Who Really Discovered America?

More than anyone else, Christopher Columbus is responsible for connecting the Old World to the New World. But he wasn’t the first person to reach America. So, who discovered America?

Who Discovered America?

I’ve long favored the idea that pre-Columbian contact between the “Old World” and “New World” was far more extensive than the history books would have you believe. And given recent evidence, it appears those history books may need to be rewritten. Someday soon, we may actually be able to determine who discovered America. But for now, there’s growing evidence that ancient Europeans once traveled to America. Here’s more on who discovered America from The Telegraph:

In a discovery that could rewrite the history of the Americas, archaeologists have found a number of stone tools dating back between 19,000 and 26,000 years, and bearing remarkable similarities to those made in Europe.

…The tools could reassert the long dismissed and discredited claim that Europeans in the form of Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first to discover the New World…

(See The Telegraph for more on who discovered America)

Christopher Columbus: Climate Change Villain?

Christopher Columbus, the great explorer who brought the Old and New Worlds together, has been lauded in some quarters as a hero while attacked in others as a villain. Now, climate researchers have weighed into the debate, suggesting that Columbus’s arrival in the Americas may have touched off the Little Ice Age. Was Christopher Columbus a “Climate Change Villain?”

Did Christopher Columbus cause the Little Ice Age?

The Little Ice Age was a period of global cooling “that lasted from about A.D. 1550 to about A.D. 1850 in Europe, North America, and Asia.” It affected both Hemispheres and led to colder temperatures as well as increased ice formation. The Little Ice Age was characterized by crop failures, famine, hypothermia, strange weather patterns and bread riots. How in the world could a single explorer cause all that?

Well, it’s a pretty roundabout path, according to geochemist Richard Nevle. Prior to Christopher Columbus, some 40-100 million people lived in the Americas. They periodically burned vast swathes of land in order to farm crops, leaving large charcoal deposits in their wake.

Then Christopher Columbus arrived. While his own voyages were harmless, the same cannot be said of those of his successors. Europeans quickly followed in Columbus’s path. They sailed to the New World and set about colonizing it. It’s estimated that ~90% of the indigenous population died from either war or disease during this period.

The devastation left far fewer people to care for crops. Charcoal deposits vanished and trees began to grow in formerly-cleared areas. This new flora absorbed as much as 2-17 billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide in the process. The reduced levels of this greenhouse gas left the atmosphere unable to trap as much heat as in the past. And thus, the planet cooled.

“We have a massive reforestation event that’s sequestering carbon … coincident with the European arrival.” ~ Richard Nevle, Stanford University

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

It should be noted that this reforestation theory is not a new one. And it’s not necessarily limited to the Americas either. For example, paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman has suggested in the past that the Black Death, which reduced Europe’s population from somewhere between 30-60%, reduced farming and thus, allowed for new tree growth.

In terms of evidence, Nevle and his team point to ice core samples from Antarctica. Samples corresponding to the Little Ice Age tend to have increasingly higher concentrations of carbon-13, which could be explained by the fact that tree leaves tend to absorb carbon-12. Also, the samples “suggest that levels of the greenhouse gas decreased by 6 to 10 parts per million between 1525 and the early 1600s.

“6 to 10 parts per million? Wow. That’s an extremely small change and, from what I understand, far too small to account for a significant geological event like the Little Ice Age. Plus, this data can be interpreted in other ways. For example, the oceans might’ve absorbed the carbon-dioxide, “perhaps in response to cooling induced by lower solar activity and increased aerosols due to volcanoes.”

To be fair, Nevle is on record stating that reforestation in the Americas was not the only factor that led to the Little Ice Age. But he does consider it a significant one. And the idea that changes in land-use might foster long-term climate change is an intriguing and potentially viable concept.

“…change and variability in land use by humans and the resulting alterations in surface features are major but poorly recognized drivers of long-term global climate patterns … these spatially heterogeneous land use effects may be at least as important in altering the weather as changes in climate patterns associated with greenhouse gases.” ~ Roger Pielke Sr.

Still, the fact remains that a carbon-dioxide reduction of just 6-10 parts per million is far too small to account for the resulting change in temperatures associated with the Little Ice Age. At the same time, there are plenty of other natural variables out there that seem far more likely, namely orbital cycles, reduced solar activity, increased volcanic or cometary fragment activity, inherent variability of climate, and/or a slowing of thermohaline circulation. It’s even possible that it was caused by natural forces we don’t yet understand.

Future evidence could change things. But for the moment, I think it’s safe to say that Christopher Columbus and the explorers that followed him were most likely not a major factor in bringing about the Little Ice Age.

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

Today is Christopher Columbus Day, an annual celebration of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. For many centuries, Columbus was viewed as a great explorer. More recently, that reputation has come under attack. Was Christopher Columbus a hero? Or was he a villain?

Was Christopher Columbus a Hero?

Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. He called the island “San Salvador.” According to his journal, he encountered natives that same day.

“Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.” ~ Christopher Columbus

For the next four hundred years, Columbus was viewed as a brave explorer and credited with the discovery of the New World. Incidentally, that honor has since gone to the Vikings and I wouldn’t be surprised if evidence of even earlier expeditions eventually came to light. Still, Columbus, more than anyone else, brought the Old World and New World together, creating the interconnected world that we know today. But over the last century or so, his reputation has fallen considerably.

Was Christopher Columbus a Villain?

Attack on Columbus were led by an independent scholar named Kirkpatrick Sale. Sale accused Columbus of being an imperialist set on conducting a “conquest of paradise.” In Sale’s view, America’s native peoples were “noble savages” who lived in peace and harmony with the land. Columbus’s arrival screwed all that up and led to generations of suffering and slavery under European conquerors.

Columbus’s defenders didn’t take this lightly. Led by individuals such as Robert Royal from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, these scholars claimed that most of the native deaths originated from the accidental transmission of disease rather than from war. Also, they pointed out that the natives were hardly friendly to the environment nor were they peaceful (a point seemingly bolstered by Columbus’s diary entry above). Finally, they stated that Columbus himself acted in a peaceful, friendly fashion. It was the Spanish government administrators that followed him who were in fact responsible for violence committed against the native peoples.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, how should one feel about Christopher Columbus and his famous discovery of the Americas? Well, it’s clear that his voyages led to the eventual conquest of the Americas and its people. Horrible crimes were committed in the process. None of this is disputed and all of the atrocities deserved to remembered as such.

Still, we here at Guerrilla Explorer find much to admire in Columbus. He couldn’t have foreseen the negative side effects of his journey. The blame for that violence lies squarely with the Spanish government and its administrators.

In regard to that violence, there is a small silver lining, best expressed by historian Tom Woods in his article, Morality and Columbus Day: Another View.

“Reports of Spanish mistreatment of the natives of the New World prompted a severe crisis of conscience among significant sectors of the Spanish population in the sixteenth century, not least among her philosophers and theologians. The issue provoked substantial discussion and debate within the Spanish intellectual community. This fact alone indicates that we are witnessing something historically unusual: nothing in the historical record suggests that Attila the Hun had any moral qualms about his conquests, and the large-scale human sacrifice that was so fundamental to Aztec civilization appears to have elicited no outpouring of self-criticism and philosophical reflection among that native people comparable to what European misbehavior provoked among Catholic theologians in sixteenth-century Spain.” ~ Tom Woods

So, while far too many natives died during the conquest of the Americas, something else quite remarkable took place at the same time. For perhaps the first time in history, a civilization gave itself a hard look and “found it wanting.”

“If we consider the Age of Discovery in the light of sound historical judgment, we must conclude that the Spaniards’ ability to look objectively at these foreign peoples and recognize their common humanity was no small accomplishment, particularly when measured against the parochialism that has so often colored one people’s conception of another.” ~ Tom Woods

While we must never forget the horrors committed by the Spanish invaders, we can take some solace in the fact that these acts were noticed and criticized by Spanish theologians, philosophers, and intellectuals. In many ways, they provided us with the “moral tools” to recognize that these acts were indeed evil and should be condemned.

“The ideals which some Spaniards sought to put into practice as they opened up the New World will never lose their shining brightness as long as men believe that other peoples have a right to live, that just methods may be found for the conduct of relations between peoples, and that essentially all the peoples of the world are men.” ~ Professor Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America