It is sometimes complained that nothing is considered to have been "discovered" until a white man learns of it. Thus Columbus "discovered" America, and Livingstone "discovered" Lake Victoria.

I have a tentative hypothesis that what is really happening is that things are considered to have been "discovered" when the findings are published in scholarly journals, or in earlier centuries were made known to the community of learned people by other means. (I don't know how this was done in late medieval or early renaissance times. I think Columbus wrote a book or two.)

For example, I heard it asserted by a professor of education that the idea that students are responsible for learning was first proposed in the 1990s. But I think no sensible person could doubt that that idea has prevailed for as many centuries as there have been students and teachers. However, it was "discovered" when it began to be considered in the scholarly literature of the professor's field.

Can the discipline of history help decide between my tentative hypothesis and that in the subject line of this question?

  • Maybe I can find a few sources to support a proper answer, until then I suggest the following: Historiography is always also shaped the the interest of the historian (or of the society they do history in), there are certainly historians who work with oral history (and find that some oral history is astounishingly accurate) but mostly this work is done by anthropologists. Also I'm sure few actually working historians still claim that "Columbus discovered America". – mart May 24 '17 at 8:12
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    Privative title obscures your real question. Is that intentional? – Mark C. Wallace May 24 '17 at 11:15
  • Have you considered the option that "discover" as a verb is often used in a less rigorous, more causal sense and human beings with healthy intellectual capacities are able to interpret this verb in context? "the idea that students are responsible for learning was first proposed in the 1990s" I don't know which country you are talking about, but I am sorry for the students there – Greg May 24 '17 at 13:09
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    Look at the list of Nobel Prize winners in science. Many of them are not white or not men. – Alex May 24 '17 at 14:30
  • @Alex : That obvious point misses the point. The complaint that nothing is considered "discovered" until a white man learns of it is expressed often enough that people may be presumed to be familiar with it. – Michael Hardy May 24 '17 at 16:49

The issue here is more about "us" usually being mostly Europeans, or descendants thereof, and that tends to bias our perception, and our historical writing.

Something put into writing accounts for a great deal, because written documents survive. Our "view" on many historical things is very much influenced on who has written about it -- and if you go back 1500 years or more, you will find there were only a few cultures with a strong written tradition (as opposed to oral tradition, which usually dies together with the culture -- which doesn't mean the culture had less worth, just that its history and knowledge is mostly lost to history).

Our knowledge of Gauls and Germanic tribes of about two thousand years ago, for example, is heavily influenced by the Romans, because they wrote about it and the Gauls / Germans didn't.

So, there have been many people at Lake Victoria before Mr. Livingston, and there is little doubt today that there have been Norsemen in Newfoundland long before Columbus...

But they didn't write about it, and others didn't write about them.

  • If only Lief Ericson had a ghost writer. – KorvinStarmast May 24 '17 at 20:43
  • @KorvinStarmast: Actually, there are sagas and runestones about Vinland. But as the Norsemen were "barbarians" to those who wrote more and conquered more and were "more civilized" than the Norsemen, things had to be rediscovered by the oh so much more "civilized" Mr. Columbus... there's a message in there. ;-) – DevSolar May 24 '17 at 20:51
  • OK, so they need a better literary agent ... – KorvinStarmast May 24 '17 at 20:55
  • @DevSolar : I suspect that early Norsemen who visited America did not participate in standard processes for making their findings known to the learned community, perhaps because such processes were not standard in Scandinavian countries then, and that that is why they are not credited with discoveries. – Michael Hardy Aug 6 '17 at 15:45

Your question is based on ambiguity of the word "discovered". Let us talk on geography for simplicity. Since the times immemorial, people live almost everywhere on Earth (except Antarctic). Does it follow that nothing in geography except Antactica could be discovered in principle? Then the word "discovery" in geography at least will be totally meaningless.

Instead we give it a meaning. The meaning of "discover" in geography is that the thing is described and made a "common knowledge". Yes, through wide publication. In books and scholarly journals, or by other means of communication. In this sense, Columbus (not Vikings and not American Indians) "discovered" America. Viking's discovery came to nothing and was forgotten. Columbus's discovery led to an enormous transfer of population, plants, animals and information, existence of America became a common knowledge in the Old world.

Same applies more or less to everything else.

Remark. Columbus did not write any books. All his writings are travel logs, reports and letters. Other people wrote books after his discovery.

  • Vinland was discovered and known to contemporary Norsemen. It was forgotten later on. I find it problematic enough to link "civilisation" to writing as strongly as it is common practice, I don't really think it fair to link "discover" to writing as well. – DevSolar May 24 '17 at 20:00
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    @DevSolar Publish or perish. Whomever publishes first tends to get credit for something ... still true. – KorvinStarmast May 24 '17 at 20:42
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    @DevSolar: not necessarily to writing: to the spread and use of the discovered information. So that it becomes common knowledge. – Alex May 25 '17 at 7:03
  • I am pretty sure that the Norsemen knew and used the knowledge of Vinland, as the residents of the Lake Victoria area knew and used the knowledge of where there were living. What you are looking at is, did the culture / civilisation that had and used this knowledge survive and prosper in one form or another (Rome, Britain), or did it falter (Norse, Africa). The "winner" writes the history books. – DevSolar May 25 '17 at 7:26

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