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Coming to America: Who Was First?

Who discovered America?

For most of us, the answer to that question is straightforward: Christopher Columbus. That's what we were taught in school and that is why we celebrate Columbus Day. Yet it is far from clear-cut.

There are alternative theories about who got here first — some well-documented, others much more flimsy in their scholarship. Author Russell Freedom explores the various contenders for the title of "first" in his new book, Who Was First? Discovering the Americas. He shares his insights with NPR.

When you started this project, were you like the rest of us? Did you believe that Christopher Columbus discovered America and that was it, end of story?

I was vaguely aware of the Vikings. But really, what incited my interest was a book called 1421: The Year China Discovered America. That book has been largely debunked, but what is clear is that there have been successive waves of immigration to the Western Hemisphere from outside. Where they came from and when they arrived and how they got here — that's all still speculative.

Tell me about the Irish Monks who supposedly predated even the Vikings.

That falls into the realm of legend. But it's possible that they came across the North Sea, to what is now Newfoundland, before the Vikings. No one knows for sure.

And the Vikings?

That is well established. I visited the archeological site at the northern tip of Newfoundland. There is no question about it. It has been definitely determined that the Vikings were there for about 10 years — specifically, Leif Erikson and his extended family.

Is there any physical evidence that remains today?

Yes, the remains of their houses, of their settlement. There was an archeological dig that lasted six or seven years, and then they reconstructed the settlement about 100 yards away.

What did Leif Erikson make of this New World?

It was full of wonderful resources: timber and grapes. Coming from Greenland, as he did, which had no timber or grapes to make wine, these were two priceless discoveries. That's why the Vikings called it "Vinland" or Wine Land.

So if it was so wonderful, why didn't the Vikings stay longer?

The Indians didn't want them to stay. The first encounter was when the Vikings came across 10 Indians taking naps under their overturned canoes — and the Vikings killed them. That did not set up a very good mutual relationship. There were some attempts at trading, but the Vikings felt quite menaced and outnumbered, and the Indians did not appreciate their presence. The Vikings did return to North America, but only for trading. They never settled again.

What about the "China first" theory? Is there any evidence to support the notion that Chinese mariners set foot in America before Columbus?

There is credible evidence that a Chinese fleet went as far as the coast of Africa, in present-day Kenya. It was the largest maritime fleet in the world, under the command of Zheng He, a favorite of the emperor. Whether the fleet went around the horn of Africa and then across the Atlantic is speculative. The theory has been widely shot down by experts in the field. There is no real evidence. The author uses a grab bag of evidence, some of it is suggestive and some of it is ridiculous.

So if Columbus wasn't first, why does he get all of the credit?

He opened up America to Europe, which was the expansionist power at the time. He was the one who made it possible for them to conquer the Western Hemisphere — and to bring with them the diseases that apparently wiped out 90 percent of the population. He wasn't the first (and neither were the Vikings) — that is a very Euro-centric view. There were millions of people here already, and so their ancestors must have been the first.

What did you find most surprising in researching this book?

For one thing, the longevity of settlement of the Western Hemisphere — 20,000 years, at least. I don't think it's silly, this quest for answers of who got here first. You always want to know what happened before you. It' a human instinct to know where you came from and what proceeded you. How did they get here? Who were they? The fact that we don't know for sure makes it quite fascinating.

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Eric Weiner
Eric Weiner is a national correspondent for Based in Washington, DC, he writes news and analysis for NPR's website.