What is Pre-Columbian Trans-Oceanic Contact?

Michael Anissimov

Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact refers to instances of contact between Native Americans and the people of other continents prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. At least two instances are generally recognized as true — that Norsemen traveled to modern-day Canada and made colonies there around the year 1000, and that Polynesians visited South America at least as early as between 1304 and 1424.

A portrait of Christopher Columbus, the explorer who came to the Americas in 1492.
A portrait of Christopher Columbus, the explorer who came to the Americas in 1492.

Norse (also known as Viking) pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact is verified by historical and archaeological evidence. The remains of a Viking settlement were uncovered in 1961 by archaeologists Anne and Helge Ingstad at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. Workshops and dwellings were uncovered, including an iron smithy with a forge, a carpentry woodshop, and a boat repair area. The largest building, with several rooms, measured 28.8 by 15.6 m (94.5 by 51 ft). Because of the find, L'Anse aux Meadows has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This archaeological evidence of Norse pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact fits in well with Viking stories of a land west of Greenland called Vinland, penned around the time. According to the Vinland Sagas, the North American settlement was established by Leif Ericson, the famous Viking explorer. The Vinland Sagas state the colony subsequently collapsed due to infighting and conflicts with natives. Today, the shrewd call Ericson the first European to reach the Americas, rather than Christopher Columbus. The Vinland Sagas and accompanying archaeological evidence remain the first solid instance of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact.

In 2007, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that chicken bones located in Arauco Province, Chile matched the genetic profile of chickens from that period from American Samoa and Tonga, 5,000 miles (8,000 km) away, and had little in common with any European chicken. These chicken bones were dated to between 1304 and 1424, well before the arrival of the Spaniards. As a breeding pair of chickens would never make it all the way across the Pacific Ocean floating on a piece of wood, this makes it extremely likely that pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact occurred between the Polynesians and South American natives during this time.

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