By Lawrence D. Hills (1959)
Here is a reconstruction of an amazing voyage that may have brought Cro-Magnons to American shores some 4,000 years ago.
One reason Cortez conquered Mexico with ease was the Aztec legend of strange white gods arriving from the sea. A dozen different tribes had such legends and many archaeologists believe that white men reached America before either Columbus or Leif Ericsson. Here Lawrence Hills marshals evidence to support his theory that they came in giant double canoes from the Canary Islands.
That this could have been done easily is indicated by the direction of the prevailing trade winds. Last December and January, the balloon Small World covered 1,800 miles by air and 1,200 miles by sea from the Canaries to Barbados in only 24 days. Its four occupants were blown over this route almost entirely by the same trade winds that would have carried the original Canarians centuries earlier.
The year is 1958 b.c. In Egypt the Pyramids have stood for over three centuries. In Crete the first good plumbing system in the world is operating. And in China, India, and around the Eastern end of the Mediterranean are men skilled in working bronze, copper, and gold, in writing, trading, and weaving. For the magic of metals, of the wheel and the turning shaft, harnessed first to the trade of the potter, have begun to change men’s lives.
Far from these scenes of other civilizations a tall and angry man stands whistling beside the harbor of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, where Columbus will anchor in a.d. 1488. His name is Itzamna and he stands seven feet eight inches in the laced leather sandals that are to be copied perfectly in the statues made of him after he became a God in the New World he does not yet know exists. He wears a square-cut, fair beard and a sleeveless tunic of white goat leather (tanned soft by a lost process worth rediscovery) decorated with crimson crosses which are the badges of his rank. His head is larger in proportion to his height than that of a modern man who is tall from unbalanced glands, for he is one of the last of the Cro-Magnon men. In a different uniform he would not look out of place on the bridge of a British warship.
He is angry for reasons which are completely understandable to the commodore of any convoy about to sail. He is whistling because this is to him a second language and the obvious way to give orders to the fleet of 30 large, double-hulled canoes riding at anchor. Trained ears receive his message, carried by the variations of five notes that constitute a whistled shorthand and a two-way radio with a range of five miles.
“Land the woman who cannot make up her mind, and her children and her husband. Her sheep and goats stay for any couple who will swim for them when we sail.”
Then the shadow of the sun reaches the appointed place and the Queen raises her sacred staff. Gran Canaria had more queens than Britain and one reigned at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1485.* She calls on He who rules the wind and sea to guide and guard her people who sail in faith that new lands lie beyond the sunset.
For this voyage is an act of faith. Roughly 2,500 years earlier—about 4500 b.c.—their ancestors sailed from southern Spain in the same type of canoe, with their farm seeds and livestock, and reached the Canaries in seven days along an easy wind and current route. These people are known today as the Gaunches. They were the descendants of the Cro-Magnon men who drew the magnificent cave paintings in Spain and in France. They were not pureblooded Cro-Magnons, of course, for they had mixed with other peoples long before they left Europe. In the isolated Canaries they built a high agricultural civilization, growing such crops as barley and beans and raising sheep, goats, and pigs.
Now, with an over-population problem, the obvious solution for the Elders, the Queen and the Priests, is to repeat the process exactly. With the skilled astronomy that makes a stone circle, it is possible to choose the right date, and this means good weather and a steady Trade Wind. The possibility that God has not set groups of fertile islands at seven-day intervals across the Atlantic is not considered.
Itzamna, however, apparently has his doubts; it might be a 12-day trip and this is why he has insisted on extra water jars. While his Queen speaks, he is thinking of his 30-gallon jars, made by coiling a long sausage of clay round and round, like all New World pottery and that of the Canaries where the potter’s wheel was unknown. With their clay covers well-resined and tied down, most of their 400 pounds of weight is waterborne, but will the leather ropes hold against the stresses and strains of the sea?
The Queen lowers her staff, and Itzamna whistles the signal for the first of the argosy to hoist its stone anchor and make sail. It is the canoe bearing Kinitchahau, “Lord of the Eye of the Day,” who is skilled in using a very primitive method of determining the sun’s height above the horizon which is going to give latitude within 100 miles of accuracy and keep the fleet steering west with the sun as a compass. His mast, like a letter “A” with one leg in each 70-foot hull, rises with its big square leather sail swelling in the wind. Then Kanil, “The Year Finder,” who knows the art of making the “Dog in the Sky” (the Big Dipper) a night clock and compass, leans on his steering paddle as his sail fills, and one after another the mighty vessels begin to move.
To the clapping and cheering crowds they are mighty, over three times the size of fishing canoes which hold only 22 men. None of them has ever seen anything larger than these logs of giant Canary Island pine, felled, shaped, and hollowed by fire and stone tools. Egypt and Crete have larger ships, but these versions of the double canoes which took the Maoris from Hawaii to New Zealand some 3,000 years later are better than the rubber dinghy which Dr. Alain Bombard used for his crossing in 1952.
Itzamna waits until his own ship, last of all, comes gliding by. Then he runs and makes his long jump of nearly 30 feet to the top of the fodder stack, which draws a wild burst of clapping from the crowd. To a race which never invented money but valued athletic ability and courage as social yardsticks, a leader must be able to outrun, outjump and outfight any man in his command.
Clear of the harbor, the argosy follows the track taken by almost every modern vessel on a similar cruise, for the wind and the sea are unchanged. The canoes spread out in a wide fan with Itzamna shepherding the stragglers from the rear. He slows the leaders and hastens the laggards, using the rather greater speed of his 80-footer with its larger area of sail like a latter-day destroyer commander with a convoy.
The seventh day passes without sight of land. The eighth, the ninth, and the tenth day pass landless also but with the same good sailing weather. The catamaran hulls, rubbed smooth with sandstone and sharkskin and painted red with the sap of the dragon’s blood tree, drive through the water far faster than did the Santa Maria with Columbus aboard. Each canoe holds only ten persons, including women and children, for it is built to carry stores and livestock under sail, not to be packed with men like a paddled war canoe.
As the days pass the water supply reaches exhaustion. The voyagers know that, although it is possible to get drinking water from the body fluids of fish (as Dr. Bombard rediscovered), the salt in it is poison to grass eaters. This is why the dog, the pig, and the chicken reached the islands of the Pacific and not the goats of Indonesia or the domestic guinea-pigs of Peru.
Itzamna orders the slaughter of sheep and goats to save the water, and arguments rage over whose and which shall die, considering that the islands may be sighted tomorrow. He has the advantage over a modern captain facing a similar emergency in that his people eat fish raw by choice. They hope to catch enough by using a poison made from the sap of a euphorp ia shrub trailed behind the leading canoes.
While the poison lasts, it brings stupified fish within range of the dip nets. A diet of only raw fish, however, is too salty for safety, which is why, if Itzamna could have kept a diary he might have entered: “Thirty-fourth day. Ground the last of the seed barley. Nothing left for the children now but bottle gourd and fishing line cotton seeds.”
A modern yacht would do the run to Barbados in from 26 to 36 days. Dr. Bombard took 52. It is the muddy water and drifting branches from the Orinoco, which stream far out to sea in flood time, that brings Itzamna’s fleet in to the estuary by the 37th dawn.
The Orinoco delta in flood is neither attractive nor safe for Canarians who have never seen a snake nor slapped a mosquito in their own fertile, friendly islands. So after a pause for refitting and filling the water jars, Itzamna sails again, following the Trade Winds to a land the Gods must soon provide.
No longer has he a proud argosy, for only nine of the original 30 canoes remain. All the way across as the heaving of the sea wore out the lashings on the cross beams and the leather rigging, he had abandoned the slowest vessels, moving the crews to others now riding high with the loss of stock, fodder and stores. He has the nine best with 279 people in them, ample water and an easier voyage, for the Caribbean has far more fish than the mid-Atlantic.
Andamayana, whose honeymoon began with the voyage, first sights the Yucatan peninsula lying like a long, still cloud against the paling stars. She whistles the good news, and as the cloud grows into a land of forests Itzamna alters course towards the smoke of fires on the beach.
Here the remote ancestors of the Maya Indians have gathered because the turtles have come in to lay their eggs in the sand, as they still do on those beaches today. The Indians have no canoes and what they call the “Nine paths across the sea” were the wide wakes of the impressive double hulls with their swelling sails as they came in with the sunrise. Then the tall white men leap into the shallow water and steady the canoes through the surf. The long voyage is over.
The Indians are certain that the strange people come in peace, for they have women and children with them. Their signs show they are hungry, which the turtle catch can soon remedy. Itzamna, with over 100 warriors, any one of whom would be nicknamed “Lofty” in a British Guards regiment, is an ally worth winning for the local chief. The show the party put on that night impresses the Indians even further. The Canarian dances are made to show off the muscles of strong men and their music of bone flutes, whistling, and clapping of hands is like a very fast square dance rhythm. Andamayana’s husband and Kanil’s eldest son stage a sham fight, bowling baseball-sized stones at each other with the run-up and overarm throw that can kill at 60 feet. This is not magic like gunpowder, but a demonstration of strength and skill a tribesman can understand.
With no idea of gold (or any other metal) and no knowledge of the return route north of the Azores that Columbus found in ships better able to bend the wind to the captain’s will than keel-less dugouts, they are Pilgrim Fathers, not Conquistadors. They cannot return and the road to wealth lies in building a copy of the highly organized agricultural civilization from which they came. Their task is to learn the natives’ language, find which fruits are safe, and how to hunt (for they know nothing of hunting, the Canaries had nothing to hunt when the first Cro-Magnon expedition landed on the empty islands) and to use their superior knowledge for all it is worth.
Unfortunately, all Itzamna has to plant are three bottle gourd seeds saved out of someone’s ration. Sown in the small forest clearing that supplements hunting for the Maya tribe, these flourish. As light water bottles and drinking cups they will spread, even down the Pacific coast where later generations will carry them. In these gardens is a starveling corn, the same variety found in the Bat Cave in New Mexico with its radio-carbon dating of 7000 b.c.
Itzamna does not know that the genetics of sheep and corn are the same, but with generations of sheep breeders behind him he knows what happens when a stock is inbred too long. He makes long journeys searching for another corn plant to cross-pollenize for hybrid vigor.
At last Itzamna found the Teosinote (Euchaena mexicana), a wild grass near the corn, and his sheep breeder’s wisdom paid off. The result was a real corn cob on tall stems, not so good as the later crossing achieved by Kukulcan about the time of Plato, or by Quetzalcoatl when the Romans were building Hadrian’s Wall across Britain. It was a real mass-production food crop. It offered men 256 days of leisure a year after raising enough to feed a family, and surplus that rulers later could use to build great stone cities and temples. Itzamna became the Corn God of the Mayas, but first he was their Luther Burbank.
Hunters can manage by counting the “moons,” but to grow corn you need accuracy to fit your crops into the changing seasons. Kinitchauhau and Kanil built sighting stones for the rising of the Pleiades at dawn, for there is too little play on the track of the Sun God’s Chariot near the Equator to use the easy methods that worked for Stonehenge. Their first attempt is far inferior to the perfect Maya calendar in use 1,000 years before the Mayflower sailed, but Kanil is remembered in the fourth day of the 20-day Maya week, as are Woden and Thor every Wednesday and Thursday of our own week.
Through the years the argosies sailed from the Canaries, some with good luck and some with bad. Quick passages brought Chiminigagua to Colombia with a large party to found the Chibca civilization and later the Bohica. Nemterequetra, who came only four “life times” before, was the last survivor of his crew. The arrivals ranged from city-founding parties to lonely Colonel Fawcetts, like Zume of Paraguay and Carancho of Venezuela, and they sailed in from beyond the sunrise roughly between 2000 b.c. and the date of the Battle of Crecy.
Archaeologists find it safest to ignore their mystery. All had strong objections to human sacrifice, polygamy, and fermented drink. All knew trepanning (the Canary Islanders’ fighting with stone balls had forced them to learn how to deal with skull fractures early), the principle of hybrid vigor in sheep and corn, how to make fire with a bow drill, and how to make good stone tools, which are found mixed with botched attempts like the equally inexplicable stone balls, too large for bolas weights.
The Canary Islanders alone fit the knowledge pattern and the dating by radio-carbon of New World civilizations. Although the Canaries lie at the end of the easiest wind route and the culture heroes’ landings in the New World dot the map at the other end, they have become part of the popular Lost Atlantis legend.
For the evidence of modern archaeology is that Plato, who was born in 427 b.c., confused Atlantis with a Bronze Age civilization near the mouth of the Elbe that did sink—but in 3000, not 10000 b.c.—and spread its story into Europe to tell travelers’ tales gleaned from the Canaries where Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans all had landed and seen the white-robed people with their houses of mortarless stone rubbed to fit like the pre-Inca masonry of Peru. It was the Garden of the Daughters of the Sunset, the Islands of the Hesperides and the Land of Giants, where mighty Atlas held up the vault of heaven with muscles that could have wrestled with a steering paddle in the Argosy of the Atlantic.