Theory of Phoenician discovery of the Americas

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A Phoenician ship carved on a sarcophagus, 2nd century AD.

The theory of Phoenician discovery of the Americas is a fringe theory that suggests there was Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact between people of the New World and the Phoenicians or other Semitic peoples in the first millennium BC.[1] The theory has led to other, more specific theories.

Before the 20th century[edit]

This theory of a Phoenician discovery of the Americas was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the late 18th century, a number of people speculated on the origins of the petroglyphs on Dighton Rock. Ezra Stiles, then President of Yale College, believed them to be Hebrew.[2] Antoine Court de Gébelin, who initiated the modern usage of the Tarot, argued in Le Monde primitif that they commemorated an ancient visit to the Massachusetts shore by a group of sailors from Carthage.[3]

In the 19th century, belief in an Israelite visit to the Americas would become entrenched in Mormonism. Ross T. Christensen has propounded the theory that the Mulekites in the Book of Mormon were "largely Phoenician in their ethnic origin."[4]

In his 1871 book Ancient America, John Denison Baldwin said

The known enterprise of the Phoenician race, and this ancient knowledge of America, so variously expressed, strongly encourage the hypothesis that the people called Phoenicians came to this continent, established colonies in the region where ruined cities are found, and filled it with civilized life. It is argued that they made voyages on the “great exterior ocean,” and that such navigators must have crossed the Atlantic; and it is added that symbolic devices similar to those of the Phoenicians are found in the American ruins, and that an old tradition of the native Mexicans and Central Americans described the first civilizers as “bearded white men,” who “came from the East in ships.”[5]

In the 1870s, a stone inscription was discovered in Paraíba, Brazil; various transcriptions and interpretations of it have periodically exercised the popular imagination ever since.[6] A transcription was shown to Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto, director of the National Museum of Brazil. Netto accepted the inscription as genuine, but when it was later claimed to be a hoax, Netto backed down and blamed foreigners for its fabrication. In the 1960s, however, Cyrus H. Gordon proclaimed the inscription to be genuine, and offered a translation, which begins, "We are Sidonian Canaanites from the city of the Mercantile King..."[7]

20th century theories[edit]

Lithograph of the Bat Creek inscription, which Cyrus H. Gordon believed to be Paleo-Hebrew.

In the 20th century, adherents have included Cyrus H. Gordon, John Philip Cohane, Ross T. Christensen, Barry Fell and Mark McMenamin. Gordon believed that ancient Hebrew inscriptions had been found at two sites in the southeastern United States, indicating that Jews had arrived there before Columbus. One of these supposed finds was the Bat Creek inscription, which Gordon believed to be Paleo-Hebrew, but is generally thought to be a forgery.[8] Another find which has been claimed as supporting the theory of Semitic discovery of the Americas is the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone, which has also been dismissed as a fake.

In 1996, Mark McMenamin proposed a theory that Phoenician sailors discovered the New World c. 350 BC.[9] The Phoenician state of Carthage minted gold staters in 350 BC bearing a pattern, in the reverse exergue of the coins, which McMenamin interpreted as a map of the Mediterranean with the Americas shown to the west across the Atlantic.[10][11][12][13] McMenamin later demonstrated that putative Carthaginian coins found in America were modern forgeries. [14]

Various theories of Phoenicians/Canaanites/Carthaginians in the New World were discussed, the evidence reviewed and dismissed by Marshall McKusick in The Biblical Archaeologist, 1979;[15] he observed "in this modern day everyone wishes to be his own authority, and the personal search for cultural alternatives seems to make every idea or theory equal in value."

Recent developments[edit]

In July 2012, a British man, Philip Beale, announced plans to sail his replica Phoenician boat across the Atlantic in order to see whether it would have been possible. Beale had previously circumnavigated Africa in his boat.[16] As of May 2013, Beale was still seeking sponsorship to undertake the voyage.[17]

In January 2013, the TV channel History screened an episode of America Unearthed called "Stonehenge in America", which looked at America's Stonehenge, and discussed the theory of Phoenician colonization of North America.[18]

Scholarly assessment[edit]

Glenn Markoe says that it will "probably never be known" whether the Phoenicians ever reached the Americas. He remarks,

Proof in the form of an inscription, like the celebrated Phoenician text allegedly found in Paraíba in northern Brazil, remains unlikely. The latter, which recounts the landing of a storm-driven party from Sidon, has long been recognized as a clever forgery. If such a fateful expedition had actually occurred, the proof is more likely to be found in a handful of Phoenician pottery shards.[19]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Tellier, Luc-Normand (2009). Urban World History: An Economic and Geographical Perspective. PUQ. p. 301. 
  2. ^ Manuel, Frank Edward; Manuel, Fritzie Prigohzy (2003). James Bowdoin And The Patriot Philosophers. American Philosophical Society. pp. 197–198. 
  3. ^ Southwick, Albert B. (10 January 2013). "Mystery of Dighton Rock". Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved 29 January 2013. 
  4. ^ Christensen, Ross T. "The Phoenicians and the Ancient Civilizations of America". Retrieved 29 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Baldwin, John D. "The Phoenician Theory". Retrieved 29 January 2013. 
  6. ^ The "Paraiba inscription" made the pages of Life, 10 June 1968 with commentary by Cyrus H. Gordon.
  7. ^ Gordon, Cyrus H., "The Canaanite Text from Brazil," Orientalia, No. 37, 1968, pp. 425-436.
  8. ^ Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., and Mary L. Kwas, "The Bat Creek Stone: Judeans In Tennessee?" Tennessee Anthropologist Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring 1991
  9. ^ "McMenamin Offers New Evidence for Controversial Theory". College Street Journal. Retrieved 29 January 2013. 
  10. ^ McMenamin, M. A. 1996. Carthaginian Cartagraphy: A Stylized Exergue Map. Meanma Press, South Hadley, Massachusetts
  11. ^ McMenamin, M. A. 1997. The Phoenician World Map. Mercator's World 2(3):46-51.
  12. ^ Scott, J. M. 2005. Geography in Early Judaism and Christianity. Cambridge University Press, pp. 182-183.
  13. ^ McCaffrey, Kevin. "Who Discovered the Americas?". Retrieved 29 January 2013. 
  14. ^ McMenamin (2000). Phoenicians, Fakes and Barry Fell: Solving the Mystery of Carthaginian Coins Found in America. South Hadley, Massachusetts: Meanma Press. ISBN 1893882012. 
  15. ^ McCusick, "Canaanites in America" A New Scripture in Stone?" The Biblical Archaeologist 42.3 (Summer 1979), pp137ff.
  16. ^ Kendall, Paul (29 July 2012). "British adventurer's plan to sail replica of Phoenician sailing boat across Atlantic". The Telegraph. Retrieved 30 January 2013. 
  17. ^ Phoenicia seeks sponsorship to sail the Atlantic
  18. ^ Byrd, Norman. "America Unearthed: A Stonehenge here, a Stonehenge there, Phoenicians everywhere". HULIQ. Retrieved 29 January 2013. 
  19. ^ Markoe, Glenn (2000). Phoenicians. University of California Press. p. 13. 

External links[edit]