Did the Phoenicians Discover America?
Michel N. Laham
The article by Mark McMenamin in the November 1996 issue of The Numismatist has renewed interest in the theory that the Phoenicians or their western brethren, the Carthaginians, discovered America, nearly two thousand years before Columbus. If such a discovery did take place, it would be interesting to speculate as to how and when it occurred, then to test our hypothesis against all the available information on the topic and see how it holds up. Of all ancient peoples, the Phoenicians were the only ones with the skills and the sea-going capability required for a trans- Atlantic crossing. By 600 BC, they were building ships that could carry 50 to 100 tons, making them comparable in size and tonnage to the Portuguese caravels of the 15th century.
We know of two historic occasions when the Phoenicians, on the one hand, and their North African counterparts, the Carthaginians, on the other, could have wandered off the western coast of Africa and accidentally landed on the eastern coast of South America. In the first instance, a Phoenician fleet was commissioned by the Egyptian pharaoh, Necho, around 600 BC to circumnavigate Africa, sailing out of the Red Sea and returning home by way of Gibraltar. In the second instance, around 450 BC, the Carthaginian king, Hanno, sailed with a fleet of 60 ships through the Straits of Gibraltar and down along the western coast of Africa at least as far south as present day Guinea and Sierra Leone, the point on the continent closest to the shores of Brazil.
Necho was an ambitious king of the twenty-sixth dynasty who strove to expand Egypt's boundaries and influence. He attempted the construction of a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea and challenged the powerful Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar for control of Syria. He failed at both enterprises. But according to the Greek historian Herodotus, his hired Phoenician fleet successfully completed its mission of circumnavigating Africa. It sailed out of the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, rounded the southern tip of Africa and returned to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of Gibraltar. The expedition supported itself by putting in along the African coast every autumn, sowing a patch of ground, and waiting for the next year's harvest. Then, having gotten their grain, they would sail on to the next harbor. It took them nearly three years to complete the mission.
It was a feat of epic proportions, one that was difficult for their contemporaries to grasp, let alone to believe, since the prevalent opinion at the time was that there was no body of water that completely surrounded Africa. The idea was so preposterous, in fact, that it is unlikely anyone would make up such a story. For a long time afterwards, it was felt that Herodotus had been taken in by the tall tales of the Phoenicians. Ironically, one of the details of the trip provided by Herodotus, which was considered absurd by his contemporaries, has served to establish the authenticity of the story. The Phoenicians stated that, as they sailed west around the tip of Africa, the sun was to their right: seamen from the Mediterranean who had not actually been to the southern hemisphere could not have imagined such a phenomenon.
By the beginning of the 5th century BC, the Phoenician outpost of Carthage, on the Lybian coast near the site of present day Tripoli, dominated the western Mediterranean. King Hanno's famous expedition probably took place around 450 BC. It is recounted in vivid detail in a tablet found in the ruins of the temple of Cronos at Carthage. Known as The Periplus of Hanno, it is a Greek translation of a Punic text which chronicles Hanno's mission. It describes how the Carthaginians set out with 60 ships and thousands of settlers. They sailed south along the African coast, establishing colonies or trading posts along the way. They traveled past the "Horn of West", probably Dakar or Cape Palmas, until they reached a towering volcano in full eruption, which they called "The Chariot of the Gods" and which most experts agree was probably Mount Cameroon, with its 13,000-foot volcanic peak.
Now let us suppose that, on either one of these two great African expeditions, or on some similar expedition that we know nothing of, a ship or two had become separated from the fleet by a storm, or had attempted to explore too far offshore and had not been able to find its way back. What might have happened to such a ship or ships? They could have been blown westward by the Southeast trade winds and the South Equatorial Current across the narrowest part of the Atlantic Ocean to the coast of South America. Finding themselves on such inhospitable shores as the rain forest of equatorial Brazil, with its stifling heat and humidity, our Phoenician sailors would have marked the place of their landfall with a monument, such as an altar to their gods or a stele bearing witness to their arrival. Then, they would have sailed on in search of more congenial shores and climate.
Chances are they would have sailed north, both to seek relief from the heat and to retrace their steps homeward. They would have skirted the coastline, putting in at safe harbors along the way to replenish their supplies, carried along by the Caribbean Current toward the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico. To the less advanced natives of the lands they visited, these lighter skinned and bearded strangers, arriving aboard their mighty sea-going vessels, would have seemed like gods rather than mere mortals. And when at last they would leave with a promise to return, their visit and their departure would in time assume the proportions of myth. If there were among them some who decided to stay with the natives, they would become the sages and the teachers of their communities.
They would impart to their followers the religion of ancient Egypt, with its priestly caste and its sun-god, and its practice of embalming its dead and of entombing its kings in huge pyramidal structures. They would also perhaps teach them the astronomy of Egypt, with its 365-day solar calendar, and that of Mesopotamia, with its more complex lunar calendar. In a year when the harvest seemed on the verge of failure, or the community was threatened by a powerful enemy, they might pass on to them the singular practice of child sacrifice. Eventually, they would instruct them in the Phoenician language and to a select few, they would teach their alphabet, the key to efficient communication between their far-flung trading posts and the secret of their commercial success.
Now let us look at the known facts and see how they square with our hypothesis. Of the civilizations of the New World, Teotihuacan, the Toltec, the Maya and the Aztec, all used some variation on the pyramid to erect monuments to their gods. It is not enough to argue that the idea of a stepped pyramid reaching up to the heavens is obvious enough to have occurred separately to different peoples. The other great civilizations of the Old World, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, did not build stepped pyramids even though they had the example of Egypt. Furthermore, in the case of the Mayas, the pyramids were sometimes designed for the specific purpose of housing the bodies of their dead kings. The discovery in southern Mexico in 1952 of the remains of Lord Pacal, ruler of Palenque from 615 to 683 AD, in a massive sarcophagus deep within the Temple of the Inscriptions, left no doubt as to the purpose of the pyramid. The face was covered in a mosaic mask of jade and the body was festooned with necklaces, pendants, bracelets and rings. A jade object representing the sun god was placed alongside the body.
The practice of mummification, itself, provides another link between Egypt and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the New World. At the turn of the century, Sir G. Elliot Smith, a prominent Australian neuroanatomist, found parallels in the specific methods used to embalm the dead. For example, he proposed that jade, pearl and gold, which were deemed capable of protecting the corpses from decomposition, were an integral part of the mummification process. In his 1974 book entitled Ancient Egyptians and Chinese in America, R. A. Jairazbhoy found 21 such parallels between the myths and religious practices of ancient Egypt and those of Mexico. Astronomy provides another interesting parallel: the Mayas' calendar incorporated a 365-day solar calendar like the Egyptians' and a 260- day lunar calendar like that of Mesopotamia, which were linked by means of a scale spanning 52 solar years or 73 lunar years.
Contact between the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and the nascent cultures of pre-Columbian America would explain why nicotine and cocaine have been detected in the hair shaft of Egyptian mummies in Germany when both tobacco and coca are native American plants that were not grown anywhere else before Columbus. It would also explain why a ball court in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan has a running motif of lotus blossoms, a flower unknown in the area, but sacred to the ancient Egyptians and a traditional design in Egyptian art. A stone carving discovered at Copan, Honduras, seems to depict an elephant, an animal unknown in the New World at the time. An Olmec relief carving features a bearded figure, wearing the upturned shoes typical of the eastern Mediterranean, yet the Olmecs and the other native peoples of the Americas had sparse facial hair and were apparently in the habit of plucking what little bit they had. An incense burner unearthed in Guatemala is in the shape of a bearded face with strikingly Semitic features.
The numerous monumental stone heads left by the Olmec depict helmet-wearing men with unmistakably Negroid lips and noses. Could this mean that the Phoenicians brought along some black Africans on their journey across the Atlantic? We know from the Periplus of Hanno that the Carthaginians befriended some African natives whom they called Lixitae. They took some of them along as interpreters as they sailed southward down the African coastline. Did the Carthaginians, as was their custom, also hire some Africans as mercenaries, hence the war helmets? The Gulf Coast Olmecs practiced child sacrifice, a fairly uncommon and rather shocking custom which the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, especially, were known to resort to in times of war or famine in order to propitiate their gods.
In 1872, four pieces of a stone tablet inscribed with strange characters were found on a Brazilian plantation near the Paraiba River. A copy of the inscription was sent by the owner of the property to Dr. Ladislau Netto, director of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. After studying the document carefully, Dr. Netto announced to a startled world that the inscription recorded the arrival of Phoenician mariners in Brazil centuries before Christ. Unfortunately, an Indian rebellion broke out in the Paraiba region that same year and in the ensuing confusion, the plantation in question was never located and the stone itself was never recovered. A copy of the inscription was sent to the eminent French historian and philologist Ernest Renan who declared it a fake, and Netto was ridiculed by the academic establishment of his day.
Renan based his conclusion on the fact that the text contained certain grammatical errors and incorrect expressions that forced him to question its authenticity. A century later, an American scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon, revisited the Paraiba inscription and arrived at the opposite conclusion. The inscription, he claims, contains grammatical forms and expressions that have been recently discovered and were unknown to linguistic experts of the 19th century like Renan and Netto. Therefore, he contends, the document could not have been a fake. Gordon's translation reads, in part: "We are sons of Canaan from Sidon...We sailed from Ezion-geber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years around Africa but were separated by the hand of Baal and we were no longer with our companions. So we have come here, twelve men and three women...may the exalted gods and goddesses favor us."
If the Phoenicians, those hallowed inventors of the alphabet, did in fact discover America, is it not improbable that the lost and controversial Paraiba Stone should be the only written evidence of their passage on these shores? Interestingly, the many inscriptions recovered so far that are purported to be of Phoenician origin were found in areas of North America that have been extensively surveyed and cultivated. In the 18th century, a rock was found near Dighton, Massachusetts, bearing a strange inscription which Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale College, claimed were Phoenician. In the 19th century, a tablet unearthed at an Indian mound near Tennessee's Bat Creek was thought to represent Canaanite writing from the 1st or 2nd century AD. These, and similar finds, were deemed to be of questionable authenticity, the product of excessive zeal or overactive imaginations.
The Davenport Tablet, found in Iowa in 1877, is a case in point. It was considered to be a hoax until it was recently scrutinized by the eminent epigrapher Barry Fell, professor of biology at Harvard University. Applying the esoteric skills of epigraphy, Fell claims he has been able to decipher three individual languages on the tablet: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Carthaginian, and Iberian Punic. This and other linguistic evidence have led him to the conclusion that the Phoenicians colonized Massachusetts briefly around 400 BC. Perhaps the definitive evidence of a Phoenician presence on these shores still awaits the farmer's plow or the laborer's hoe in some untamed corner of the Amazon or the Yucatan.
In 1519, Hernan Cortes sailed from Cuba with a small band of Spanish adventurers and fortune seekers, intent on conquering Mexico. The task he had set for himself was a formidable one. The enemy he confronted was the fiercest and the most war-like of the peoples of the New World, the Aztecs. He arrived on the Mexican coast near the site of present-day Veracruz where he organized his forces and marched on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Reaching the highlands, he made an alliance with the Tlaxcalan, and began to pose as the god Quetzalcoatl. This deity was variously depicted as a plumed serpent, as the personification of the planet Venus, and as a legendary ruler of old who had come from the east. In the latter incarnation, he was pictured as a white man with black hair and flowing beard who, having lived among the Aztecs and taught them wisdom, had departed by sea with a promise to return someday.
As Cortes and his allies approached, the Aztec king, Moctezuma II, wavered and despaired until it was too late. In November 1519, the Spanish entered Tenochtitlan virtually unopposed. They were received with great pomp and welcomed into Moctezuma's palace where they placed him under house arrest. Although there are some who claim that it is only following the Spanish conquest that Quetzalcoatl is shown as having white skin, Moctezuma's hand- wringing and despondency cannot be explained as the normal response of a powerful warrior-king to a small band of adventurers. The Aztecs were a deeply religious people and every phase of their daily lives, from sunrise to sunrise, was regulated by their religious rituals. The great Moctezuma, himself, was required to offer incense to the stars after dusk, around 3 a.m., and before dawn. His reaction to Cortes' arrival can only be explained if we assume that it had important religious significance for him.
The reason for his bizarre behavior becomes self-evident if, lost in the mists of the indigenous peoples' distant past, was the tribal memory of a visit to their shores by god-like men from the east, who had arrived in mighty sea-going ships, had spent some time with them, and had left them with a promise to return. In time, this visit could have been incorporated into their mythology, and the captain of the expedition could have become identified with their serpent god and their rising star. Furthermore, Quetzalcoatl was not the only god of pre-Columbian America who exhibited these features. Similarly, the creator-god of the Incas, Viracocha, after spending some time on earth among common men, was said to have left by sea with a promise to return.
Let us assume then that the story as told by Cortes and his followers is essentially correct. What better candidates can be found for the role of mariner gods from the east than the Phoenicians or Carthaginians? Certainly not the Egyptians whose timber was brought in from Mount Lebanon by Phoenician seamen and who commissioned a Phoenician flotilla to sail around Africa because they lacked the sea-going capability to do it on their own. Not the Persians whose great kings, Darius and Xerxes, commandeered the Phoenician fleet in their war against Greece. Then perhaps the Greeks themselves? Whereas the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians went to great lengths to protect their geographical finds, the Greeks tended to publicize their discoveries in song and verse. Thus Jason's voyage was celebrated by Pindar, and Odysseus' journey by Homer. Had the Greeks discovered America, they would have announced it triumphantly to the world.
If McMenamin is right in his interpretation of the markings on the Carthaginian staters, and these actually represent maps of the known world at the time of their minting (350-320 BC), then the land mass portrayed on the far left, west of Africa, indeed represents South America. This would imply that the Carthaginians not only discovered America, but they successfully completed the return trip home. Why then should they have kept this knowledge to themselves and hidden it in these cryptic markings at the bottom of their gold coins? For the same reason they had kept secret their discovery of the sea route to the British Isles, a rich source of tin for their bronze handicrafts. Theirs was first and foremost a commercial empire. They had discovered a new market for their goods and a new source of raw materials, perhaps including the gold of which these coins were made, and they did not want to share this information with their competitors, first the Greeks, then the Romans. And when Carthage was utterly destroyed by the Romans in the last of the three Punic wars, they carried their secret with them to the grave.