the planet Jupiter is somewhat large. To some, he is the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” the heroic navigator who dared to strike a path across uncharted seas in search of a new route to China and found something even more valuable.
To others, he is a monster, a man who brought slavery, disease, and genocide to the inhabitants of the Americas.
The divide clearly shows in the way “Columbus Day” is marked — for some, it’s still the traditional Columbus Day, but for others, it’s Indigenous Peoples Day, a reminder of the suffering, subjugation, survival, and strength of the people who were already here to greet Columbus’ ships. (A recent evaluation of Columbus may be found in the book “Columbus: The Four Voyages” by Laurence Bergreen.)
Most people understand that Columbus was not the first person to reach the Americas. But when did those first people actually arrive? In just the last few decades — in fact, the last few years — scientists have pushed back the date of those first arrivals.
We start in the last ice age when glaciers locked up so much water that ocean levels dropped over 300 feet. The lower sea levels exposed enough land that, starting around 38,000 years ago, Eurasia and North America became connected in the area now known as the Bering Sea. This was the “Bering Land Bridge.”
The phrase “land bridge” can be misleading. When we think “bridge” we usually think of something long and narrow. It’s easy to imagine the Bering Land Bridge as a thin strip of land just barely above sea level, that people had to cross over in a hurry, lest they get washed into the sea. In fact, at its maximum size (about 20,000 years ago) it measured about 1,000 miles north to south and 3,000 miles west to east. It’s been called a land bridge the size of a continent. It’s often now referred to as “Beringia.”
Another common misconception — Beringia must have been covered with glaciers, it being an ice age and all. In fact, sediment core samples from the Bering Sea indicate much of Beringia was a dry steppe climate, with shrubs and even trees providing food and cover for animals, which in turn could have provided food for humans.
So, the first people to move into Beringia from Eurasia may not have been in a rush to move east. But move east they did, and we can only guess why. Perhaps new migrants pushed old migrants onward, or maybe new migrants skirted around the original settlers. Maybe people had to pull up stakes when they overhunted and overfished a given area. Or maybe it was just that age-old human urge to see what was over the next hill.
Whatever the reason, people kept pushing east, then south, and became the settlers of the Americas.
Scientists continue to debate how many waves of migrations there were and when they happened. At one time, the date was around 12,000-13,000 years ago. More recently, it got bumped to about 18,000 years ago. But in 2021, scientists announced the discovery of human footprints in White Sands National Park in south-central New Mexico. The prints, located at what was once the edge of a lakebed, are dated 21,000-23,000 years ago. Other archeological studies, as well as genetic mapping, also push the date back. Some recent finds, though not as precisely dated as the footprints, suggest humans were in the Americas over 30,000 years ago.
Then there’s the water route. Boats have been around longer than people realize. The oldest preserved watercraft is the Pesse Canoe, a dugout discovered in a Dutch peat bog in 1955. Radiocarbon dating puts its age at almost 10,000 years. But watercraft go back further than that. Some have even suggested the first boats were created by one of our predecessors, Homo Erectus, hundreds of thousands of years ago. (Erectus fossils have been found on islands that couldn’t have been reached without some sort of watercraft.)
It seems quite possible that people traveled from the Old World to the New in boats, hugging the coast of Beringia. Depending on the size of the population on the move, they might travel entirely by boat, pulling ashore at night, or you would have the majority of a tribe traveling by land, with people in small boats traveling ahead to scout out the path. Whether they sailed out of sight of land at all is a question with no answer.
About 10,000 years ago, Earth warmed, glaciers melted, and Beringia sank beneath the waves except for a few small islands. The New World was, for the most part, cut off from the old.
What happens between then and 1492? Well, numerous claims of numerous people “discovering” the new world before Columbus have been made. Some of these claims are in “grasping at straws” territory, while others have some solid evidence to back them up. Foremost, in the latter category, the Polynesians and the Vikings.
The Polynesian people were the first in known history to use ocean-going ships to cross vast stretches of ocean. Starting from Taiwan about 3000 B.C.E., they fanned out across the Pacific, traveling as far west as Madagascar, as far south as New Zealand, and as far east as Easter Island. Having gone that far east, it’s hard to imagine them not sailing a little farther and bumping up against South America. One of the strongest pieces of evidence this happened? The sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, yet show up in Polynesia long before the arrival of Europeans. The most likely explanation is that Polynesians reached South America, and did a little bartering with the residents.
Meanwhile, on the eastern shores of the Americas, the most certain, best-documented evidence for European contact with America before Columbus is the Vikings. Icelandic sagas record that Lief Ericksson took a ship west from Greenland in the year 1001 and set up a settlement in an area they called Vinland. After a few years, though, they had to abandon this outpost after they ticked off the locals, who were as well-armed as the Vikings and much more numerous. This story was all we knew about Vikings in America until 1960, when the remains of a Viking settlement were unearthed in L’anse aux Meadows, at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. (It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
So how important was the Viking expedition? According to historian Daniel Boorstin in his book “The Discoverers,” the answer is — not very:
“The Vikings were probably the first European settlers in America, which is far from saying they ‘discovered’ America… There was practically no feedback from the Vinland voyages. What is most remarkable is not that the Vikings actually reached America, but that they reached America and even settled there for a while, without ‘discovering’ America.”
Boorstin’s assessment of Vikings in America, ironically enough, helps explains why, for good and ill, the voyages of Columbus were important. He was trying to discover something, though what he discovered was not what he was looking for. (To the end of his days he believed he reached the outskirts of China.) Plus, there was definitely feedback from his four voyages — treasure and empire-building for European nations, death and destruction for Native cultures — feedback we’re still dealing with to this day.