chris columbus a-1Who discovered America?

Most folks, I hope, take for granted that the ancestors of today’s American Indians made the original and only true discovery of what then really was a New World for humans. And this took place sometime before 14,000 years ago.

Usually, however, when people ask me the question, they actually mean something like “Who, after the American Indians, was the first person to sail the ocean blue and discover this previously unknown (to them) world?”

Traditionally, the answer to that question has been Christopher Columbus though historians and archaeologists have determined that Leif Erikson preceded Columbus by almost 500 years. (Actually, another Norseman, Bjarni Herjólfsson preceded Leif, but since he didn’t make landfall he doesn’t usually get credit for the discovery.)

Did anyone precede the Norse?

Since the 1700s, and probably even before that, numerous people, whether true believers or charlatans, have claimed that one or another ancient culture from the Old World deserves the credit for discovering America. The main contenders, but by no means the only ones, include the Solutreans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Hebrews, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and African Mandingos.

In my November column for the Columbus Dispatch, I review a paper by Richard Francaviglia of Willamette University, titled “‘Far Beyond the Western Sea of the Arabs…’: Reinterpreting Claims about Pre-Columbian Muslims in the Americas,” which was published in the most recent issue of the journal Terrae Incognitae. Based on the title of Francaviglia’s paper, some people evidently must believe that Muslims may have discovered America. But is there any actual evidence to support the claim?

Francaviglia acknowledges that “the premise of pre-Columbian Islam in the New World is attractive because it is so plausible. …the navigational accomplishments of Muslims were significant indeed. The record confirms that they rapidly explored (and colonized) a substantial portion of the Old World by the ninth and tenth centuries CE. Columbus himself was clearly indebted to Muslim seafaring skills, and there is little doubt that Muslims had the technological expertise to have reached the New World.”

Determining that Muslims could have discovered America, however, is not the same thing as demonstrating that they did so. As I discuss in my Dispatch column, there is no compelling evidence for pre-Columbian Muslims in Ohio or anywhere else in the Americas. This has not stopped some prominent Muslims from making such a claim, however.

Francaviglia quotes Imam Abdur-Rashid, “the ‘hip-hop imam’ who recently claimed on his website that, well before Columbus, ‘Muslim explorers came to the land of the Original [sic] Americans, met them, peacefully interacted with them, traded with them, intermarried with them, and perhaps even gave another relative handful of them dawah [invitations to the faith].’ Leaving little doubt that this subject has a political side, this imam sternly added that ‘those who study the evidence and continue to deny the obvious, reveal themselves to be rooted in the old racist European renditions of American history.’ In addition to stifling further study, this imam’s line of reasoning does at least three things. First, it renders Islam as a greater force in exploration than European expansion. Second, it depicts Islam as kinder and gentler on the natives than Christianity was known to be. And, third, it brands as bigots those who disagree. In no uncertain terms, the premise has become part of – and sustains – the culture wars between East and West.”

One of the more disturbing things in Francaviglia’s paper is his observation that these unsupported claims are turning up in school curricula. He refers, in particular, to the Arab World Studies Notebook, which he indicated is used “to train teachers to better understand (and teach) American history.” According to Francaviglia, this book accepts “many of the premises of those advocating a pre-Columbian Muslim presence, including the oft-quoted belief that Muslims had beaten Columbus to the New World.”

It’s one thing for a group of consenting adults to believe extraordinary things in spite of the lack of any meaningful evidence to support them, but to foist such claims on naïve children as part of a school curriculum is a betrayal of trust and an abrogation of the responsibility of schools to teach authentic, evidence-based history.

Francaviglia’s thorough review of the evidence and arguments that have been offered in support of a Muslim discovery of America sheds light on why anyone would accept such claims so uncritically. As with Ohio’s Newark Holy Stones, which are fraudulent stone carvings bearing Hebrew inscriptions that some people believe prove ancient Hebrews built at least some of Ohio’s mounds, the context for this discussion lies at the confluence of science, religion and politics: “…the world as described in religious scripture and texts – rather than the world revealed by critical thinking – is an appealing and enduring phenomenon. This may be either comforting or disquieting, but that is beside the point. As we watch the drama of pre-Columbian Islam unfold, it is worth recalling that history and geography are always subject to revision, and are often contested, when cultures come into contact with one another.”

Revising history when it has been shown to be wrong or incomplete is necessary and laudable. Fabricating history to promote religious or political views is inexcusable.

Brad Lepper


For further reading

Francaviglia, Richard V.
2014 “Far Beyond the Western Sea of the Arabs…”: Reinterpreting Claims about Pre-Columbian Muslims in the Americas. Terrae Incognitae 46(2):103-38.

Note: The image accompanying this blog post is a modified version of a 1959 photograph of the statue of Christopher Columbus that lives in front of the Columbus, Ohio, City Hall. You can find the original image on the Ohio Memory website.


  1. The dilemma with all of these possibilities is the gloomy shadow that looms over Charles Mann’s “1491.” If there was anything to any of these pre-Columbian proposals, unless it was a relatively short-term, self-contained contact like the Erikson/Herjólfsson colony (which is precisely NOT what these theories are asking us to accept), then there would have been a contagion ripple, an infectious vector on this side of the Atlantic at that earlier date.

    And if there had been one or some extended trading and interactive contacts between Europe & Africa and North America earlier than Columbus and DeSoto, then the diseases they carried would not have had the devastating impact they did. The “Dying Times” of the initial contact period, the “Death Wave” that Mann tries to outline after DeSoto’s pigs get loose and the first spread of influenza and smallpox scythe their way across the continent — they would not have had the mortality that they did. The shock of these utterly new pathogens into unprepared genetic pools, against immune systems innocent of previous resistance to the invaders, is a very real proof of an indirect but dire sort, showing that until 1492 these Old World pathogens had not visited the New.

    1. That reasoning is absolutely ridiculous, to suggest that the fringes of European merchants who traded with the Moors would have passed on the immunity that they didn’t have (seeing how many of them died of malnutrition related diseases and infections from tainted water and food sources) to the Moors and Kings of Interior Afrika who did come to the Western Hemisphere; Middle America and North America. Not only did Charles Mann’s “1491” destroy isolationist theory it simultaneously exposed the presumptuous and obviously now debunked theories about the lack of sophistication of Pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas. DNA matches between the Khoisi of Africa and the Natives of Tela De Fuego South America proves the overlap of linguistic and cultural characters found throughout the Americas is not coincidental. Not to mention that the Moors of North Africa ruled Spain and other parts of Europe, they brought science, medicine, art and culture to Europe before returning to North Africa and establishing the Empire of Morocco at Fez and Marrakesh. This was also the first nation to answer the request of an unprotected Nation, the U.S. Then President George Washington requested to be allowed to trade at the Ports of Morocco and permission to enter the Mediterranean resulting in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1789. During that time there were many historical accounts and writings about the presence of the religion of the Moors or Mohammed (PBUH) in the West Indies and in the Americas; see the writings about the third voyage of Columbus to the “West Indies”; Mr. Briggs on the explorations of William Penn and the matches of gold in such specific composition far outweigh what the rhetoric and propaganda in history books written by some over zealous, “American Exeptionalist”.

      1. Your claim of DNA matches between the Khoisi of Africa and the Natives of Tela De Fuego South America is utter nonsense, period. I’ve been reviewing Native American DNA research for over ten years now and helped a PhD geneticist friend–Simon Southerton–with the editing of a contribution he made to the “Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration,” a peer-reviewed publication. There’s absolutely no close connection between DNA from African people and South Americans that can’t be accounted for by post-Columbian admixture. With the advances in sequencing autosomal–nuclear–DNA even more in-depth understandings are available, and they all point overwhelmingly to Siberian origins for the ancestors of this hemisphere’s native people.

      1. All humans are indigenous to the planet. But ancient Muslims were not in the Americas and are not indigenous to the Americas. Case closed.

  2. “to foist such claims on naïve children as part of a school curriculum is a betrayal of trust and an abrogation of the responsibility of schools to teach authentic, evidence-based history”

    It was, and is, done with macro-evolution so what the hey.

  3. “Macro-evolution” is one of the “talking points” of the ID crowd–itself nothing more than thinly-veiled creationism–along with the “no transitional species” claim. The oxymoronic “Discovery Institute” is responsible for advancing this pseudo-science, and a favorite tactic of theirs is to demand schools “teach the controversy” in this debate, when in reality, it’s a non-issue with authentic scientists and the ID folks created the controversy by playing to the low-information crowd.
    There’s substantial evidence for “transitional species” with the “monotremes,” those primitive mammals that include the platypus and spiny anteaters which lay eggs and nurse their young from specialized areas on their skin rather than true mammary glands. Molecular biologists have also shown the close relationship between proteins found in dinosaurs and those in modern chickens.
    Those are just a few of the fact-based arguments to counter the myths. Oh my, I just went searching on the National Geographic website for a link on “What Darwin Never Knew” that contains an invaluable introduction for non-scientists to this subject area. I wound up sidetracked and spent a half an hour reading some stuff I’ve missed since my subscription lapsed. I need to renew it, and yes, that’s a plug. Give a gift of a subscription to Nat Geo to one or two of your Creationist friends this holiday season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *