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1 The Myth of the Oceans as Uncrossable Barriers Where we taste The pleasure of believing what we see Is boundless as we wish our souls to be: And such was this wide ocean. —Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818 Geographical Misperceptions It is not surprising that many have questioned whether it is reasonable to suppose that pre-­ Columbian humans, voluntarily or by accident, crossed up to 12,500 miles of uncharted, storm-­ wracked open ocean, in numbers sufficient to have had demographic, cultural, or his­ tori­ cal impacts of any importance. Most scholars would reply with a resounding “No way.” However, this view of the oceans as having been essentially uncrossable barriers is, to a considerable degree, based on incorrect preconceptions. First there is a perceptual issue. People tend to think of premodern Europe as one domain, populated by whites, and the pre-­ Columbian Americas, populated by Amerinds, as a completely different domain. In writing of gaps between socially distinct areas of space, the Ameri­ can sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel observed , “we of­ ten perceive even short distances across them as considerably greater than much longer distances between points located within what we con­ sider to be one and the same chunk [of space].”1 For instance, no one quarrels with the fact that ancient sailors of the Indian Ocean routinely made open-­ sea crossings of up to 2,000 miles,2 while almost everyone protests at the suggestion that seafaring humans could have crossed comparable distances on the other oceans, say, in the Atlantic between West Africa and Brazil. If Indonesians reached East Africa and Madagascar (as they did some two millennia ago, possibly continuing on to West Africa), why could they not have sailed an equal distance in the other direction, to America? Then there is the matter of terminology. The label “New World” was first used in 1494 by Peter Martyr—Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian humanist at the Spanish court—although he agreed with Columbus’s insistence that where he had been was outlying parts of Asia. Even though the America-­ as-­ Asia idea 16 / Chapter 1 persisted for decades in some circles, the ultimately conventional use of the terms “Old World” and “New World” implied to people’s perceptions that the two “worlds” were entirely separate realms, not parts of a single global system. The terms “East­ ern Hemisphere” and “West­ ern Hemisphere”—also coined by Peter Martyr—are somewhat better, but the implication is still there that the twain never met before 1492. Matters were not improved by the introduction of the name “America” by the German geographer Martin Waldseemüller, in recognition of the Florentine explorer-­ cosmographer Amerigo Vespucci, who had also written in 1502 of a “new land” and who was the first to refer to that land as a “continent” equivalent to Africa, Europe, and Asia, as Waldseemüller thus showed it on his influential map of 1507. Metageography Our thinking about the world is affected by what has been called “metageography ,” described by the Stanford geographer Martin W. Lewis and historian Kären Wigen as “the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world: the of­ ten unconscious frameworks that organize studies of history, sociology, anthropology, economics, po­ liti­ cal science, or even natural history .”3 Prevailing perceptions of the world’s geography are strongly conditioned by the kinds of maps to which people have routinely been exposed. The Harvard historian of technology George A. L. Sarton observed, “We are so deeply map conscious that we can hardly understand mapless travels,” and we view the world through the filter of our maps.4 We may even find it difficult to absorb that humans could travel long distances in the days before decent maps were available. The east–west axis of any standard present-­day world map is the equator, and such maps terminate at either end along a north–south divide in the mid-­Pacific, one-­ half of that ocean appearing at the right-­ hand end of the map, the other half at the left-­ hand end. This layout reinforces the notion of the pre-­ 1492 Pacific as an insuperable barrier rather than as an entity connecting the lands of the two hemispheres. In Terra Cognita, which traces post-­ Columbian European conceptions of the world as shown by the history of cartography, Zerubavel wrote, By placing America on the far left side of their world maps (thereby establishing a lasting cartographic convention that has in fact...


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