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John L. Davis

PRE-COLUMBIAN EXPLORATION. For many archeologists, the important question concerning pre-Columbian exploration is not whether someone from the Old World managed to arrive before Columbus, but whether there were any significant cultural contacts between the New and Old worlds before A.D. 1492. To this question, the majority of evidence still says no, in spite of some speculation that iron-working, the use of the bow and arrow, selected architectural detail, artistic motifs, some ceremonial observances, and a few foods might have been introduced by pre-Columbian voyagers. That there may have been some unintentional drifts across either the Atlantic or Pacific, or even an intentional effort or two, is probable. It is generally accepted that Scandinavians established short-lived settlements on the northeastern coast of North America almost 500 years before Columbus appeared some 2,000 miles to the south. In Texas there is little evidence of pre-Columbian exploration, but some very interesting stories exist.

The earliest extant geography is the Shan Hai King or Shanhai Jing, a much-edited Chinese classic some 3,000 years old. The work, regarded as fiction by many scholars, contains many apparent land surveys of travels by explorers. A few of the routes do not fit in Asia or in any other known landform except North America. One of the routes, placed at approximately the correct distance east of China, ends in part of Trans-Pecos Texas. A second Chinese account, recorded in court records near A.D. 500, tells the story of a Buddhist monk, Hwui Shan or Huishen, who journeyed east from China. The distance indicated would place him in the American Southwest and Mexico. Controversy over the account started in Europe in 1753, with professional papers pro and con. The argument over interpretation has been sporadic ever since.

Stories about European travelers are more common. Speculation about lands beyond the Atlantic dates from at least 200 B.C., when Eratosthenes correctly measured the circumference of the earth. Tales about Phoenicians being blown west across the Atlantic are at least as old as their circumnavigation of Africa in the sixth century B.C. Other stories concern early Christians driven from the Roman Empire after A.D. 65, the Irish St. Brendan in A.D. 550, Euphemus the Greek navigator before the second century after Christ, and the Welsh prince Madoc in A.D. 1170. Every one of these, along with several lost Vikings, is linked in one story or another with the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Texas coast. Unlike the accounts of Chinese travelers, for which we have written records (whether factual or not), stories about European explorers are based only on legend. One of the best, complete with records in Africa, concerns the voyage of a king, the ruler of Mali, across the Atlantic in the fourteenth century A.D. The king, simply known as Kankan Musa's predecessor, sailed west with a flotilla of ships in A.D. 1311 and never returned. There seems little doubt that he sailed west, but only vague evidence gets him into the Gulf of Mexico. That he could have reached the Gulf seems certain. Inscriptions have been found along the Rio Grande and in West Texas that some people have taken to be runic, ogham, Iberian, and Phoenician. None of these is accepted unquestioningly by scholars as authentic, and they are not very satisfying as proof of pre-Columbian, transoceanic contact.

John L. Davis, Exploration in Texas (San Antonio: University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1984). Edward P. Vining, An Inglorious Columbus, or Evidence that Hwi Shan and a Party of Buddhist Monks from Afghanistan Discovered America in the Fifth Century, A.D. (New York: Appleton, 1885).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, John L. Davis, "PRE-COLUMBIAN EXPLORATION," accessed July 17, 2019,

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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