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Paleogeography of the Bahamas

and the

Columbus Landfall Question

The first encounter of the Old World with the New World occurred on October 12, 1492, on an island called Guanahani by its native inhabitants and christened San Salvador by Christopher Columbus. Columbus described it as "quite large, and very flat, and with very green trees and many waters and a very large laguna in the middle." No other landfall in recorded history compares in importance, as it was here that monumental global changes were set in motion. The identity of this Bahamian island and of the others visited by him before reaching Cuba, remains enigmatic.

Beyond commemorative considerations, the inability to determine wherein the ethnographic and environmental observations made by Columbus apply, significantly hinder our ability to fully utilize this earliest American historical record.

Comparisons between current physical and ecological features and those described by Columbus have been used to argue between the two leading landfall candidates: present-day San Salvador (formerly known as Watlings Island), the most popular prospect, and Samana Cay. Such comparisons rest on the implicit assumption that the present characteristics of the islands have remained unchanged during the past 500 years. However, integration of paleoclimatic, geological and historical data of hemispheric, regional and local scale indicates that environmental conditions in the Bahamas and the region of the Greater Caribbean have changed substantially since 1492. A hydrogeologic computer model suggests the former existence, under environmental conditions theorized to have existed during the late 15th century, of a sizable interior surface water feature on Samana Cay that may correspond to the laguna described by Columbus. This and other inferences from paleogeographic analysis appear to further the Samana Cay landfall theory.

Related Links:

Papers Published by J.J. Valdés
Collateral Observations