Earlier today Cracked.com ran a piece on the “Six Ridiculous Lies You Believe about the Founding of America.” Authors Jack O’Brien and Alford Alley write that “First of all, Columbus wasn't the first to cross the Atlantic. Nor were the vikings. [sic] Two Native Americans landed in Holland in 60 B.C. and were promptly not given a national holiday by anyone.” Obviously, I wondered how I had missed such an important ancient record of trans-oceanic crossing. Well, as it turns out, I didn’t miss anything. The internet echo chamber is repeating a piece of centuries-old speculation uncritically. In the original ancient texts, the people were not Native Americans, were not two in number, and did not land in Holland. 60 BCE is about right, though.
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.
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:
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.)
Forbes, however, did not originate this claim. In 1900 Peter de Roo wrote the same thing in his History of America before Columbus, and Forbes follows Roo’s arguments point for point, down to the claim that Celer (and thus Nepos) mistook the Native Americans for people from India because of their “Asiatic features.”
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.
Georg Hartwig, in 1860, following the earlier work of Alexander von Humboldt, suggested that the Gulf Stream could have carried some unfortunate Inuit from America to Northern Europe, accounting for Nepos’ report. This is certainly possible, but it is probably the least likely of situations since Cornelius Nepos and the later Roman writers seemed to find nothing particularly noteworthy about the Indians in Germany, implying they were garden variety Indians from India.
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!
The long and short of it is that there is no independent confirmation that Native Americans washed up in Holland in 60 BCE as the internet claims. 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, calling Gómara’s attention to Pliny’s passage. Had Mela and Pliny named anyone other than the Indians of India, no one would ever have batted an eye at Nepos’ report. There is no reason to do so now in service of an imaginary trans-Atlantic crossing that lacks any other evidence to support it--especially when there are so many more plausible explanations.
We can't rule out an accidental shipwreck of Inuit, but the evidence from the brief passages now extant argues against it. And we certainly cannot get from the extant texts the exact number of two, uncontested proof they were Native Americans, or a clear indication they landed in what is now the Netherlands. Thus, on almost every point, the claim as currently presented in alternative, Afrocentrist, and diffusionist literature is demonstrably false.
5/16/2012 04:04:40 pm
Hey, thanks a lot for posting this. I read that cracked article as well and was slightly baffled by this "fact" and your thorough post into the matter was very helpful.
4/15/2015 04:14:21 am
Cracked isn't actually factual most of the time. They do sometimes link sources, but a lot of their stuff boils down to "I heard this and researched it...sort of". This is hardly the first time Cracked has been proved wrong. Of course, due to their nature as comedy/opinion site, there's no backlash when they are wrong.
7/17/2015 11:18:47 am
Come On Jason!!! I was loving this article because you decided not to disprove a claim using an Ad Hominem argument and here you go in the last paragraph blatantly committing another fallacy in informal logic...
7/18/2015 06:34:17 pm
It's overstating the case to say "demonstrably false", but absence of evidence does mean the claim has not met its' burden of proof. Extra-ordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and all that. Eskimos from Mars might have landed in Australia in 4000 BC, but unless we have a shred of proof or evidence we can't say for sure. And the null hypothesis that it probably didn't happen rules the day in the absence of such data.
7/4/2016 05:01:17 pm
Oh, I see -- in other words "prove it didn't happen or it must be accepted as historical fact." I like the way you also consider your own anecdotal evidence (the "I've been there, man!" school of proof) to be valid data.
5/17/2012 06:32:19 am
Thanks for running this down, this is a terrific post. I have done some work on post-1492 Indians in Europe and was intrigued by this story. Especially because some pre-1492 native peoples (likely Greenland eskimos) can be documented as having reached Europe. Or course, Greenland is not usually considered part of the New World.
5/17/2012 11:31:01 am
Thanks so much for your research. You really cleared everything up.
5/18/2012 05:13:54 pm
Thank you!. After I read the article I went to Google to see if I could find any sources on that story, but I didn't found any.
5/18/2012 09:28:23 pm
Hey, I got interested in this claim too, nice to see something written about it. I just had one minor quibble though when you said:
5/18/2012 11:37:31 pm
Good point. I was using a map of Caesar's Gallic Wars (c. 58 BCE) that depicted Gallica Belgica stretching into what is now Holland. In reviewing additional maps of Roman provinces, I see that under the Empire this same area became Germania Inferior in 83 CE, with Belgica restricted to a more southerly area. Since we are discussing 60 BCE, Belgica is probably the more accurate term, but I have clarified the offending sentence.
5/19/2012 03:20:47 am
While I've seen maps where Belgica reaches up to the Rhine, it would technically be a mistake to say that this mean the province reached into *Holland*. Holland is a region within the Netherlands that became associated with the entire country during the 17th century, but which is still distinct. The maps that I can find where Belgica reaches into the Netherlands have the province cover most of the modern day Dutch provinces of Zeeland, Brabant, and Limburg. Holland however (consisting of the modern day provinces of North and South Holland), are clearly north of the borders of Belgica.
5/19/2012 03:22:08 am
In reference to my previous comment; I only read the changed line in the post after replying to your comment, and saw that you already stated Holland itself was part of Germania.
10/8/2013 05:17:38 am
If you use the accounts of Tacitus, the land North of the Rhône was actually frysian. Some historians did call iT Germania inferior, but a lot also described it As Frisia maiores. The North sea was named mare frisonum by roman historians
10/8/2013 05:20:26 am
If you use the accounts of Tacitus, the land North of the Rhine was actually Frysian. Some historians did call it Germania Inferior, but a lot also described it As Frisia Maiores. The North Sea was named Mare Frisonum by Roman historians
10/8/2013 05:21:59 am
If you use the accounts of Tacitus, the land North of the Rhine was actually Frysian. Some historians did call it Germania Inferior, but a lot also described it as Frisia Maiores. The North Sea was named Mare Frisonum by Roman historians.
5/19/2012 03:32:45 pm
Thanks for the thorough and illustrative analysis!
5/22/2012 10:19:11 am
Thank you kindly! I've been scouring the Internet for references on this for days now. Very helpful and concise, much appreciated.
6/19/2012 04:38:07 am
Hi! I am here like everyone else here... because I read the 'cracked' article and wanted to learn more about the 'Native Americans' who crossed the sea in 60BC. Your article is exceptional!!!!! Not only am I impressed by your research, but I am also impressed by the amount of like minded people who didn't just read that possibly super important statement and continue reading, I'm impressed by you and all the others curious to discover the truth. Thank you for your valuable research and time you spent on posting this for us!
6/19/2012 01:36:20 pm
I'm so glad you found my post useful. It turns out this isn't all there is to the story. You'll want to be sure to check out this fall's Skeptic magazine, where I'll have a full length article examining this topic and some really interesting additional details.
8/15/2012 01:21:01 am
Thank you for this awesome analysis. It really cleared this subject up for me. Just wondering though, did you get a chance to read the rest of that Cracked article to try to debunk any of the other stories?
8/16/2012 01:53:42 pm
You're welcome! The other claims are mostly solid, though the Founders did not use the Iroquois Confederacy as the basis for the Constitution. There are virtually no similarities between the two. That was propaganda the Founders put out to help differentiate the new country from its European antecedents. The Constitution was modeled on the Roman Republic and the British Parliament more than anything else.
8/24/2012 09:59:20 pm
Do you have any pictures of this shipwreck?What museum is this in? I am from Canada British Columbia and find this quite fascinating to read.
8/26/2012 07:55:48 am
There was no shipwreck. As I wrote in the article, this was a myth and nothing more. The first documented Native American to cross the Atlantic by ship under his own power happened in the 1680s, and the oldest surviving Native ship to make the crossing is from 1700. You can visit it at the Marischal Museum at the University of Aberdeen.
7/6/2014 07:37:58 am
A group of native Americans did set off to cross the Atlantic in the pre colonial era from what is now SC in large canoes. They apparently hoped to improve the terms of trade and reach European authorities about the ways they were being abused. A storm hit shortly after they left, none returned and it was presumed that they were lost at sea.
11/1/2012 02:00:46 am
If this story is true (just pretend), then perhaps these Native Americans convinced those ancient Jews to build boats and sail to America, which then gives Mormonism credit.
11/5/2012 05:54:40 pm
Jason - There is a flaw in one of your arguments. You claim that the "indians" could not have possibly talked to the Romans. Not true! If they were ancestors of certain Iroquoian speaking Indians, there's a good chance that they would be been able to make themselves somewhat understood. The Iroquoian languages share a deep affinity with the Indo-European linguistic family and there are enough similarities that a Latin speaker might have understood some of what they were saying. For instance, "auwa" is a word for water in the Nottaway language (a coastal Iroquoian tribe), which is close to Latin "aqua" (and certainly a lot closer than Germanic "vatr"). (Their word for "one" was "unte", btw.)
5/13/2013 09:13:46 am
Your claim is highly dubious from a linguistic standpoint. Further, even if Iroquis was a pseudo-Indo-European language (or, whatever) that is like saying an English speaker should be able to understand Sanskrit because they're in the same language family. Your statement is utter non-sense.
10/8/2013 05:12:39 am
I would not be so sure of that. It is true that sanskrit is a totally different language, but yes, still in the Same language family. It would indeed be easier FOR an englishman to understand sanskrit than icelandic for instance.
11/1/2013 07:38:13 pm
What deSales said is totally right. And, Vermij is totally wrong on challenging DeSales on his caveat. As an American English speaker, I can parse out a number of words in Icelandic; I wouldn't even venture a try in Sanskrit.
6/29/2014 03:49:40 am
That's because Icelandic (commonly considered the most difficult language in the world to learn) is descended from a mix of Old Norse and Norwegian. Norwegian you may recognize as the single most influential language in the development of the English language. And what he's saying isn't nonsensical, if words sound alike (or merely similar) you can indeed figure out a way to communicate after trial and error in much shorter time period than normal. Languages don't have to be related to share similar words, and the relation between the languages is not the deciding factor in how we understand each other.
6/26/2016 06:53:28 pm
Exactly. J Blumenthal's rejoinder is full of poppycock as well.
3/29/2020 11:38:44 am
The presumption that they could understand eachother thru language is erroneous. Anyone can say with hand signals "we came on a boat during a storm".
Maarten Vander Cruyssen
1/13/2013 05:16:03 am
Thanks. Also read the Cracked article "6 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About the Founding of America". Was a bit shocked when he said "Two Native Americans landed in Holland in 60 B.C.".
1/13/2013 09:34:20 am
If you enjoyed this blog post, be sure to check out the expanded version I have running in the current Skeptic magazine!
11/1/2013 07:42:07 pm
Jason, I'd also argue that Cracked's piece lays it on a bit thick with the "Croatan" claims as being "solid" for the destination of the English settlers at Roanoke.
3/21/2013 10:43:24 pm
Otto Muck "Atlantis" writes "Already in 1553, Spain's Francisco López de Gomara, the first to write a history of theWest Indies, newly discovered, referred to the Platonic foretaste, as the topography of the west Atlantic, which, surprising way, had his confirmation in fact , thereby justifying and brilliantly, the Platonic narrative, then defamed like mad and heretical. Gomara was of the opinion that the new continent, America, or was the island of Atlantis itself, or that continent end, behind the west Atlantic, announced by Plato."
4/14/2013 04:52:02 pm
Thanks for this clear article.
4/15/2013 07:57:59 am
A more complete version of this blog post can be found in the "Articles" section of my website under the "Skeptic Magazine" tab.
4/17/2013 11:01:30 am
4/25/2013 01:39:01 pm
Hi, I enjoyed the analysis, but completely fail to see how this myth is 'Afrocentrist'... Am I missing something? It would be Afrocentric to claim that Africans sailed to America before Europeans (like some black scholars do), but to claim that Native Americans sailed to Europe before Europeans sailed to America seems to me to definitely not be Afrocentric.
4/25/2013 01:51:17 pm
The story isn't Afrocentrist; Afrocentrist writers, particularly Ivan van Sertima, took up the story as "proof" that white scholars were suppressing ALL non-white achievements (not just African ones), thus making it more likely that Africans were secretly the founders of civilization. No, it doesn't make much sense, but that's Van Sertima for you.
5/23/2013 01:45:57 pm
Wow, great research!
10/13/2013 12:28:18 pm
It's worth pointing out that the Inuit could not have made this crossing either. Not from Labrador, not from Greenland. Not in 60 B.C., at least. Although the exact dates are debated (due to difficulties carbon-dating organic remains in an arctic marine environment), Inuit culture appears in the western arctic, spreading to the east by no earlier than 1000 A.D., probably closer to 1250 to Greenland and 1450 to Labrador.
10/16/2013 04:31:32 am
In your zeal to run this down, you make a pretty unlikely claim. You ask us to believe that Spaniards (Iberos) could be mistaken for people of India.
10/16/2013 04:48:39 am
I didn't make that claim, an 1891 journal article did. I just reported that it was offered as one explanation. Please read the article before attributing to me things that I didn't say.
10/19/2013 03:29:56 am
I'm far more interested in speculation that South African San Bushmen may have rafted to South America.
6/29/2014 03:43:15 am
I just wanted to say that I find it unlikely that in 60 BCE that Germania(which was never conquered by Rome and remained rather isolated for it) had anyone who spoke whatever dialect of the various Hindu/Indian languages (forgetting the actual name at the moment) anywhere in their territories. That's just as unlikely as "Germanics understanding a native American language". Which by the way, isn't impossible. If that were so then New cultures that come into contact with one another could never understand each other. The truth is, when you can't communicate using words, you still have crude drawings and cruder sign language to help you out.
2/17/2015 06:02:17 pm
Have you ever read Eaters of the Dead or seen The 13th Warrior? Antonio Banderas brought those languages with him, clearly.
7/4/2014 08:03:43 pm
Okay, you lost me at...
Lifelong History Scholar
7/4/2014 08:50:14 pm
Thanks for setting this straight! I'd read that natives of far-away (e.g. Greenland) had reached Europe well before Columbus reached America, but the exactness of "Native Americans at Holland in 60 BC" gave me an instant cough*bullshit*ing fit. Always remember: it's important to gather multiple grains of salt, and keep them handily nearby in a small container, for use while reading the Internet.
7/5/2014 07:21:54 am
While all of this is interesting, the real point of the Cracked article is well put. Simply had the great North American plague not happened the European invasion would have been nearly impossible.
7/7/2014 09:01:07 am
Fer gawd sake... It has to be satire... its CRACKED?
5/25/2015 06:22:48 am
I know this post is old, but I found it while trying to learn more about this supposed crossing.
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4/11/2017 08:04:23 pm
Jason, I'm a little confused by your arguments about language. You say,
5/23/2019 02:33:29 am
I see. So you take Jason to task for going too far in his assumptions, only to substitute your own far-more-tenuous assumptions, evidently because you want something to be true. There's some scholarship for you.
5/23/2019 07:53:47 am
LOL. You read nothing I wrote. "Scholarship" means maintaining neutrality about the conclusions while looking at facts and arguments from all angles.
5/24/2019 05:11:11 am
I believe that the way it works in historical scholarship is that one must support one's contentions by reference to (preferably primary) sources. Lots of things don't seem impossible; lots of things *could have* happened; that's a far cry from proving that they did happen. It simply won't do to base an argument on "There's no reason to suppose that [x] couldn't have happened." Such statements are the bedrock of pseudohistory.
5/24/2019 07:12:48 am
LOL, what a pompous moron. I questioned Jason's inconsistent argument and unstated assumptions, not his facts. The only argument I made was that Jason could be a lot more careful---I didn't argue either way on whether the story is true or not, and I don't care. Do you always just barge into threads, skip the reading, and try to impress everyone by asserting your juvenile superiority complex?
5/24/2019 08:43:07 am
Ah, the trusty old ad hominem, the other hallmark of the scholarly mind. Keep shooting for the stars, sister!
5/24/2019 03:49:56 pm
LOL, misuse of the term "ad hominem," the hallmark of pompous morons all over the Internet!
5/24/2019 04:30:47 pm
Sure thing. Do me a favor though and let me know what it's like once you get there, ok?
5/24/2019 04:39:38 pm
If you've got nothing to say, why not STFU? Stop polluting the Internet with your posturing.
5/24/2019 07:07:25 pm
Right back atcha, sport.
5/24/2019 07:57:34 pm
LOL. I'm the only one of the two of us who has actually said anything.
5/25/2019 01:48:21 am
I have a feeling you think that about every conversation you have..
1/26/2018 08:58:02 am
Your arrogance insults the facts that all brown people were named indio. Plus I do not see were you make the point were the had to know the language to communicate! Did Europeans know native tongue when they invaded? No.. Did some learn.. Yes. Did they use hand signals and other ways to communicate.. That should be obvious but not to you.. Second of all there has been many other writings, artifacts, american tobacco, cocaine and other things in mummies of Egypt and Europe years before 60 b.c. I now a days try to look up more ancient sea going info on natives because they were some of the best sea goers at the time and the best swimmers. They caught fish and other things that other nations couldn't even dream of. The native had biggest population,some of biggest pyramids, biggest cities, enginerred potatoes, maize,pumpkins, marijuana and other food / medicinal herbs that actually pretty much saved the world from starvation. Of topic now but point being is that the eurocentric and afrocentric america tries its hardest to suppress the true history of the diseased free people and most different people of the time. Natives did a lot of FAR maritime exploring for centuries but its hard to find more info because lack of old material being destroyed from old age. But just the cocaine in mummies and tobacco should be proof enough. Stop hating and open your mind
5/23/2019 02:30:48 am
The "cocaine mummies" finding has never been able to be reproduced by anyone else; it was evidently either a sampling or statistical error, though the much more likely explanation is that at some point in the 19th century (in which cocaine and tobacco were widely and legally available) somebody handling the mummies in question contaminated them. Also, there's no shortage of Egyptian written records; you'd think that, given their penchant for boasting about conquests and discoveries, that they'd mention the discovery of a gigantic landmass nobody else knew about.
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Well, from my perspective if they were identified as Indians then they were more than likely Indians from India. That is not unusual at all - trade with India was brisk at this time and the Romans blamed this trade for a shortage of silver, if my memory recalls correctly. All the Indians had to do was speak the Lingua Franca of the day, Koine Greek, which was spoken in some shape or form from the isle of Britain all the way to India. It is for sure the German tribes and those identified as Indians would have had some speakers of Greek - enough to be understood via Koine Greek. And no - Greek was not reserved for Roman elites only. A traveller speaking just Koine Greek could probably have found someone to understand him from Hadrian's Wall all the way to India. So I tend to believe that when the primary sources say Indians - they mean Indians from India and ar enot misidentifying Inuits or Native American castaways.
10/17/2019 09:22:26 am
Quite interesting! No more negatives here
10/20/2019 03:03:42 am
There are direct eastbound gulf streams that connect the 2 continents, debris from the Caribbean makes its way to UK, a canoe could've made it too. I think you need to reread Forbe's book, talk to some seafaring professionals, and read "man across the sea." (another cited reference) "if America had been the Old World its inhabitants would have discovered Europe long before we did, in fact, discover America.
10/20/2019 08:49:08 pm
The problem with that is that it isn't enough to argue that something could have happened or even that it had a high likelihood of happening. The main concern of historians is evidence and the evaluation of evidence. While of course no historian would say categorically that nobody from the Americas visited Europe prior to 1492 (it's generally impossible to prove that something didn't happen), no historian would argue that people from the Americas *must* have visited Europe because of favorable seafaring conditions. The most any honest scholar could say on the subject is that, at least as of yet, there is no evidence to support that contention.
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Matthew J Gray
2/27/2023 02:23:20 am
So the people who saying we should take that report at face value are arguing that people from the Western Hemisphere got tagged with the incorrect name of "Indians" twice? That's a helluva a coincidence.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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