Who First Discovered America?

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13502

While Columbus is widely purported to be the first person to discover the New World, many accounts exist of contact long before 1492. Come and find out how credible these theories are!


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Columbus made his way to the Caribbean in 1492.

  • But was he the first person from the Old World to make contact with people in the Western Hemisphere?

Find that out for yourself!


columbus statue

Beyond the criticism Columbus has since received, his voyage to the New World was undeniably the most consequential of any journey from the Old World. It set in motion the colonization of the entire western hemisphere, for better or worse.

However, before we get into that, look at scientists' most plausible theories regarding the first humans to set foot in the New World.

Bering Land Bridge

land bridge

The Bering land bridge is the most widely accepted theory for how humans got to the Americas in the first place.

This was a land bridge that connected Russia and Alaska. However, as the last ice age ended around 13,000 years ago, the ocean level rose and covered up much of the low-elevation land, eventually separating the two landmasses.

(These time frames are based on popular scientific consensus. Check out our lesson under Additional Resources to explore further.)

  • So the question is, at what point after this did humans manage to get to the New World again?

Many theories exist about who got to the New World first, so look at some competing theories. Consider not only which ones seem plausible but if any matter more than Columbus' re-discovery did.


polynesian statue

Although several pieces of evidence exist, the sweet potato is the strongest proof of contact between Polynesians and the New World.

Sweet potatoes originated in South America, yet somehow the Polynesians also had the vegetable by at least 1000 A.D. While it is possible a bird or tides managed to spread the sweet potato across the Pacific Ocean organically, it is doubtful.

As the most sophisticated sea-faring civilization, the Polynesians possibly discovered the sweet potato in South America. Look at this map of the entirety of the Polynesian empire.

polynesian empire

The native tribes of South America and Polynesians also have almost the same word for vegetable. Polynesians called the sweet potato kumala, while the Incas called it a kumara. This is almost impossible to have happened without contact between the two people.


canoe on river

Columbus' third voyage was reportedly made to confirm an account from the King of Portugal that African sailors on canoes filled with merchandise had been discovered in the West.

This is similar to the Polynesian-sweet-potato theory that contact between these two peoples did not result in mixing but only in trade.

  • Why might Polynesian or African contact with the New World not be quite as significant as Columbus'?


viking cottage

After settling Iceland and Greenland, Leif Erikson sailed as far as modern-day Newfoundland, Canada, around 1000 A.D. You can even see the first settlement, L'Anse aux Meadows, in person!

This was originally a trading post, but it died out quickly because trade with the natives was not fruitful. Although Vikings conquered as far south as Sicily and west as Greenland, it did not make sense for them to maintain a settlement in an area that did not bring enough money to sustain itself.

Remember, there was nothing inherently valuable about the New World. Beyond legends and some precious metals, Europeans in the 15th century made fortunes using the labor of the natives. The land itself had very little to do with it.

British Fisherman

british fishermen

Salt cod has traditionally been a trendy meal in Europe. However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Hanseatic League cut the British Empire from the ability to fish or buy cod. Imagine the surprise when this ban was eventually lifted, and the rest of Europe discovered that the British had found another source of the fish.

After catching cod, it must be dried for days on dry land. The British would not have been able to fish for and process cod on any lands known to Europe, such as Ireland.

The only answer to this large supply of salt cod was that fishermen had found the New World, likely modern-day southern Canada or the northern United States. This was the only dry land with cod that Europeans did not know about. Unlike Columbus, fishermen had nothing to gain from telling people about their discovery because they wanted to protect their income.


Read this excerpt from Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky:

“To the glee of the British press, a letter has recently been discovered. The letter had been sent to Christopher Columbus, a decade after the Croft affair in Bristol, while Columbus was taking bows for his discovery of America. The letter, from Bristol merchants, alleged that he knew perfectly well that they had been to America already. It is not known if Columbus ever replied. He didn’t need to. Fishermen were keeping their secrets, while explorers were telling the world. Columbus had claimed the entire new world for Spain.”

Potentially, a fisherman from England told Columbus about the existence of a land between them and Asia.

  • But again, did this discovery by the British merchants lead to a colonization revolution?


japanese painting

The strong Kuroshio current swept many ships across the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of the modern-day United States, which was witnessed after Columbus discovered the New World.

It seems foolish to assume this occurred only after the Western discovery of the New World, even though there is no strong proof of sustained contact between Native Americans and the Japanese. This may be because if trade with far-off civilizations did not make economic sense, contact between the Japanese and native peoples would have stopped.


columbus voyage

By the 15th century, Europeans were unique in their interest to control new lands like no world powers had before.

While Columbus likely intended to reach Asia, his discovery of the New World matters more than the earlier discoveries because it was the first time another country decided to not only trade with the native people but also to control them and their land.

This is Columbus' first voyage's unique and transformative aspect. After coming to shore, he claimed the whole New World for Spain. It cost an incredible amount to establish a reliable connection across the ocean and build the New World into a European outpost. As this map shows, Columbus claimed more land for Spain than it could have ever hoped to manage properly.

15th and 16th century map

After the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal agreed that Spain gained control of everything to the left of the line shown above. Although this did not happen, New Spain took up most of the New World for a long time.

This willingness to control vast swaths of uncontrollable land made the 1492 discovery of the New World by a European power uniquely influential.

As you go into the Got It? section, consider what was similar about all the incidents of discovery before 1492.

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