Could Phoenicians Have Crossed the Atlantic?
For the better part of a thousand years, all over the Mediterranean Sea, one power dominated maritime commerce: Phoenicia.
Based along the coast of what is today Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel, Phoenicians wrote down much less of their own history than did the Romans, who gradually overwhelmed them by around 200 BCE. In addition to advances in boatbuilding and navigation, Phoenicians pioneered the production of metals and blown glass, and they were most famous for making purple dye from the murex seashells that could be found on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Their network of ports, trading stations and city-states included locations all over the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coasts of what are now Morocco, Spain and Portugal. There is evidence also attributed to them even farther, in the Azores as well as in coastal France and the UK, leading some to the question: Did the Phoenicians discover the Americas?
In late 2019 a crew of 30 explorers, hailing from as far afield as Norway, Indonesia, Tunisia, the UK, US and Canada, set out to demonstrate that 1,000 years before the Vikings and some 2,000 years before Columbus, Phoenicians had the ability to also reach the Americas. The crew sailed a replica, single-mast Phoenician ship, built in Syria and captained by a Briton, while being filmed by a Brazilian of Lebanese descent. Braving sharks, storms, fickle winds and looming container ships, they docked Phoenicia in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, five months after departing Carthage, Tunisia, once the leading Phoenician port in the central Mediterranean.
The Phoenicians Before Columbus Expedition was captained by Philip Beale, who had already smashed a couple other historical, maritime presumptions. In 2003 the former Royal Navy sailor recreated an eighth-century-CE double outrigger based on a temple relief in Java, Indonesia. Sailing the “cinnamon route” from Southeast Asia to the Seychelles, Madagascar and mainland Africa, Beale’s Borobudur Ship Expedition successfully challenged the idea that Europeans had been the preeminent explorers of the Indian Ocean. In 2008 he led Phoenicia on its two-year maiden voyage: a westward circumnavigation of Africa that corroborated Greek accounts of such voyages by Phoenicians.
Crossing from the Mediterranean to the Americas, Beale believes, would have posed little problem for Phoenician seafarers.
“Phoenician boats sailed easily from Tyre and Sidon,” two leading Phoenician cities that produced murex purple dye, both now in modern Lebanon, to Gibraltar and Tangier, says Beale. “That 2,000-odd-mile voyage is about the same distance as across the Atlantic.”
Beale points out that first-century-CE Greek historian Strabo estimated that beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, the Phoenicians had some 300 settlements along the Iberian and African coasts.
Greek historian Strabo estimated Phoenician settlements on the African and Iberian coasts numbered 300.
“Even if that figure was an exaggeration,” Beale says, “that’s a lot of contacts not to have sailed out into the Atlantic.”
There also may also have been serendipity—or catastrophe—at work. Phoenician boats were square-rigged, which means they could sail only with the wind. By the time of Columbus, Europeans were rigging their boats with one or more types of triangular lateen sails, which had been developed by Arab mariners in the seventh century CE. The shape of the lateen sail allows it to act like an airfoil when it is turned at an angle toward the wind. Here is Beale’s key point: “A modern yacht can sail 30 degrees into the wind,” Beale says. “But on a 2,600-year-old boat, once you’ve been pushed out into the Atlantic, you can’t come back” until the wind shifts. And amid the Atlantic, that can be a long time.
The captain also cites the relatively recent discovery of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, as evidence of other pre-Columbian voyages.
If anyone could have done it before Columbus, it was the Phoenicians.” —Captain Philip Beale
“The proof that the Vikings arrived about 1000 CE was only discovered in the 1960s,” says Beale, and it was backed up in 2016 by a replica voyage in a hand-built Viking longship from Norway to Newfoundland.
While settlement evidence supports Viking arrival in the Americas, to date archeologists have found no material evidence that points toward Phoenician landings.