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.
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