Did the ancient Greeks sail to Canada?

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The ancient Greeks could have reached Canada in 56 AD – almost a millennium before the Vikings, according to new research. 

This is according to a controversial that claims Hellenistic Greeks had such detailed knowledge of astronomy they were able to pinpoint Atlantic currents that would propel them west.

Powered by sails and oars, they may have regularly visited Newfoundland, mined gold and set up colonies that thrived for centuries.

This idea is based on a study of the work of Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch, who lived between 46 and 119 AD.

However, there is no concrete evidence of these trips and many historians and maritime archaeologists have dismissed the work as ‘unfounded’. 

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The ancient Greeks could have reached North America in 56 AD – almost a millennium before the Vikings, according to new research. Pictured is the route they might have taken

‘Our intention is to prove, with modern science, that it was possible for this trip to be made,’ Ioannis Liritzis, an archaeologist from the University of the Aegean told Hakai Magazine as part of an in-depth feature on his research.

These early settlers may have travelled for the sake of finding new lands or riches, researchers say.

They believe some travellers would return home after a brief stay but for others the trip was one way. 

Researchers acknowledge that they do not have evidence that these trips were made but believe they were possible, as suggested by the writings of Plutarch.

Plutarch wrote more than sixty in-depth biographies of famous Romans and Greeks, detailed in his writings of Parallel Lives. 

This theory is based on evidence from Plutarch’s work De Facie, also known as On the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon. 

In this work, which became familiar to classicists during the Renaissance, characters discuss whether the moon is another Earth, whether it has life, and other philosophical questions.

One character recounts meeting a stranger who had recently returned from a ‘great continent’.

This idea is based on close examination of the work of Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch (pictured), who lived between 46 and 119 AD

HOW DID THE ANCIENT GREEKS NAVIGATE AT SEA?

The first Western civilisation known to have developed the art of navigation at sea were the Phoenicians, around 4,000 years ago in 2,000 BC. 

Phoenician sailors navigated using primitive charts and observations of the sun and stars to determine directions. 

It would take many centuries before global navigation at sea became possible. 

By the second millennium BC, accumulated knowledge of stars and constellations began to facilitate more direct travel across the Mediterranean.

As increasing knowledge of astronomy began to spread and became more precise, navigation across open water became more possible and less risky. 

Detailed knowledge of the constellations, eclipses, and moon movements made navigation during day and night much easier.

Other developments include the use of sounding weights, which helped sailors determine the depth of water in given locations.

Weights would be lowered from a boat and would inform on the location’s depth. 

This knowledge could help with regards to how far ships were from land, as shallower seas could indicate that land was nearby or approaching.

By the late first millennium BC, new developments facilitated further navigation capabilities. 

This included the development of navigational charts and information passed down to sailors. 

These charts include types of notes and descriptions that likely assisted sailors over generations. 

Farther ventures were enabled by the development of scientifically and mathematically based methods and tools. 

It seems the Ancient Greeks did develop early incarnations of these instruments, perhaps including the Antikythera mechanism.

Found in 1900 near the Greek island of Antikythera, this metal contraption appears to be a mechanical device with gears and wheels.

Some experts believe it may have been used to aid navigation and understand the movements of celestial bodies in the third or second century BC.

Dr Liritzis and his colleagues believe this content was in fact North America, specifically Newfoundland.

This is not the first time that this theory has been proposed.

Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer who was a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution, also believed that this reference was in relation to North America.

The stranger recounts how travellers made the trip every 30 years when Saturn appeared in the constellation Taurus.

The ancient Greeks closely followed astronomical phenomena associated with Saturn, which was called Kronos at the time. 

The suggestion is these trips could have occurred every 30 years for centuries.   

Unfortunately the first few chapters of De Facie have been lost so no one knows on what date these conversations happened so researchers had to date the story themselves.

Powered by sails and oars, Hellenistic Greeks may have regularly visited Newfoundland, mined gold and set up colonies that thrived for centuries. Pictured is a Greek trireme (artist’s impression), which is the boat they could have used

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE GREEK HISTORIAN PLUTARCH?

L Mestrius Plutarchus, better known as Plutarch, was a Greek writer and philosopher who was born around 45 to 50 AD and died between 120 and 125 AD. 

Much of what is known about the ancient world comes from Plutarch, who wrote more than sixty in-depth biographies of famous Romans and Greeks, detailed in his writings of Parallel Lives.

Of the fifty that have survived, nine feature main characters who lived at the same time, knew many of the others, and participated in many of the same events. 

As a result, Plutarch narrates the same stories numerous times. 

This provides historians with a rare opportunity to compare how the same author, often having used the same sources, narrates the same stories differently. 

Plutarch was a prolific writer who, according to one fourth-century inventory, wrote 227 works.

This also included an eclectic array of writings known as his Moralia.

Most of Plutarch’s writings have been lost to history, but a number have survived and been heavily scrutinised by scholars down the centuries.

Among them is On the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon, commonly referred to as De Facie.

In this work, which became familiar to classicists during the Renaissance, characters discuss whether the moon is another Earth, whether it has life, and other philosophical questions.

In this story, one character recounts meeting a stranger who had recently returned from a ‘great continent’.

One study produced by archaeologists from the University of the Aegean in Mytilene, Greece, in January 2018 argued that the continent described was North America.

This is not the first time that this theory has been proposed.

Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer who was a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution, also believed that this reference was in relation to North America.

They focused in on a reference one of the characters made about a solar eclipse that happened at around midday.

Dr Liritzis and his colleagues then looked through 5,000 years of eclipses and found one that matched the description in Plutarch’s writings. It took place in 75 AD.

Next they looked at the decades surrounding the eclipse for evidence of Saturn appearing in Taurus and found it happened on three occasions – 26 to 29 AD, 56 to 58 AD, and 85 to 88 AD.

They decided the trip was most likely to have occurred during 56 AD as this was the one when Saturn was most recently in Taurus.

Travellers would have stayed one year and then sailed out in 58 AD when Saturn was no longer in Taurus, they claimed.

‘By applying modern scientific data, the present reappraisal of the astronomical and geographical elements within this dialogue has produced a novel interpretation of the date and place of the meeting and a journey to the northern Atlantic Ocean’, researchers wrote in their paper published in the Journal of Coastal Research Online.

They looked at the Gulf Stream current, as well as other known sea currents in the northern Atlantic Ocean and estimated speed for the ship.  

Ioannis Liritzis, an archaeologist from the University of the Aegean believes Hellenistic Greeks had such as detailed knowledge of astronomy they were able to pinpoint Atlantic currents that would propel them west. Pictured is the ancient Greek theatre of Segesta on Sicily

Ioannis Liritzis, an archaeologist from the University of the Aegean believes Hellenistic Greeks had such as detailed knowledge of astronomy they were able to pinpoint Atlantic currents that would propel them west. Pictured is the ancient Greek theatre of Segesta on Sicily

WHY DO HISTORIANS BELIEVE THE VIKINGS DISCOVERED CANADA?

They are infamous for terrorising the coastlines of Europe in their distinctive longships, but the Vikings may be able to claim another victory over their medieval neighbours.

Evidence uncovered in 2016 suggests the Vikings may have discovered North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his famous journey to the New World.

Scientists claimed to have uncovered what they believe to be a Viking settlement on the Canadian island of Newfoundland that appears to have been built between 800 AD and 1300 AD.

It is only the second known Viking site to be discovered in North America and suggests that they were the first Europeans to reach the New World.

This site, discovered in an area called Point Rosee in southern Newfoundland, is 400 miles (643km) south west of a Viking settlement found in L’Anse aux Meadows during the 1960s.

Archaeologists said the discovery potentially opens ‘a new chapter’ in history by showing the Vikings had explored far further into the New World than previously believed possible.

The Vikings are well known to have been adept seafarers, using the sun and the stars to help pick their way across open stretches of ocean away from the coastline.

It is thought the Vikings first discovered America by accident in the autumn of 986 AD, according to one historical source, the Saga of the Greenlanders.

It tells how Bjarni Herjolfsson stumbled across North America after being blown off course as he attempted to sail from Norway to Greenland, but he did not go ashore.

Inspired by his tales, however, another Viking Leif Ericsson then mounted his own expedition and found North America in 1002 AD.

Finding it a fertile land, rich in grapes and berries, he named it Vinland.

Eriksson also named two further ‘lands’ on the North American coast – one with flat stones, which he called Helluland, and one that was flat and wooded, named Markland.

The discovery of the settlement at Point Rosee suggests that these legends were in fact true.

The ‘great continent’ lined up with a bay on the same latitude as the Volhga River delta, the northern entrance to the Caspian sea.

Using Google Earth, they predicted that Greek settlers would have been able to make it to St. Lawrence Gulf and Newfoundland island.

‘Other unnamed islands mentioned in this dialogue are identified with Norway’s islands, Azores, Iceland, Greenland, and Baffin islands’, researchers found.

They claim the Greeks had good knowledge of sea currents and astronomy meaning that this would be a ‘plausible event’.

However, other experts have widely disputed the claims.

‘While it is clever and interesting I don’t think the Greeks reached Canada’, Dr Hector Williams from the University of British Columbia told MailOnline.

‘Indeed the authors themselves admit there is no archaeological or other historical evidence for the Greeks ever having crossed the Atlantic’, he said.

‘Such a crossing might theoretically be possible–there are numerous examples of Japanese fishing boats making it across the Pacific when caught in storms and carried by currents that run west-east, for example–but the Greeks rarely even made it out into the Atlantic (unlike the Romans who of course colonized Britain).’ 

Brendan Foley, an underwater archaeologist at Lund University in Sweden told Hakai Magazine there is no way that first millennium BCE Mediterranean sailors would have any concept of Atlantic Ocean currents.

‘They certainly did not possess the navigational technologies and knowledge (à la Polynesian sailors) to position themselves in the open Atlantic Ocean to ride them’, Dr Foley said.

He also says there are no ancient Greek artefacts that contain gold traced to North America.

Also, the paper claims the boats travelled at 10 knots, but this would be fast for even modern ships. 





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