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Possible Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic Voyages to Mesoamerica: a search of some new data for an old controversy

 

Romeo H. Hristov

          Abstract: This project has two principal aims: 1) to conclude the re-examination of some Old World objects found in more or less reliable Mesoamerican archaeological contexts; and, 2) to start a systematic archaeological survey of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico for possible material remains of Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic voyages. Recent discoveries of Roman settlement and various Phoenician, Berber, and Egyptian objects and inscriptions in Tenerife and Lanzarote (Canary Archipelago), proves the existence of regular, although not very active, maritime contacts between Europe/Africa and the Canary islands from V BC to IV AD centuries. These contacts make highly likely the assumption that some accidental/drift voyages across the middle (and the south) Atlantic may have happened during antiquity in the same way as they happened between the XVI and XX centuries. On other hand, the complementary research of an apparent Roman terra-cotta head found in Mexico strongly support the idea that at least one similar voyage happened de facto, most probably between the II-IV AD centuries. Consequently, this research intends to examine if there are another objects/sites in Mesoamerica that may be related to possible Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contact(s) and, in case that there are, how far they may be considered as a reliable evidence.

I. Background

 

          The present project has its background in a former project: Register and dating of the possible archaeological evidence from Mesoamérica, relative of Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contacts co-directed by Santiago Genovés T., and Romeo H. Hristov. The study in question had three main goals:

          1) Re-examination of the circumstances and the context in which some Old World objects were discovered in Mexico and Central America, and to determinate their degree of reliability as evidence of Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contacts. During the research about a dozen of finds were re-examined, but most of them turned out to be either inconclusive or with incorrect chronology and/or identification as an Old World artifacts. Notwithstanding, an apparent Roman terra-cotta head found in Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca, Mexico, seems to be a reasonable reliable evidence of Pre-Columbian (and Pre –Viking) Trans-Atlantic voyage, probably somewhere between the II-IV centuries AD (Hristov and Genovés, 1998a, 1998b, 1999; see also Knight 2000). Recently this find was discussed in about 3 dozen of scholar and popular science journals in 11 languages (among them are New  Scientist, Spektrum der Wissenschaft/Scientific American, and Sciences et Avenir), many of the leading newspapers in the world, as well as several radio/TV programs in Europe, USA and Canada (including the Discovery Channel's’ Science News Program)

          2) Elaboration of an extensive photographic file of effigies of personages with apparently "Caucasoid" or "Negroid" features in the Mesoamerican art, with brief descriptive cards of each artifact concerning its provenance, chronology, and current location. Presently one hundred ninety-six artifacts at public museums and private collections in USA, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador have been registered. The possible relation of some of the mentioned representations with Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contacts have been discussed by some art historians, physical anthropologists, and archaeologists in the past, but the limited examples and the interpretative difficulties have not permitted definitive conclusions to be drafted. We hope that the corpus with the recovered data will permit more objective and better-founded evaluation of their implications in the discussion of the Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contacts.

3) Preparation of a book in which will be discussed the different data (historic, archaeological, linguistic, and paleobotanical) that suggests the existence of pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contacts between the Mediterranean and the Mesoamerican civilizations, with the arguments in favor and against. At the present, Romeo H. Hristov and Santiago Genovésm T. currently are working on the mentioned book

    

II.  Goals of the present project

 

          This project attempts to conclude the additional research on three possible Old World artifacts found in Mesoamerica, which was not completed during the previous project. Also, if approved, the major part of the funds will be used to start an archaeological survey along the coast of the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco and Yucatan in Mexico for possible remains (objects and/or settlements) that may be related to Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic voyages. Obviously, there are not --and can not be-- any guarantee that such remains really exist and, if exist, that it would be easy to find them. But the Roman settlement as well as several Phoenician, Berber, and Egyptian objects and inscriptions discovered in the Canaries since 1987 (Atoche et.all, 1995, Atoche et all. 1997, Behrmann et all. 1995) evidence that for about a millennia, i.e., from V BC to IV AD centuries there have been a regular maritime contacts between Europe/Africa and the Canary islands, which suggest that some sporadic, perhaps accidental voyages across the Atlantic may have happened during the antiquity as happened between the XVI-XX centuries. On other hand, a complementary study of an apparent Roman terra-cotta head found in Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca, Mexico (Hristov and Genovés 1998a, 1998b, 1999), as well as a few another less reliable finds of supposedly Roman artifacts in Huasteca, Mexico (Batres 1908: Lam. 8 /Fig. 1, García Payón 1961: 2, Hristov, Genovés and Navarrete in press) permit to assume that such voyages happened de facto, and that a systematical archaeological reconnaissance and excavations in the area of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico may reveal some new data at that respect. A similar search in 1961 resulted in the discovery of the Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows (Canada), the only incontrovertible evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic contacts known at present.

          Given the endless controversies that the studies of the Pre-Columbian transoceanic contacts usually have created, some final remarks regarding their scale, impact, and relevance inside the American Anthropology seems appropriate. First at all, the basic differences in domestic plants and animals, agriculture techniques, metallurgy, linguistic affiliation, etcetera, between the Old and the New World societies until the early XVI century make any hypothesis for contacts and impacts of decisive character untenable. Notwithstanding there are also a few common cultural traits between the mentioned societies that may be due to re-invention as well as to direct contacts, and there is no reason to discard or accept a priori instead of studying impartially either of these possibilities.

          Secondly, the studies in this field may help to re-evaluate some rational elements in diverse semifantastic hypotheses about transoceanic migrations from the Old World to Pre-Columbian America, a major part of which were proposed between the XVI and XVII centuries, and until the early XIX century constitute a main paradigm to explain the cultural and biological origins of the native population of the Americas.

 

          Finally, the fact that all of the modern American nations are a result --in different degrees--, of the cultural and biological symbiosis between the populations of the Old World and Pre-Hispanic America, makes the search for the beginnings of this transcendental and still ongoing process an anthropological exercise that does not lack either sense

or relevance.

 

          Note: This project is currently under consideration for funding from several foundations and private sponsors.

 

References Cited:

 

Atoche, P. et al. (1997).  Elementos fenicio-púnicos en la religión de los mahos. Estudio de una placa procedente de Zonzamas

     (Teguise, Lanzarote). Eres (Arqueología). 7 (1): 7-38

 

Atoche, P. et all. (1995).  Evidencias arqueológicas del mundo romano en Lanzarote, islas Canarias. Exmo. Cabildo Peninsular de

     Lanzarote, Arrecife

 

Batres, L. (1908).  Civilización Prehistorica de las Riberas de Papaloapam y Costa de Sotavento. Estado de Veracruz, Mexico 

 

Behrmann, Rodrigo et all. (1995).  Datos sobre la colonización púnica de las islas Canarias. Eres (Arqueología). 6  (1): 7-28

 

García Payón, J. (1961). Una cabecita de barro, de extraña fisonomia, Boletin INAH. 6:1-2

 

Hristov, R., S. Genovés and M. Navarrete (in press).  Acerca de una medalla "romana" de Tatatila, Mexico,Anales  de Antropología.

     34

 

Hristov, R. and S. Genovés, (1999).  Mesoamerican Evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts, Ancient Mesoamerica. 10 (2):

     207-213

 

Hristov, R. and S. Genovés (1998a).  Por una cabeza, National Geographic /in Spanish/ 3 (5): XII

 

Hristov, R. and S. Genovés (1998b).  Viajes transatlanticos antes de Colon, Arqueología Mexicana. VI (33): 48-53

 

Knight, J. (2000).  Did Roman sailors shake hands with ancient Mexicans, New Scientist. 165 (2225): 7

 

 

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