- Historic Sites
Viking America: A New Theory
Was Columbus motivated by Norse discoveries, concealed over the centuries in misinterpreted maps?
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
An important part of the author’s circumstantial approach is to show that such shadowy information was not held uniquely by Columbus but was widely shared. Indeed, Enterline points out that in the early fifteenth century academic interest in a westward view of eastern Asia increased markedly....This occurred just during the time when [many former believers in a flat world] were being converted to a Ptolemaic theory which forced them to think quantitatively in terms of the entire globe. The result, aided and abetted by Ptolemy’s own incorrectly small estimate of the size of a degree and by a longing for Marco Polo’s spice islands, was an increasing pressure for downward revision of the concepts of the size of the Earth. It was this revision, necessarily incorrect, which was responsible for getting America “officially” discovered. Within a short time, people like Doctors Paolo Toscanelli [1397-1482] and Hieronymus Müntzer [1437-1508] began discussing the practical possibility of making an actual voyage westward to Asia. From the number of different official proposals to kings on record, it is not difficult to imagine how many less official schemes went unrecorded. Neither is it difficult to imagine that unrecorded actual attempts were made. … The first downward rationalizations of the size of the degree sufficient to force the east coast of Asia to coincide with the east coast of America … seem to have been arrived at by Columbus. However, it would be doing him a dishonor to suggest that such a fantastic rationalization was not already in the air. It would seem that only definite knowledge of land which could not otherwise be accounted for would have called for such mental gymnastics. These rationalizations were eventually able to overcome the objections of royal advisers, and soon thereafter the necessary funding for what was to be the official discovery of America became available.
It was the vague information on the Norse dispersal and the resulting belief that eastern Asia was so close to the West, according to Enterline, that caused Columbus and his contemporaries to re-estimate downward their idea of the size of the globe, and hence of the degree, and then turn around and use this reduced value as an argument for the practicality of sailing westward themselves to Asia. The sources of the shadowy European information on the Norse dispersal are bound to be vague, especially since recognized European communication with the Greenland settlements terminated in 1408. But evidence such as European garments from the late fifteenth century found in a Greenland graveyard shows that unrecognized, unofficial communication did continue. Much of that communication may have been maintained by pirates known to have attacked Greenland in that era and by clandestine private traders from Bristol, England.
The author now takes another tack: … Columbus’ contemporary Las Casas evidently interviewed Indians in Cuba and found that ‘The neighboring Indians of that island asserted that there arrived to this Island of Hispaniola other bearded white men like us, not many years before us.’ He recorded this in connection with the story of a lost pilot who supposedly preceded Columbus, but the beards could just as well have been worn by Norsemen as by Spanish conquistadores. … If these men had somehow also encountered the Aztec/Mayan civilizations in nearby Yucatan, or even heard about them through the Cubans, and returned the information to Europe, then one might be able to explain why Marco Polo’s extravagant lands of gold began, as with one Albertin de Virga’s 1415 map, to be associated with the West instead of the East. Before 1400, Zeno told a story of gold-users south of the Norse countries which would certainly have hastened the process as well. These stories provide a refutation to the proclamation by some scholars that Columbus could not have been motivated by the Norsemen, because he sailed so far south. If such information, in whatever form and by whatever means, reached Columbus, then it would be not at all surprising that the course he plotted for the golden land of Cathay led him eventually to the latitudes of the Aztecs. Those who wish to may imagine Dominicus Ducier’s 1422 map, which shows continental land in the western ocean, as extending to those latitudes, and a scholar of the stature of [Armando] Cortesão has taken a nautical chart of 1424, which introduced new islands in the western ocean, to represent these very West Indies. The medieval Norsemen tell us in several texts that they believed Vinland was connected with Africa. They may, in saying this, have been letting us know how far south they had gone. Indeed, if North America was taken to be Asia, then South America fits the geographical situation of Africa very accurately. … This analogy would have been the ultimate step of the Grand Misunderstanding, equating the entire New World with the entire Old World.