Did Marco Polo “Discover” America?

Maps Suggest Marco Polo May Have “Discovered” America

For a guy who claimed to spend 17 years in China as a confidant of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo left a surprisingly skimpy paper trail. No Asian sources mention the footloose Italian. The only record of his 13th-century odyssey through the Far East is the hot air of his own Travels, which was actually an “as told to” penned by a writer of romances. But a set of 14 parchments, now collected and exhaustively studied for the first time, give us a raft of new stories about Polo’s journeys and something notably missing from his own account:

Marco Polo Map.

Marco Polo Map of America 200 years before Columbus

Marco Polo Map of America 200 years before Columbus

A larger Version of this map can be viewed at the Library of Congress here.

Marco Polo’s account was set down not by Marco Polo himself, but by Rustichello da Pisa, who is known to have also added other European stories of the East. At this particular point in history, belief in races of people somewhere out there with e.g. dog’s heads, with faces in their chests, or with a single leg was common in Europe, and this may well be da Pisa’s own interpolation.

“Historians before him have touched on these issues while defending Marco Polo’s honor, but Vogel also relies on another compelling body of evidence: the explorer’s meticulous descriptions of currency and salt production in the Yuan era. According to Vogel, Polo documents these aspects of Mongol Chinese civilization in greater detail than any of his Western, Arab or Persian contemporaries, a hint that the Venetian relied on his own powers of observation. Polo’s claims about the size of paper money and the value of salt, among other aspects, check out against archaeological evidence and Chinese documents maintained by Yuan officials, Vogel concluded.”

One thing to find interesting – is that they teach Chinese students of Marco Polo in China. I would imagine that, if presented with “Hey, look, this dude from Europe visited you guys hundreds of years ago and did trade with the Mongols!” the first to refute and expose that would be the Chinese, as it would seem that their history would more likely be the source of truth (or closer to the source) rather than simply speculating on the contents of his verbal transcript.

The Travels of Marco Polo

Marco Polo, Il Milione, Chapter CXXIII and CXXIV, page from the Book “The Travels of Marco Polo” (“Il milione”), originally published during Polo’s lifetime 1298-1299, but frequently reprinted and translated.