10 Times Humanity Found the Answer (and Then Forgot)

The New World
Christopher Columbus was hardly the first person to bump into the "New World." Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The first people to discover the New World did not then lose it — they stuck around for the yummy mammoth meat they'd followed across the Bering land bridge. But depending on which research you read (and believe), you might be shocked by the roster of visitors who allegedly came and went afterward.

Every schoolchild knows the tale of the Norse explorers who sailed to Greenland and Iceland at the turn of the 11th century. Speculation that such sailors made it to Newfoundland during that century is borne out by the remains of the L'Anse aux Meadows settlement and the tales of both Vikings and indigenous peoples.

But Columbus's line of precursors didn't end with a Norse expedition from Greenland, at least not if you believe some (admittedly shaky) hypotheses. According to one well-known (and largely debunked) book, Chinese sailors beat Columbus to the New World by 71 years [source: Finlay]. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given voice to the fringe view that Muslims contacted Latin American civilizations three centuries before the Italian explorer first set sail [source: Tharoor].

A bit more mainstream are those who argue that Polynesians might have reached South America before any European stepped foot in the Americas. Although some potential proof of the hypothesis has been dealt a few blows of late, the Polynesians were prodigious sailors and settlers; when compared to their other deeds, such a feat certainly does not seem beyond their abilities [source: Smith].

Whatever the case, we know at least one group after the Bering Strait migrants found the Americas long before Columbus and didn't stick around for long. The New World might seem like a rather large thing to forget (actually, they recorded the discovery in their sagas), but the Vikings likely received some encouragement on their way out — from the fierce descendants of the first migrants [source: Parks Canada].

Author's Note: 10 Times Humanity Found the Answer (and Then Forgot)

It's unfortunate that so many of these examples came from the Western world. This is a consequence not of a lack of great inventions from the rest of the world — quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, because of such a continuity of civilization and preserved culture in places like China and India, it was difficult to find examples of answers that had actually been lost — although those who value cultural antiquities might argue that such is happing today in China. In places where it did happen, tragically — I'm thinking here of the despoiling effect of the African slave trade or the post-Columbian loss of so much Native American material culture — it is no easy task to find clear accounts of what exactly was lost.

To end on a more positive note, human minds are inexhaustibly fertile and somehow find a way to inventively solve persistent problems, whether that means reinventing the wheel or rendering it obsolete. So long as we can turn that resourcefulness away from destruction, we as a species can continue to progress.

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