Transoceanic Travel Before Columbus
From the beginning of the 16th century until today, the hypothesis of transoceanic journeys and consequent contacts with pre-Columbian civilizations has been long debated. The weak point of this, albeit plausible theory, except for the alleged relations in medieval times between Nordic populations and North American Indians, would be the lack of support in direct archaeological evidence, that is, in the discovery of objects in pre-Colombian archaeological contexts. Although some more or less reliable finds were reported from Mesoamerica during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to date none of them has been accepted as incontrovertible evidence of interhemispheric contact before 1492.
The Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca Head
Among the finds in question one of the most controversial is a small terracotta head of presumed Roman origin, discovered by Jose Garcia Payon in Mexico in 1933, during the excavation of a funerary offering in the pre-Hispanic settlement of Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca, almost forty miles northwest of Mexico City. The head, along with various objects of gold, copper, turquoise, rock crystal, jet, bone, shell and ceramic was positioned under three intact floors of a pyramidal structure, which, according to scholars, would show that the archaeological site is not been "touched" or "hand-handed" in later times.
Payon did not announce the discovery until the 1960s, and although the burial itself was dated to AD 1476-1510, archaeologist Ernst Boehringer classified the head as a Roman work from the 2nd-3rd century AD.
The considerable discrepancy between the dating of the figurine and that of the other artifacts discovered meant that it was not considered reliable evidence of transoceanic contacts, however, in 1995, a thermoluminescence test carried out by P. Schaaf and G.A. Wagner in the FS Archaeömetrie in Heidelberg (Germany ), established the age limit of the find between the 9th century BC And the middle of the 13th century AD, confirming that it would be, in effect, a pre-colonial artifact.
Bernard Andreae, director emeritus of the German Institute of Archeology in Rome (Italy), confirmed the Roman style and proposed the 2nd century AD. as dating, on the basis of the hair and beard which present the typical features of the period of the Severian emperors.
To give sufficient credibility to the appearance of a piece of the II-III century AD. in a context of the late fifteenth century AD, there would also be dozens of references regarding the reuse of small Olmec artifacts in classical or postclassic contexts published in the last three decades, just think of the small Olmec mask of the first millennia BC. found inside a funerary offering from the 15th century AD. in the Great Temple of Mexico-Tenoctitlán or the recent discovery of a Roman settlement from the 1st century BC-4th century AD on the island of Lanzarote, in the Canary archipelago which suggests a possible relationship between the Roman discovery from Mexico and some transoceanic travels in that period.
The debate among scholars
In 1999 the publication of the research "Mesoamerican Evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts" by Romeo Hristov and Santiago Genovés, which deals with the discovery of the terracotta figurine, its degree of reliability as proof of the pre-Columbian transoceanic journey and its implications in future studies of the aforementioned topic, aroused much controversy.
Some of the objections to the reliability of this evidence deserve special attention:
the terracotta head is an object of the colonial period introduced unclearly in a pre-Hispanic context.
This assumption is not based on any concrete fact: on the one hand, the three undisturbed floors under which the burial was found and, above all, the gold coins in the offering show that the context was neither altered nor "contaminated" during the colonial period. In addition, the result of the thermoluminescence test confirms that the piece was manufactured at least two centuries before the famous voyage of Columbus in 1492.
Although the artifact appears to be from the Roman era, it may have been imported by the Spaniards during the first decades after the conquest, and reused in a funerary context dating back to the early colonial period.
Although more consistent, this idea is not supported by the conditions of the excavation: the settlement was destroyed and abandoned about a decade before the Spanish conquest. If the burial dates back to colonial times, there would be traces of clear intrusion through the three superimposed floors of the pyramid, under which the offering was deposited.
However, no mention is made of tampering with the floors under which the burial was deposited in the detailed excavation report.
The head was imported into the New World by a European visitor at the beginning of colonization, between 1492-1510 AD, and then mistakenly introduced to the site: Payon did not take great notes during excavations so it is possible that the head was introduced by mistake in the rest of the collection.
However during the aforementioned time frame the Matlatzincas were under Aztec rule, so the artifact would have arrived in the Toluca Valley most likely via the Aztec "pochtecas" but the lack of the slightest reference to any meeting of the Aztecs or their vassals with Europeans it is inexplicable.
In an informal letter to the ancient Mesoamerica editorial staff dated March 6, 2000, Paul Schmidt of the UNAM Institute of Investigations Antropológicas, Mexico City, suggested that the head may have been "planted" by Hugo Moedano to make a joke to José Garcia-Payón. Possible hoax?
Being the much older artifact at the site, it is possible that it was imported at a later date and placed there on purpose. Many Mexican archaeologists believe that the terracotta head is actually a well-orchestrated mount. In more recent times, however, Romeo Hristov asked Fernando García Payón if he knew anything about a possible "planting" of the artefact by Hugo Moedano and his response was that Hugo Moedano "... had never been present during the excavation ", and this was just " nonsense ".
Pre-Columbian Contact Theory and hypothesis on the nature of the discovery
The Pre-Columbian contact theory follows the idea that some "misplaced" artifacts are the result of explorers, usually Vikings, who arrived in the Americas years before the arrival of Columbus. The figurine is considered by many to be an OOPArt
- The Drift Voyage Theory
An explanation given to the finding of the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head is that it is a consequence of the so-called "Drift Voyage Theory": during an ocean trip the possibility of a shipwreck is high and it is possible that artifacts and survivors of the accident went to the derives.
It is therefore hypothesized that a pre-Columbian ship was wrecked off the coast of Mexico and this statuette may have been found and preserved as a relic by the people of Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca and then in turn placed in the burial of important people.
- A Viking souvenir
Some also believe that the figurine is a Viking souvenir because the figure's unusual head-dress bears a possible resemblance to Norse or Viking headgear, but there is no valid archaeological evidence that the Nordic navigators had contact with Mesoamerican peoples in the Middle Ages.
- From Asia
In 1961 Robert Heine-Geldern hypothesized that the head had been traded in Asia and subsequently imported into America from Southeast Asia by a Chinese or Indian ship, following a transpacific route
Although in their fundamental aspects the civilizations of the Old and New World, up to the beginning of the sixteenth century, are quite different and, consequently, independent of each other, there are also some data that suggest the existence of some sporadic, most likely accidental, transoceanic journeys in pre-Columbian times, which had a minimal cultural and biological impact.
The finding of the alleged Roman head at Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca seems to support the occurrence of one of these trips across the mid-Atlantic. More recent archaeological research has shown that not only the Romans, but also Phoenicians and Berbers reached at least Tenerife and Lanzarote as early as the 6th or 5th century BC: the implications of these discoveries in the scenery of possible pre-Columbian transatlantic contacts are obvious and it is plausible to expect in the near future that systematic archaeological studies in the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil will provide more and more conclusive data relating to transatlantic voyages prior to 1492.
"(the Head) is without any doubt Roman, and the lab analysis has confirmed that it is ancient. The stylistic examination tells us more precisely that it is a Roman work from around the II century A.D., and the hairstyle and the shape of the beard present the typical traits of the Severian emperors period [193-235 A.D.], exactly in the ‘fashion’ of the epoch."
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