October 12, 1492, Cristóbol Colón (whose birth name was Christoforo Colombo) sighted land somewhere in the Bahamas. Although Colón’s first voyage unquestionable led to a world changed beyond recognition, as a man he deserves neither the hagiographies later bestowed upon him, nor the demonization he has often received in the past few decades.
Colón never sighted the mainland of North American. And although he did eventually see bits of South and Central America, he went to his deathbed still convinced that he had discovered, not a new world, but a route to Asia. Colón was a skilled sailor, but an incompetent administrator of the colonies he established. He very clearly possessed one trait vital to any great explorer, scientist, or other investigator, past or present – the ability to convince people with money to fund his work. He was not, however, responsible for the brutality that some of those who followed his route brought upon the native populations. And, obviously, neither Colón nor anybody else of his era could have forseen the holocaust that would be wreaked by European diseases; nothing even remotely resembling our modern understanding of infection existed anywhere in the world at that time.
If Colón had never crossed the Atlantic, Europeans would still eventually have come to the Americas. The advantage of finding a route to India and China that bypassed the Genoese and Turkish, who exacted heavy tolls upon goods coming from Asia, was simply too great not to take a chance on a Western route. Colón’s singular achievement was to persuade the Spanish monarchs to fund such a trip years, perhaps even decades earlier than it might otherwise have been made. On the other hand, if the successors to the Yongle Emperor had not sided with the bureaucratic faction that opposed continuing to fund Zheng He’s treasure fleet, it is conceivable that a Chinese ship might have reached the Americas decades before Colón did. It would have been extremely unlikely, however, that any of the Ming emperors would have wanted to establish a colony in the Americas, even had they been aware of its existence.
As an archaeologist, I’m much more interested in understanding the impact that European contact had on American Indian cultures, and vice versa, than I am in either praising or condemning Cristóbol Colón. Each of the societies involved in the exchange was altered, many of them in extremely complex ways. Many cultural groups became extinct (although biologically the people who made up those groups may very well have surviving descendents that joined other groups), but many others survived and continue to evolve today. Unraveling those complex changes is a part of understanding who we are and where we came from, and might even help us to better understand how different cultures encounter each other in the modern world.