Columbus Day 2016

I started appreciating Columbus Day in 1992 when my brother, his son, and I set sail from Spain to the New World. We were celebrating the quincentenary of the Columbus voyage by retracing the discovery of the American continent. Since that time Columbus Day has been much more than just another national holiday. In 2016, it has a special significance in my snowbird life. There are contentious feelings in the European Union over the unprecedented flow of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East and a depressing tone in the American presidential election campaign over immigration issues. But nothing dampens my admiration of Columbus’s daring feat and his uncanny navigation skills in making four remarkable voyages to the New World.

Questions linger as to whether Columbus was first to discover the Americas. Donald Dale Jackson, in the September 1991 Smithsonian magazine wrote, “Some believe that the American fixation on our discovery derives from the country’s relatively brief history, and the suspicion that we have thus been somehow shortchanged. To others, it’s nothing more complicated than a Yankee lust for records. Not surprising in this quilt of immigrants, nationalism threads through the debate, the Portuguese, Arabs, Africans, Scandinavians, and a dozen others have their candidates. First finder obsession may also stem from a taste for mystery, since there are just enough tantalizing clues of various kinds, in legends, archeology, linguistics, art and even botany, to raise intriguing if often unanswerable questions.”

Jackson goes on to describe Japanese claims through similarities in Ecuadorian pottery fragments dating back 5,000 years; Jewish claims through stone engravings in Tennessee relating to refugees fleeing Rome in 132 A.D.; Chinese claims in the chronicles of a fifth-century Buddhist monk who lived in Mexico; Irish claims of the sixth-century voyages of Saint Brendan; and British claims for a twelfth-century Welsh prince who established a legendary blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indian colony in the Dakotas.

Many believe the first Europeans to land in the New World were actually the Vikings. In the tenth-century, the Viking explorer Leif the Erikson led an expedition to L’Anse-Aux-Meadows, Newfoundland (what the Vikings called Vinland), in Canada. On this trip, Leif captained a Gokstad Viking ship with square sails, pine ribs, and wooden prows and sterns that swoop into tall points. The Vikings set up a settlement in Newfoundland that lasted about twenty years. During this time, the Vikings (or Norsemen, as they were called) made several trips into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and possibly northern New Brunswick.

In a 1991 re-creation of Leif Erikson’s trip to Newfoundland, a group of Icelandic and Norwegian sailors and environmentalists sailed across the North Atlantic in a traditional Gokstad vessel named Gaia (after the Greek goddess, Mother Earth). The purpose of the expedition was to make the point that Columbus was not the first European settler in America and emphasize the need for preservation of the natural world that is so quickly deteriorating because of human destruction and negligence.

Discussion of whether it was the Vikings or the Spaniards who really discovered America is actually moot, since the New World was already populated by Native Americans, called Indians by Columbus because of his confusion of San Salvador with the Orient. Ancestors of Native Americans are believed to have walked across from Siberia to Alaska on the Bering Strait, when it was still an isthmus, about 18,000 to 14,000 B.C. (Recent evidence, though, suggests that humankind may have been living in Mexico as early as 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.)

These people slowly moved down through the Americas, creating civilizations such as the Aleuts in the Arctic, Iroquois in Canada, the Cherokee in the United States, the Aztecs in Mexico, and the Incas in South America.

Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic, in his 2005 book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus with extensive notes and bibliography rewrites history. “Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn is specialized breeding process that has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. . .. Challenging and surprising, this is a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.”

In an unusual twist of our small world, I recommended this book a few years ago via email to the children of friends in Germany who were then driving their camper from Canada to Argentina. They replied from Central America: “We were at campground with a book exchange and there was 1491 just waiting for me to pick it up. Sometimes ― and especially when you are travelling ― the right things just seem to happen at the right time. Life is great! Tanja.”

The New York Times carried an article on “How We Got Here” pointing out that humans evolved about 200,000 years ago in Africa and in a single migration populated the rest of the world. The paper quotes the September 2016 journal Nature that “Three separate teams of geneticists surveying DNA data collected from cultures around the globe concluded that all non-Africans today trace their ancestry to a single population emerging from Africa between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago.”

Therefore, except for a small group of Africans we are all immigrants. Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492 was just a small blip in our immigration history.


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