What did the Europeans know about the new world before Columbus?

By B0900223 | Forgotten History | 20 May 2021

It is often taught in schools that Columbus was the first European to make contact with the new world. However, this is untrue as the Vikings made it to the new world roughly 500 years earlier. With that being said, what exactly did the Europeans know about the new world prior to Columbus? Did the Viking knowledge of the new world make it to the new world or did the Norse men keep it to themselves? This article will address how much Europeans knew about the new world due to any prior contact with the new world from other cultures or people groups prior to Columbus. 

To answer this question, it needs to be stated what exactly is meant by Europe. In this context, Europe is western Europe. Anything southwest of modern-day Germany or the British Isles is fair game. That being said, contact made by other cultures will not be included in this article unless the Europeans knew about it before Columbus set sail. 

Rome in the New World?

Out of all the theories with any decent amount of evidence, the Romans making contact with the new world would have been the earliest contact. Evidence for Roman contact in the new world includes a Roman sword, shield, a legionnaire's whistle, and some gold Carthaginian coins found near Halifax Canada. Some critics of this evidence claim it was just dropped there by collectors. However, it should be noted there is a burial ground in the area dating to the second century A.D. which resembles a burial ground from the Levant or Europe rather than any Native American burial ground. Aside from this Canadian find, There are what is likely Roman jars off the coast of Brazil, however, many critics believe the jars are Spanish jars rather than Roman. There is also debate as to whether a pineapple is on the walls of ancient Pompeii. Some say it is a pinecone rather than a pineapple. There is also the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head which is likely a second-century Roman terracotta sculpture with many European features located in the Toluca Valley in Mexico. However, there is much debate whether this head was placed there by a student working in the area or if it was actually placed there by Romans or pre-Columbian natives. If it was placed there by actual Romans and not placed there as a joke, this may be the best piece of evidence for pre-Columbian European contact by Romans.

So did the Romans actually make it to the new world, or are all the artifacts in the new world a series of coincidences and pranks. One thing consistent is that much of the artifacts are from the second century. This means the hypothetical voyages would've taken place during the second century or only a little after. This would make sense as Rome would be at the tail end of its Pax Romana and could therefore afford to explore. The second-century was when Rome was near its height in power and was experiencing a roughly two hundred-year-long period of peace. If Rome were to go exploring, it would make sense that it would do so during the second century. One thing that is not consistent is how there are dozens of different sites with Roman artifacts. It does not seem likely that Romans visited Nova-scotia, Mexico, and brazil. Perhaps not all of the sites with "Roman artifacts" have actual roman artifacts or they were placed there by others, however, there is still a good amount of evidence that the Romans made it to the new world at least once. regardless of the Romans making it to the new world, there is not much evidence of them making it back to Rome so it is unknown if the other Europeans knew they did it.



It is well documented that the Vikings were actually in America before Columbus was there. But that begs the question, did Columbus know about it? By the 1350s the Viking began abandoning their Greenland settlement. It is not hard to imagine that the Vikings of Vinland in the new world would have left sooner. The Vikings would have gone home and undoubtedly told people back home of their discovery. But did the information get to Columbus by 1492? In the year 1075, Adam of Bremen, in Saxony, wrote about Vinland. So one might think that his writings would indicate knowledge of the new world made it to Germany before 1100. Well, yes but actually no. Adam did a poor job describing the land making it seem relatively unimportant, and he confused many new world names in locations with locations in Europe. This became a problem for later cartographers.. In fact, a geographic encyclopedia called Geographica Universalis was written in Malmesbury England, and used Adam of Bremen as a source. The encyclopedia changed the name of Vinland to Windland and placed the Island east of Norway, To make matters worse, they claimed that the inhabitants of the Island sold bags of wind to make ships sail faster which made people skeptical about the land. So not only did the encyclopedia get the location wrong, but the description of the land was too absurd for the average explorer to care. Another Chronicler named Ranulf Higden made another encyclopedia also documenting that the natives were able to sell wind in Windland. In his book Polychronicon, he places Windland next to Iceland. Both of these works were published in the 1300s and confused many travelers until new information came about to correct their misplacements. So Columbus probably didn't use anything from the Vikings as a source, as if he did, he would not have found the new world due to Chroniclers mishandling the information. However, Columbus's son Ferdinand included in a biography about his father a paragraph where his father sailed around Thule, which was at the time, the name for Iceland. Many historians do not believe Columbus ever sailed near Iceland as this conflicts with his other writings where he is bragging about himself. He never once mentions Thule again when he is describing all his exploits. However, Scandanavian scholars like to say that he did sail to Iceland to learn about Vinland from them. This would actually make sense given that Iceland is close to the new world. It is known Columbus planned for a short trip. He thought that his voyage would have been much shorter than it actually was. So if Columbus actually made it to Iceland, he likely listened to the Danes and took their advice. However it is unknown if he actually made the trip, so it is unclear if Columbus's voyage was influenced at all by the Vikings and it is certainly not clear if the influence he received from them was correct.


Ireland and Wales

Do not be alarmed. This section actually belongs in the article. Land west of the Atlantic has its place in Celtic folklore. This land became known as Great Ireland. Supposedly an Irish monk went to go find this land in the 6th century. People have tried to associate this land with the new world to give the Irish the credit for being the first Europeans to find it. Another legend from the Welsh claims that Prince Madoc discovered the Americas in 1170. While this is largely considered untrue in modern times, England used this story to claim the new world instead of Spain. Aside from these tall tales, Epigrapher Barry Fall and Linguist David H. Kelley claim Celtic and Irish Ogham writing inscriptions have been discovered in the new world. If they are telling the truth, this is evidence for pre-Columbian Celtic contact with the new world.

Other Evidence

Aside from these hard pieces of Evidence, there are many other small pieces of evidence for pre-Columbian contact from Europeans to the new world. For example, Spanish missionaries noted cross-like images in Mayan hieroglyphs. This would have been evidence of Christianity making it to the island before Columbus and the Spanish missionaries arrived. However it should be noted, Mayan crosses have a different symbolism than that of Christianity. 

It has also been suggested that the Vikings took the Inuit people as slaves. This should not be surprising given that the Vikings were major slavers in the British Isles. It should be noted, however, that there is no linguistic or genetic evidence of Viking slavers making it to the Alaskan Inuits.

The most substantial evidence outside of the Norsemen to have possibly influenced Columbus is Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, Scottland. In the chapel, there are carvings of what looks to be corn or maize. Corn is native to the Americas and should not have been in Europe pre-Columbus. The chapel was built by William Sinclair, grandson of Henry Sinclair who is said to have visited the new world well before Columbus. For this reason, it is suggested that Columbus possibly argued to the Catholic monarchs of Spain that he should've been allowed to sail for the new world because other people have done it. If this is true then Columbus would've known about the new world and would've likely have taken advice from other sailors.


It is unknown if Columbus did or did not have knowledge of the new world before his voyage. All we can do is speculate. There is much evidence for pre-Columbian contact, however, aside from the Vikings, nothing can be confirmed. Also, much of the information Europeans knew about the new world got lost or incorrectly passed down. What it is undeniable Columbus did was give people an incentive to come to the new world. Before Columbus, there was not an incentive to come to the new world. He made it interesting and profitable for people to travel to the new world. The Vikings and other pre-Columbian explorers described it as desolate and unpopulated. Whether it was because Columbus landed in the Caribbean or the others wanted to keep their knowledge to themselves, Columbus was the first explorer to accurately convey his findings to people back in Europe and start the age of discovery.

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I am an Engineering Management student at a university that will not be named. I enjoy religious and political discussions.

Forgotten History
Forgotten History

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