Did Africans Discover the New World?

Geologist Mark McMenamin, whose interpretation of an ancient coin design may map new understandings of antiquity.

If Mark McMenamin is correct, neither Columbus nor the Vikings were the first non-natives to set foot on the Americas. McMenamin, the Mount Holyoke geologist who last year led an expedition that discovered the oldest animal fossil found to date, may have made another discovery--one that sheds radical new light on present conceptions of the Classical world and on the discovery of the New World.

Working with computer-enhanced images of gold coins minted in the North African city of Carthage between 350 and 320 BC, McMenamin has interpreted a series of designs appearing on these coins, the meaning of which has long puzzled scholars. McMenamin believes the designs represent a map of the ancient world, including the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and the land mass representing the Americas.

If this is true, these coins not only represent the oldest maps found to date, but would also indicate that Carthaginian explorers had sailed to the New World.

In fact, it was his interest in the Carthaginians as explorers that led McMenamin to study the coins. The Carthaginians were closely linked to the Phoenicians of the Middle East in terms of culture, language, and naval enterprise. Both peoples are widely credited with significant sailing exploits through the Mediterranean, to the British Isles, and along the coast of Africa.

In one of the coins studied by McMenamin, a horse stands atop a number of symbols at the bottom of the coin. For many years, scholars interpreted these symbols as letters in Phoenician script. When that theory was discounted in the 1960s, it left scholars baffled. Working over the past few months, McMenamin was able to interpret the design as a representation of the Mediterranean, surrounded by the land masses of Europe and Africa, with, to the upper left, the British Isles. To the far left of the representation of the Mediterranean is what the geologist believes is a depiction of the Americas.

A number of classical texts bolster this theory. For example, in the first century bc, Diodorus of Sicily wrote "...in the deep off Africa is an island of considerable size...fruitful, much of it mountainous.... Through it flow navigable rivers....The Phoenicians had discovered it by accident after having planted many colonies throughout Africa."

"I was just the lucky person who had the geologic and geographic expertise to view these coins in a new light," McMenamin notes. "I have been interested in the Carthaginians as the greatest explorers in the history of the world."

McMenamin's interest in Carthage led him to master the Phoenician language. He has published two pamphlets on his work regarding the Carthaginian coins. One is written in ancient Phoenician, representing probably the first new work in that language in 1500 years.

He has submitted a paper on his theory to The Numismatist, a leading journal in the study of coins, and will seek to gain access to a number of coins currently held in European collections. At the very least, McMenamin hopes his theory will focus new scholarly attention on ancient Carthaginian culture and may well reveal that it was Africans, not Europeans, who discovered the New World.

This detail of a gold coin shows what McMenamin believes is a map of the Mediterranean area, surrounded by Europe, Britain, Africa, and (at left) the Americas. The image appears on coins minted in Carthage between 350 and 320 BC.


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