Friday, June 29, 2012

The American Discovery of Europe by Jack D. Forbes

Further proof of the sophistication of pre-Columbian American cultures
In this fascinating book, published in 2007, author Jack D. Forbes brings to light many possible incidents of pre-Columbian travel from the New World to the Old. While a transatlantic crossing from East to West was an arduous and perilous voyage for early European mariners, Forbes argues that a journey in the opposite direction was much easier due to the assistance of the Gulf Stream current. He also asserts that Native Americans certainly had the nautical expertise to pull off intercontinental voyages, and their traversing of the Atlantic may not have been merely haphazard and accidental, but rather habitual and systematic.

The first American visitors to Europe were inanimate objects—logs, seeds, carved wooden objects, and the occasional corpse. The Irish port of Galway, positioned like a Gulf Stream catcher’s mitt, was the landing ground of much of this flotsam and jetsam, so much so in fact that some residents were able to build their houses with American wood. It was in Galway, in 1477, that Christopher Columbus met two Native American voyagers who had drifted into the harbor in boats constructed of dugout logs. Due to his mistaken conception of geography, Columbus thought these travelers were inhabitants of Cathay (China), but Forbes provides copious documentary evidence to indicate that they were, in fact, Americans. Forbes argues quite persuasively that Columbus’s contact with these American visitors was instrumental in influencing his decision to make his monumental journey 15 years later.

It’s already common knowledge, of course, that Columbus was not the first European in America. Norse mariners had founded settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland as early as the 10th century. Forbes covers the likelihood that these Norsemen brought Americans back to Europe, and the possible genetic influence they may have had on the population. In addition to the Galway incident, Forbes examines many other possible European landings by American visitors, ranging from prehistoric times to ancient Rome to medieval Germany. Much attention is devoted to accounts of Inuit kayakers who ventured to Iceland and Scotland. Forbes really leaves no stone unturned. He presents every possible theory of American travel to Europe, then explains which ones are based on informed speculation and which are founded on hard archaeological and documentary evidence. The book concludes with a chapter on American travelers to Europe after 1492, many thousands of which were brought over as slaves, and others who came as guests, ambassadors, or independent travelers.

I’m not a scholar in the field, just an armchair archaeological enthusiast. I found the subject matter captivating, but the text is at times a relentless barrage of data. The book is directed at Forbes’s scholarly peers, with little attempt made to appeal to a broader general audience. That’s not meant as a criticism, just a warning for the casual reader. The only noteworthy problem with this book is that it suffers from an inadequate investment in cartography. There are only three maps in the book, two of which are not sufficiently detailed to adequately serve the passages to which they relate. In the dullest portions of the book, Forbes spends far too many words describing the position of islands and continents on early maps, when a simple diagram would have been far more efficient and effective. Despite this shortcoming, Forbes’s research is stunningly thorough, his arguments are persuasive, and his conclusions are convincing. The American Discovery of Europe is an enthralling read and an eye-opening education.

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