by James D. Tabor
The standard textbook wisdom that we all learned from grade school on up is that the Americas were discovered by the Europeans either in 1492 by Columbus, or perhaps even a few hundred years earlier by the Vikings. There seems to be an aversion among the establishment historians to even consider the idea that ancient Mediterranean peoples might have traveled to the Americas in the centuries before our era. Except for certain “fringe” scholarship, particularly promoted by Mormon historians, the standard view is considered indisputable. The very idea that “primitive” peoples from Cyprus, Phoenicia, Greece, or Iberia had the sailing sophistication to cross the Atlantic is thought to be improbable if not absurd.
There are a few notable exceptions. Dr. Cyrus Gordon, one of the greatest living historians of ancient Near Eastern civilizations has promoted the idea that such peoples reached the New World for the past several decades. Actually, when one digs around a bit, it turns out that the historical and archaeological evidence is quite impressive. It has been well documented by Barry Fell in his major study, America B.C. (New York: Pocket Books, 1989).
One of the most fascinating sites Dr. Fell surveys is located south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a few miles west of a little town called Los Lunas. The site has been known as “Mystery Mountain” by the locals for many years. At the foot of a mini-Masada like natural plateau there is an inscription written in paleo-Hebrew. The inscription contains a slightly abridged version of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Anyone who is familiar with the Hebrew language, and the well-established ancient Hebrew alphabet used prior to the Common Era, can easily read this inscription.
The question is,how did it get there? Is it a fraud, perpetrated by some pranksters for amusement purposes? If so, it could not be much older than this century since the paleo-Hebrew alphabet was only discovered from archaeological inscriptions in the Middle East over the past 100 years. Or, is it possible that it was put there much earlier, by Jews or Israelites who had settled in the area we know as New Mexico when paleo-Hebrew was in common use,that is in the centuries B.C.E. To even suggest such an idea, for most, is to immediately dismiss it. However, when the Los Lunas inscription is placed in the wider context of an abundant amount of evidence, such as that presented by Dr. Fell, that ancient Mediterranean peoples did visit the New World, it becomes not only plausible but perhaps the only logical explanation for the existence of this text.
In September, 1996 I visited the Los Lunas site with a group of associates for an initial survey of the evidence. I have also interviewed Prof. Frank Hibben, local historian and archaeologist from the University of New Mexico, who is convinced the inscription is ancient and thus authentic. He reports that he first saw the text in 1933. At the time it was covered with lichen and patination and was hardly visible. He was taken to the site by a guide who had seen it as a boy, back in the 1880s. Thus we have eye-witness evidence, going back over a hundred years, that the inscription existed. This alone is impressive, since it is rather preposterous to imagine some pranksters or forgers operating with a knowledge of paleo-Hebrew in the late 1800s, when this ancient alphabet was not even fully known to the scholars.
Associated with the inscription is the mountain itself, which shows evidence of fortification and ancient habitation, whether by native Americans or whomever. The Decalogue inscription is located at the foot of the mountain, on the north, at the only accessible pathway going up. The top of the mountain is a flat plateau with many ruins. The whole area is covered with drawings on rocks called petroglyphs. One of the most interesting of these petroglyphs is what appears to be a sky-map, laid out on a flat rock, recording the positions of the planets and constellations during a solar eclipse. Researcher David Deal, to whom we owe credit for a drawing of the site, has identified the eclipse astronomically as occurring on September 15, 107 B. C. E. I have run that date on a sophisticated computer calendar that does conversions to the ancient Hebrew calendar and surprisingly, that date turns out to fall on Tishri 1st, or Rosh HaShanah of that year, 107 B.C.E.! Mr. Deal, who first did the astronomical calculations, was not even aware of this correlation. It might well be the case that the ancient Israelites who lived on this mountain, and left their inscription of the Ten Commandments at the “Gate” of the camp, also recorded an eclipse that happened to fall on a very important day in their sacred calendar.
I have become tentatively convinced that the Los Lunas inscription offers solid evidence that ancient Israelites explored and settled in the New World in the centuries before the Common Era. Whether we can precisely date this encampment, based on Mr. Deal’s astronomical evidence, remains in discussion. However, I have little doubt, nor does Dr. Gordon, who is one of the world experts on ancient inscriptions, that the text itself is authentic and was written sometime B.C.E. Beyond this we can not go at this point in time. What is needed is a rigorous archaeological examination of the whole mountain and its human artifacts. It was obvious to us, even from our brief survey last Fall, that the site has been inhabited by successive peoples. We would have to have coin and pottery evidence to more precisely identify these remains and correlate them, if possible, with the inscription itself. The author is in the process of investigating possibilities for just such an investigation, led by qualified experts in archaeology.