Theory of Phoenician discovery of the Americas

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A Phoenician ship carved on a sarcophagus, 2nd century AD.

The theory of Phoenician discovery of the Americas suggests that the earliest Old World contact with the Americas was not with Columbus or Norse settlers, but with the Phoenicians (or, alternatively, other Semitic peoples) in the first millennium BC.[1]

Before the 20th century[edit]

This theory of a Phoenician discovery of the Americas was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.[citation needed] In the late 18th century, a number of people speculated on the origins of the petroglyphs on Dighton Rock. Ezra Stiles, then President of Yale College, believed them to be Hebrew.[2] Antoine Court de Gébelin, who initiated the modern usage of the Tarot, argued in Le Monde primitif that they commemorated an ancient visit to the Massachusetts shore by a group of sailors from Carthage.[3]

In the 19th century, belief in an Israelite visit to the Americas became a part of Mormonism. Ross T. Christensen has propounded the theory that the Mulekites in the Book of Mormon were "largely Phoenician in their ethnic origin."[4]

In his 1871 book Ancient America, John Denison Baldwin said

The known enterprise of the Phoenician race, and this ancient knowledge of America, so variously expressed, strongly encourage the hypothesis that the people called Phoenicians came to this continent, established colonies in the region where ruined cities are found, and filled it with civilized life. It is argued that they made voyages on the “great exterior ocean,” and that such navigators must have crossed the Atlantic; and it is added that symbolic devices similar to those of the Phoenicians are found in the American ruins, and that an old tradition of the native Mexicans and Central Americans described the first civilizers as “bearded white men,” who “came from the East in ships.”[5]

In the 1870s, a stone inscription was allegedly discovered in Paraíba, Brazil.[6] A transcription was shown to Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto, director of the National Museum of Brazil. Netto accepted the inscription as genuine, but when it was later stated to be a hoax, Netto backed down and blamed foreigners for its fabrication. In the 1960s, Cyrus H. Gordon believed the inscription to be genuine and created a translation which begins, "We are Sidonian Canaanites from the city of the Mercantile King ..."[7] The inscription's letter forms are variations that individually occurred and disappeared over a span of 800 years and so the confluence in a single piece of writing verifies the inscription as a hoax.[8][9]

20th century theories[edit]

Lithograph of the Bat Creek inscription, which Cyrus H. Gordon believed to be Paleo-Hebrew.

In the 20th century, adherents have included Cyrus H. Gordon, John Philip Cohane, Ross T. Christensen, Barry Fell and Mark McMenamin. Gordon believed that ancient Hebrew inscriptions had been found at two sites in the southeastern United States, indicating that Jews had arrived there before Columbus. One of these supposed finds was the Bat Creek inscription, which Gordon believed to be Paleo-Hebrew, but is generally thought to be a forgery.[10] Another find which has been claimed as supporting the theory of Semitic discovery of the Americas is the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone, which has also been dismissed as a fake.

In 1996, Mark McMenamin proposed a theory that Phoenician sailors discovered the New World c. 350 BC.[11] The Phoenician state of Carthage minted gold staters in 350 BC bearing a pattern, in the reverse exergue of the coins, which McMenamin interpreted as a map of the Mediterranean with the Americas shown to the west across the Atlantic.[12][13][14][15] McMenamin later demonstrated that putative Carthaginian coins found in America were modern forgeries.[16]

Various theories of Phoenicians/Canaanites/Carthaginians in the New World were discussed with the evidence's being reviewed and dismissed by Marshall McKusick in The Biblical Archaeologist, 1979;[17] he observed "in this modern day everyone wishes to be his own authority, and the personal search for cultural alternatives seems to make every idea or theory equal in value."

21st century theories[edit]

Lucio Russo has speculated about a probable arrival of Phoenicians in the Americas in his philologic analyses of Ptolemy's Geography given in L'America dimenticata.[18] In his book Ptolemy gives the coordinates of the Fortunate Isles but at the same time he shrinks the size of the world by one third compared to the size measured by Eratosthenes.[19]

Russo observes that by attributing those coordinates to the Antilles, the world gets back to the right size, the geographical description given by Ptolemy fits much better and certain puzzling deformations in Ptolemy's world map disappear. Russo argues that the Antilles coordinates must have been known to Ptolemy's source, which was Hipparchus. Hipparchus lived in Rhodes and may have gotten this information from Phoenicians sailors, since they had full control of the western Mediterranean in those times.

Scholarly assessment[edit]

Glenn Markoe says that it will "probably never be known" whether the Phoenicians ever reached the Americas. He remarks,

Proof in the form of an inscription, like the celebrated Phoenician text allegedly found in Paraíba in northern Brazil, remains unlikely. The latter, which recounts the landing of a storm-driven party from Sidon, has long been recognized as a clever forgery. If such a fateful expedition had actually occurred, the proof is more likely to be found in a handful of Phoenician pottery shards.[20]

Ronald H. Fritze discusses the history of such claims from the 17th to the 20th centuries, concluding that although technically possible:

no archaeological evidence has yet been discovered to prove the contentions of Irwin, Gordon, Bailey, Fell and others. Since even the fleeting Norse presence in Vinland left definite archaeological remains at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, it seems logical that the allegedly more extensive Phoenician and Carthaginian presence would have left similar evidence. The absence of such remains is strong circumstantial evidence that the Phoenicians and Carthaginians never reached the Americas.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tellier, Luc-Normand (2009). Urban World History: An Economic and Geographical Perspective. PUQ. p. 301. ISBN 9782760522091.
  2. ^ Manuel, Frank Edward; Manuel, Fritzie Prigohzy (2003). James Bowdoin And The Patriot Philosophers. American Philosophical Society. pp. 197–198. ISBN 9780871692474.
  3. ^ Southwick, Albert B. (10 January 2013). "Mystery of Dighton Rock". Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  4. ^ Christensen, Ross T. "The Phoenicians and the Ancient Civilizations of America". Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  5. ^ Baldwin, John D. "The Phoenician Theory". Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  6. ^ The "Paraiba inscription" made the pages of Life, 10 June 1968 with commentary by Cyrus H. Gordon.
  7. ^ Gordon, Cyrus H., "The Canaanite Text from Brazil," Orientalia, No. 37, 1968, pp. 425-436.
  8. ^ Lemche, Niels Peter (1998-01-01). The Israelites in History and Tradition. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 181–. ISBN 9780664227272. Retrieved 10 May 2014.
  9. ^ Stiebing, William H. (1984). Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions and Other Popular Theories about Man's Past. Prometheus Books, Publishers. pp. 143–. ISBN 9781615926978. Retrieved 10 May 2014.
  10. ^ Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., and Mary L. Kwas, "The Bat Creek Stone: Judeans In Tennessee?" Tennessee Anthropologist Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring 1991 Archived 2007-08-16 at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ "McMenamin Offers New Evidence for Controversi al Theory". College Street Journal. Archived from the original on 1 March 2013. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  12. ^ McMenamin, M. A. 1996. Carthaginian Cartography: A Stylized Exergue Map. Meanma Press, South Hadley, Massachusetts
  13. ^ McMenamin, M. A. 1997. The Phoenician World Map. Mercator's World 2(3):46-51.
  14. ^ Scott, J. M. 2005. Geography in Early Judaism and Christianity. Cambridge University Press, pp. 182-183.
  15. ^ McCaffrey, Kevin. "Who Discovered the Americas?". Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  16. ^ McMenamin (2000). Phoenicians, Fakes and Barry Fell: Solving the Mystery of Carthaginian Coins Found in America. South Hadley, Massachusetts: Meanma Press. ISBN 1893882012.
  17. ^ McCusick, "Canaanites in America" A New Scripture in Stone?" The Biblical Archaeologist 42.3 (Summer 1979), pp137ff.
  18. ^ Lucio Russo (2013). L'America dimenticata: I rapporti tra civiltà e un errore di Tolomeo. Milano: Mondadory Education s.p.a. ISBN 8861843204.
  19. ^ Valerio, Vladimiro. "Spunti e Osservazioni dal Libro di Lucio Russo L'America Dimenticata. I Rapporti tra le Civiltà e un Errore di Tolomeo". Geostorie: Bollettino e Notizario. XXI: 75–113.(in Italian)
  20. ^ Markoe, Glenn (2000). Phoenicians. University of California Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780520226142.
  21. ^ Fritze, Ronald H. (2009). Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-Religions. Reaktion Books. pp. 84-88. ISBN 978-1-86189-430-4

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