Ancient Ocean Crossings: Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas

Ancient Ocean Crossings: Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas

by Stephen C. Jett


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Ancient Ocean Crossings paints a compelling picture of impressive pre-Columbian cultures and Old World civilizations that, contrary to many prevailing notions, were not isolated from one another, evolving independently, each in its own hemisphere. Instead, they constituted a “global ecumene,” involving a complex pattern of intermittent but numerous and profoundly consequential contacts.

In Ancient Ocean Crossings: Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas, Stephen Jett encourages readers to reevaluate the common belief that there was no significant interchange between the chiefdoms and civilizations of Eurasia and Africa and peoples who occupied the alleged terra incognita beyond the great oceans.
More than a hundred centuries separate the time that Ice Age hunters are conventionally thought to have crossed a land bridge from Asia into North America and the arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas in 1492. Traditional belief has long held that earth’s two hemispheres were essentially cut off from one another as a result of the post-Pleistocene meltwater-fed rising oceans that covered that bridge. The oceans, along with arctic climates and daunting terrestrial distances, formed impermeable barriers to interhemispheric communication. This viewpoint implies that the cultures of the Old World and those of the Americas developed independently.
Drawing on abundant and concrete evidence to support his theory for significant pre-Columbian contacts, Jett suggests that many ancient peoples had both the seafaring capabilities and the motives to cross the oceans and, in fact, did so repeatedly and with great impact. His deep and broad work synthesizes information and ideas from archaeology, geography, linguistics, climatology, oceanography, ethnobotany, genetics, medicine, and the history of navigation and seafaring, making an innovative and persuasive multidisciplinary case for a new understanding of human societies and their diffuse but interconnected development.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817319397
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Stephen C. Jett holds a PhD in geography from Johns Hopkins University and is a professor emeritus of geography and of textiles and clothing at the University of California, Davis. He has authored books on Navajo culture and is the founding editor of Pre-Columbiana: A Journal of Long-Distance Contacts.

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Ancient Ocean Crossings

Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas

By Stephen C. Jett

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2017 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1939-7


The Myth of the Oceans as Uncrossable Barriers

Where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless as we wish our souls to be:
And such was this wide ocean.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

Geographical Misperceptions

It is not surprising that many have questioned whether it is reasonable to suppose that pre-Columbian humans, voluntarily or by accident, crossed up to 12,500 miles of uncharted, storm-wracked open ocean, in numbers sufficient to have had demographic, cultural, or historical impacts of any importance. Most scholars would reply with a resounding "No way." However, this view of the oceans as having been essentially uncrossable barriers is, to a considerable degree, based on incorrect preconceptions.

First there is a perceptual issue. People tend to think of premodern Europe as one domain, populated by whites, and the pre-Columbian Americas, populated by Amerinds, as a completely different domain. In writing of gaps between socially distinct areas of space, the American sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel observed, "we often perceive even short distances across them as considerably greater than much longer distances between points located within what we consider to be one and the same chunk [of space]." For instance, no one quarrels with the fact that ancient sailors of the Indian Ocean routinely made open-sea crossings of up to 2,000 miles, while almost everyone protests at the suggestion that seafaring humans could have crossed comparable distances on the other oceans, say, in the Atlantic between West Africa and Brazil. If Indonesians reached East Africa and Madagascar (as they did some two millennia ago, possibly continuing on to West Africa), why could they not have sailed an equal distance in the other direction, to America?

Then there is the matter of terminology. The label "New World" was first used in 1494 by Peter Martyr — Pietro Martire d'Anghiera, an Italian humanist at the Spanish court — although he agreed with Columbus's insistence that where he had been was outlying parts of Asia. Even though the America-as-Asia idea persisted for decades in some circles, the ultimately conventional use of the terms "Old World" and "New World" implied to people's perceptions that the two "worlds" were entirely separate realms, not parts of a single global system. The terms "Eastern Hemisphere" and "Western Hemisphere" — also coined by Peter Martyr — are somewhat better, but the implication is still there that the twain never met before 1492. Matters were not improved by the introduction of the name "America" by the German geographer Martin Waldseemüller, in recognition of the Florentine explorer-cosmographer Amerigo Vespucci, who had also written in 1502 of a "new land" and who was the first to refer to that land as a "continent" equivalent to Africa, Europe, and Asia, as Waldseemüller thus showed it on his influential map of 1507.


Our thinking about the world is affected by what has been called "metageography," described by the Stanford geographer Martin W. Lewis and historian Kären Wigen as "the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world: the often unconscious frameworks that organize studies of history, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, or even natural history." Prevailing perceptions of the world's geography are strongly conditioned by the kinds of maps to which people have routinely been exposed. The Harvard historian of technology George A. L. Sarton observed, "We are so deeply map conscious that we can hardly understand mapless travels," and we view the world through the filter of our maps. We may even find it difficult to absorb that humans could travel long distances in the days before decent maps were available.

The east–west axis of any standard present-day world map is the equator, and such maps terminate at either end along a north–south divide in the mid-Pacific, one-half of that ocean appearing at the right-hand end of the map, the other half at the left-hand end. This layout reinforces the notion of the pre-1492 Pacific as an insuperable barrier rather than as an entity connecting the lands of the two hemispheres. In Terra Cognita, which traces post-Columbian European conceptions of the world as shown by the history of cartography, Zerubavel wrote,

By placing America on the far left side of their world maps (thereby establishing a lasting cartographic convention that has in fact prevailed to this day), early sixteenth-century mapmakers clearly helped promote in Europe's mind the absolute separation of the New World from the Orient.

... [America's] placement on the far left rather than the far right side of world maps — totally separated visually from Asia — from the very beginning mentally lumped America together with (in fact, as an extension of) Europe into what later came to be known as "the West" and kept it from being perceived, as it very well could have been at least until 1522, as an extension of the Orient.

To the extent that the ancient Greeks, who founded Western geography, thought in terms of continents, they recognized that those known to them — Europe, Asia, and Africa — were physically joined. But the Renaissance (re)discovery of the Americas changed people's perceptions. As Lewis and Wigen wrote, "By the late seventeenth century ... [in Europe] the notion of a unitary human terrain [oikoumen?] ... was disassembled into its constituent continents, whose relative isolation was now ironically converted into their defining feature." This conception continues to influence our views.

The Matter of Mendacious Maps

Any flat map of our planet is necessarily a distorted compromise, because it attempts the partially impossible: accurately depicting Earth's curved surface on a planar surface. In practice, the surface of our orb is very commonly displayed on world maps via a Mercator's (conformal cylindrical) projection (for an example, see figure 3.1). With Lewis Carroll, we might well ask, "What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators, Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"

The sixteenth-century Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator designed his projection to permit the use of loxodromes (rhumb lines), that is, depiction of the route between any two points along any unchanging azimuth (compass direction) as a straight line, with correct angles between all such rhumb lines and all meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude (which also appear as straight). However, as a result of achieving this navigationally highly convenient property that facilitates the plotting of courses, the Mercator's projection suffers from distortions with respect to its other properties (feature shape, consistency of map distance, and area). These distortions are so great that contemporary geographers consider the projection to be unsuitable for general use, yet it continues to be almost standard in many settings.

For one thing, on a Mercator's map non-equator and non-meridian great-circle routes or orthodromes (for example, across the North Pacific), which continually change azimuth, appear as curved lines, giving the impression that they are much longer than they really are, especially those connecting east–west points away from the tropics; in actual fact, any great-circle route is a spherical straight line, that is, the shortest surface path between any two points on an orb. The significance of this is underlined when one plots on a globe (as by employing a taut string) the great-circle route from Tokyo to San Francisco via Aleutian waters. The route as seen from directly above is a straight line and is, in fact, a good deal shorter than a route running due eastward from Japan to California.

In addition, to create a flat, oblong map the curved surface of the globe away from the equator is, in effect, stretched out in an east–west direction, and the meridians of longitude on a Mercator's map run straight up and down and parallel rather than converging toward the poles as they do on a globe. Consequently, the farther from the equator a land area of a particular real size is, the greater are its apparent east–west dimension and its areal extent. This is increasingly so as one goes poleward. In addition, the farther poleward, the farther apart the parallels of latitude are shown, yielding a north–south exaggeration as well. Thus on a Mercator map the island of Greenland, for instance, is shown as larger than South America, when, in fact, it is but one-twelfth that continent's size. The farthest-poleward areas are omitted altogether on such a map, and what is shown in the higher latitudes is so stretched that it gives an extremely poor representation of distance and area.

As the poleward land areas look exaggeratedly wide, so do the water areas. For instance, the water gaps between Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Island, and Labrador are depicted as being much broader than they really are in comparison to equal true distances at low latitudes.

As an alternative to Mercator's projection, some modern world maps deal with lateral distortion by cutting the more poleward areas into separated gores (tapering, meridian-bounded lobes joined toward the equator). However, this approach breaks up the east–west continuity of the maps and makes the proximities and connections of the more poleward areas anything but obvious. This is true, for instance, of the widely used Goode's interrupted homolosine equal-area projection (introduced in 1925). This map greatly reduces poleward dimensional distortion, but gaps bite into the map from north and south — widening toward the poles — gaps that, not surprisingly, are placed in the Pacific and the Atlantic, further exaggerating the magnitude of oceanic separation. As normally drawn, Goode's projection is land focused, not ocean basin focused, and is less than ideally useful for considerations of possible transoceanic connections (although if the gaps between gores were placed in the continents rather than in the seas, this projection could be employed to depict the oceans more realistically).

How Separate Are the Hemispheres?

In contrast to standard maps, a simple polar cartographic projection, which is like an aerial photograph taken from directly over the North Pole, makes obvious the minimal water gaps in the northern parts of both the Atlantic and the Pacific (the gaps between Russia, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, as well as between Siberia and Alaska have been, in fact, sometimes entirely closed by winter sea ice). Figures 1.1 and 1.2 show this proximity in an imaginative and useful fashion.

The shortest sea distance between Norway and Greenland is only about 1,150 statute miles, and geographically Greenland is part of North America. There are, of course, intermediate potential stepping-stones as well. The Shetland Islands, less than 50 miles northeastward from the Orkney Islands off the Scottish mainland (with Fair Isle in between), lie a mere 190 miles from Bergen, Norway. The Faroe Islands, farther out in the Atlantic, lie only 310 miles from Bergen, 180 miles from the Shetlands, and some 200 miles from Scotland's Hebrides Islands. Being mountainous, the Faroes are visible from 40 to 50 miles out to sea and served as route markers even for ships that did not call there. Iceland is but 240 miles to the west of the Faroes. On any bearing between 30 and 80 degrees west of north, a ship would find itself in Iceland's soundings on the third day out from the Faroes. In good weather, Iceland's 6,952-foot Mount Öraefajökull would be visible after some 140 miles of sailing. From Iceland, it is just 178 miles to Greenland, and one need go only a third of the way to catch direct sight of that great island. On clear days, both lands are visible from the halfway point. Greenland is but 16 miles from Canada's Ellesmere Island (a day or two's walk on winter ice) and only 230 direct miles from Baffin Island; in clear weather, light-loom (see chapter 22) sometimes creates intervisibility. From Greenland straight to Labrador is about 525 miles. Thus, in crossing the North Atlantic one need never be more than 120 miles from land or more than about 70 miles out of sight of land. Further, this island-to-island route lies almost along a great circle, that is, the shortest possible overall transatlantic route.

To gain some idea of what these distances meant in terms of sailing times, we may turn to the writings of the scholarly Irish monk Dicuil (about AD 825) and to the medieval Norse sagas. Dicuil put the Faroes less than two days' sail from "the northernmost islands" of Scotland, and Iceland two days beyond that. According to the Icelandic Landnámabók and Hauksbók, it took seven days to sail nonstop from southern Norway straight to Iceland (632 statute miles at 3.2 knots). To get from Iceland to the southern tip of Greenland, normally only four days at 4.2 knots were required to cover the 460 miles of the usual route. Sailing directly from Norway to Greenland's Eastern Settlement necessitated twelve days to cover the 1,955 miles. Ireland, 632 miles away, was only five days' sail (three, according to Landnámabók) from Iceland, and circa 1,800 miles and eighteen days from Greenland.

The aforementioned voyages are hardly of daunting durations, and they make one ponder whether there was any great reason that earlier, perhaps much earlier, peoples could not have crossed the North Atlantic with relative ease, even without sail. Such distances elsewhere were, in fact, being traversed 40,000 or more years ago (see chapter 15).

In the Pacific, one can travel by boat from Korea, on the Asian mainland, to Japan, up the admittedly foggy and inhospitable Kuril Islands chain (alongside which gray whales migrate) to the Kamchatka Peninsula, along the northeastern Asian Coast, and across the 56-mile Bering Strait with the Diomede Islands in the middle; the Chukotka (easternmost Siberia) to Alaska water distance involved is exceeded by straits traversed by humans in near Oceania by at least as early as 37,100 years ago. In historic times there was much native interaction between Alaska and Chukotka, both over water and over winter pack ice. Alternatively, rather than go up the Asian mainland coast from the Kamchatka Peninsula into the Arctic, one could travel along the Commander Islands and the Aleutian Islands to mainland Alaska, the widest water gap being about 225 miles — "easily covered by the most primitive craft," in the opinion of the historian Gordon Speck, and a route signaled by migrating shorebirds and whales. In fact, a core and blade stone tool industry from 6000 BC on Anagula in the Aleutians relates to that of Kamchatka (although so far no such sites are known on Russia's intervening Commander Islands).


Excerpted from Ancient Ocean Crossings by Stephen C. Jett. Copyright © 2017 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction 1

Part I Intellectual Obstacles to the Notion of Early Transoceanic Contacts 13

1 The Myth of the Oceans as Uncrossable Barriers 15

2 Before Columbus, the Earth was "Flat"? Flat Wrong 27

3 Conveyor Belts of the Seas: The Prevailing Winds and Currents 32

4 Staying Alive While Crossing the Deep 43

5 Getting the Drift Accidental Voyages and Discoveries 48

6 No Plague in the Land? The Alleged American Absence of Old World Communicable Diseases 57

7 Why Most Domesticated Animals and Plants Stayed Home 71

8 Low Tech: The Absences of Many Old World Inventions in the New World 80

9 More on the Whys of Technological Absences 95

10 The Mystery of the Missing Artifacts 103

11 The Supposed Silence of the Historical Record 120

12 The "Silent" Historical Record Speaks: Documents Possibly Describing Pre-Columbian Crossings 130

Part II Means: The Types and Availabilities of Watercraft and Navigation 143

13 Some Nautical Myths and Issues 145

14 The Myth of the Inadequacy of Pre-Columbian Watercraft 152

15 It's Earlier Than You Think: The Antiquity of Seagoing Watercraft 167

16 Have Sail, Will Travel: The Origins, Types, and Capabilities of Sails and Rigs 173

17 Products of the Paleolithic: Rafts 182

18 Out of the Ice Age: Skin Boats of the North 192

19 Mesolithic and Neolithic Legacies: Dugouts and Lashed-Plank Watercraft 196

20 Hulled Wooden Ships East and West: The Junk and the Nao 206

21 Modern Experimental Voyages: The Empirical Approach 217

22 Asea without a Compass: Celestial Way-Finding 233

23 A Matter of Course: Seamarks and Haven-Finding 246

Part III Motives for Ocean Crossings 257

24 Repellants 259

25 Attractants 266

Part IV Opportunity for Exchange: Concrete Demonstrations of Contacts 283

26 Shared Physical Materials, Domesticated Animals, and Diseases 285

27 Shared Cultigens: From New into Old (World) 298

28 Cultivated Plants: Old World Cropping Up in the New 314

29 Tobacco, Coca, and Cannabis: The Mummies Speak, but the Scientists Stand Mute 320

30 Old World Faces in New World Places 329

31 Incongruous Genes in America 340

Part V Conclusions 357

32 Mission Possible: Crossings Occurred 359

Notes 363

Works Cited 399

Index 461

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