They didn’t intend to come as conquerors.

Not at first, anyway. They were happy to have just survived.

Most of the leaky vessel’s crew hadn’t expected to survive this journey — nor should they have. Everyone who had gone this far out to sea had never been seen alive again. Occasionally, waterlogged bodies would wash back up onto the local beaches. Usually they would just vanish into memory, presumably into the depths.

But for this tiny crew, it would be different.

In other famous voyages of this sort, mutiny had always been a concern. “Captain, we should turn back,” someone would say. Maybe it would be a stirring of whispers among the crew, warnings about God never intending anyone to travel so far. They were breaking an unwritten but obvious celestial fiat. With enough dead sailors and lost ships…everyone could draw their own conclusions.

This crew was different, though. There was biting and desperate fear. There was pain, starvation, regrets and recriminations. But there was never any thought of mutiny.

And there was never, ever, any attempt to turn the vessel around.

When they finally struck land, they had no idea where they were. This hardly mattered, though. Anything was preferable to the open sea.

The land that spread before them was an unfamiliar continent in some ways similar to their home. In others, it would prove to be strikingly different. But at first all they saw was a beach and a shoreline. The trackless depths of the interior — river deltas, mountain ranges, varied terrains — wouldn’t be explored for generations.

For now, their thoughts were only of food. They were starving. It is unrecorded if their first meal after leaving their rotting vessel was a strange local fruit or some unlucky bird or mammal. They would have eaten anything they could catch. Starting a fire was unimportant to them. Everything they had was waterlogged, anyway; they carried no matches, no kerosene, no whale oil.

They also had no idea which of the local wildlife might be tasty and which was poisonous — but it was a risk they’d take. After crossing an ocean, they had a right to trust their luck.

Turning points stand out in retrospect…

…but they can be easy to miss at the time.

This has a lot to do with the psychological state of flow identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and popularized by Steven Kotler, Malcolm Gladwell and others.

Many of the great turning points of history surely took place while the participants were in flow. And yet, in that state, the last thing on your mind is looking back dispassionately on the contours of history. You are too deeply engaged in the present moment.

But sometime after that unlikely beach landing, it must have occurred to one of the survivors that —

My God! Not only are we alive…this place is fantastic!

No one on this continent was like them. They carried advantages and had ways of doing things for which the locals were unprepared. And through biological luck they couldn’t understand, their bodies themselves were weapons.

For one thing, none of the locals had ever seen anyone like them before. And though the opposite was true at first, this unfamiliarity proved to be an asymmetric advantage for the newcomers. The forests teemed with life — colorful birds, lizards, frogs and unfamiliar mammals — but within a few days, they came to recognize the most prevalent species. They learned which could be hunted, what might be useful, and who to steer clear of.

And there were so few of them that each time they met a denizen of this new world, they presented a baffling anomaly.

They had the advantage of surprise. Again and again and again.

If this seems like an unfair advantage, remember that fairness is a modern idea — not one that would have been applied outside one’s kin-group until just the past few centuries.

And this story takes place a very long time ago. Back when one could discover a new continent, outmaneuver and displace the locals, conduct genocide, overturn ecosystems and cause millions of deaths without your ethics being questioned.

The invaders would be fought against. But no one would ever think to call what they did “unfair.”

Fairness was an idea from another age, and a future world.

Columbus’ biological blueprint.

If this story sounds similar to Christopher Columbus’ (re)discovery of the Americas, that’s not by accident.

The ocean crossed was, in both cases, the Atlantic. The continent arrived at— and ultimately colonized — was South America (or possibly Central America; it’s no longer clear).

But this wasn’t the story of Leif Erikson, the Norseman who reached America a few centuries pre-Columbus.

Nor was it some little-known Polynesian foray, hinted at by clues in pottery shards or a few strands of Eurasian DNA among indigenous peoples.

We have good evidence for this transatlantic voyage — though it took place somewhere on the order of 26 million years ago.

It was made by monkeys.

Yes, monkeys.

Not on a sailboat, but on a floating mat of branches, washed from an African river mouth and out to the sea — with the unwitting castaways of at least two monkeys (maybe a pregnant female?). These seafaring mammals would defy inconceivable odds and cross the entire Atlantic Ocean, eventually seeding all the species of primates now so emblematic of the South American jungles.

Thinking about this boggles my mind.

The Simian Columbus

Of course, I knew that both Africa and South America have monkeys.

And I guess if I’d thought about it, I also knew that unlike potatoes (origin: New World) and horses (origin: Old World), monkeys aren’t a recently transplanted species that had continent-hopped on human ships following the European colonization of the Americas. They’d been there “forever.”

But how long of “forever” are we talking, exactly?

If I’d thought about it — which I never had — tropical monkeys wouldn’t have made good candidates for a tundra crossing over a Siberian land bridge. And hadn’t the tectonic plates carrying Africa and South America split apart back in the time of the dinosaurs? This is also “forever ago” — but distinctly pre-monkey.

But I’d never thought about it. Not until speaking recently with an academic friend who studies biogeography — the science examining which animal species live where. He turned me on to the weird story of the “Simian Columbus.”

What makes this story so breathtaking is that it is intuitively impossible, but apparently true.* It’s hard to hold both these convictions at once.

In case you’re wondering, the next-best “solutions” to the monkeys on both sides of the Atlantic problem rely on acts of God, helpful aliens, or convenient appearing-and-disappearing island chains that sound suspiciously like Atlantis. The “Monkey’s Voyage” hypothesis wins not from hard evidence, or from plausibility, but because it’s the last man standing among non-magical solutions that fit the fossil record.

Amazing. Also, meta-amazing.

The meta-amazing part of the transatlantic monkey-mat story — for me, anyway — is that I’d never heard it before. And I’m not the only one. I’ve been telling a ton of people about this in the past weeks, and almost nobody seems familiar with this epic biogeographical WTF.*

Outside of some admittedly nerdy biologist circles; sorry guys.

I can’t help but imagine this story in cinematic terms: a Pixar movie directed by Ridley Scott, featuring storm-tossed, desperate African monkeys on a tangle of river-wood, adrift in a trackless, nameless ocean. No sense of direction, no hope of rescue, clinging to life just because it is life — with no expectation of survival.

These hapless survivors would begin a continental colonization that is part Adam-and-Eve, part Hernán Cortés — breeding, displacing, and ultimately conquering the discovered lands. (South and Central America are now the native home to at least 19 primate genera, all apparently descended from one or more such transatlantic journeys.)

Following my friend’s turning me on to this idea, I bought the book The Monkey’s Voyage and read it within a week. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

But to end on a meta note, I’ve also been thinking of the larger lesson: Just how many amazing, evocative facts are out there, unknown to most of us (but known to some!) — and many of them hiding in plain sight.

This post originally published in the Brain Breakfast newsletter from Smart Drug Smarts. ;)

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