In a just published book, Before Columbus (Crown Publishers, Inc., N.Y. 1971; 224 pages, $6.50; see review article, "A Question of Maps," Sunrise August 19, 1967), Dr. Cyrus H. Gordon, head of the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University, New York, has performed an important service to a growing number of scholars, both professional and amateur. These are scholars whose own reflections and investigations tell them that there is much more to the testimony of the mute megalithic and related archaeological records of the "pre-Columbian" New World than has yet been revealed — or for that matter been accepted even as a possibility by their more conservative and methodologically rigid colleagues. Professor Gordon's main conclusion is that there must have flourished, at least as early as the Bronze Age, a great civilization of Sea People whose knowledge of astronomy and the arts of shipbuilding and navigation enabled them to ply all the oceans. They should not be considered, he feels, as tied to a particular land, because apparently they embraced several ethnic and linguistic elements from various areas. Not only did they devise our alphabet, but they were unquestionably associated with the Minoans and Phoenicians, as well as with the highly developed inhabitants of pre-Columbian America, thus playing a key role in the history of world civilization.
In support of this thesis, Dr. Gordon has assembled a mass of testimony from several sources: countless Mesoamerican ceramic figurines that portray Far Eastern, African Negro, and Caucasian types, references by Greek authors of the classical period as well as in early American texts, examples of cultural transmissions between Old and New Worlds, archaic writing such as that on the Metcalf Stone, evidence from comparative linguistics, and recently examined maps and records of ancient mariners and sea captains. Some specific findings among the many that he offers are (1) the appearance in Ecuador about five thousand years ago of Japanese pottery of the Jomon period; (2) a Roman sculptured head of about 200 A.D. excavated professionally in stratified remains in Mexico; (3) a hoard of Mediterranean coins discovered off the coast of Venezuela, some of which are of eighth century A.D. Arabia but most are Roman of early dating; and (4) the unearthing of a cache of Roman coins from 132-135 A.D. in Kentucky, an account of which is in preparation for publication. Some of Dr. Gordon's discoveries of language links between ancient Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica will be discussed in a subsequent article.
Dr. Gordon acknowledges his debt to Charles H. Hapgood, whose Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (See review article, "A Question of Maps," Sunrise, August 1967) concluded that at least 6,000 years B.C. there had existed a world-wide civilization some of whose most important members were expert navigators and sea kings. Hapgood offered startling evidence that some of these people must have lived before the most recent ice age had ended in the Northern Hemisphere and when Alaska was still connected with Siberia by the Pleistocene ice age "land bridge." Moreover, he shows that they were able to determine longitude, an art that was later forgotten until the mid-eighteenth century A.D.
Although he focuses mainly on Mediterranean-Mesoamerican prehistoric links, as his professional competence lies in those areas, Professor Gordon uses his discoveries to range much farther, believing that to restrict investigation to any one area is dangerous unless we have in view the total nature of the research problem we face, which is that of the existence of an ancient world-wide ecumene. He emphasizes that these transoceanic mariners came to the Americas from many places and during many periods, not only from Japan to the shores of Ecuador around 3000 B.C., but very possibly from China, Southeast Asia, and India via the Pacific. While much of his data is new and he has brought together both new and old evidence in a fresh way, Dr. Gordon is only one of a long and honorable line of well-known as well as obscure protagonists of the startling ancientness of the New World.
Lecturing at Oslo in 1936, for example, the Norwegian scholar A.W.Brogger spoke of a period roughly 4,000 or 5,000 years ago as a golden age of deep sea navigation when all the world was known. In 1940, the American polar researcher and explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, said the idea that "man of the Old World discovered the Americas from Brazil to Greenland" five thousand or more years ago is still only a theory, although "we can prove it likely" (Greenland, p. 26). Elsewhere in his books Stefansson described this early era as one during which Stone Age and Bronze Age inhabitants "swarmed the Atlantic." He wrote:
There are rock carvings in Norway to indicate that Norwegians were sailing the seas, and doubtless visiting Britain, contemporaneously with the New Stone Age sailors of Crete, who have been considered here as of from 4,000 to 10,000 B.C. The same navigators were, in that case, visiting the Arctic in the same period those of them, that is, who were not living within the Arctic Circle and visiting the Temperate Zone instead. (Great Adventures and Explorations, pp. 22-23.)
We may also mention Peter H. Buck's treatment of early Pacific voyages in his Vikings of the Pacific. (First published as Vikings of the Sunrise, 1938.)
One of the earliest and most controversial investigators of prehistoric America was Ignatius Donnelly, a lawyer who served as a Minnesota Congressman from 1863 until 1870, and was described as "perhaps the most learned man ever to sit in the House." After researching the matter for years, Donnelly published his Atlantis, The Ante-Diluvian World in 1882. His thesis was that both ancient America and the Mediterranean, as well as the west coast of Europe, had received their early populations from a former continent which he named Atlantis. He devoted his book to a remarkable collation of archaeological, geological, linguistic, mythological, and other related findings. These, he believed, offered solid evidence for a mid-Atlantic continental land mass having existed as the seat of mighty and advanced peoples who gradually deserted it over the centuries, fleeing to east and west as portions of it sank beneath the waters. Finally, its remaining population perished in the submergence of the island of Poseidonis, in a day and a night 11,536 years ago as recounted by Plato in the Critias and the Timaeus.
Donnelly was perhaps the first trained, intelligent mind of our time exhaustively to research and bring together the major data available in his day which pointed to a myriad of features common to prehistoric and ancient inhabitants of both the Old and New Worlds. Despite the novelty of his theme, and the later irresponsible claims for "lost continents" such as the Mu of James Churchward that have tended to discredit the historicity of Plato's references as well as the existence of formerly peopled lands in general, Donnelly's research has ever since formed a background for scientific argumentation and inquiry on the part of both opponents and supporters. As Louis A. Brennan said in 1959, we cannot dispose of the problem "by sweeping Donnelly's Atlantis exposition under the carpet."
Atlantis is not exactly a fiction; it is a reference in Plato. Just so was Troy a myth, and the whole Homeric narrative with it, until Heinrich Schhemann, with the simplicity of a believer in fairytales, dug it up, right where Homer said it was. (No Stone Unturned, p. 228.)
It is to be regretted that many later scholars have ignored or overlooked much of the solid scholarship in comparative linguistics and religion that is contained in Donnelly's book. He deserves far more credit than he has received for his pioneering work, now being given more up-to-date treatment by Hapgood, Gordon, and others in substantiation of the existence in very ancient times of a powerful and highly advanced global civilization.
Speaking in 1969 at the meeting of the American Historical Association at Washington, D.C., Dr. Vincent H. Cassidy of the University of Ohio rightly reminded his professional colleagues that while Plato's Atlantis is, understandably, receiving much current attention, his "other continent" receives "studied neglect." With this, Professor Gordon is in agreement — "It is futile to dwell on the lost island of Atlantis and then to forget [Plato's] plain reference to the continent that seals off the Atlantic Ocean on the West" — citing this land as being clearly America, and Plato's rather casual mention of it as simply indicative that its existence was well-known to the learned Greeks of his time.
But the Americas have a Pacific as well as an Atlantic coastline. Louis Brennan cites the discovery during the International Geophysical Year of a range of submerged mountain ridges extending 600 miles southwest from Peru to Easter Island, and observes that Easter Island is the easternmost of a series of islands extending in stepping-stone fashion fully to the Asian mainland. He views as even more important the corollary finding of the Easter Island Rise, which sweeps northward from there through the Galapagos Islands to join the South and Central American continental coast and form a broad, far-reaching shelf from Ecuador to Mexico. His conclusion is that, in the early epochs we are considering, the Pacific had sufficient islands and perhaps even larger land masses above its waters to have made navigation across it not only safe but attractive. Steady trade and contact between Pacific Asia and the west coast of the Americas apparently continued until the island chain was broken by the submergences of many of its links nearer to the western seaboard of the Americas.
We have already noted the early Japanese contact with Ecuador's coastal peoples. Dr. Gordon includes references also of Chinese expeditions to North and Central America that took place in the twenty-third century B.C., if not before, and again in the fifth century A.D. The earlier account is contained in The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a record of world features said to have been compiled at the request of the Emperor Shun about 2250 B.C. Both of these Chinese voyages to America have been expertly reconstructed by Henriette Mertz, (Pale Ink.) who shows the areas in North and Central America through which the Oriental visitors traveled, such as the Sand Dunes of Colorado (now a National Park) and that state's Black Gorge (Black Canyon of the Gunnison). They saw the great desert, and wrote of the Grand Canyon of Arizona in glowing, poetic terms. They admired the aspen forests and the redwoods, the unusual rivers and numerous animals, and described the bird resembling a large domestic fowl "with ratlike legs and claws like a tiger," having dark feathers but a white head — obviously the bald eagle. The widespread use of corn and the prevalence in certain areas of the mulberry tree impressed them, but so did the La Brea Tar Pits in what is now the Los Angeles area, which they called the 'Sea of Varnish,' and the giant horse effigy at Sacaton in Arizona. All these and other features of this strange land were set down in some detail.
In the Mahabharata, one of the two Sanskrit epics of ancient India, mention is made of the visit of Arjuna, a prince of the Bharatas, to Patala, the "antipodes," and of his marriage there to the princess Ulupi, a daughter of one Kauravya, the king of the Nagas. Commenting on this, H. P. Blavatsky wrote that Pundit Dayanand Saraswati, then the greatest Sanskrit and Puranic authority in India, had personally confirmed her view that Patala was America, and that the visit of Arjuna to that land from what was then India took place 5,000 years ago. (The( Secret Doctrine, II, 214.)
The Sanskrit word for serpent is naga and she explained that from time immemorial the serpent, as the dragon, has in every part of the world signified a "wise man, endowed with extraordinary magic powers." She further alluded to the clear relationship between the reference to nagas or wise initiates residing in Patala (America), and the nagals, a Mexican Indian name for "the (now) sorcerers and medicine men."
This brings us to Professor Gordon's research in the Aztecan and Mayan (and also South American Indian) tradition that it was a white, bearded personage who brought the arts of civilization to America, arriving from the east by boat. Both the Aztecan and Mayan titles for this personage, Quetzalcoatl and Kukulcan respectively, mean "Plumed Serpent." Additional testimony to the ubiquity and central religious importance among early American peoples of the snake or serpent need hardly be given, but we can briefly refer to the Snake Tribes among the North American Indians, the gigantic Serpent Mound over 700 feet in length that was constructed by the mound-building peoples of ancient Ohio, and the use of the feathered serpent (often dragonlike in appearance) in the magnificent pre-Columbian stone structures throughout Central America.
What Dr. Gordon has done is to provide evidence that:
The classical Old World has something to say about bearded white men who are at the same time plumed serpents. A pediment from the Athenian acropolis portrays on one side three plumed serpents, each with the head of a bearded man. This embodies the essential traits — at two levels — of the American iconography. There are too many details involved to be attributed to accident. (Before Columbus, pp. 51-53.)
Dr. Gordon has included in his book a photograph of this pediment of an archaic temple on the Acropolis.
Another very interesting corroboration of Old World links with the Plumed Serpent tradition, not mentioned by Professor Gordon, is offered by the Scots antiquary, Dorothea Chaplin, who, writing in 1938, (Mythological Bonds Between East and West, pp. 35-36.) discusses linguistic evidences for prehistoric links between the Celtic hero Cuchulinn (or Kukil Can) and the Mayan Kukulcan, noting that both of these figures were characterized as the Feathered Serpent.
For his courage in allowing his evidence to stand or fall on its inherent cogency and appeal to our sense of logic and probability, Professor Gordon deserves a loud vote of thanks, for, as he correctly observes, his conclusions do "help us more fully to understand ourselves, our place in the order of things and our responsibilities."
When we review the field of prehistory, there is no doubt that we are really only at the beginning of gauging with any accuracy the place and meaning of our present civilization in man's long trek from his racial origins, and that research in all branches of knowledge is needed to bring us to a fuller understanding. For instance, Professor Gordon, an acknowledged expert in ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean tongues, used his skills to striking advantage in his book, Before Columbus, in showing what rich stores of information are to be garnered by an enlightened use of linguistics in tandem with other lines of investigation of prehistory. Aside from citing an amazing number of comparative word derivations, he devotes a full chapter to the array of evidence found in language which, among others, points to links connecting the ancient Mesopotamian peoples with those of Mesoamerica.
Noting distribution of the crocodile over both Old and New Worlds, Dr. Gordon says that in Egypt this animal was called sbk (usually pronounced sobek). The Aztecan name for the reptile is cipactli, whose stem is cipac- (pronounced sipac-) plus the nominal -t1i. He writes:
As far as the consonants go, there is no discrepancy between Egyptian sbk and Nahuatl spk because in the latter b and p are not distinguished. — p. 135
He then cites the Central American Nahuatl word teo-tl, god, drawing attention to the parallel Greek theo-s and the Latin deu-s, and regards the comparison well founded that was made more than 150 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt between the Nahuatl teo-calli (god's house) and the Greek theoukalia (god's house, shrine). Further, he draws attention to the Nahuatl papalotl and the Latin papilio, both words meaning butterfly.
Another example should be quoted here because of the role it plays in authenticating a possible sixth century B.C. voyage from the Red Sea to Brazil by Canaanite traders. The author tells us that the word for "iron" in most Semitic languages other than Arabic is barzel (brzl in Ugaritic, parzillu in Akkadian), and that the word found its way into the Atlantic community where, in the Midland counties of England, brazil means "iron pyrites." Old Irish lore refers to Hy Brasil, "The Island of Brazil," out in the Atlantic Ocean beyond Ireland. He notes that Hy Brasil stands for the Northwest Semitic 'I BRZL, or "The Island of Iron":
Whether "the Island of Brazil" designated a part of the country now known as Brazil has not yet been proved. We can however say that no country in the world merits the name BRZL "Iron" more than Brazil, whose chief resource is still iron. — Before Columbus, p. 119
Dr. Gordon links this etymology with an inscribed stone found in Brazil in 1872 which he believes records a crossing from Canaan to Brazil in 534-531 B.C. This was initially branded as a forgery, but after translating the eight-line inscription again in 1968, he is convinced the text is genuine. He bases his conclusion on the fact that it contains readings, unknown in 1872, that have since then been authenticated by inscriptions discovered during the century that has elapsed. The stone tells of the separation of a Sidonian Canaanite ship from a fleet of ten voyaging for two years westward around Africa, and then being cast onto the shores of the "Island of Iron" (or Brazil).
By means of this kind of convincing analysis, only briefly exemplified above, Professor Gordon and his many sung and unsung predecessors have made it now much clearer that the first task facing us is the unraveling and clarifying of the history and events of that still mysterious period which dates roughly from 13,000 up to 3,000 or 2,000 years B.C. For somewhere within those approximate dates will almost certainly be found the keys to the existence of an Atlantis, of that early advanced ecumene of Sea People and of the nature of the prehistoric Meso-american civilizations. Moreover, and perhaps of greater import, such key data should afford us a truer vision of the real age of man.
This prospect takes on a much sharper significance when we realize that our major schools of anthropology and archaeology are still working in a strangely artificial frame of reference as to time. The period from about 13,000 to 8,000 B.C. is characterized as a primitive "middle stone age"; the next 4,000 years as a similarly aboriginal "recent stone age"; and the period from about 4,000 to 2,000 B.C. is seen as a not much more sophisticated "bronze age." Specialists restrict themselves almost exclusively to stratigraphy and the classification of artifacts and fossils as evidence about the nature and degree of civilization enjoyed by the mankind of those eras. The defect of such an approach is highlighted by Dr. Gordon's criticism of "the hyperskeptical denial fostered by over-specialization" and his emphasis on the deadening effect this has had upon the type of basic research he believes is needed to unravel our immediate prehistory. He is in favor of bringing to bear the contributions made by as many fields of human knowledge as possible upon the unsolved problems in a consciously coordinated and mutually supportive effort. His book affords a good example of such a wide-open approach to new correlations of knowledge.
The significance of the period from about 13,000 to 2,000 B.C. for a more extended human history may be seen from what modern geological knowledge tells us, because that period takes us back to the close of the most recent Ice Age. Named in Europe the Wurm and in North America the Wisconsin, this age of glaciation is calculated to have blanketed much of the northern hemisphere in those two areas with a massive ice shield from about 50,000 to much less than 20,000 years ago. In North America east of the Rocky Mountains the icefields are said to have extended as far as southern Indiana and Illinois until about 13,000 years ago, and are estimated to have disappeared from central Quebec not more than 10,000 years ago. In the western ranges the Ice Age was represented mainly by scattered mountain glaciers which did not have the same general grinding effect over great sweeps of the land as in the eastern areas.
The withdrawal of the icesheet, calculated to have been more than a mile in thickness at its center, had many important effects. As the enormous weight of the ice was released, great portions of the land rose hundreds of feet from under their former burden, while the water, cycled into the oceans, raised the sea level also by as much as 350 feet. With the melting process came radical changes in the climate, which became drier and much warmer and milder. Flora and fauna moved northward, with major shifts of various land masses, accompanied by unusual volcanic, tectonic, and landslip activity also taking place.
Of obvious interest in this connection is the dating of the sinking of Poseidonis as 11,536 years ago. The notable rise in the level of the oceans not only would have favored, but also would have required more extensive maritime activity by the civilized man of that epoch.
The widespread ameliorating of climatic conditions throughout the Temperate Zone would certainly have conduced to much more extensive human movement and exploration than had been possible during the long millennia of the great icesheets, and may even have permitted significant increases in total world population.
Recent geological discoveries show that for several thousand years prior to a date of about 3,000 B.C. — i.e., 5,000 years ago and earlier there occurred a "Climatic Optimum" within the general warming trend on the earth, during which world temperatures were much higher than at present so that even the arctic seas were free of ice, and mountain glaciers had dwindled to a few remnants on the highest peaks. This "Climatic Optimum" would have existed, we may observe, precisely during the period of some thousands of years when, according to Professors Brogger, Stefansson, Hapgood, and Gordon — who argue from other kinds of evidence than that of geology — a highly civilized global ecumene flourished based upon advanced knowledge of astronomy and navigation. On the Pacific side it would have existed just at the time when the ancient records of India tell us that Arjuna crossed from Asia to visit America, and, somewhat later perhaps, Chinese records of world geography and exploration show their emissaries in the New World, to say nothing of the Japanese who apparently visited Ecuador during the same era.
If to this picture we add further geological information showing that some 4,000 years ago there occurred a "Little Ice Age" within the broader warming trend — during which arctic seas were refrozen and mountain glaciers again reborn once more descended into fertile valleys in Temperate Zone regions — it is possible to get some understanding of how people isolated by the cold could soon have lost knowledge of their neighbors and why we do not have more general physical evidence of possibly several preglacial civilizations. Since then, according to some scientists, this "Little Ice Age" has advanced and retreated in minor cycles. But authorities are not yet fully agreed whether our own time is in fact a fourth interglacial period (three former such periods are said to have occurred in the last 900,000 years, between four Ice Ages of which the Wurm-Wisconsin was the most recent) or part of a new Ice Age.
There are of course many other reasons than Ice Ages, seismic events, and submergences, why formerly widespread knowledge became inaccessible to our generation. We can cite the deliberate destruction a various times of such records by man himself. Hapgood remarks that there is evidence the maps of the early sea peoples were collected and studied in the great library at Alexandria until most of them were lost in the catastrophe of its final destruction in the seventh century A.D. Edward H. Thompson has recorded the wholesale burning at Chichen Itza in Yucatan by the early Spanish Bishop de Landa of priceless stores of rolled deerskin and maguey paper manuscripts collected there by the Mayan wise men, the "Itzaes," and the demolition of thousands of stone figures, altar stones, vases, and other artifacts reflecting the high craftsmanship of the Mayans. And we read of an early ruler of China who ordered the destruction of all existing books so that human history could begin with his reign.
A corollary to this sort of activity is the growth at various times of a scientific, religious, or academic 'establishment' that becomes so obsessed with its own dogmas that for long periods the truth receives little attention. As an example, we may ask how it can be that, in our most enlightened of eras, Western medical science has remained until only yesterday so oblivious to and disinterested in the Chinese technique of acupuncture, which reflects a knowledge of anesthetics and the nervous system that we might long since have been utilizing for our general benefit?
Such seminal works as Before Columbus illustrate as almost nothing else can how poorly we have used the records of antiquity that by fortune escaped destruction and have come down to us in whole or in part, particularly the obvious key materials such as those of language and the traditional legends and epics of early peoples. We are made painfully aware that it is not the ancients who are at fault, for their efforts to pass on a full account of their own and even former times were far better than we had imagined. It is rather our own canons of scholarship which must bear the major blame for this neglect, characterized as they are by an excessive parochialism and skepticism toward the earliest literatures as recordings of authentic history. We have set up arbitrary standards of evidence and then have refused to consider any findings judged not to conform to those standards. The result is apparent: a distorted and culture-bound perspective of our past.
What is clearly needed is a larger theoretical horizon that takes the whole globe as its ecumene, and a corresponding time-frame for man as civilized homo sapiens that comprehends much vaster periods and epochs of years for his development than the paltry few thousands presently allowed him by academic specialists. By their insistence upon a broad, impartial and elevated scrutiny of the far vistas of prehistory as the only adequate standard of scholarship, the Donnellys, Stefanssons, Hapgoods and Gordons offer much hope to the intelligent layman and the open-minded professional that the past can be read usefully and with benefit for all. It becomes ever more apparent that such an unfettered perspective is needed not only to confirm our intuitions of an ancient human greatness, but also to show that the early accounts make perfect sense as recordings of an archaic racial history, whose decipherment, by the same token, will confer new dignity upon us and our strivings to cope more effectively with the perplexities of our own time and condition.
(From Sunrise magazine, June-July, August-September 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)
Back Issues Menu