Sometimes it is a little better to travel than to arrive.
~ Robert M. Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I don’t watch horror movies, but a consistent plot seems to be that someone builds a new house over an old cemetery, and the evil dead rise up through the floor to terrorize and kill the new occupants. Past sins and wrongs are visited upon the new occupants, who must battle the mystical past to survive.
The truth is, every place has a past and the whole earth has been occupied by someone or something before you got there. We’re not the first. That’s what history, archeology and paleontology are all about.
As kids accompanying our dad out hunting or fishing on west Texas ranches, we looked through the debris from old ranch or farm houses (careful about snakes), and searched the ridge overlooks for arrowheads, imagining the Indian brave watching for enemies or game while he knapped his flints (or maybe chert). It was exciting to find the chips or partially worked stones because it made the place real – I really sat there just like he did decades or centuries earlier.
Hiking in the undisturbed mountains of Colorado years ago, I marveled at the untrammeled wildness of the place until I stumbled across a wooden pipe, slowly rotting in the forest. It was made from hand-planed boards mitered to fit together (like a barrel) and ran beyond sight across and down the slope. Someone a century and a half before had not only trammeled this place, but had figured out how to bring a water supply down to the mine or village or maybe all the way down to the town, miles away.
Obviously, you find the relics of past occupation in the piles of old tin cans and bottles left behind by miners or trappers, but it’s always a surprise to me to think that a hundred or more years before, someone else had been in that very spot.
Flying north out of Fairbanks you traverse unbroken Alaskan forest for several hours. When I was there, the one road north roughly paralleled the Alyeska pipeline under construction. There were cleared places along the Yukon River, but north of the river, the pristine wilderness was unbroken, seemingly untouched. But wait, there’s a clearing for a cabin surrounded by forest, no roads, and over there, a cut through the trees for a trail of some kind. Not only had man been here, but had been here enough to cut trails and build cabins.
I’ve lived in the west most of my life and know that our local ‘history’ goes back only a few hundred years, unlike Europe and even the East coast. However, I’ve seen the cliff dwellings and other ruins of the peoples that lived and roamed out here a thousand or more years ago. Indeed, we now attribute the extinction of large mammals in North America to the Paleolithic era, when man developed stone tools over a million years ago. A friend found a Folsom point on his property just outside Denver that could be 8000 years old.
We’re not the first to live here. We’re not even the latest immigrants. There is evidence that even Columbus wasn’t the first Old World explorer to visit the New World. An Irish monk, St. Brendan, was reputed to have sailed across the Atlantic in the 6th Century.
The Norseman Erik the Red established settlements in Greenland and his son, Leif Erikson, later founded Vinland on the northeast coast of North America five hundred years before Columbus. Ivan Van Sertima even demonstrates the likelihood that North Africans crossed the Atlantic into Central and South America two centuries before Columbus.
In his book, 1421, Gavin Menzies makes the case for the Chinese to have explored, and in some cases, settled parts of the Americas. Decades before Columbus, a Chinese fleet circled the globe, mapping, touching in and in some cases establishing settlements in North and South America.
The Vatican was interested in exploration of new worlds and the possibility of new converts and gathered information whenever they could. Columbus’s brother worked at the Vatican and may have had access to these documents. Christopher’s voyage of discovery was possibly informed by knowledge from the Norsemen, Irish and Chinese.
And when you consider that humanity evolved in the Great Rift zone of Africa and migrated out across Asia, Europe and ultimately to Australia and the Americas, you have to admire the intrinsic, intrepid nature of ours to expand and explore. The early peoples that crossed the Bering Strait into North America had far fewer resources and less certainty than Columbus that there was something over there.
Migration seems to be hard-wired into us. Sure, we like the home and hearth, and defend it with all our might. But all kinds of factors rekindle that urge to go somewhere – somewhere better, somewhere more interesting, somewhere safer or even in some cases, more dangerous.
The grass is always greener somewhere else, and we appear to be driven to find out. It’s just human nature.
Hjalmar Holand, Explorations in America Before Columbus, 1956
Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered The World, 2002
Ivan Van Sertima, The African Presence in Ancient America, 1976