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Challenging the Myths Surrounding 1492

Presenters:  Stuart and Marg Rogers

Article and Pictures by Lucy Martin

North America was clearly found and settled by its aboriginal peoples. The topic of which other persons, or cultures, 'discovered' the continent as well continues to provoke debate.

Thirty-four members and guests gathered at North Gower's lovely, historic Holy Trinity Anglican Church on March 21st.  to hear Stu Rogers speak about “Challenging the Myths Surrounding 1492”.

Public interest is easily attracted by exciting claims, such as Gavin Menzies' recent best-seller 1421: The Year China Discovered the World.  As they should, new theories generate scrutiny: Did this happen, or not? When? Where? What's the proof? Supporters of the new concept are bound to have their credentials critiqued as well.  

     Marg and Stuart Rogers

Marg and Stu Rogers have devoted many years and many miles to study of the early inhabitants of North America.  

Our culture's fixation on superlatives like 'biggest' or 'first' is a curious quirk. After all, even if the Vikings 'beat' Columbus (chronologically speaking) his voyages unleashed European Colonialism, which changed the whole world, for better and worse. So let's just say it's all worth understanding.

Early cultures and cross-contacts have long fascinated retired teacher and RTHS member Stu Rogers. He and his wife, Marguerite Rogers, make a point of seeking archeological sites, old monuments and various museums on their extensive travels across North America.  

Stu Rogers began his talk with a wish that scholars and educators would frame this subject more broadly than single European figures, like Columbus. Rogers suggests a span of roughly 2,000 B.C. to the present  would present a better picture. Rogers believes there was “deep and prolonged penetration of exploration into North America prior to what orthodoxy would lead us to believe.”

After putting in a plug for Indian mounds as another fascinating topic of study, Rogers reviewed a list of possible North American explorers either accepted or debated today:

980 Vikings at L'Anse Aux Meadows · 
1098 Prince Madoc · 
1250 Vikings (Lennape Epic) · 
1307 Knights Templar · 
1398 Prince Henry Sinclair (who some say explored Nova Scotia) · 
1421 Chinese · 
14th-15th cent. Basques · 
1432 Portuguese
1492-7 Columbus and Cabot

Rogers brought along a number of books that broadened the topic even further, including Barry Fell's Bronze Age America which postulates that Celts, Basques, Phoenicians, Egyptians and perhaps other cultures, had early trade with North America. Rogers shared slides of boats from different cultures that may have been utilized to conduct such travel.

     Books on early exploration of North America

Some of the books Stu brought along related to early cultures in North America

Stu and Marguerite's travels have taken them to carved rune stones, native images, structures and symbology here in North America that appear to share similarities with equivalent writing and symbols from pre-1492 European cultures. (I won't list them all, but Rogers shared slides and drawings to illustrate his points.)

Is there commonality? If so, does that prove contact? Interpretations and explanations vary. On some items Rogers is defending unconventional views, or ones that have alternative explanations. In each case, though, it would be most interesting to learn exactly who made the item and why!  

A sidebar: I hail from Hawaii, where there's interest in exploration of the Pacific basin. As a schoolchild in the 1960's there was still much discussion about the theories of Thor Heyerdahl. He believed Pacific Islands could have been settled by out-migration from South America, something Heyerdahl supposedly proved possible by building and sailing a balsa boat from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in 1947. Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition generated a widely-read book and an award-winning movie.

Jump ahead to the 1970's when the Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded to research, preserve and teach the skills that allowed pre-contact Polynesians to successfully traverse vast ocean expanses. Those efforts, and multiple expeditions by the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hōkūle'a, have been tremendously successful in enhancing cultural rejuvenation and traditional seafaring knowledge. This demonstration of tangible capacity sealed support for Polynesian settlement by canoe. But that  wouldn't necessarily rule out other/additional exploration. In Hawaii's case, for example, largely unproven (but persistent) speculation maintains that some contact with Spanish ships may have occurred prior to the first arrival of explorer Captain James Cook in 1778.

My point is simple: fresh evidence can change accepted views, and some evidence has perhaps been lost forever. Not every idea holds up – and it can be hard to know ahead of time which ones will. Heyerdahl's notions are no longer in vogue. Yet Viking encampments in North America –  presented as scarcely-proven theory in my childhood – are no longer doubted.  

     Stu and Bill Adams chatting

Stu and Bill Adams chatting after the presentation. The presentation generated considerable discussion after the meeting, a sure sign it was an interesting one

When sorting through a jumble of accepted, disputed and even whimsical concepts, a certain degree of caution, and humility may be appropriate. After all, our understanding of history evolves too.

Post-talk audience feedback included a question about contagion: if inter-continental contact usually spreads diseases (for which the previously isolated side has no immunity) wouldn't there have been earlier epidemics, prior to Columbus and all who followed him? Or, if natives were exposed but not wiped out, shouldn't there have been more resistance to those diseases by the time Columbus came?

That lead to a comment about how there may have been very little chance to pass on any information about pre-Columbus encounters, because of severe cultural fragmentation (depending on the level of violence, disease or death arising from any earlier contact between explorers and the native inhabitants).

There was also a question on how so many competing theories should be evaluated? That lead to a discussion of potential disputes between professional scholars and amateurs – and the difficulty of challenging entrenched views.

Agree or disagree, Rogers' talk left his audience with much to ponder.