In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pre-Columbian Transatlantic Voyages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Pleistocene Transatlantic Contacts? Archaeological and Anthropological Arguments
  • Ancient European Traditions about Atlantic Crossings
  • Documented Transatlantic Voyages before Columbus
  • Pitfalls of Documented History: The Vinland Map

Atlantic History Pre-Columbian Transatlantic Voyages
Gesa Mackenthun
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0276


Indians discovered America. Perhaps as long as forty thousand years ago, humans began to settle the hemisphere from a northern direction (coming across the Bering Strait) as well as a western direction (coming across the Pacific Ocean). Yet despite this knowledge, the “discovery” of America is generally credited to Columbus, in part because only his voyages produced an ever-enlarging flow of knowledge about America in the rest of the world—a fact that cannot be granted to either the first settlers or the Viking seamen. This general consensus notwithstanding, since the beginnings of European expansion to the Americas, colonizers and historians sought to construct a European presence on the continent that preceded Columbus’s voyage. The Norse voyages to the early-21st-century Maritime Provinces of Canada remain to be the only securely documented pre-Columbian contacts; yet, the search for other migrations, some even reaching back to the Pleistocene Age, has never ended. The reasons for the persistence of, at times, highly fanciful theories of an earlier European presence in America include the desire for strengthening the legitimacy of the morally difficult conquest, presumably by weakening the territorial claims of Native Americans, as well as the desire for stories about the mythical past of the Atlantic world that harbor an aesthetic value in themselves. This article discusses both mythical and academically documented pre-Columbian voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, including examples of academic mythology.

General Overviews

There are very few book-length studies on the historical “gap” between the Norse voyages of the early 1000s and the early modern voyages beginning around 1500. The academic field is generally divided between studies dedicated to the medieval Norse settlements, studies on imaginary medieval voyages (see section on Ancient European Traditions about Atlantic Crossings), and studies on the Mediterranean and early Atlantic prehistory of the Columbian voyages. Seaver 1995 is the most knowledgeable exploration of both the Norse contacts with the Western Hemisphere and the period between the Viking voyages and Cabot’s voyages. Fernández-Armesto 1994 approaches the problematic from the perspective of the medieval and early modern Mediterranean and tries to reconstruct the intellectual legacy informing the Columbian moment. Kupperman 2012 concentrates on the period after 1600 but includes up-to-date speculations about pre-Columbian Mediterranean contacts. Earlier studies are Sauer 1968, written in the light of the Ingstads’ discovery of Norse settlement remains at L’Anse aux Meadows, and Quinn 1977 in which an eminent authority of Atlantic history discusses the “mythical” dimension of the American desire to obtain evidence for a continuous transatlantic relationship—a dimension that the title of the book strengthens by suggesting a “Norse” continuity between the Viking encounters and those of the Columbian period.

  • Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonisation from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229–1492. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

    A survey of the expansionist and the more general intellectual itinerary that prepared Europe for the transatlantic Voyages of the early modern period, guided by the critical approach of the history of ideas.

  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Atlantic in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    General survey whose first chapter makes reference to pre-Columbian voyages into and possibly across the Atlantic Ocean (voyages to the Canaries, the Cape Verdes, the Azores, and Madeira).

  • Quinn, David Beers. North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements: The Norse Voyages to 1612. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

    Reads the Norse voyages from the perspective of a leading scholar of early modern Atlantic settlement and exploration, with the term “Norse” referring neither to a geographical area nor to the nationality of the explorers but rather suggesting a continuity between the travels of the Vikings and those of early modern explorers and settlers.

  • Sauer, Carl O. Northern Mists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

    An early classic investigation, by a renowned scholar of Atlantic and Early American history, of the possibility of pre-Columbian Spanish, Portuguese, Basque, Breton, Norse, English, and Irish transatlantic voyages. The book is celebrated for its poetic presentation of the facts as they were then known and for indicating the line between reconstruction and speculation.

  • Seaver, Kirsten A. The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca. 1000–1500. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

    Discusses the historical gap between the Viking voyages and the voyage of Columbus.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.