Who First Discovered America?

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13502

While we know 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!

categories

People and Their Environment, World

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

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:
  • 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?

Let's find that out for ourselves!

Columbus

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, let's take a 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.

  • 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 let's look at some competing theories. We will consider not only which ones seem plausible, but if any matter more than Columbus' re-discovery did.

Polynesians

polynesian statue

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

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 organically spread the sweet potato across the Pacific Ocean, it is incredibly unlikely.

As the most sophisticated sea-faring civilization, it seems very possible the Polynesians 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 exact same word for the 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 peoples.

Africa

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 a mixing but only in trade.

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

Vikings

viking cottage

After settling Iceland and Greenland, Leif Erikson sailed as far as modern-day Newfoundland, Canada around the year 1000 A.D. You can even go and 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 very 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 very popular meal in Europe. However, in the 14th and 15th century, the Hanseatic League cut the British Empire off from the ability to fish or buy cod at all. Imagine the surprise when this ban was eventually lifted, and the rest of Europe discovered that the British has found another source of the fish.

After cod is caught, 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 in the area that Europeans did not know about at the time. Unlike Columbus, fisherman had nothing to gain from telling people about their discovery because they wanted to protect their income.

codfish

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?

Japan

japanese painting

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

It seems foolish to assume this occurred only after 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

columbus voyage

By the 15th century, Europeans were unique in their interest to control new lands in a way 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 to also control them and their land.

This is the unique and transformative aspect of Columbus' first voyage. After coming to shore, he claimed the whole of the 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

Image by Lencer, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

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