Pre-Columbian Explorers in the Americas: The Flaccid Evidence.

Stacked amphorae as they would be in a boat for shipping. Photo by Ad Meskens, CC BY-SA 3.0

At the pseudoarchaeology “news” page, Ancient Origins, there is a post by Pat Hanratty that purports to discuss “The Hard Evidence” surrounding pre-Columbian exploration of the Americas. To be clear, there were explorers in the New World before Columbus arrived in 1492. These explorers arrived many thousands of years before Columbus in fact. They explored both the Atlantic and the Pacific sides of both North and South America. They established colonies and complex trade routes. They built great cities and metropolises, were astute students of astronomy, and were responsible for genetically modifying several staple crops we take for granted even today.

These, of course, were explorers who migrated from Asia probably as early as 15,000 to 24,000 years ago—maybe even more.

But these aren’t the “explorers” Hanratty had in mind. No, he was probably thinking mostly of white people. Though, he does mention Asia at least twice. About bananas.

Hanratty, a clinical psychologist with a PhD, also writes books on pseudoscientific topics like Atlantis, quantum psychology, and consciousness. It may come as no surprise that his PhD dissertation was on the pseudoscientific subject of “holotropic breathwork” or that he is a member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a cargo-cult science group that publishes a magazine called the Journal of Scientific Exploration. They put “science” in all their names and expect their work on “psi” and “quantum-this” or “quantum-that” to be accepted as legitimate.

Adding pseudoarchaeology to his repertoire, Hanratty pretends to give the topic of pre-Columbian exploration a serious review for Ancient Origins. Not surprisingly, he fails to mention any the rational explanations for the handful of anomalies described in his posting. Here’s a few:

Coins and Artifacts

Roman Coins
Roman coins-Denarius of Severus Alexander.
Photo by Jason Lundock, CC BY-SA 2.0

First up in the “hard evidence” bin for Hanratty are Roman coins alleged to be found in Maine by metal detectorists. Apparently they dated to between the first and third centuries CE and, because they were Roman coins found as recently as 1974, Hanratty believes this is evidence that Romans were in New England. This PhD earner mentions no possibility that the coins may have been lost in 1973. Or even 1873. After all, people collected Roman memorabilia in antiquity. It isn’t like this was rare. All things become lost in time. He also provided links to other “out-of-place-artifacts” as well. One of them is a Chinese votive sword found in Georgia with the implication that it suggests the Chinese traveled to the east coast of North America before Columbus arrived.

I’m not sure which is more worrisome: that a PhD earner doesn’t consider more parsimonious explanations or that he does but hides it from his readers. One of the many more parsimonious explanations is simply that someone brought the sword to Georgia at some point between the day it was first made and the day before it was found. Probably closer in time to the latter than the former.


Next up are the infamous Brazilian amphorae found in the 1970s by a lobster diver in Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Covered in mollusks and other sea life, two amphorae (tapered jars used to store and transport things like olive oil during ancient Greek and Roman periods) were brought up from the sea floor. One professor of classics from the University of Massachusetts estimated they dated to about the 3rd century CE. Based solely on stylistic features. Direct dating of contents or the ceramic matrix wasn’t done. As far as I know anyway.

Stacked amphorae as they would be
in a boat for shipping. Photo by Ad
Meskens, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hanratty writes that a Brazilian skin diver originally found them and ended up with 14 in his garage. Then the Brazilian government brought in a “world renowned underwater archaeologist to determine the jars’ origin.” This archaeologist also supposedly located two Roman shipwrecks.

This story isn’t new. In fact, the real story has been known for some time and it’s incredible that Hanratty, again, doesn’t mention it. Either he didn’t know or he’s electing to not share it. One of these choices makes him ignorant; the other questions his ethics.

The real story is this: In 1960, a wealthy entrepreneur living in Rio de Janeiro liked the style of some genuine amphorae he saw in Sicily so he commissioned a potter in Portugal to make him some exact replicas. But they lacked the one thing their Sicilian counterparts had. That look of age and antiquity. So Americo Santarelli, the new owner of 16 otherwise authentic-looking Roman amphorae, dropped them in Guanabara Bay in 1961 where he left them to become encrusted with barnacles, corals, and mollusks. Unfortunately for him, he could only locate 4 of the 16 original amphorae, leaving 12 scattered about the bay, where two were found by lobster divers in 1974.

And Hanratty’s “world renowned underwater archaeologist?” He wasn’t an archaeologist at all, but a treasure hunter with no formal training in archaeology. Clearly he was more than competent as a diver, but Robert F. Marx (1936-2019) was the opposite of an archaeologist, having a fascination with treasure and glory rather than data and understanding. Marx is the author of In Quest of the Great White Gods: Contact Between the Old and New World from the Dawn of History, so it really isn’t a stretch of the imagination to believe that he held some preconceived ideas for which he looked for data to support. I’ll reserve additional commentary on Quest until after I’ve read it, but the title and this review by Jonathan Kirsch at the L.A. Times are suggestive enough.

Robert Marx Photo
Robert Marx (left) with real archaeologist Elisha Linder (right). Photo by
Omri Linder and Family Album, CC BY-SA 3.0

Kirsch suggests that Marx invented and exaggerated the world around him to fit the narrative in his head and this is consistent with accounts of why he was banned from stealing antiquities from underwater sites in Brazil. Marx claimed the Brazilian Navy covered the wrecks he wanted to plunder with a large mounds of silt or dirt because they wanted to cover up a pre-Columbian discovery of Brazil. That they wanted to preserve Pedro Álvares Cabral as its Portuguese discoverer. I think Marx would like us to ignore that Brazil was already discovered many thousands of years before tall ships sailed the seas by the indigenous inhabitants of South America.

Brazil’s government restricted Marx from entering the country because of charges they held showing a catalog from a 1983 Amsterdam auction in which gold coins and artifacts removed from Brazilian shipwrecks were listed for sale on behalf of Marx. For this reason, Brazil canceled all of Marx’s permits for underwater activity. They didn’t take kindly to having their national treasures looted. So much for Hanratty’s “world-renowned underwater archaeologist.”

Cocaine and Tobacco Mummy! Yummy!

Of course, Hanratty mentions the tobacco and cocaine using mummies of around 1200 BCE Egypt. You can read my take on all that here.

And so goes the rest of Hanratty’s poorly written post on Ancient Origins. I’m guessing it was just a filler post, but since it was going around social media I thought I’d write a little about it.

References and Further Reading

Etsy (2019). Listing of an “Vintage Faux Fake roman Amphora Vase Pottery Pot Under The Sea Water Onament Decoration Sea Shell Ancient circa 1970-80’s/English Shop.

Simons, Marlise (1985). Underwater Exploring is Banned in Brazil. The New York Times, June 25, Section C, Page 3.

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting that there was supposed to have been all this contact in the Americas in the past but generally the only evidence produced for it are unprovenienced artifacts of dubious authenticity found 40+ years ago or much earlier by non-professionals. Would be nice if sometime in the very recent past or near future a team of shovel bums could turn up a Roman coin in-situ in a Middle Woodland site. Or after a hurricane a shrimp trawler could get snagged on the wreck of a Phoenician ship full of diagnostic artifacts. Funny how that kind of thing never happens even though all sorts of stuff like that should still be laying about if any of these fringe nuts were even partially correct..

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