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
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.)