Map Monday: Who was sailing the oceans long before the Europeans?

Last week’s Map Monday looked at world empires through the ages, several of which predates the European era of exploration and conquest that started with Christopher Columbus. But that post didn’t include some impressive early ambitious explorations by sea. Let’s take a look.

The Polynesians.  According to the current state of knowledge in the history of human exploration and colonization in the Pacific Ocean, the migration of the first humans into what is called Near Oceania began around 40,000 years ago and over time produced considerable cultural, linguistic, and genetic diversity in Oceania and Polynesia.

As shown on the map below, around 4,000 years ago, the migration of what are now called Austronesian speakers from the Asian mainland led to the development of the Lapita culture in the area of Near (or Western) Oceania, the ancestors of the Polynesians. The subsequent expansion of these Austronesian speakers into Eastern Oceania began around 1200 BC and led to the colonization of the islands in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This expansion ended with the settlement and colonization of New Zealand around 1250 AD. (Information and maps from The Transpacific Project.)

For the longest time westerners didn’t believe that early Polynesians had sailed these distances, west to east against the prevailing winds, all without a compass. It was impossible. They were eventually shown to be wrong; other people really could figure out how to do things! And all in very small boats.

The Chinese. I don’t know about you, but I never learned about all the oceanic expeditions the Chinese undertook prior to Columbus sailing the ocean blue. In fact, they had plied the waters between China, India, and even the west coast of Africa for centuries. Trading had been going on between China and these regions for long periods of time by land as well as by sea. Between 1405 and 1433, the famed Treasure Fleet, a fleet of as many as 200 ships, undertook 7 major voyages before the Ming Dynasty emperor at the time decided that China would give up their sea power and stick to land. I wonder how differently things might have turned out if when Vasco Da Gama reached the Indian Ocean in 1497 – the first European to do so – the Chinese had still been there, with 200 ships to Da Gama’s very small fleet. Wouldn’t that have been a surprise?! Many people say there is evidence to suggest that early Chinese ships had reached the west coast of South America as well.

The Treasure Fleet and Cmdr Zheng He’s fourth of 7 major voyages.

The Vikings. Technically  the Vikings were European, at least geographically. The fascinating thing about them is that they began their expansion by both land and sea so early, before Europe was the Europe we think of, certainly long before Christopher Columbus convinced the King of Spain to finance his voyage west to find a route from Europe to Asia in the name of the King and the Catholic Church. And Europeans don’t seem overly eager to speak of Vikings as European, so I’m counting them as pre-European.

When you stop and think about the dates during which they were sailing, and the frigid waters in which they sailed, sometimes clogged with ice, you really have to marvel. Many of us in Canada have seen the remnants of their shelters at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, circa 1000AD, which is the only North American Norse site outside Greenland.

Think about it. This was nearly 500 years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas and what’s now the Dominican Republic. By the way, Columbus never actually landed in North America! But Erik the Red did, in Greenland in around 985, and then his son Leif Erikson followed that example by overwintering in Vinland (what’s now Newfoundland) in around 1000. Today, Newfoundlanders find it challenging to overwinter there, even with central heating! 😉

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22 Responses to Map Monday: Who was sailing the oceans long before the Europeans?

  1. in says:

    What a historical blog! So unique!

    I live on Guam.
    An American territory, but was discovered by Spain.

  2. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    My Norwegian brother-in-law will love this.

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    And no mention of Brendan the Navigator who, as all Irish schoolchildren know, was actually the most famous sailor of all in his little wooden tub 🙂

    Slightly backtracking, I was just reading how the Acadians had a nice little life going on the (French) Falkland Islands until first the Spanish, then the Brits, had them scooting back to France. Did those guys suffer.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      How could I have forgotten Brendan the Navigator?! Roy, you’re getting to be quite an expert on Acadian history. I knew they went to several islands in the Caribbean, some of whom ended up back in France, but I hadn’t known that some went as far as the Falklands. I’ve actually been there; the Acadians would have felt very much at home there. Too bad they once again ended up caught in the middle of political storms. I have a map that shows all the places they were sent and ended up. I’ll have to take a closer look.

  4. candidkay says:

    My son was reading a book about the Chinese explorations at the same time his history book was touting Columbus as first on America’s shores. Oy. History revised by white men:).

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  6. Jean says:

    True, we are schooled on the Eurocentric conquests not from other parts of the world. I didn’t know about the Chinese voyages until my 30’s.
    Vancouver Island has history lore, that the Hawai’ians discovered it long ago.

    Of course, sadly with the “discoveries”, came along the pandemics to the North American native Indians…smallpox, typhoid. 😦

    I would recommend going to the National Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of their floors, is completely on Viking artifacts..like fabulous metalwork, etc.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for this input, Jean. You’re sure right about the Europeans bringing disease to the indigenous populations, in South America as well. Smallpox and typhoid wiped out thousands upon thousands, as of course did guns, battles, massacres, and removals to remote pieces of land.

      I’ve been to the Viking museums in Stockholm and York (UK), which had been Yorvik, but not Copenhagen. May not be getting in a plane for quite a while now!

  7. Anne Rimmer says:

    Re the Polynesian word ‘moa’. In New Zealand English ‘moa’ refers to the extinct giant endemic birds. So it’s a source of delight, when up in the Pacific Islands, to find ‘moa’ listed on a fast food menu, or the frozen section of a food shop. But it’s OK, the moa drumsticks are normal chicken-sized.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s very interesting. I just looked up moa and found no reference to moa being another name for chicken at all, just several very large extinct flightless birds, as you say. But when I googled ‘moa chicken’ I found that moa is Hawaiian for chicken and that there is or was a feral chicken, called moa, found on Kauai, that was brought there by Polynesian settlers about 1000 years ago. Those chickens, aka moss, got around! So much to learn. 😊

  8. Dr B says:

    Interesting again, how about the Phoenicians?

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