Beware of historical mythconceptions | Letters

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Columbus did not ‘discover’ the Americas, but nor did the Vikings, the Welsh, or even St Brendan, says Dr Patrick O’Sullivan. Plus Clive Goodhead argues that Yorkshireman Sir George Cayley is the first true ‘father of aviation’

If Rebecca Rideal is to put the rest of us right (Ten historical facts everyone gets wrong, G2, 18 January), she had better get her own information correct. Columbus did not “discover” the Americas, but nor did the Vikings, the Welsh, or even St Brendan. Archaeologists continue to make finds that date human occupation of those continents in millennia rather than centuries, so the answer to the question “Who first discovered the Americas?” should be “Whoever the ancestors of the Lakota, the Apache, the Cherokee, the Maya, the Inca, the Aztecs, etc … happened to have been.” Any other answer writes over 10,000 years of human occupation out of history, and smacks of the unthinking racism all too familiar to me from my 1950s childhood.

Incidentally, it is not “carbon-dating” that suggests the Vikings occupied 11th-century Newfoundland so much as “radiocarbon dating”. Without its radioactive isotope, carbon by itself cannot presently date anything. The term was coined by Willard Libby, who invented the technique back in the 1940s, and won a Nobel prize. So if “radiocarbon dating” was good enough for him, it’s probably good enough for Ms Rideal.
Dr Patrick O’Sullivan
Trewidland, Cornwall

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