The Carthaginians, and the Phoenicians in general, are renowned for their seafaring abilities. There is evidence for their circumnavigation of Africa, and strong evidence for the fact that Hanno the Navigator reached modern Cameroon.

The geologist Mark McMenamin, working with computer-enhanced images of gold coins minted in Carthage between 350 and 320 BC, analyzed a series of misterious designs appearing on these coins, the meaning of which has long puzzled scholars. McMenamin interpreted the designs as a map of the ancient world, including the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and the land mass representing the Americas.

enter image description here

If this is true, these coins not only represent the oldest maps found to date, but would also indicate that Carthaginian explorers had sailed to the New World.

According to Diodorus Siculus:

[...] in the deep off Africa is an island of considerable size...fruitful, much of it mountainous.... Through it flow navigable rivers....The Phoenicians had discovered it by accident after having planted many colonies throughout Africa.

We also have another clue. In 1872, four pieces of a stone tablet inscribed with strange characters were found on a Brazilian plantation near the Paraiba River. A copy of the inscription was sent by the owner of the property to Dr. Ladislau Netto, director of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. After studying the document carefully, Dr. Netto announced to a startled world that the inscription recorded the arrival of Phoenician mariners in Brazil centuries before Christ. Unfortunately, an Indian rebellion broke out in the Paraiba region that same year and in the ensuing confusion, the plantation in question was never located and the stone itself was never recovered. A copy of the inscription was sent to the eminent French historian and philologist Ernest Renan who declared it a fake, and Netto was ridiculed by the academic establishment of his day.

Renan based his conclusion on the fact that the text contained certain grammatical errors and incorrect expressions that forced him to question its authenticity. A century later, an American scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon, revisited the Paraiba inscription and arrived at the opposite conclusion. The inscription, he claims, contains grammatical forms and expressions that have been recently discovered and were unknown to linguistic experts of the 19th century like Renan and Netto. Therefore, he contends, the document could not have been a fake. Gordon's translation reads, in part:

We are sons of Canaan from Sidon...We sailed from Ezion-geber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years around Africa but were separated by the hand of Baal and we were no longer with our companions. So we have come here, twelve men and three women...may the exalted gods and goddesses favor us.

What is the state of the art take on these claims?

  • 1
    Skeptics anyone?
    – Russell
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:48
  • @Russell I am skeptic, but let's keep this cake for ourselves!
    – astabada
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:50
  • There is probably some relevant information in the Wikipedia article on Atlantis: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis . A landmass in the Atlantic was commonly mentioned in ancient times, without that being proof that anyone sailed to America. I don't see how an image of this landmass on a coin changes anything, but I'm no expert. (Also, I do not think there is any evidence for Carthaginicians circumnavigating Africa, just going to Cameroon. At least, that what it says in the link you give.)
    – Jørgen
    Jan 18, 2013 at 14:04
  • 1
    @Jørgen Herodotus reports the entire circumnavigation episode, including e.g. the name of the Egyptian Pharaoh financing the expedition. The fact that while sailing westward the Sun shifts on the right hand side could only be known to people who crossed the Equator.
    – astabada
    Jan 18, 2013 at 14:13
  • 1
    What seems odd about this 'map' is that the parts of the world the Carthaginians knew are terrible - no Italy at all, no Greece or Asia Minor, only two islands for Sicily and Sardinia and Corsica. Yet Spain is perfect, long before they took control of anything but isolated trading stations? And of course, no Tunisian peninsula showing Carthage.
    – Oldcat
    May 15, 2014 at 22:48

1 Answer 1


The tablet is almost certainly a modern fake:

Despite Gordon’s certainty about the genuineness of the inscription, he failed to find support from colleagues and, notably, entered into a bitter dispute with Frank Moore Cross Jr (born 1921), Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus at Harvard. Cross pointed to problems with the script, vocabulary and spelling (just about every aspect of the inscription, in fact) demonstrating conclusively that the text was a modern forgery.

This seemed to be something of a pass-time among antiquarians in the 19th century.

As for the coin, if it is indeed a map, I see no reason to interpret the landmass as anything other than Britain, and the little bits labeled "British Isles" as the Channel Islands or, if you want to get really wild, the southern edge of Scandinavia, which is just a tad closer than North America. ("Asia" is likely the Arabian Peninsula)

When you see hoofprints, think horses, not zebras.

  • 2
    +1 Just for the final remark! That might be different in Southern Africa...
    – astabada
    Jan 18, 2013 at 14:52
  • 2
    I seem to recall that Roman geographers thought England and Ireland were much closer to Spain than they are.
    – Oldcat
    May 15, 2014 at 22:44

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