Society for the History of Discoveries


Enterline, James Robert. Erikson, Eskimos & Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America. Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xx, 342 p. $45.00. ISBN 080186060x.

The old admonition, “read the preface or read nothing,” is sound advice for anyone undertaking a critical reading of this book. Mr. Enterline is very forthright in defining its scope and purpose, its limitations, and his methodology. “New evidence presented here suggests … that Eskimo geographical information about a wider America made its way through Greenland Norsemen into medieval European maps.” (p. xvii). The breadth of this transfer, he writes, was by no means minimal. “I introduce evidence that the Yale Vinland Map is potentially just one member of a large group of pre-Columbian maps all apparently recording Norse contact with America or native Americans.” (p.xviii). But note the words “potentially” and “apparently.” There are many similar qualifiers throughout the book. In examining a vast corpus of late medieval and early Renaissance world maps, Mr. Enterline states: “It occurred to me that many of the details (of Arctic Eurasia) do correspond exactly with features of the Arctic coast of North America instead of Eurasia.” (p. xviii). Putting himself into the mainstream of cartographic history, Enterline notes: “Post-Columbian maps that contain apparently fanciful coastlines have been increasingly understood by careful historical analysis and I will do the same for pre-Columbian ones.” (p. xviii).

As for limitations, Mr. Enterline offers this: “The story so construed is not held out as proven truth. Instead it is a plausible theory to be tested against independent evidence” (p. xix), holding that “the day to day purpose of science is not the establishment of universal final explanations” (p. xix) but the articulation of theories that lead to further research and better theories. His methodology takes the book out of the realm of history: “This is not a history book…. It is a pre-history book that subjects maps and documents, as artifacts, to the inductive methods of archaeology.” (p. xix). Confronted by the inevitable question, did Columbus see these documents, Enterline concludes that whether he did or not, the generation preceding him certainly did and as a “rationally motivated proto-scientist” (p. xix), his views of land to the west were thereby influenced by them.

The foundation of Mr. Enterline’s thesis is this: the Eskimos of Alaska known to modern anthropologists as the Thule culture had the ability and the inclination to make maps, and this is supported by an abundance of scientific evidence. These Thule Eskimos migrated eastward across the Canadian Arctic archipelago, reaching the west coast of Greenland in the thirteenth century. There they encountered Norse settlers, representing a resumption of Norse interest in Greenland after a decline from the settlements of the previous two centuries. To the logical inquiries by the Norse of the Thule about their origins and migration the Eskimos presented graphic images of lands between Alaska and Greenland: Baffin, Southampton, Victoria Islands, etc. That this was possible Enterline is assured: “No one denies the relatively sophisticated geographical awareness that goes with creating a map was part of the Eskimos’ culture.” (p. 12). The transfer of cartographic information was, of course, part of a broader cultural exchange between the two peoples.

Distorted and inconsistent in directional orientation, the islands made known to the Norse became a part of their world view in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and found expression in world maps, often as parts of Asia or of Scandinavia because Europe’s concept of world geography could not yet break out of its one-ocean paradigm, and an additional limitation Enterline calls a provenance paradigm which held that new information presented by a people – the Norse in this case – must relate to their own area, Scandinavia. The world maps of Claudius Clavus from the first third of the fifteenth century, the Yale Vinland Map from mid-century, and the Behaim Globe of 1492 with its inclusion of many islands from the “Inventio Fortunatae” of ca. 1363 are described as examples of the movement within the European cartographic community which attempted to deal with this concept of arctic lands between Europe and Asia and also of the limitations upon that acceptance of the geographical truths contained there by the provenance and single-ocean paradigms. While the Yale Vinland Map apparently did not enjoy the contemporary currency of either Claudius Clavus or Behaim, Enterline contends that it “fits into a chronology that makes it quite open to possible authenticity rather than to rejecting it forthwith. If this map were in fact authentic, it would complete a scenario of Eskimo information of Arctic America from one coast to another and reaching to southern Europe.” (p. 70).

Creating that chronology is what much of the remainder of the book is about. In it Enterline states that the “divulgence-hiding paradigms” alluded to above can clarify the heretofore-unexplained features of Arctic and Far Eastern coastal features that appeared on maps after the Norse encountered the Thule Eskimos in western Greenland. There are eighty-six items in this chronological survey, dating from Ptolemy’s “Geographia” in the second century to Hans Poulson Resen’s map of Vinland, 1605. These include maps, manuscripts, books, voyages and other events, all testifying to the breadth and inclusiveness of Enterline’s research. Some will appear more convincing and pertinent than others but together they are marshaled to account for the eventual appearance of North America as a geographical entity separate from Asia.

In extending this chronological survey through the fifteenth century, Enterline contradicts established belief that Norse contact with Greenland ended about 1420, giving reason for the information flow from Norway to the rest of Europe to continue. He also deals with the Bristol voyages westward in the 1481-94 period, seeking the island of Brasil, which makes plausible the idea of Eskimo-Norse sources as an influence for them. The notion of much earlier Irish voyaging as an influence is not considered although the belief in Brasil clearly had Celtic and not Norse origins. Which brings us to the 1492 voyage of Columbus and what direct influence the Eskimo-Norse sources may have had on him. Enterline does not believe Columbus’s voyage to Iceland was the source of information about the existence of an American continent, but rather that its emergence as an intellectual concept was “in the air,” more a product of South Atlantic voyaging than sailing in the North Atlantic. He is anxious to distance himself from the “Columbus-as-hero” cult. Indeed, the one-ocean paradigm prevailed strongly in Columbus’s worldview for, following Toscanelli, he saw the direct ocean connection between Europe and Asia. And this was not because Eskimo-Norse sources of information came to him, but because the provenance paradigm which had attached Arctic coastal and island areas to Scandinavia shifted back to the one-ocean paradigm which placed them in Asia. Enterline concludes, “In this respect Columbus can be looked upon as ultraconservative, one of the last of the old guard still framing his thinking in the Middle Ages. The new thinking that came along two decades after Columbus – the realization that there was a whole new land hemisphere – was so powerful that it makes it difficult even now to imagine the pre-New World mind.” (p. 304-5).

Enterline offers all of this not as “proven truth” but as a “plausible theory.” Is it plausible? The transfer of that information from the Norse to the rest of Europe where it manifested itself on world maps is plausible. The limitations placed upon its interpretation by the “provenance paradigm” is plausible in that ideas are limited by intellectual climate. But this one might be tested against other places and times to establish its general validity.

That the New World should first make itself known to Europe in the northern latitudes is plausible, considering geographical proximity and late-medieval trading patterns. Europe’s acceptance of the single-ocean paradigm until after 1500 was natural in view of its antiquity and absence of evidence to the contrary. And the temporary attachment of the new discoveries to Asia was a logical phase in the cartographic recording of them.

Erikson, Eskimos & Columbus is a book worth the serious consideration of scholars interested in late medieval and early Renaissance geography and cartography. In most respects, The Johns Hopkins Press has published it well. Maps difficult to reproduce in book-size format are reasonably clear for purposes of identifying land and sea. The weakest feature is the index that is rather thin for a book with so much detailed information.

John Parker
Minneapolis, MN


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