New Views

IF MOUNT HOLYOKE geologist Mark McMenamin is right, neither Columbus nor the Vikings were the first non-natives to set foot on the Americas. McMenamin's theory is based on coins he believes contain the oldest world maps in existence. The author of a 1994 book, Hypersea: Life on Land (cowritten with his wife, Dianna), which unveiled a new theory of the genesis of terrestrial life, he may now have made another important 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 that the designs represent a map of the ancient world, including the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and a land mass representing the Americas.

If this is true, these coins not only represent the oldest world maps found to date, but would also indicate that Carthaginian explorers had sailed to the New World a good 1,300 years before the Vikings.

It was his interest in the Carthaginians and Phoenicians as explorers that led McMenamin to study the gold coins, known as staters. 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.

On one of the coins studied by McMenamin, a horse stands atop a number of symbols at the bottom of the stater. For many years, scholars interpreted these symbols as letters in Phoenician script. When that theory was discounted in the 1960s, scholars were baffled. Using a computer to enlarge and enhance these images on the coins, the geologist --aided by his familiarity with land masses and shifting tectonic plates-- 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," notes McMenamin. "I have been interested in the Carthaginians as the greatest explorers in the history of the world."

McMenamin's study of the coins prompted 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 1,500 years.

The Numismatist, a leading journal in the study of coins, has accepted McMenamin's paper on the theory and will publish his findings this fall. At the same time, the scholar is trying to gain access to a number of coins --or casts of their impressions-- currently held in European collections. These impressions will further aid him, he hopes, in proving the world map theory's validity. "If I had the time and the money," McMenamin observes, only half-kidding, "I'd be in North Africa with my metal detector trying to find Carthaginian coins to further confirm my hypothesis."

Additional study may well reveal that it was explorers based in Africa, not Europe, who "discovered" the New World. At the very least, McMenamin hopes his theory will focus new scholarly attention on ancient Carthaginian culture.

Who Discovered the Americas?

Ancient Coins May Map New Understandings of Antiquity


[Mark McMenamin]

Geologist Mark McMenamin, whose interpretation of an ancient coin design suggests that explorers from Africa, not Europe, "discovered" the New World.

[Overview of coin]

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.

Illustrations courtesy of Mark McMenamin

[Detail of coin]

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