Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Travel

 Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Travel
by T. Michael Smith


Prehistorians now know that by at least 40,000 and possibly 50-60,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had left Southeast Asia, crossed the South Pacific, and entered Australia (Camm 1989:28). A researcher could think the crossing a result of an accident--perhaps some unfortunate Australian aboriginal primal couple clinging to a log and trusting to fate. However, it is also possible these people, and others of the period, had a more sophisticated form of water travel than just gasping the nearest floating object with survival instincts. A raft or primitive boat may have evolved to facilitate river crossings, fishing, or coastal travel. We cannot expect that such a perishable craft would have survived for us to examine, and we should remember that the voyage probably took place from a more proximal, ice-age, coastline now long submerged, as great coastal areas of Asia and the Indonesian archipelago were exposed during the Pleistocene ice advances. Low sea levels occurred around 50,000 and 20,000 B.P., and a high rise occurred around 40,000--arguing for a 50,000 or an earlier date (Kirk & Thorn 1976). The subsequent inundation of these areas would also have caused some important habitat/population pressures, particularly in the great Sunda shelf (Ulock & Power 1989).


In the New World, our first hard evidence of boat travel is the spread of the Archaic period's Red Paint People from Europe to North America along the Atlantic coast. These people had to have boats to spread their settlements as they did (NOVA Film: Secrets of the Lost Red Paint People, 1987).
Other emigrants to America are evidenced on the west coast. For instance, the Russian archaeologist Ruslan Vasilevskii (1989) reports similar artifacts from Asia's Maritime Archaic along the North Pacific rim from Japan to Oregon. Similarly, Japanese-like pottery has been reported in a 6th millennium B.C. context from the Columbia River (Stengar 1989), and Asian-like microliths are found in Alaska in a 5th millennium B.C. context (Davies 1989). Ceramics from Ecuador were linked by Meggers, Evans, and Estrada to Japanese Jamon peoples in an early, 1965, report. The interpretation instantly became controversial, almost as much for its claims of being the first American ceramic tradition (3600 B.C.) etc. as being some transoceanic phenomena. Earlier traditions have now been found, but the issue of Jamon etc. influence in these Valdivian ceramics' remains. Debate continues, but interestingly, an argument for a circum-pacific Archaic fishing culture pottery has been emerging (Meggers 197 1; 1975; Jett 1991:25).

Earlier boat people may exist. Some Paleo-indian researchers feel that the ice-free corridor was not the only early migration route into the Americas. They hypothesize that people with an oceanic-using, coastal-moving, shore/land-oriented culture entered the New World from Asia during an interstitial. Theory advocates have thin but interesting ethnographic and site evidence to support their hypotheses. These possibilities are causing a reorientation of some Paleoindian research designs to address the question of where to look for the evidence of these particular Paleoindians (Nova 1987). All the Paleoindians were probably not big-game hunters. A coastal subsistence adaptation may extend back further than the Archaic period.

Abundant evidence placing Paleoindians in the New World by 15,000 B.P. has existed for many decades. The few earlier dates were formerly widely challenged and usually dismissed. Naturally, conservative science supported the firm material and pointed out the inadequacies of the early material from such sites as Tule Springs, Lewisville, and Calico. More recently, new finds in El Bosque, Nicaragua, Pedra Furada, Brazil, Chile, Pennsylvania, etc. evidence that Paleoindians were here long before 15,000 B.P. At this point, no one knows just how far the record may extend back into the Pleistocene. The 15,000-year ceiling of recent period mainstream academia has fractured, and exciting new research is underway.
Paleo and Archaic eras are not the only periods undergoing transoceanic contact reassessment. Rather, there is more evidence for such contact gathering in later periods. The 15,000-year ceiling and traditional subsistence assumptions about Paleo and Archaic peoples dogmatically espoused in some anthropological sectors are undergoing adjustment. Clearly, man's evolutionary history remains in the Old World, but early and ongoing contact with the Old World has taken place. Furthermore, the oceans obviously served as travel routes for some cultures, and limited numbers of those people probably found their way here repeatedly over a very long period of time. People came to the hemisphere early and repeatedly by sea and by land.


Beyond the Paleoindian and Archaic period issues, there are many other areas of research that are providing evidences of transoceanic contact. These areas are native American traditions, other historical sources, epigraphy, physical anthropology, archaeological features, archaeological artifacts, experimental voyages, disease research, theoretical reorientations, and botanical research. Most researchers have been trend driven, generationally narrow, and not as sensitive to some of the information as they should have been. However, the present vigor of transoceanic contact studies should be seen as a partial reaction to these shortcomings.

Conquest and Destruction. When the Spaniards came to Latin America during the Age of Exploration, they followed a long tradition and came by boat. However, unlike the earliest settlers, the Spaniards came as Conquistadors (conquerors). In this, they were efficient and thorough, rearranging political systems, capturing economic systems, imposing new religious beliefs, burning historical records, enslaving the population, etc. The British and French were not the enslavers the Spanish were but were similarly devastating to North American native populations. The Americans, who grew principally from British stock, appear little different from the other European powers. Consequently, during North America's first 350 plus years (1500-1850+), European superiority systematically destroyed native cultures. Sadly, perspective requires that this conquest be seen as a gruesome process in which not only millions of native people died but also whole cultural traditions disappeared, leaving little evidence they ever existed. This is not to say that the Native Americans were not already in the business of killing and enslaving each other before the post-Columbus conquest. Like most other humans the world over, Native Americans had not learned to live together peacefully.

The conquerors believed their actions to be "manifest destiny"-a type of racial, cultural superiority ethic that is usually unacceptable by today's humanitarian standards. However, the important point for us here is that these tragic events greatly obscured the history of the Americas. Most Native American history was lost. Subsequent study of ancient America by American/Europeans was, for good and bad, naturally intertwined with the parent European culture and manifested little interaction with native cultures. Original and ongoing Native American perspective was basically lost. Only pieces survived, and many of those were either not utilized or were withheld by Native Americans.

Cultural Exertion and Preservation. Presently, we may be pleased that Native Americans are interacting more, exercising greater control over their heritage, writing some of their own histories, and struggling with cultural preservation, integration, and interpretation issues. Let us all hope that as the various Native American groups acquire back their material culture from the museums, etc. across the land and around the world, that they commit to preserving it as well as the Anglos/Latins. Perhaps some readers may not understand the context of these remarks, but the outflow of Native American items from museum repositories under recent legislation mandates is one of the most significant developments within American history of recent years. Too little is being said about it.

Early Histories and Rules of Evidence. Moving in the wake of the catastrophic conquest and resettlements were a few individuals who sought to preserve some of the remaining threads of aboriginal history. In succeeding generations prior to the establishment of our modem educational systems, savants and other early researchers, including a few Anglo-educated natives, recorded portions of disappearing native cultures. As the elite, traveled, educated men of their age, the savants began to note (often from personal experience) what they recognized as New World /Old World similarities. Occasionally, less educated and affluent whites, having contact with the frontier, made similar notes, such as the presence of Gaelic words among Woodland tribes (Priest 1834:225).

In an era and culture in which literal biblical explanations of the peopling of the earth were unchallenged, biblical diffusion hypotheses abounded. However, European, Asian, African, etc. migrations were also written of, sometimes with little hard evidence and scant scrutinizing of assumptions. It is no surprise that as prehistory/history became more rigorous from the mid-1800s down to today, these earlier, looser studies were identified as being of less value than the more analytical, modem, "objective" approaches, reflecting the latest trends of research. Tightening rules of evidence raised history to a higher degree of reliability while making it culturally narrower and even exclusionary. A developing science that moved against some of traditional biblicalism naturally tended to move against biblical diffusionism as well.

Surviving native "history" is something different than the histories being written by Anglo/Latins. Today, these native statements are usually called things like myths and legends. Myths and legends are less-precise histories---especially when they are oral, as are most of these native materials. Nevertheless, they are important general statements about a people who occasionally refer to specific historical events, such as the migration of the Aztecs southward into the Valley of Mexico.

Material Culture and Tight Rules of Evidence. As excavation and analysis procedures tightened, many academics seem to have excluded from serious consideration many good historical artifacts and features along with the stray and the bogus objects. It has made a great deal of difference that a transoceanic evidence like the Bat Creek Stone was found in a professional dig rather than by the farmer plowing his field. Similarly, to regularly exclude all the Old World coins ever found by an individual because a professional archaeologist didn't se them come out of context sets a clean standard but eliminates a lot of artifact material from consideration, passes over a lot of evidence, and irritates more than a few people by assuming they were all unreliable individuals. Today, some academic professionals are realizing that the wealth of transoceanic indicators is demanding not only a reassessment of the general isolation-diffusion issue but also a reevaluation of some particular, previously dismissed artifacts and features.

Theoretical Narrowing. As new, rigorous methods developed during the nineteenth century, prehistory narrowed its theoretical base. After 1860, it began to be increasingly common to theorize the peopling of the Americas through only evolutionary, Bering Strait approaches. As pieces of evidence for evolutionary theory gathered, the Bering Strait/in situ theory became firmly intertwined with avant garde academia and, hence, modem American academia. The Bering Strait approach became virtually the exclusive explanation for native cultures. Fortunately, a small but growing portion of today's educated now realizes that in situ development theories inappropriately excluded many evidences of Old/New World contact. Careful students are now more aware of the limitations of the evidence the typical historian/archaeologist grapples with as he or she attempts to reconstruct portions of the past which then get generalized about in major textbooks. Basically, we shouldn't forget we work with only threads of the past-fragments of a wider history that cannot now be recovered. We have no record for most of what happened in prehistory, and few scholars spend much time addressing what we don't and can't know. This lop-sided presentation tends to distort the situation such that when one picks up a gene survey book on the pre-conquest history of the Americas, it is all too easy to be impressed with what we know and ignorant of what we don't know. Despite this situation, we may still take pride in what has been learned and have cause to be excited about the great mysteries of the past we have yet to reveal.

Relevant History. Threads of written history existed that had important things to say about prehistoric America, which the typical prehistoric archaeologist guided only by "European" historical/evolutionary anthropological training missed. A reading of many pro-transoceanic contact books will introduce those sources. But, for students who are unfamiliar with them, I might mention they include such things as papyrus texts mentioning Egyptian fleet trips traveling into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the extensiveness of the Carthaginian fleet, Julius Caesar's remarks about the more powerful Celtic navy he was able to defeat, Celtic and Norse sagas that mention voyages and lands to the west, accounts of Irish monks traveling to western lands, scattered ancient maps, and a number of oriental/Indian subcontinent inferences.

In addition to these textual items, an array of oral traditions, now somewhat put to print, from New World and Old World cultures suggests transoceanic contact. In and of themselves, one of these folk traditions bears little weight, but put into the wider mosaic that is emerging of numerous contacts over a long period of years involving many different cultures, some more intensely than others, the references take on additional and often less ignorable meaning.

Significant Revisionism.  When the study of the Americas moved away from considerations of transoceanic contact, a key evolutionary-isolationist interpretive framework became dominant and has persisted into the present era. Significantly, much of the key evidence that is forcing the modification of that framework has come not from the social sciences, for those evidences were often set aside, but rather, they arise because the natural sciences have brought forth evidences that require the others be reassessed. This firmer evidence from the natural sciences of human transoceanic contact in pre-Columbian times is one of the significant driving forces of the emerging revisionists in ancient America history. This recognition of transoceanic contact, now underway, has the potential to alter our interpretive framework of ancient America in a way not seen since the addition of evolutionary theory. Pure isolationism has failed, evolutionary theory is all the more evidenced, and significant diffusion and migration issues must now be addressed.  


The earliest residents of the Western Hemisphere settlement occurred longer ago than recent academic expectation suggests and far longer ago than fundamentalist Biblical/Book of Mormon expectations say it did. In the second article, we discussed some of the methods, theory, politics, limitations, and cultural movements of American prehistory/history and concluded that energy for transoceanic studies is building. We will look briefly at two important areas of transoceanic contact study-physical science evidences and replica voyages. Of course, this paper is not exhaustive and many other areas of transoceanic contact exist. There are two in particular which, because of their importance to the transoceanic contact issue, are most instructive. Together, they show (1) that contact really took place and (2) that contact would have happened through similar journeys.

Some of the best evidence for pre-Columbian transoceanic contact is coming not from the social sciences but from the physical sciences. This is completely separate evidence forcing revisions of previously popular historical assessments. Some of this evidence is new, but some is not. For instance, years ago, Dr. M. Wells Jakeman introduced me to the "cotton evidence." Old World cottons have one distinctive set of chromosomes. New World cottons have two sets--one unique to themselves and one just like the Old World cottons. Geneticists pointed out that the only way this situation is to be explained is if the two cottons had differentiated themselves during the geologic past and then been reunited relatively recently in the New World. Hence, the argument develops that the Old World strain was brought to the New World by human hand and a New World dominant hybrid subsequently developed replacing the original. Former claims that the Spanish introduced cotton to the New World are now suspect. Today, diffusionist scholars debate where the Old World cotton might have come from and who before Columbus may have brought it (Fryxell 1978; Carter 1963; 1988:168-9).

Years ago it was generally assumed that plants such as pineapple and corn, which require human transport and care to survive, were spread around the world following the European conquest of the Americas. Not so now. Similarly, diseases, parasites, and rodents often were so conceptualized. Many of these earlier positions have now also undergone a forced revision, with some issues becoming so complicated with potential multiple pre-Columbian movements that tracing what came from where is very difficult. However, pre-Columbian movement to the New World is repeatedly evidenced.

It is also evidenced that plants and animals moved both from the Old World to the New and vice versa. This suggests a general transoceanic travel in pre-Columbian times, not just freak one-way mishaps. For instance, sweet potatoes may have moved out from the Americas at least twice in pre-Columbian times, and coconuts are now thought by many to be indigenous to the South Seas or Malaya but were being grown on the southwest coast of Mexico when the Spanish arrived. Additionally, the pineapple is thought to have originated in the Caribbean, but Cambodian stone carvers were depicting it in the 1400s while earlier depictions appear in India. Other important plants involved in the discussion include maize, tomatoes, yams, papayas, malice, potatoes, jack beans, tobacco, and bananas. The evidence from botany for pre-Columbian transoceanic contact has become formidable (Carter 1988:169-172; 1978).

Early travelers, perhaps inadvertently, also carried Asian rats and mice into the Pacific. Additionally, the rodents spread various parasites and diseases around. The discovery of dead hookworms in pre-Columbian remains is thought to require an early contact with Africa (Jett 1991). Similarly, one can ask what are Southeast Asian chicken bones doing in a Pueblo archaeology site? Unlike an art style or pottery form, we may be sure that natives didn't independently invent Asian chicken bones. Rather, some unknown ancient travel brought chickens from Southeast Asia such that they or their offspring subsequently became part of the pre-900 A.D. Pueblo rubbish pile (Thompson 1994:221; Carter 1971; 1991:105). Like the plant data, the collective evidence from small animals is striking.

Researching various diseases is more difficult than working with plants. Surviving Mesoamerican documents show the existence of various ailments that could be specific diseases, but the data are not definitive. Doctors don't have patients to examine or detailed patient histories to evaluate. However, now that pre-Columbian contact has been evidenced through flora, fauna, features, and artifacts in sometimes-datable archaeological contexts, we may anticipate concurrent microbial movements across the oceans, at certain times with subsequently epidemic episodes. In fact, some authors are claiming correlations with significant cultural changes to epidemic episodes (Totten 1988:197, Thompson 1994). More evidence is needed to substantiate these claims.

One of the most dramatic areas of transoceanic research has been ocean voyaging. These travels provide fascinating news bits for the general public; but, more importantly, they both explore how such voyages could have been done and demonstrate that such journeys are really possible. The rafts, skin, reed, and wooden ships of antiquity are rarely evidenced in the archaeological record.. They are too perishable. The evidence of such craft is usually inferred from other indicators, such as harbor facilities, ship paraphernalia, and art or literature indicators, etc. As one peers progressively further back into antiquity, less and less is evidenced. The water, especially the oceans, may serve as a great travelway or an imposing barrier--depending upon one's culture.

It is only in modem times that a Joshua Slocum could undertake to sail around the world-alone-and live to write about it. Before his time, voyages were different in that they were group affairs but the same in that they required lots of good fortune.

In our generation, several important experimental voyages have been undertaken to demonstrate the feasibility of various routes and forms of sea travel. In the late 1940s, the famous Kon Tiki expedition raft sailed from South America to Polynesia. Modeled after rafts plying the Pacific coast of South America when the Spanish arrived, Heyerdahl (1950; 1952) demonstrated their basic seagoing capabilities without the guiding benefits of a living cultural tradition. His ideas of South Americans' peopling of Polynesia were less well received. Contact seems to have gone in both directions, and presently the sailing raft traditions seem to have come from Southeast Asia (Jett 1978)Heyerdahl (1971) subsequently made world headlines with his two reed sailboat expeditions from Africa to the Caribbean. He succeeded in making a landfall. Reed boat traditions exist in several areas of the world, including South America.

Other intrepid individuals braving the oceans and/or seeking to rediscover lost traditions include but are not limited to the following: British author Tim Severin, who sailed a replica of an Irish skin boat from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1977; George Hew, who in 1852 traveled from Hong Kong to San Francisco in a sampan; and the Polynesian Mau Pialug, who with his crew sailed the ancient replica outrigger Hokul across some 2,600 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti. Together, these travelers showed that the difficulties of transoceanic travel were surmountable by modem adventurers who only partially understood ancient seamanship techniques. This suggests that such travel was all the more feasible by ancients who enjoyed the benefits of a living seafaring tradition (Davies 1979).

In summary, we see that sea/oceanic migrations may have begun thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years ago. Second, we have noted that the European conquest crushed native cultures, destroying most of their history and killing most of their people. Third, academia's nineteenth century rejection of diffusionist theories leads to a narrow and biased mind-set that persists today. Fourth, this mind-set has limited the development of good, professional methodology geared to addressing the obvious, but faint, problematic diffusionist/migratory evidence that does remain. And fifth, such evidence strongly suggests that diffusion/migration did occur, groups of people traveled about anciently, and early American prehistory/history will consequently be significantly rewritten in the years ahead.


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Smith, T. Michael