Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Carthaginians in the New World?

World map according to ideas by Posidonius (150-130 B.C.),
interpreted in 1628
(The following is based on Roy Decker's 1999 article of the same name)

Phoenicians and later Carthaginians were known as the most able and adventurous seamen of the ancient world.

Carthage was the pre-eminent sea power in the western Mediterranean, up to the disastrous wars with Rome.

There is some evidence that the extent of their ancient sea journeys may have been under-estimated.

The Phoenicians were able to navigate by the stars, unlike their Greek and Roman counterparts who without any compass were forced to sail within sight of land at all times. In fact the Romans called the North star the "Punic Star" because of its use by them for navigation - but did not understand how.


The Bible notes that King Solomon - the wealthiest ruler of his time (c900BC) - contacted his friend and ally to the north, King Hiram to hire his men to build and man his fleet of vessels. Hiram was the ruler of Phoenicia, whose sailing men were renowned for their wide ranging sea journeys. The fleet left from the Red Sea port of Ezion Geber, and returned to his port on the Mediterranean. The voyage took three years, each time returning laden with silver, gold, ivory, gems, spices and incense, and rare "almug" wood.   

The fleet had gone to the fabulous lands of Tarshish and Ophir, which are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible as being rich in precious metals and other trade items. Tarshish is situated in southwestern Spain, and was known to the Greeks as Tartessus. Ophir has not been found, but the name itself is a clue to its Phoenician origin, as it ends in "IR" (similar to Agadir in Iberia, or Rusaddir on the north coast of Africa). Tarshish was a Celt-Iberian city, destroyed by Celts in the pay of Carthage in about 500 BC.

Pharaoh Necho

After several disastrous conflicts with the Assyrians, Pharaoh Necho (c700BC) searched for a new way to defeat his dangerous enemies to the north. His first project was to construct a canal to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, which would enable him to move his forces by sea with great rapidity and perhaps defeat his foes. During the construction, he had a nightmare, and when he turned to his soothsayers for explanation, they told him that the canal would indeed function as a highway for armies and navies - but for his enemies!

He immediately cancelled plans for construction on the canal (which would not be built for centuries!) and turned to the possibility of moving his armies by sea around the continent of Africa to outflank his enemy. He turned to those renowned sailors of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos (Phoenicia) and hired a fleet to sail from the Red Sea around the continent of Africa. The fleet set sail and took three years to complete the voyage, returning in the third summer*. One of the participants stated they had the Sun on "their right hand" as they rounded the tip of southern Africa. Herodotus took this as "proof" they were lying, as that was considered impossible! Today we know that is proof they did in fact travel south of the Equator. The voyage took too long to be much use for moving armies rapidly so the idea was forgotten.

*Herodotus also notes that the feat of circumnavigation of Africa was soon duplicated by the Carthaginians.

Phoenician sailors set out from their homeland on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to trade, explore and to found colonies. They had competition from the Greeks, but managed to set colonies on most of the islands in the Mediterranean, along the north coast of Africa (including one named Carthago, or Carthage,from the punic Kart-Hadasht meaning "New Town")  and along the coast of Spain, such as New Carthage. They built small trading settlements through the Sahara desert and scattered through the middle east.


Carthage had two beautiful harbors, an inner and outer, her location (in modern day Tunisia near Tunis) was excellent for seagoing trade and she prospered. The mother country (Phoenicia) fell to conquerors, but Carthage grew in strength. She sent out explorers (Hanno and his brother Imilco) to explore and colonize the Atlantic coast of Africa and the coast of Spain, France, and reached England, which they called the "Tin Isles" for the metal they traded for.

Carthage came into conflict with the expanding Greeks over possession of Spain, Marseilles, France and crucially in Sicily. The wars lasted 200 years with Carthage emerging the victor inspite of heavy losses. Massalia (today Marseilles France) and Syracusa remained Greek but the other areas became Carthaginian or Punic. (Punic is the term used by the Romans to refer to the Carthaginians, from Phoinike, as the Greeks called them.) Carthage had a good working relationship with the numerous Celts who populated Spain, France, and the British Isles, often hiring them as soldiers.

Carthage gained ascendancy over the other Phoenician colonies, including Utica and Gades (modern Cadiz) even though they were older.

Carthaginian Claim to the Atlantic

Several of the early treaties between Rome and Carthage still exist (in the Latin) and one fact does stand out from them - that Carthage specifically did not want any foreigners to travel or do business beyond the Pillars of Hercules (today Gibraltar) - at least not without the permission of the Carthaginian Senate and an official of the government must be present.

Early Drug Trade?

Recently tests were run on ancient Egyptian mummies, that came up with astounding results. Evidence of their use of cocaine and nicotine showed up - in spite of the fact these are New World products! While some scholars are saying this must be from some African plants that were similar but now extinct (doubtful, but possible. One plant of particular interest was the "Silphium" plant, which was cultivated in what is now modern Cyrenaica in Libya - the plant was esteemed for many uses including medicinal and food. The plant seems to have gone extinct about the time of the Roman conquest of the area.) Silphium closely resembles the Anise plant (the licorice flavor) so may have been related.

The more likely scenario is that there was indeed contact between the Old World and the New which involved trade. The Egyptians were not particularly good seamen, but the Phoenicians were! The trade routes they used were jealously guarded secrets, and their ability to navigate was well known.

Thor Heyerdahl's famous "Ra Expeditions" proved that cross oceanic travel was possible even with the reed boats of Egypt, but navigation without compass would have been difficult.

Punic Remains on Atlantic Islands

The islands of the Canaries have stone ruins, the most imposing being a number of 'stepped' pyramidal structures located right in the middle of a town. Farther out in the Atlantic, the Azores have turned up with a hoard of Carthaginian coins, a statue of the 'horse' of Carthage, and a number of pottery fragments that could be Punic, but cannot be definitely ascribed to them. 

Punic Remains in the Americas

Inscriptions on stone are found throughout the Americas, and coins of Carthage have been found in a number of states. Nearly all have been found close to navigable waters, and oddly all are of the earliest issues of Carthage, none later than the First Punic war have turned up.

Along the Atlantic seaboard of the Americas a number of stone "steles" (monuments) have been found, inscribed in Punic, and many bear the name of Hanno - a common enough name but co-incidentally the name of the admiral sent out from Carthage with the express mission of exploration and colonisation about 500 BC.

A metal urn with Phoenician themes and likely a Carthaginian trade item was unearthed near the junction of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers in New York. Oddly, in northeastern Pennsylvania near the town of Hawley, one of these stone steles was found, inscribed in Punic ("This monument placed by Hanno, do not deface").

Some of these finds may be hoaxes but there is now some academic consideration being given to possibility that  Some universities are now saying that the Punic seafarers may have been trafficking the entire circumnavigable coast of Africa and the coast of India as early as 1500 to 1200 BC.

Divers investigating the odd stone formation off Bimini Island found a shipwreck, that dated to the 1800's - while searching they found that it lay atop an older shipwreck, one that is positively Phoenician and dates to approximately 1000BC! Evidence of two other ancient shipwrecks exists, one off Beverly Massachusetts and another off the coast of Texas.

Evidence of the Ancient Historians

The Syracusan historian Diodorus (Greek 100BC) said the Carthaginians had a "large island" which was located "far out in the Atlantic ocean" - on which there were "many mountains" and "large navigable rivers". The land was rich in gold, gems, spices, etc. He stated that the Phoenicians had found it "by accident" while founding colonies on the west coast of Africa when some ships got lost.

The Atlantic currents do in fact run straight at South America from that region so it would be possible for a lost ship to travel there, and the return voyage would be made easier by following the oceanic currents north then back east across the ocean. In fact this has happened in recent years, a small African fishing boat got lost in a storm and ended up on the coast of Brazil!

In 1488 a certain Jean Cousin of Dieppe France, while sailing down the west coast of Africa was caught in a storm and blown across to Brazil. (This is four years prior to Columbus's more famous voyage.) The actual meteorological conditions do support this as probable. Diodorus said they (the Carthaginians) were "keeping it secret"!

Other historians (Herodotus and Polybius) have hinted at its existence, and further explained some of the other colonies. The coast south of Lixus was described as "teeming" with Punic trading colonies. One of the colonies founded by Hanno (500BC) which has not been located correctly was Cerne, (pronounced Ker-neh) which may be in the Canary islands. When first discovered by the Portuguese, they found light skinned people, who had "writings" they themselves could not read and asked their Portuguese visitors if they could. They did not know what had become of their "motherland" - and this is taken by some authors to be proof of Atlantean influence, but I believe they were survivors of Cerne. The Portuguese were unimpressed with the people or their ruins and writings, and killed them - they also burnt the writings as possible heresy!

One of Plutarch's (2nd century AD) less known works also states quite clearly the state of affairs. He cited a document which was found in the ruins of the old city of Carthage. He said the Carthaginians knew of a "true continent" which was located far to the west of Britain. He added that "Greeks" had gone there and intermarried with the local peoples. The "Greeks" who lived there, laughed at the people in Europe, which they said was a mere island by comparison - while they lived on the true continent which bordered the whole west side of the Atlantic.

Is it possible the "big island" was the Americas! It is unlikely that the Carthaginian explorers founded big cities in the new world, rather they were more interested in commerce. There are several arguments against their having contact, one of which is there is not any ruins of any fort. However, there are a number of ancient earthwork fortifications scattered through the Ohio river valley that date to (about) 200BC - the height of the power of Carthage. Some strange artifacts have turned up in these ruins (called the Hopewell culture) including one amulet that appears very much Hebrew! In some of these ruins there are long stone structures that look remarkably like the 'boat sheds' used by Punic and Greek sailors to protect their ships during foul weather. Location is a problem, but they are close to a river even though the river is today too shallow for navigation, it may well have been deeper then.


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