THE WORLD BEFORE COLUMBUS
FEBRUARY 13, 1996
The Vinland map, first published in 1965, has been called the most exciting cartographic discovery of the century -- but it's also been called a fake. To sort out this modern day mystery, Charlayne Hunter-Gault talked to Dr. Wilcomb Washburn, director of American Studies at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Online NewsHour links:
A "miracle of preservation": fossil footprints made by a modern human 117,000 years ago.
The bones of a boy who lived 800,000-year-old ago may provide clues to the origin of humans.
Scientists discover 2.5 million-year-old stone tools dating back may date back to the origin of humans.
Scientists find that Neanderthals may have lived as recently as 30,000 years ago.
The complete NewsHour coverage of science issues.
The Vinland map.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What exactly is the significance of the map?
WILCOMB WASHBURN, Smithsonian Institution: Well, it's the earliest representation of the Western Hemisphere on a map--fifty years before Columbus. Now, does that mean that it took the map to prove that the Norse came here that early? No, it doesn't, because most scholars accept the saga or chronicle evidence from the Icelandic sagas which describe various Norse ventures into the area west of Greenland. And also there's archaeological evidence which emerged particularly in the 1960's. And so all those things demonstrate that the Norse did come about 1000 AD. But the importance is that it's a graphic representation. It's a picture, and you, you in television, of course, know the power of a picture. And the fact that it is a picture, it is a drawing, it is a graphic cartographic representation of the New World, that has caused it to be tremendously powerful in its impact on the American imagination.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we have--we have a representation of the map. Tell us, if we can get it up here, what we are seeing.
DR. WASHBURN: Well, we're seeing basically a world map from the mid 15th century, about 1440. At that time, the assumption was that there was a single Eurasian land mass with a surrounding ocean sea. But in the green area on the left, in the ocean sea to the west of Europe, is a peculiar island which is called on the map Vinland. We're now focusing on it. It's west of Greenland and west of Iceland and west of the European Peninsula. At the other end of the map, you have various islands that represent the end of the world from the other direction, and this was a map, if it is authentic.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We'll get to that in a minute.
DR. WASHBURN: And you pointed out that there is a question about it--that represented--if it was--if it was made during the 1440s and perhaps in the council, a church council that occurred in, in Switzerland, it perhaps represented the extent of Christendom, because the document with which it was bound was called the Tart of Relation and related to the Mongols or Katatas, who dominated the end of the world at the other end of the Eurasian land mass. But there also was a, for instance, a bishop of Gada and Greenland, and we have from this saga evidence knowledge that he even took a trip to Vinland. And, indeed, you could even say that the first, the mother of the first child of European origin born in the New World actually went back to Iceland and then eventually went to Rome. We know there was a connection, in other words, from the saga evidence.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And this, this map, it establishes that, if it is authentic, that--who were the people who were supposed to have come here, the--Leif Ericson and--
DR. WASHBURN: Well, these were Norsemen, yes, generally the people from Scandinavia, Leif Ericson and Magarny. In fact, there's an inscription next to that island that you highlighted that tells about Leif and Bjiany in company discovering this particular island.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Now, tell me when and how the controversy over this began, because first it was authenticated.
DR. WASHBURN: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Give me the details.
DR. WASHBURN: Most maps, early maps, have a very odd and uncertain probe analysis, as they call it, origin. And it came out of Spain and went through a series of dealers and eventually ended up in Switzerland and was bought by a dealer from New Haven, Lawrence Witten, for 350--$3,500, and was eventually sold to Yale University and a donor provided the money to buy it, a million dollars. It's now valued at $24 million.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It later turned out to be Paul Mellon, right?
DR. WASHBURN: Yes, exactly. So that it, it had an uncertain background, but most maps, most early documents, have an uncertain background.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And there were scholars who vindicated--authenticated it at the time?
DR. WASHBURN: Yes. Several scholars from the British Museum and several scholars from Yale University analyzed the map and published the first edition of the book that came out in a second edition today in 1965.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But then it was declared a fake.
DR. WASHBURN: Well, it wasn't actually declared a fake, but there were some people who were critical of it, including members of the Yale faculty in the History Department, who were not really aware that this was going on. And I organized a Vinland Map Conference at the Smithsonian in 1966, and the--the map was debated for a long time, and nobody could shake anyone else, you know, on, on the evidence, on cartography or paleography--that's early writing and so on--so they said, let's get a technical study of this, let's do a technical study of the inks. And it was at that point that they provided the map to Walter McCrone & Associates in Chicago, who analyzed the ink and concluded that it contained a 20th century substance and, therefore, it was probably a forgery. Yale tended to accept that at that time.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And now just briefly--
DR. WASHBURN: And now--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --how come they've changed their minds?
DR. WASHBURN: --the shoe is on the other foot, and over the years people were very skeptical of this analysis by McCrone & Associates, and the University of California at Davis at their laboratory, particularly under Thomas Cahill, analyzed not only the map but hundreds of other medieval documents. As a matter of fact, McCrone had not analyzed medieval documents before.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And now they're saying that the ink is really, indeed--
DR. WASHBURN: And now they're saying that this particular substance, which is based on titanium, it's a commercial product, anotase, that derives in a precipitated form from titanium, could have occurred in nature, could have occurred. In fact, it does occur in most of the other medieval maps.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. So--
DR. WASHBURN: And documents.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --so does this put the controversy to rest?
DR. WASHBURN: It--nothing puts the controversy to rest. It's still going on. At the second Vinland Map Conference which occurred in New Haven on Saturday, Walter McCrone came and others came and said that it was still a forgery.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, Doctor, thank you for joining us.