restricted access The American Discovery of Europe (review)
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The American Discovery of Europe. By Jack D. Forbes (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2007) 272 pp. $34.95

In this volume, Forbes takes a new perspective on an old subject; the early presence and influence of Americans in Europe. Forbes argues that Americans arrived in Europe long before Columbus’ voyage to the New World, citing data from oceanography, genetics, botany, and archaeology, as well as from numerous documentary sources. Forbes argues plausibly for a significant American presence in Scandinavia and Europe beginning in the ninth and tenth centuries, but he is most convincing in his discussion of the presence of North and South Americans, Inuits, and American “captives,” some of whom were enslaved Africans or their descendants, in Europe from the fifteenth through the sixteenth century. His principle goal is to celebrate “the skill, courage, and adventurousness of these Americans” (4).

Forbes begins with a chapter outlining what is known of Colum-bus’ prior knowledge of the New World. He makes much of the marginal notes in Columbus’ copy of Pope Pius II’s Historia rerum concerning two people of “Catayo” (Cathay?) who were said to have washed ashore in Galway, Ireland, some time prior to the 1470s. Forbes believes that these people were American Indians and that Columbus, then a seaman, may have spent time in Galway in 1476, where stories of these people provided him with convincing evidence for the existence of a continent to the west of Ireland, albeit one that he believed to be India.

Forbes argues that ocean-going vessels were common in maritime regions of eastern North and Central America and in the Caribbean, for at least the past 6,000 years, and that the Gulf Stream made the inadvertent or deliberate passage from the Caribbean or from North Eastern North America to Europe not only likely but certain. In further support of this view, he cites botanical evidence that shows many American plant species present on the Atlantic shores of Ireland, Scandinavia, and Spain in contexts that suggest that they arrived as flotsam, and that Ca-ribbean maritime turtles are regularly sighted along Britain’s western shores.

Contrary to the idea that most of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas were from a genetically homogeneous group that arrived by land bridge, Forbes states that at least some of these people were likely to have arrived via rafts, canoes, and other vessels. This perspective allows [End Page 259] him to argue for an “American” population that was the result of multiple ancient “inter-ethnic” relations. Marshalling a great deal of genetic and historical evidence, he suggests that theories of genetic uniformity among Native Americans are both historically misinformed and premised on antiquated “racial” categories.

In subsequent chapters, Forbes addresses theories concerning the possibility that some Americans were known to the ancient world as well. He also outlines his theories concerning the presence of Inuits from Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland in Europe, and suggests that mixed Norse-Inuit populations may have returned to Scandinavia prior to Columbus’ voyages. Forbes maintains that Americans (broadly defined) had an influence, both genetic and cultural, in Europe long before the seventeenth century, and that evidence for this influence can be found in folklore and material culture as well as in dna.

Forbes’ suggestion that voyages to Europe by Americans, especially Inuits, are more likely than those from Europe to the New World prior to the fourteenth century is plausible. However, his presentation of the supportive data lacks coherence. Forbes ranges in time from 3,000 b.c. to the seventeenth century, sometimes in the same chapter. A heavy reliance on premodern historians, as well as on data from a variety of studies of varying quality and relevance, weakens his position as well. Although Forbes is critical of certain archaeologists for what he considers to be hidebound thinking, he himself uses archaeological data incautiously. For example, his discussion of the possibility that objects found on some Central American sites may be of “European, Semitic, [or]African” origin is highly speculative (108), and he casts doubt on the much-better supported notion that such artifacts demonstrate Asian influence in the Americas from an early period. Similarly...