This week CNN took a step into the alternative history waters in its monthly sailing show MainSail, which airs on the international feed of CNN (not available in most U.S. homes). According to an article posted on the show’s website, Philip Beale, late of the Royal Navy, plans to sail a replica of a Phoenician boat across the mid-Atlantic to prove that it was possible for Phoenicians to have reached America. He previously sailed the boat around Africa in 2010 in an effort to prove that the Phoenicians could have pulled off the feat in the first millennium BCE.
Beale said he got the idea from Herodotus, who reported that the Phoenicians had circumnavigated Africa in Histories 4.42:
I wonder then at those who have parted off and divided the world into Libya, Asia, and Europe, since the difference between these is not small; for in length Europe extends along by both, while in breadth it is clear to me that it is beyond comparison larger; for Libya furnishes proofs about itself that it is surrounded by sea, except so much of it as borders upon Asia; and this fact was shown by Necos king of the Egyptians first of all those about whom we have knowledge. He when he had ceased digging the channel which goes through from the Nile to the Arabian gulf, sent Phenicians with ships, bidding them sail and come back through the Pillars of Heracles to the Northern Sea and so to Egypt. The Phenicians therefore set forth from the Erythraian Sea and sailed through the Southern Sea; and when autumn came, they would put to shore and sow the land, wherever in Libya they might happen to be as they sailed, and then they waited for the harvest: and having reaped the corn they would sail on, so that after two years had elapsed, in the third year they turned through the Pillars of Heracles and arrived again in Egypt. And they reported a thing which I cannot believe, but another man may, namely that in sailing round Libya they had the sun on their right hand. (trans. G. C. Macaulay)
That the Phoenicians’ descendants, the Carthaginians, had made good progress down the coast of Africa is well-known from the famous Periplus of Hanno.
Beale says he believes the Phoenicians crossed the Atlantic because of the so-called “cocaine mummies,” which I discussed last year in reviewing Gavin Menzies’s idea that the cocaine found in Egyptian mummies indicated Minoan trans-Atlantic crossings:
Attempts to replicate the findings on mummies stored in controlled conditions failed to find any trace of cocaine or nicotine. According to David J. Counsell in Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science (2008), the evidence points to contamination, especially since the so-called “cocaine mummies” exhibit substance levels in the mummies’ hair many times lower than those of comparable mummies from South America, where coca leaves were routinely chewed.
His other “proof” is that Phoenician coins depict America and an American coin has “Phoenician” iconography, but this is merely a reference to Mark McMenamin’s computer-generated, microscopic “map” of the world found on a Phoenician coin and discussed on America Unearthed. I explained then why it there is good reason to doubt, and you can read it here.
Still, there is a big difference between hugging the coast of a continent and sailing for weeks across the open ocean. Historians doubt that Phoenicians could have crossed the ocean without running out of food and fresh water. We know that Inuit were able to cross the North Atlantic in a canoe by hopping islands all the way to Scotland (the canoe is still in the University of Aberdeen), and the Vikings did the same in reverse, but the mid-Atlantic is a different story altogether.
But let’s leave that aside. There is also the problem that Beale thinks that proving that the boat could physically cross the ocean is the same as proving that the Phoenicians actually did cross the Atlantic. This is the same slipshod reasoning that led to an earlier outbreak of pseudoscience. In the early 1800s, scientists recognized that the Native Americans had walked to America from Asia across the Bering Strait. Since this proved that it was physically possible to walk from Asia to America successfully, some immediately concluded that this proved that pre-Hindu white Aryans from India had walked from Asia to America and built the Native American earthworks called the mounds. After all, it was physically possible, so it must have happened.
Thor Heyerdahl, of course became famous for tying to prove that South Americans colonized the Pacific in the Kon Tiki voyage, and Tim Severin has routinely tried to prove ancient myths could have been true by sailing the route of Jason’s Argo and other mythical ships. Heyerdahl managed to get the direction of influence wrong (the Polynesians actually sailed to South America), and Severin’s Jason voyage failed to recognize that that the Jason myth only acquired an itinerary after the Greeks mastered the Black Sea—so of course it could be done; that’s how Apollonius of Rhodes and other authors determined what route to put in the myth! (It’s a bit more complex than that, but we’ll leave aside the problems with the geography of the return from Colchis.)
So, in short, there is a difference between demonstrating what is possible and proving that it really happened.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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