"Did The Greeks Discover America?" article - Chicago Daily Tribune, March 8, 1908

Published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, March 8, 1908


The Greeks discovered America.  They were the first to discover it so far as the records of history go.  Long before Leif Erickson, the hardy Norseman, sailed with his vikings across the north Atlantic; long before the days of the Irish St. Brendan, or the Welsh Madoc or the Genoese Columbus, the Greeks discovered the western hemisphere.  It was 2,228 years ago, during the reign of the great Alexander, that Ptolemy, a Greek navigator, was swept by storm and wind with his sailors to the shores of Uruguay, South America.

The evidence of the discovery is incontestable.  It came to light in 1827, at a time when little attention was given to archeology, and when few Americans ever had heard of Leif Erickson, the Norse discoverer, or of Prince Madoc, the Welsh discoverer, or of St. Brendan, the Irish discoverer.

The land reached by the Greeks of old is not familiar to us, though it is associated in the mind with Garibaldi, that hero of two worlds to whom the Italy of today is so greatly indebted.  For Garibaldi, in his youth, fought bravely for the independence of Uruguay.  This South American republic lies in about the latitude of Cape Colony, in South Africa, and extends even farther south than the Cape of Good Hope.

Farmer Found Relics While Plowing.

Not far from its stately capital city of Montevideo, in the year named above, a farmer of influence in the community near the city came upon a strange discovery.  Making a slight excavation in a field, he discovered a large, flat stone.  Scraping the dirt from it, he found to his surprise that it contained some lettering carved on its surface.  On removing the earth about it the stone was found to rest upon a stone vault, or cellar, of small dimensions.  The tablet stone was removed and the contents of the vault were brought to light.  These included a large earthen vessel, two ancient swords, a helmet, and a shield.  It was at once apparent that these relics, with the possible exception of the urn, were of ancient Greek pattern.

Despite the dryness of the climate and the care with which the walls of the vault had been sealed to exclude the air, the metallic articles were for the most part deeply rusted.  But fortunately it was possible to make out clearly the designs which they bore in relief.

Head of Alexander on Sword Hilt

On the handle of one of the swords was molded the head of a Greek, supposedly Alexander the Great, whose profile is familiar to students of antiquities.  The helmet was elegantly wrought in bas relief, and the scene which it portrayed was unmistakable.  It represented the "stock" picture of all lovers of the "Iliad" - the picture of Aeneas dragging the dead body of Hector around the walls of Troy.

Nothing more was needed to demonstrate the Greek character of the relics, but a further revelation was made when the inscription upon the table was studied.  It was in Greek characters, neatly done; but it seemed at first impossible to demonstrate anything more than this single fact.  The weathering of the stone had so obliterated the characters that but few of them could be read with certainty.  A careful cleaning of the stone brought out more of these, and the initial words stood out pretty clearly.

Obvious Error in Translation of Date

The inscription was translated thus:

Here the letters became so obscure as to be undecipherable.

Let us be thankful, however, that we have the date and the subject of the story which the tablet sought to tell, although we have not one word of the story itself.

First, let us note the date.  Alexander reigned from 336 B.C. to 324 B.C. - that is to say, from the 110th Olympiad to the 118th.  The Greeks used letters for figures.  The letters "xi." and "gamma" represented 63, and the letters "rho." "iota." and "gamma" 113.  Evidently in the first reading of the inscription "rho" and "iota" were mistaken for xl., and the reading should have been "in the one hundred and thirteenth Olympiad."

This would mean some time within the last four years of Alexander's reign.  That wonderful reign of twelve years was so filled with great events that it captivates the boys and girls in the history classes of all our high schools.  It will add to their interest in that period to note this evidence of another achievement.

Alexander Mad to Subdue the World

Alexander was absorbed in the story of the Trojan war:  he slept with his book of Homer under his pillow; he delighted in everything Greek;  he burned to conquer remote lands, and to spread the Greek civilization over the world.  Goldsmith represents him as looking out upon the moon with longing eyes, and lamenting that he could not extend his conquests beyond the ether, to include that heavenly ball.

But Alexander's conquests were not all of war.  Among the ornaments of his reign was the Greek Pytheas, a geographer and astronomer, who became, under the royal patronage, a navigator as well.  The Greek writer Evatosthenes, who is second only to Aristotle among the philosophers of the old Hellenic world, tells us that Pytheas made several voyages into the Atlantic.

Doubtless we should have heard more of these voyages but for the convulsions of the era in which they occurred, when Alexander's arms and fame were advancing through the old nations and making changes everywhere.

Who was the Ptolemy of which the Uruguayan tablet sought to tell us?

Evidently he was a Greek navigator and warrior.  Whether he sailed in a little fleet commanded by Pytheas, or independently in his own vessel, he was doubtless carried by wind and tide to the southwest-ward, never to return.  The student of physical geography will see how Ptolemy's course was marked out for him by the trade winds and the ocean currents.

The Ptolemys became a famous family and this man probably was the first of his name to win high distinction.  His discovery of America never could have been announced by the Greeks.  To them he was a lost man.

Story Came to Light After Twenty Centuries

For twenty-one and a half centuries his story remained untold.  Another Ptolemy became great in the army of Alexander, and when the Macedonian empire so suddenly broke to pieces, he became king of Egypt, founding a dynasty of Greek kings which lasted three centuries in the land of the Nile, terminating with the famous Cleopatra, who died in the year 30 B.C.

As if this were not glory enough for one family name, the great astronomer and geographer Ptolemy arose in the second century after Christ to set forth the theory of the universe which obtained with scarcely any modification for fourteen centuries.  How grateful it would have been to him to know that a hero of his own illustrious name had borne the arms of Greece to a new world beyond the western ocean!