The question of who discovered America has been debated for centuries. While the Vikings are known to have reached North America around 1000 AD, Christopher Columbus is generally credited as the one who “discovered” America in 1492, leading to widespread European colonization of the Americas. However, there were also Native American civilizations spread throughout North, Central and South America long before Europeans arrived. So who really discovered America first?
Early Explorers of North America
While the Vikings made expeditions to North America around 1000 AD, evidence suggests that they were not the first. Other early visitors may have included:
- Polynesians – Some evidence suggests Polynesians from the Pacific Islands may have reached South America prior to 1000 AD.
- Chinese – Some theories suggest Chinese explorers may have reached the west coast of North America.
- Irish – Irish legends reference an explorer named St. Brendan reaching a place called “The Promised Land of the Saints” which may have been North America.
However, clear evidence of these early explorations is limited. The undisputed earliest explorers of North America that we have extensive evidence of are the Vikings.
Norse (Viking) Exploration
The Vikings (also called the Norse) were seafaring Scandinavians who explored, raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the 9th to 11th centuries. They were the first Europeans certainly known to reach North America.
Key facts about the Viking explorations include:
- First arrived in North America around 1000 AD, reaching areas they called Helluland, Markland and Vinland.
- Leif Eriksson is the most famous Viking explorer of North America, establishing a short-lived settlement called Vinland around 1000 AD.
- L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland is the only confirmed Viking settlement site in North America.
- Other notable Norse explorers were Thorfinn Karlsefni who led an expedition to North America around 1010 AD, and Freydis Eriksdottir who led her own expedition in the early 11th century.
- After several expeditions, Norse attempts to colonize North America were abandoned by the mid 11th century.
While the Vikings explored and briefly settled North America, they did not establish permanent colonies. Europe remained largely unaware of their discoveries, and the Norse left no lasting impact. Their expeditions remained largely obscure footnotes in history until archaeological evidence of Norse settlement was found in the 1960s at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland.
Native American Tribes and Civilizations
North and South America were inhabited by indigenous populations long before Europeans arrived. These Native American tribes and civilizations included:
- North America – Cherokee, Iroquois Confederacy, Algonquians (Mi’kmaq, Powhatan, Narragansett), Huron, Muskogee, Navajo, Sioux
- Mesoamerica – Maya, Aztec, Olmec, Zapotec
- South America – Inca, Muisca, Aymara, Guarani
The major American civilizations like the Maya, Aztec and Inca had large, well-organized populations and established cities and monumental architecture.
The Maya civilization emerged around 2000 BC in Mesoamerica (modern day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador). Key facts about the Maya include:
- Flourished during the Classic Period from 250 AD to 900 AD.
- Built sophisticated cities with monumental pyramids, palaces and temples.
- Developed a complex writing system using hieroglyphs.
- Made advancements in mathematics, astronomy and calendar systems.
- Mayan civilization declined around 900 AD, but Maya populations persist to this day.
The Aztec civilization emerged in the 1300s in central Mexico. Key facts include:
- Built their capital city of Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco (today Mexico City).
- Had a highly stratified social hierarchy with nobles and commoners.
- Practiced human sacrifice and ritual bloodletting.
- Had an economy based on agriculture, trade and tribute from conquered peoples.
- Aztec empire reached its peak under emperor Moctezuma II before falling to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1521.
The Inca civilization emerged in the 1200s in the Andean region of South America. Key facts include:
- Built a vast empire stretching along most of the Andes through modern day Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.
- Had a capital city of Cuzco located high in the Andes mountains.
- Built massive road systems, palaces, temples and fortresses of finely cut stone.
- Had a centralized planned economy and did not use money.
- Inca empire reached its height under emperor Pachacuti before collapsing with the Spanish conquest in the 1530s.
These major civilizations, along with the many diverse Native American tribes across the Americas, were thriving with established cultures long before Europeans arrived. They did not just suddenly appear when the continents were “discovered” by outsiders.
Christopher Columbus and the Age of Discovery
The famous Italian explorer Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering America for Europe in 1492, though he never set foot on the North American mainland. Key facts about Columbus’ voyages and impact include:
- Sailed under the Spanish crown in search of a westward route to Asia.
- Made four voyages to the Caribbean islands and South America between 1492-1504.
- Mistakenly thought he had reached islands off the coast of Asia, naming native Taínos “Indians.”
- Helped establish Spain’s colonization and trans-Atlantic trade in the “New World.”
- Did not realize he had encountered a new continent – Americas remained named for later explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
Columbus’s voyages ushered in the Age of Discovery, as European powers rushed to colonize and trade across the Atlantic. This led to widespread epidemics that devastated native populations and the founding of colonies that evolved into the United States, Latin America and Canada.
Other notable explorers and their first expeditions to the Americas include:
|Explorer||Nationality||First Expedition||Region Explored|
|John Cabot||Italian (for England)||1497||North America – Newfoundland|
|Amerigo Vespucci||Italian (for Spain/Portugal)||1499-1504||South America|
|Giovanni da Verrazzano||Italian (for France)||1524||North America – Atlantic coast|
|Jacques Cartier||French||1534||North America – Gulf of St. Lawrence|
The rush to explore and colonize led to subsequent expeditions, mapping coastal regions, establishing settlements and claiming territories across North, Central and South America for European crowns during the 16th and 17th centuries.
In conclusion, while Christopher Columbus is popularly considered the one who “discovered” America, there were many other early explorers and indigenous civilizations long before him. Key conclusions include:
- The Vikings were the first Europeans to extensively explore parts of North America around 1000 AD, establishing a short-lived settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
- Diverse Native American tribes and advanced civilizations like the Maya, Aztec and Inca had populations and established cultures across North, Central and South America for centuries before Europeans arrived.
- Christopher Columbus is considered the explorer who opened up the Americas for mainstream European attention in 1492, leading to an age of colonization.
- No single individual can be said to have “discovered” Americas. It was populated by indigenous groups for thousands of years before being explored by Vikings, Columbus and other Europeans.
The question of who discovered America is complex, as both Native Americans and European explorers gradually uncovered knowledge about the full extent of the continents. But the Native Americans who originally inhabited the land clearly found and settled the Americas first, long before the earliest confirmed European explorations.