Schoolchildren all over North America are taught – via the well-known, catchy rhyme -- that our continent was discovered in 1492 by a Genoese explorer named Christopher Columbus. The only problem with this dogma is that it is demonstrably untrue, many times over.
Most famously, it's been incontrovertibly proven that Vikings established a settlement in Vineland, on the shores of Newfoundland -- Vinland to them -- hundreds of years before Columbus. Elsewhere in Canada, if less accepted, Earl Henry Sinclair of the Orkney Islands is thought by some to have planted a colony some 120 years before Columbus, in what is today Nova Scotia, his navigation aided by a pair of Venetian brothers named the Zeno (more on this in an upcoming article). There is even evidence to suggest that a Chinese expedition reached the New World.
In fact, say some theories, travel between Europe, Asia, Africa and the New World was seemingly much more common than we've been led to believe. And one of the earliest pioneering peoples to embark on these journeys may have been those remarkable seafarers, the Phoenicians, doing so as early as 700 BC.
Our look at the Phoenicians begins in 2750 Before the Common Era (BCE), which is when archaeologists now believe the city of Tyre was founded. This places the Phoenicians among the earliest of the documented ancient civilizations; at this same time, the Early Minoan civilization was just emerging on the island of Crete and the Egyptians were just building the very first of their pyramids, the Step Pyramid of the Pharoah Zhoser. Clever traders, the Phoenicians were among the very earliest peoples to develop a phonetic alphabet around 1600 BCE, which ultimately becomes the ancestor of all European, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, Ethiopian and Korean dialects.
By 1000 BCE, the Phoenicians had become the Mediterranean's undisputed master seafarers, with a solid tradition of sea-trading going back more than 1000 years. Historian Gerhard Herm suggests that in any case, their seagoing skills were only bolstered by the invasions of the Sea Peoples around 1200 BCE. Today, the Sea Peoples are thought by most to be a loose confederation of seagoing raiders comprised of peoples from Sardinia and Sicily to the coasts of Anatolia. In any case, upon their arrival in cities such as Tyre and Sidon, the Sea Peoples would have encountered a culture in which their maritime skills would have found ready employment.
Like the much later British Empire, Phoenician maritime domination was based almost entirely on trade. Phoenician trade, in turn, was based founded on a violet-purple dye derived from the Murex snail shell. They traveled throughout the Mediterranean, trading their priceless dye, along with cedar from Lebanon and tin from Spain and possibly even Cornwall. They ventured into the Atlantic Ocean at least as far as the Azores and along the coast of Africa, and under commission to the Pharoah Necho II of Egypt, circumnavigated Africa in 600 BC, as related by Herodotus.
By 400 BCE, according to Aristotle, writing in "On Marvellous Things Heard", Phoenician colonists who settled in Carthage are said to have explored and settled a "wooded, river-watered island far outside the Pillars of Hercules". To preserve the secrecy of this land, they later destroyed their colony and killed all the inhabitants.
Similarly, in the first century BCE, Diodorus of Sicily wrote "...in the deep off Africa is an island of considerable size...fruitful, much of it mountainous.... Through it flow navigable rivers....The Phoenicians had discovered it by accident after having planted many colonies throughout Africa."
Bold seafarers the Phoenicians undoubtedly were. But what would have prompted even the most courageous sailors to set out on an ocean voyage of destined to last weeks upon weeks, all out of site of land, without prior knowledge that an end to the maritime wastes would be discovered? The answer may be that they actually did know that there was something there on the other side of the Atlantic.
In their 1997 bestseller The Hiram Key, Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas speculate on the origin of the name 'America', rejecting the popular notion that it was named after the Amerigo Vespucci. Instead, they say that, according to Josephus, "the Essenes believed that good souls have their habitation beyond the ocean, in a region that is neither oppressed with storms or rain or snow nor with intense heat, but refreshed by the gentle breathing of the west wind which perpetually blows from the ocean. This idyllic land across the sea to the west (or sometimes to the north) is a common belief to many cultures, from the Jews to the Greeks to the Celts. The Mandaeans, [direct descendants of the Nasoreans, who Knight and Lomas suggest were the residents of the Qumran community where the Dead Sea Scrolls came from] however, believe that the inhabitants of this far land are so pure that mortal eyes will not see them and that this place is marked by a star, the name of which is 'Merica' ". They then go on to further speculate that the star 'Merica' is echoed in later Masonic ritual, where Senior and Junior Wardens ritually describe themselves as traveling from the East to the West, in search of "that which was lost".
The Phoenicians and the Israelites were co-inhabitants of the land of Canaan – so closely intertwined, in fact, that they often intermarried, and during the time of Judges, many Israelites were taken to task for worshipping Canaanite gods in common with their Phoenician neighbours. If an tradition existed among a faction of the Israelites – based on whatever ancient, hermetic or kabalistic source – it's certainly not hard to imagine that that same tradition would have been absorbed by their Phoenician neighbours. And it's not much harder to guess at the reaction of these seafaring traders, whose economic dominance in the region was based on their ability to go to the most out-of-the-way-possible locations in search of exotic and valuable trade goods, upon hearing of the prospect of an untouched land of heavenly perfection somewhere across the western ocean. Especially, one who's location was fixed by a star, since the Phoenicians were known to be especially good at celestial navigation. The Romans would come to refer to the north star as 'the Punic Star' since they knew their Carthaginian neighbours used it to navigate, even though they didn't know specifically how.
So, we have motive and opportunity, as prosecuting attorneys are fond of saying. Do we have any evidence with more weight than hearsay evidence (even hearsay originating from sources as reputable as Diodorus and Aristotle).
Again, the answer appears to be 'yes', and there appears to be plenty of evidence. Some of the most recent is based on analysis conducted by Mount Holyoke geologist Mark McMenamin on gold coins minted in Carthage between 350 and 320 BC. Working on computer enhance images of the coins, McMenamin believes he's found a map of the ancient world, with the Americas clearly depicted.
Perhaps even more compelling are the many examples of Phoenician writing found in the new world. Harvard Professor Barry Fell, author of America B.C., has researched and translated a large number of them, not only in Punic, but also in Celtic Ogam script, Iberian and Egyptian. One in particular, found in 1967 at the Mystery Hill megalithic complex in the northeastern U.S., contained a temple dedication to the Phoenician sun-god, Baal. Fell suggests that the Ogam script can be explained by the fact that the Celts of the Iberian peninsula lived side by side with Phoenicians who traded in tin with them, and with whom they exchanged writing styles and languages. Fell further added that the linguistic idiosyncrasies found beside the Keltic Mystery Hill inscriptions appeared to be unique to a Punic style used in the period from 800 to 500 B.C.
In 1974, Cyrus Gordon's Riddles in History was published, in which the author translates a Phoenician inscription found in Brazil in the 19th century, as follows:
"We are sons of Canaan from Sidon, the city of the king. Commerce has cast us on this distant shore, a land of mountains We sacrificed a youth for the exalted gods and goddesses in the nineteenth year of Hiram. our mighty king We embarked from Ezion-Geber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years, around the land belonging to Ham [Africa], but were separated from the hand of Baal and we were no long with our companions So we have come here. twelve men and three women, on a...shore which I, the Admiral, control. But auspiciously may the exalted gods and goddesses favor us!"
Lastly, some of the most compelling evidence for Phoenicians in the new world have again been discovered by Barry Fell who, along with other researchers, has discovered literally dozens of ancient coins in New England. "After the 4th century B.C. our visitors began to leave behind infallible date markers: those enduring metal discs called coins," said Fell in New England's Ancient Mysteries in 1993, explaining that the coins were inscribed with letters indicating they were issued to be used as pay for mercenary Greek and Iberian soldiers in the Carthaginian army.