Who discovered the Americas? Let’s discuss the history of exploration and migration in the Americas, from the arrival of the first settlers, to the voyages of the Vikings and Polynesians, to the landing of the Europeans!
- Continent (n) – one of the seven large land masses on the earth’s surface, surrounded, or mainly surrounded, by sea and usually consisting of various countries.
- He plans to drive the length of the African continent.
- Voyage (n) – a long journey, especially by ship.
- He was a young sailor on his first sea voyage.
- To explore (also exploration/explorer) (v) – to search a place and discover things about it.
- Robots, rather than astronauts, explore space now.
- To navigate (navigation/navigator) (v) – to direct the way that a ship, aircraft, etc. will travel, or to find a direction across, along, or over an area of water or land.
- Even ancient ships were able to navigate large stretches of open water.
- Subsequent (adj) – happening after something else.
- The book discusses his illness and subsequent resignation from politics.
- Seafaring (adj) – connected with travelling by sea.
- The Vikings were a seafaring people.
- Norse (adj) – belonging or relating to the people who lived in Scandinavia in the past, especially the Vikings.
- Thor is the Norse god of thunder.
- To settle (settlement/settler) (v) – to arrive, especially from another country, in a new place and start to live there and use the land.
- The island was first settled 1000 years ago.
The Americas are a continent (or perhaps two continents) stretching from the arctic in the North to the Antarctic in the South. It is often described as the New World, a description that comes from European voyages of the 15th century.
When the Europeans, led by Christopher Columbus and his Spanish supporters, reached this new continent they described it as a “New World” as they thought it was a completely unknown region.
But who really discovered the Americas? This is a really interesting discussion spanning from the empires of 15th century Europe to the Vikings and Polynesians, and most importantly the original people of the Americas.
Let’s try to answer the questions “who discovered the Americas” on today’s episode!
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Native Americans: The First Settlers
Christopher Columbus is often described as the man who discovered the Americas, but this completely forgets and ignores the people already living on the continent. People who had been living there for thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of years.
From the arctic north of modern-day Canada to the great planes, to the jungles of the Amazon and the stunning scenery of Patagonia, people have long lived across the Americas. But how and when did humans reach the continent?
Let’s start with when did people first reach the Americas. The answer is… we don’t really know! Every few years evidence is discovered that suggests the first native Americans arrived earlier than previously thought.
We know for certain that humans were living in settlements across the American continent 15,000 years ago, and that humans were definitely living in some places in the Americas 20,000 years ago. This probably means that the first humans arrived years before this. Sites are being discovered suggesting people were present 30,000, maybe 40,000, years ago – although evidence for this is scarce.
The next question is “how” did humans reach the Americas. The least controversial theory is that people walked. Up in the arctic, between Asia and North America (modern day Russia and Alaska) is the Bering strait. Thousands of years ago, when sea levels were much lower, it was possible to walk from one continent to the other.
Or, rather than walking, perhaps they travelled along the coasts in boats. We know people were moving around Asia using boats at that time, and following the coast would make a lot of sense. Evidence of boats is missing, however, as the rising sea levels over the past few thousand years would have covered and erased them.
The most controversial theory is that groups of humans crossed the Atlantic from Europe. Around 15,000 years ago, we have a lot of evidence of weapons and tools in the Americas that just appeared. There was a change in the Americas – and one theory is that a new group of people arrived.
Weapons that have been discovered on the east coast of the USA are very similar to the kind of items being used in Spain and France 20,000 years ago. Could people have crossed such a massive ocean that many years ago? It is a controversial theory, but it could explain the developments we see in the Americas.
Perhaps the truth is that many different groups, over thousands of years, gradually arrived on the continent. Each group brought with them different technology, knowledge, languages, and stories. The first people of the Americas were not the same group of people, but multiple tribes, clans, and families.
Christopher Columbus: The European Colonisers!
In October every year, the USA and some other countries in the Americas celebrate the first arrival of Europeans on the continent. “Columbus Day” in the USA, “The Discovery of America” in the Dominican Republic, or the “Day of the Race” in Mexico, this day is to mark the date that Christopher Columbus stepped foot on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492.
Was this the day that the Americas were discovered? Many school children in the Americas (especially in the past) were taught this was the case.
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer born in Genoa in 1451. He had a passion for exploration and navigation from an early age and set out to find an alternative route to Asia. In order to reach Asia by boat, Europeans had to make a dangerous and long journey around Africa. Columbus believed that it was possible to reach Asia by sailing in the opposite direction.
In his quest to find a westward route to Asia, Columbus sought sponsorship from various European monarchs. Eventually, he gained the support of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, who saw promise in his plan.
Setting sail in 1492 with three ships—the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Niña—Columbus embarked on his first voyage. His primary objective was to reach Asia by sailing across the vast Atlantic Ocean. On October 12, 1492, his expedition made landfall in what is now known as the Bahamas, believing he had successfully reached the East Indies.
Over subsequent journeys, Columbus explored numerous islands in the Caribbean, including Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Convinced that he had indeed reached Asia, Columbus named the indigenous peoples he encountered “Indians.”
The arrival of Columbus and the subsequent European colonization had a lasting impact on Native American populations. Contact with European settlers brought devastating consequences, including the introduction of diseases, forced labour, and the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands. Native American societies experienced immense hardships, leading to the decimation of their population and irreparable damage to their cultures.
Some argue that Columbus’ expeditions marked the beginning of an era of European colonization, exploitation, and cultural imperialism.
Columbus was clearly not the person who discovered the Americas. Native Americans had been on the continent for thousands of years and had established complex and successful empires and societies that rivalled those in Europe and Asia. In fact, Columbus was probably not the first European to reach the continent.
Hundreds of years before Columbus’ journey, another group of Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean – the Vikings of Scandinavia.
Vikings is the modern name for seafaring people of Scandinavia, or modern-day Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. From around the 8th century to the 11th century, they raided, colonised, settled, traded, and explored over a vast area.
We may think of the Vikings as being located in Scandinavia, but the extent of their movement is incredible.
They settled in parts of the British Isles, with the Northern Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney being under Norse control for hundreds of years. The Vikings also raided or settled in parts of Ireland and northern England (until they were defeated in battle by the English king Harold).
After defeating the Vikings, England was then invaded by an army from Normandy in modern day France. Normandy was also a Viking settlement – its name literally means Land of the Norsemen and the region was created for a Viking leader called Rollo so he would stop attacking Paris. Vikings settled in other parts of Europe too, and the Normans would conquer England and parts of Italy.
Vikings settled in Eastern Europe – most famously founding the Kievan Rus. The names of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukrainian capital Kyiv are taken from this Norse settlement. They also reached the Islamic world, with Vikings appearing in Palestine and Iran, and even as far away as Armenia.
In the other direction, they discovered Iceland and settled on Greenland. But most importantly for today’s episode, they also reached the mainland of the Americas.
Written accounts of Viking history and legends mention a place called Vinland, believed to be in North America, where the Vikings interacted with indigenous peoples and described the resources and natural features of the land.
It is believed that the first Norse people spotted the Americas after getting lost on a journey to Greenland in the 10th century. Subsequently, Leif Erikson famously led expeditions to the continent in search of trees to use for building in Greenland.
There was a short-lived settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. This was rediscovered in 1960 and contains the remains of Viking-style buildings and artifacts. The settlers also encountered Native Americans – both fighting and trading with the people they met.
The Viking presence in North America did not lead to any long-term settlements or significant colonization. Various factors, such as conflicts with indigenous people, lack resources, and events in Europe, led to the Vikings’ eventually departing from North America.
While they did not last long on the continent, the Vikings reached the Americas well before the Spanish, Columbus, and other Europeans. But were the Europeans the only people to reach the continent?
Polynesians: Pacific Voyagers
The Polynesian people is the name given to those living in, or descended from, the Polynesia islands of the Pacific Ocean. It is believed that they are part of the Austronesian people who can be found in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, Micronesia, Melanesia, parts of New Guinea, and as far as Madagascar. The Austronesian people find their origins in Taiwan (before the arrival of Chinese speakers).
Polynesia stretched from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the southwest and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the southeast. This is a massive area, filled mainly with thousands of kilometres of ocean and tiny island settlements like Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Niue, and the Cook Islands. And this makes it one of the most remarkable colonisations in history.
Polynesian people were perhaps the greatest navigators in hisotry. They sailed without any technology, but could understand the stars, waves, flight of seabirds, types of seaweed, and position of clouds. They used this information to cross the ocean – sailing for thousands of kilometres from Asia and discovering remote and tiny islands.
After generations of migration from Taiwan, through the Philippines and eventually into New Guinea, the ancestors of modern Polynesians quickly spread into the Pacific, reaching the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji. By the 9th century BC, they had settled in Tonga and Samoa.
However, moving further than Tonga and Samoa wasn’t easy – islands get further away, winds and currents more difficult to navigate, and in some cases modern islands hadn’t even appeared yet. For around a thousand years Polynesian exploration paused. But during this pause the Polynesian culture developed and the navigators, who sailed between different islands, gradually built stronger and more stable boats.
They constructed double-hulled canoes (if you’ve watched the Disney movie Moana you will recognise these boats) which could carry people, animals, and crops for long distances. Around the year 900 (so a time similar to Viking exploration in Europe), the Polynesians began to explore again.
This time they could go further, and discovered the Cook Islands, Tahiti, Hawaii, and by 1250 had reached New Zealand. They found thousands of islands, across millions of kilometres of ocean, including tiny settlements in the middle of nowhere. The great European explorers of the 15th century could not navigate the oceans as well the Polynesian people did – Europeans tended to sail around coasts, while Polynesians would travel into the middle of the Ocean.
For example, Pitcairn Island is a tiny island in the ocean – almost a thousand kilometres from the nearest other islands. Somehow the Polynesians found it.
So, I’ve told a story about Polynesian people… why? We’re not talking about the history of the Pacific, but the discovery of America.
Well, the Polynesians were great navigators who reached as far as Hawaii and even Easter Island. Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is around 3000km from South America – a relatively small distance for the great Polynesian travellers. There is no reason for them to have stopped exploring, and if they were able to discover tiny islands in the middle of the ocean, it should have been simple to find a massive continent.
Many experts are now sure the Polynesian people arrived in South America before any Europeans. A 2020 study of Polynesian DNA discovered connections with indigenous South American DNA tracing back to about 800 years ago.
Sweet potatoes and bottle gourds, two South American vegetables, were present in Polynesian Islands meaning that travellers must have brought them back from South America. And some scientists believe chicken bones discovered in Chile suggest Polynesians must have introduced that animal to the continent before Europeans.
While we know Polynesians probably reached the Americas, we are not sure what they did there and we have not found any evidence of Polynesian settlements.
By the time that European explorers reached the Pacific, the Polynesian people were no longer a great ocean sailing people. The large canoes they used to cross thousands of kilometres of water were gone – most famously on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) where the Polynesian people had cut down all of the tall tress on the island, basically trapping themselves without the materials to build large boats.
But it is important to realise that long before Columbus and the European empires, the Vikings reached North America and the Polynesians reached South America.
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Who discovered America? Lots of different people and groups from different times and places.
The first people likely walked or travelled across the Bering Land Bridge tens of thousands of years ago. From there they spread from the north of modern Canada to the south of modern-day Argentina and Chile.
The Vikings and Polynesians, two great seafaring peoples, likely reached the Americas around the same time. The Vikings in the north and the Polynesians in the south. These groups likely met indigenous people, traded and fought, but ultimately both left or disappeared.
Columbus, in the 15th century, rediscovered the continent in his search for Asia. And what followed was centuries of violence, colonisation, and genocide as millions of native American people were killed (either by European diseases or fighting with European armies).
But I think it is important that we understand the history of this exploration. Often Europeans have an idea that they were able to discover the Americas because they were better or superior – they had better technology, boats, and skills.
But the truth is that while Spanish, Italian, French, and British navigators may be the most famous today, they were hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years behind the Viking and Polynesian explorers.
What do you think?