If Mark McMenamin
is correct, neither Columbus nor the Vikings were the first non-natives
to set foot on the Americas. McMenamin, the Mount Holyoke geologist
who last year led an expedition that discovered the oldest animal fossil
found to date, may have made another discovery--one that sheds radical
new light on present conceptions of the Classical world and on the discovery
of the New World.
Working with computer-enhanced
images of gold coins minted in the Punic/Phoenician city in North Africa
of Carthage between 350 and 320 BC, (please see sketch of coin right
and where the world map is supposed to have been inscribed) McMenamin
has interpreted a series of designs appearing on these coins, the meaning
of which has long puzzled scholars. McMenamin
believes the designs represent a map of the ancient world, including
the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and the land mass representing
If this is true,
these coins not only represent the oldest maps found to date, but would
also indicate that Carthaginian explorers had sailed to the New World.
In fact, it was
his interest in the Carthaginians as explorers that led McMenamin to
study the coins. The Carthaginians were closely linked to the Phoenicians
of the Middle East in terms of origin, culture, language, and naval
enterprise. Both peoples are widely credited with significant sailing
exploits through the Mediterranean, to the British Isles, and along
the coast of Africa.
of a gold coin shows what McMenamin believes is a map of the Mediterranean
area, surrounded by Europe, Britain, Africa, and (at left) the Americas.
The image appears on coins minted in Carthage between 350 and 320
BC. The enhanced and colorized version is based on the illustrations
courtesy of Mark McMenamin.
In one of the coins
studied by McMenamin, a horse stands atop a number of symbols at the
bottom of the coin. For many years, scholars interpreted these symbols
as letters in Phoenician script. When that theory was discounted in
the 1960s, it left scholars baffled. Working over the past few months,
McMenamin was able to interpret the design as a representation of the
Mediterranean, surrounded by the land masses of Europe and Africa, with,
to the upper left, the British Isles. To the far left of the representation
of the Mediterranean is what the geologist believes is a depiction of
A number of classical
texts bolster this theory. For example, in the first century bc, Diodorus
of Sicily wrote "...in the deep off Africa is an island of considerable
size...fruitful, much of it mountainous.... Through it flow navigable
rivers....The Phoenicians had discovered it by accident after having
planted many colonies throughout Africa."
"I was just
the lucky person who had the geologic and geographic expertise to view
these coins in a new light," McMenamin notes. "I have been
interested in the Carthaginians as the greatest explorers in the history
of the world."
in Carthage led him to master the Phoenician language. He has published
two pamphlets on his work regarding the Carthaginian coins. One is written
in ancient Phoenician, representing probably the first new work in that
language in 1500 years.
He has submitted
a paper on his theory to The Numismatist, a leading journal in
the study of coins, which has accepted McMenamin's paper on the theory
for publication. At the same time, the scholar is trying to gain access
to a number of coins --or casts of their impressions-- currently held
in European collections. These impressions will further aid him, he
hopes, in proving the world map theory's validity. "If I had the
time and the money," McMenamin observes, only half-kidding, "I'd
be in North Africa with my metal detector trying to find Carthaginian
coins to further confirm my hypothesis."
may well reveal that it was Punic explorers not Europeans who "discovered"
the New World. At the very least, McMenamin hopes his theory will focus
new scholarly attention on ancient Carthaginian culture.