33

According to the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", by James W. Loewen, or at least the online sources (Cracked.com and some sites that I Googled) that cite it, two (native, obviously) Americans shipwrecked in Holland in 60 B.C.E.

Native Americans also crossed the Atlantic: anthropologists conjecture that Native Americans voyaged east millennia ago from Canada to Scandinavia or Scotland. Two Indians shipwrecked in Holland around 60 B.C and became major curiosities in Europe.

Lies My Teacher Told Me

This would mean the Americans discovered Europe long before Europeans such as Leif Ericson and Cristopher Columbus have been said to have discovered America (although the book apperantly also states that there are archeolocal clues that the Romans, Greeks and Japanese have visited the America's long before the vikings did).

This sounds pretty damn interesting, and I'm pretty curious how much evidence (if any) there is to support this claim. Does anyone know more about this?

  • 15
    What does "became major curiosities in Europe" mean? Is the claim that they were taken to Rome and that Roman intellectuals saw them and commented? I have an idea what it means to be a curiosity with our global press, but Europe at that time was sparsely populated, and with the exception of Rome and a few smaller civilizations, did not have institutions that gathered and disseminated information from across the continent. Why would native Americans be considered especially exotic when the vast majority of Europeans did not travel far enough to have seen anyone from any other continent? – Mike Samuel Jun 9 '12 at 4:05
  • 6
    This blogger tried to track down the original source. He concludes: When examined carefully, the texts on which this claim rest simply do not provide sufficient evidence to justify a claim that, frankly, exists mostly due to Columbus’s misidentification of Native Americans as Indians... – Oliver_C Jun 9 '12 at 8:56
  • 1
    @Sklivvz, I never said anything about Romans but about the majority of Europeans. Before the European agricultural revolution in the 17th century the vast majority of people living in Europe lived in small farming communities and were tied to the land so never travelled far. Though cosmopolitan centers like Rome existed, the vast majority of the population never visited them, and without news networks would not have been exposed to people from other continents. – Mike Samuel Jun 12 '12 at 1:01
  • 2
    'conjecture' in this context is essentially a synonym for 'guess'. In other words even the writer of your quote isn't claiming that there is any solid evidence. – DJClayworth Jun 18 '12 at 17:13
  • 2
    jasoncolavito.com/1/post/2012/5/… – user8054 Aug 3 '12 at 15:47
33

Probably not.

Jason Colavito essentially tracks down all possible sources of the claim and takes them apart, piece by piece.

O’Brien and Alley’s immediate source is James W. Loewen’s 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me. On page 39, Loewen writes, “Two American Indians shipwrecked in Holland around 60 BC became major curiosities in Europe.” One would think that such cut-and-dried evidence of trans-oceanic contact should warrant a primary source, but Loewen never identifies exactly where he derived this tidbit, citing instead a plethora of diffusionist, Afrocentrist, and Native American activist texts for his paragraph without specifying which was his source for this claim. No primary sources are cited.

So, I tracked down the offending passage by searching sources systematically. The direct source appears to be the late Native American scholar-activist Jack D. Forbes’ (d. 2011) Africans and Native Americans (1993), cited under a different title by Loewen. There, Forbes claims that the following passage from Pliny the Elder (Natural History 2.67), citing a lost work of the earlier Cornelius Nepos (c.100 BCE-c. 25 BCE), proves that Native Americans reached Europe. I have substituted a standard translation for Forbes’ partial and incomplete one.

“The same Cornelius Nepos, when speaking of the northern circumnavigation, tells us that Q. Metellus Celer, the colleague of L. Afranius in the consulship, but then a proconsul in Gaul, had a present made to him by the king of the Suevi, of certain Indians, who sailing from India for the purpose of commerce, had been driven by tempests into Germany.”

Forbes then “interprets” the text by first arguing that Germany, in Roman times, included Belgium and the Netherlands, which must therefore have been the coast referenced (not true; Belgium and the southern Netherlands were Gallia Belgica, not Germania, in 60 BCE, though the province was renamed Germania Inferior in 83 CE. The area now Holland was, though, always part of Germania). Second, Pliny next states “Thus it appears, that the seas which flow completely round the globe, and divide it, as it were, into two parts, exclude us from one part of it, as there is no way open to it on either side.” This, Forbes claims, proves that Pliny thought there was a water connection between India and the Baltic, thus deceiving him about the true origins of the Indians who were not from India but rather America, the only possible place people with dark skin could have traveled from in order to reach Germany by ship. These, Forbes said, must have been either the Olmec (c. 1500-400 BCE) or Teotihuacan people (c. 100-700 CE), whom he mistakes for contemporaries of Nepos. And he leaves it at that, with nary another thought.

We are asked to assume that Cornelius Nepos was wrong about the sailors being Indos (from India) while also apparently accepting that they had no difficulty communicating with the Suevi of the Rhineland. Did German tribes speak Mexican languages?

This communication is made plain by the parallel passage recorded by Pomponius Mela in De Situ Orbis (3.45, written c. 43 CE), also referencing the same lost work of Nepos:

“When he [Celer] was proconsul in Gaul, he was presented with certain Indians as a present by the king of the Boti; asking whence they had come to these lands, he learned they had been seized by a storm from Indian waters, that they had traveled across the regions between, and at last landed on the German shores” (my translation).

Clearly, whoever they were, they spoke a language known to Europeans. (The difference in accounts between the Boti and the Suevi is due to Mela using the specific name of an otherwise unattested tribe and Pliny using the generic term for central Germans.)

The first obvious hint for Loewen should have been that apparently it was not the Indians' first trip to the region, since they were able to communicate with those in the region (assuming, of course, that Nepos didn't just make the whole thing up). Even if they were not Indians, the Europeans did not find their language particularly incomprehensible (or if they did, they did not mention it).

Forbes wasn't the first one to interpret the passage in this way, either; the article recounts other secondary sources who make the same claim, including Peter de Roo (1900) and, ultimately, Francisco López de Gómara:

But de Roo didn’t originate the claim, either. The claim derives, ultimately, from the work of the Spanish historian Francisco López de Gómara, who in his Historia de las Indias (chapter 10), suggested that the Romans had been “deceived by the color” of Native Americans from Labrador who had been carried across the North Atlantic. Gómara, of course, was merely speculating; he is the same man who in the same book argued that the Americas were identical to Atlantis because the Aztecs had words that used the letters “atl”: “But there is no dispute or doubt what was the island of Atlantis, for the discovery and conquest of the Indies simply clarify what Plato wrote of those lands, and in Mexico they call water atl, a word that seems like, if it is not already, from the island” (chapter 220; my translation). He did not write from evidence, merely speculation, in order to provide Classical antecedents to justify the Spanish conquest of the Americas. He was criticized even in his own lifetime for the inaccuracy of his work.

Furthermore, even Pliny's original quote was merely a repetition of an earlier claim (which may itself have contained a number of errors):

In fact, the Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York noted in 1891 that Pliny, writing in 77-79 CE, merely repeated the statement of Mela from 43 CE, and Mela in turn has a notoriously error-ridden manuscript tradition. It may well be, the Journal argued, that a copyist’s error transformed into “Indos” the original word “Irenos” (Irish) or even “Iberos” (Spanish), making this a perfectly plausible story of a Celtic shipwreck on German shores that Mela and then Pliny misunderstood. Earlier scholars, recognizing the clear evidence for Roman contact with India and vice versa, argued that Nepos’ account was garbled and that the Indians had arrived in Germany not by sea but by a different route. Rabelais differed, suggesting that the Indians had circumnavigated Africa, while Vivien de St. Martin argued that they were Wends, a Slavonian people from the Baltic who could have been mistaken for Indians because the Romans believed in a nonexistent water route between the Baltic and India. Quaintly, the Late Antique writer Martianus Capella (The Marriage of Philology and Mercury 6.621) completely misunderstood the entire textual tradition and transmitted to the Middle Ages the false notion that Nepos had kidnapped Indians and sailed with them past Germany!

In summary, there is no actual evidence to support Loewen's claim - only repetitions of speculation and guesswork. Regardless of whether or not the shipwrecked individuals were, in fact, Indian, no historical fact supports the idea that they were Native American.

(If you are interested in reading the original sources Colavito references, he links to them in his post where available.)

  • 3
    Great answer! Too bad it's not true; it would have been very interesting. – William Grobman Aug 25 '13 at 16:28
  • @WilliamGrobman: It is nonetheless interesting that there were fairly regular sea trade with South Asia in Roman times. Especially interesting to Indians. – slebetman Apr 21 '16 at 5:18

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .