Question regarding ancient Egyptians and South Americans trading with each other.


Does the theory that ancient Egyptians and South Americans trading with each other have any validity? Is it closer to any resolution?

I look forward to your feedback.

When was the height of each empire?

I really have no idea. But I was touring a tomb in the Valley of Kings back in the 80s and the tour guide - who seemed well-informed but who knows - pointed to a carving that featured a small, smooth dome-covered animal that he called an armadillo and said this was proof that ancient Africa and South America were in some form of communication with each other.

Egypt was at its height long before any of the meso-American empires really got up to speed. We know that agriculture developed apparently independently in a number of places – Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, China – and there’s also evidence of how this might have happened, with the site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey being a large-scale (for the time) built up site that was most likely built by hunter-gatherer bands who returned to the site on a regular basis for hundreds of years. Genetic studies show that modern grains are descendant from wild grains in the area, which were likely harvested by humans, and the seeds dropped in specific locations. Through this very early artificial selection process, those seeds that appear most appealing to humans ended up getting propagated until a mostly domesticated strain of grain was available in the wild, to be planted once the agricultural revolution really hit.

The point is that this process happened in different places at different times. In Mesoamerica, it didn’t happen until 3500 BC, shortly before the unification of the first Kingdom of Egypt. It took about a thousand more years for large-scale urban civilizations to develop. The period after the development of agriculture but before the founding of large states was called the Archaic period. During this period, Mesoamerica was home to many tribes, some rather large and sophisticated; but no empires or states that a place like Egypt’s Middle Kingdom would be interested in trading with, especially considering the distances involved.

After the Archaic period a people known as the Olmecs took over. They’re the ones who started a lot of what we consider culturally identifying when it comes to Mesoamerican civilizations – the pyramids, the corn, the human sacrifice, etc. This is also the time when Egypt is in its New Kingdom stage – the height of its power. But when we look at history, we see exactly where Egypt projected that power – into the Middle East and Turkey, not across the sea.

Much more credible is the idea that the Malinese empire had made contact with Mesoamerican civilizations. Mali existed at a time when reaching the Americas was much more manageable – Malinese ships were actually built to sail the ocean, unlike Egyptian ships which mostly stayed near shore in the Mediterranean and Red seas. Supposedly, the guy who preceded Mansa Musa was obsessed with the Atlantic, and set off on an expedition to find its far edge. He failed, returned, and set off on a second expedition from which he never returned.

So it’s possible that Mali had made contact with the Americas, but never successfully came home. But I find this unlikely, considering how quickly plague ravaged the Americas as soon as Columbus arrived. Perhaps colonists from Greenland, an isolated European population itself, could make contact with Native Americans without spreading deadly disease; but Mali was a hub of trade. If they reached the Americas early, I’d think the devastation of native populations by disease would have happened earlier, too.

I’ve worked on exhibitions on pre-Columbian archaeology and with many archaeologists in this field. Not one of them has given any credence to the idea.

The only hard evidence of possible contact I am aware of has been traces of nicotine and cocaine found in some Egyptian mummies by a German researcher. Since tobacco and coca are of New World origin this suggests some contact. However, there are other possible explanations, such as contamination of the samples from mummies, or the fact that some plants from the Old World also contain these compounds.

Some people have alleged contact between these areas because of “evidence” like the fact that pyramids were found in both areas, or fancied resemblances in symbols, artifacts, or language. But these can’t be considered reliable evidence.

If there had been actual trade between the two areas one would expect more evidence of it. The mummies in which the traces were found date to 1070-395 B.C., well after the height of Egyptian power and a period of decline, invasion, and turmoil - not a time when Egypt might have been expected to be sending out trans-oceanic expeditions. While tobacco was widespread in the Americas, coca consumption was largely restricted to the Andes and adjacent Pacific coastal areas, and would not have been encountered by voyagers arriving on the Atlantic coast.

Aside from the Norse in the North Atlantic, the only good evidence for trans-oceanic contact between the Americas and other areas prior to Columbus is with Oceania, in particular the presence of the sweet potato, which is of South American origin, throughout the area. Whether this was the result of a single chance contact or represented more extensive exchange has not been established.

This is a popular game among amateur archaeologists - finding some fanciful resemblance between some carving or artifact in the Old World and another in the Americas and pronouncing this evidence of contact in the absence and any other corroboration. This is about as valid as finding animal shapes in the clouds. In any case, an armadillo is far from smooth, and there are similar armored animals in Africa, the pangolins.

Also, as far as I know, it’s only this one researcher at one lab who has found these traces. AFAIK (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong), these results have never been replicated by anyone else. Which raises the definite possibility of contamination or other mistakes in the lab itself.

Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence - except that it kind of is.

As Colibri points out, other than the supposed (and rather suspect) traces of tobacco and coca found in some Egyptian mummies, there’s simply no actual physical evidence of any contact between Egypt and the Americas in antiquity. No trade goods, no artwork, no tools, no Egyptian trash in the Americas or American trash in Egypt. People have stuff. They trade it, leave it, drop it, and throw it out. And particularly for the Egyptians, they preserve it and bury it with their dead.

There’s no way to know, of course, if a single one-off contact event occurred. But even that seems extremely unlikely given the total lack of any evidence of any ocean-going vessels on either side. If there had been any sustained trade, though, we’d expect to find at least some evidence of, y’know, the stuff they were trading. And we don’t.

I have no problem imagining dozens or hundreds of contacts between the New World and the Old world in pre-Columbian times. We already know of the Viking contact, and there were almost certainly others, at the very least sailors getting blown off course and getting shipwrecked in the Americas.

But what almost certainly didn’t happen is large-scale trade or exploration. It would much more likely be something like the Viking contacts. Some guys sail over, find a land they didn’t expect, try to communicate with the natives, but pretty soon they either give up and return home, or get killed, or get stuck with no way to return home and eventually die.

Nothing much came of the Viking contacts, which is why nobody had ever heard of it.

If the Egyptians wanted to trade, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, East Africa, Arabia, Persia, and India were right there.

Sure, the Americas had things that just weren’t available in the Old World. Except if they had traded things like tobacco, coca, cacao, maize, chilies, potatoes, what happened? Nobody in Egypt ever tried to grow tobacco? That just doesn’t make sense. If they were trading agricultural products with each other, they would have started growing crops from the other hemisphere, and world history would be completely different.

Again, it’s completely believable that some Phoenician trading vessel got blown off course and ended up at Hispaniola. But what didn’t happen next is regular secret trading missions to the Americas. What happened next is that they all died, or they turned around and went back home and forgot about it. Because if they had established regular trade there would have been consequences.

Not Egyptian, but the fuente magna bowl from Bolivia is thought by some to have cuneiform or proto-cuneiform markings. There are a few different supposed translations of the inscription, depending on whether the translator believed the markings to be Sumerian, Phoenician, or some other long-dead language.

Yeah. And some of history’s most pedantic bureaucrats made no record of these faraway places nor the importation of unique plants.

I was kind of perplexed by this and I looked it up. Most of the “evidence” is things like, “This Olmec head kind of looks like a black guy, so that officially proves it” (???) or “We saw a cave painting of a boat, so clearly the pre-historic Egyptians were able to navigate the Atlantic.” (???)

It’s gibberish and wishful thinking. And people accept it because (1) they make money from selling unprovable prehistoric speculation and (2) some people want to believe that Sub-Saharan Africans (aka black people) played an outsized role in ancient history. (Wakanda forever!)

Anyway… Egypt was a notoriously insular and sedentary place. They journeyed to Ethiopia and the near Middle East (eg Syria and Lebanon) but not much farther. The Egyptians received trade, sometimes from places as far away as Afghanistan. But they were not known for traveling or colonizing. The Nile gave them everything they needed and easily supported their population.

Based on the account on the link, it appears to be either a complete fake, or the resemblance of some of the markings to cuneiform is coincidental.

Not that the “no” side bears the burden of proof, anyway, but this is the most convincing argument I’ve ever seen on the topic. One might suppose that the contact was limited enough that it just happened that none of the sailors had bubonic plague, or smallpox, or the like. But to suppose that none of them had gonorrhea, or chlamydia, and none of them contracted syphilis while in the New World? If there’s an STD around to be caught, you can count on sailors to catch it, and then spread it to the prostitutes of all of their other ports of call.

Thor Heyerdahl’s “Ra Expedition” built a relatively authentic reed boat on the Nile and tried to sail it to America. They actually pretty much made it, but the boat eventually fell apart not far from the West Indies. The voyage was more notable (back in the 70’s!!) for documenting the huge amount of floating modern garbage encountered in the Atlantic, all the way across. Presumably things have gotten better since then - NOT!

The upshot is that the type of ships the Egyptians built were not terribly good at making the crossing. Keep in mind the distance is much farther than the Vikings; the latter could do it in stages, stopping in Iceland and Greenland. They had much more storm-worthy ships of thicker wood. The Egyptians would have had to go a lot farther in one go, then figure out how to get home again; the currents carried Thor from Spain to the Indies, but the return current went north to Bermuda and Britain.

The Egptians did travel down the Red Sea to the Land of Punt; there are carvings of the exotic things they found, people they met and goods they brought back in Hapshetsut’s temple around 1300BC. By Roman times (0AD) there were regular sea trading voyages from the Red Sea to India. There’s evidence that the Basques and British fishermen were exploiting the Grand Banks fisheries well before Columbus. But basically, no evidence of Egyptian trans-oceanic voyages.

(I have seen an article trying to line up Odysseus’ voyage with a trip up the Atlantic coast to Ireland then Scandinavia, and back via overland trading routes through Russia and the Black Sea, based on assorted hints that the story contains (such as the discussion of a land where the sun barely sets, a man could work twice as much if only he did not need to sleep; and sleeping in the bushes after a shipwreck because of the frost).

the ancients were no slouches in ship travel, but mostly along the coasts or short jumps between shores; very little seems to have consisted of heading off into the wide open ocean until the Polynesians mastered that navigation technique.

“Dome-shaped animal” sounds more like a tortoise than anything else, to me.

Here’s a skeptical review of the West Africa / South America theory:

Touring the cathedral of Tudela, the guide pointed us to a column which she claimed was the only one showing mythological rather than real animals. Apparently whomever had informed her didn’t know two unicorns from two rams ramming each other.

I think this article does a great job of debunking the idea that there was contact between ancient Africans and Native Americans in some large-scale way that formulated their culture. I only brought up the Mali connection because it’s the only pre-Colombian contact theory (aside from the Vikings) that actually does make some amount of sense.

We don’t really know all that much about pre-Mansa Musa Mali. He’s really the guy who put Mali on the world stage, by making an absolutely extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca where he showed off the wealth of his nation, spending lots of money on the way to make the places he passed through sit up and take notice of Mali.

Supposedly, Musa I of Mali (Mansa Musa) was preceded by someone named Abu Bakr who we actually know very little about. Basically all of our information on him comes from a single Arab scholar in Cairo, who had gotten this information from Mansa Musa himself when he was on his way to Mecca, so we don’t really know how much of it is true. But according to Mansa Musa, this Abu Bakr took two hundred ships and sailed West to cross the Atlantic, abdicating his throne.

Now, it’s possible that Al-Umari (the Arab scholar in question) made this up so that his writings on the Mali empire would be more exciting. It’s also possible that Mansa Musa took the throne through some shady means, and that this was his way to cover his track. Or it is possible that this actually happened – after all, this is a contemporary source citing a primary witness. If Mansa Musa wasn’t lying, and neither was Al-Umari, it’s possible that this actually happened. This was the early 1300s and Mali actually did have ships that were capable of sailing on the Atlantic ocean, unlike the Phoenicians or Egyptians or Nubians who it is sometimes claimed were able to make the journey in ships that were made for shore-sailing in the calm Mediterranean sea.

If two hundred Malinese ships set off to the west, and none ever returned, then it’s possible that at least some of them made the crossing. But if this is the case, it would have been a limited exchange – if that many Africans had really reached the New World and stayed there for an extended time, I think disease would have swept across the Americas much earlier. Maybe the ships never made it. Maybe they turned back and sank on the way home. Maybe they made it to islands off the coast of the Americas but never the mainland. Who can tell?

Regardless, the racist attributions of Native American culture to intervention by the Old World is clearly ludicrous. If this DID happen, it would have been sometime after 1312, when Mansa Musa was supposed to ascend to the throne. Not nearly early enough to somehow shape the entire culture of the Native Americans.

On the other hand, it’s not impossible that a few individuals made the crossing, even in very ancient times. After all, monkeys reached the New World by floating across on rafts of foliage washed out to sea by a storm. So an old Egyptian boat could, in the right circumstances, somehow be carried to the New World, and if they were especially lucky, any passengers might even survive. But again – very unlikely, and if it happened once or twice in the last ten thousand years, it had no lasting effect on either population.

Another possible motive for Mansa Musa to lie, there: 200 ships is a lot, and any civilization who could devote that many ships to a risky gamble like crossing a seemingly-limitless ocean must be very wealthy indeed. And we’ve already established that he wanted to build up his nation’s reputation for wealth.

And building on the possibility that he took the throne in a nefarious way, it’s also a very convenient sort of lie: It lets him build up his predecessor as a hero, fighting valiantly against an impersonal enemy (i.e., one against whom his partisans can’t take revenge), but conveniently sidestepping any expectation that he’d ever return.

If I had to guess, I’d say that he was probably forced to abdicate at swordpoint, and decided that fleeing to the West for a possible chance at reaching another land, on a single ship with his closest allies (who were also facing a similar fate), was preferable to staying and being killed. And his usurper then found it convenient to inflate that into a story of hundreds of ships on a noble expedition.

I think too you overestimate the spread of diseases. There was a serious epidemic of smallpox in the late 1800’s that decimated the Northwest Coast native population, and continued on up to Alaska. This was despite that the disease had spread regularly across the other parts of the continent since the early 1500’s. geography was a pretty good barrier. If someone had landed in Brazil way back when, odds are any epidemic would have been localized. The pattern in British Columbia and Alaska seemed to be that often the infected died before they could make it home. If someone made it home and infected a village, almost the entire village died at once, since everyone took sick at once; with nobody to feed the sick or even fetch water over the several days the fever raged, dehydration and starvation ensured death if the sickness did not. Nearby villages might get infected, but it would be difficult for the disease to travel much distance.

Not to mention Egyptians smoke like crazy, raising the definite possibility of contamination, as you mentioned.

No evidence of trade at all. Quite possible there were one offs, shipwrecks and the like, of course.

Even the Norse (NOT “Viking”) settlement found in American is pretty low level and seems not to have changed anything on either end to any significant degree. The Natives didnt learn to work metal and from Greenland it appears that the Norse didnt bother to learn much from the natives, ether.