Discovery of the New World

Discovery of The New World

The concepts “Old World” and “New World” have historical significance and are used to differentiate the world’s main biogeographic domains and to describe plant and animal organisms that evolved within them.
One may talk of the “New World” in a historical sense, for example, while addressing Christopher Columbus’ voyages, the Spanish invasion of Yucatán, and other colonial-era incidents. Due to a shortage of substitutes, the phrase is also helpful when addressing collectively topics affecting the Americas and neighbouring oceanic islands such as Bermuda and Clipperton Island.
In biology, the word “New World” refers to both Old World (Palearctic, Afrotropic) and New World animals (Nearctic, Neotropic). Biological taxonomists sometimes use the term “New World” to refer to classes of organisms occurring solely in the Americas in order to differentiate them from their relatives in the “Old World” (Europe, Africa, and Asia), for example, New World monkeys, New World vultures, and New World warblers.
        Additionally, the mark is often used in cultivation. Asia, Africa, and Europe also have a similar farming heritage dating all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution, and the same domesticated plants and animals dispersed throughout these three continents thousands of years ago, rendering them mostly indistinct and useful to identify as “Old World.” Common Old World crops (e.g., barley, lentils, oats, peas, rye, wheat) and domesticated animals (e.g., cattle, chickens, goats, horses, pigs, and sheep) did not occur in the Americas until the 1490s, where they were introduced through post-Columbian interaction (see “Columbian Exchange”). Many common crops, on the other hand, were originally domesticated in the Americas until spreading worldwide after Columbian contact, and are now sometimes referred to as “New World crops”; common beans (phaseolus), maize, and squash – the “three sisters” – as well as the avocado, tomato, and numerous varieties of capsicum (bell pepper, chilli pepper, etc.) and the turkey were originally domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples. Some New World crops that are well-known include cashew, chocolate, rubber, sunflower, tobacco, and vanilla, as well as fruits such as guava, papaya, and pineapple. There are a few exceptions; for example, the calabash (bottle-gourd), cotton, and yam, as well as the dog, are thought to have been domesticated independently in the Old and New Worlds, their early types probably carried across by Paleo-Indians from Asia during the last glacial era.
       The word “New World” has a different meaning in the wine world. “New World wines” include not just those from North and South America, but also those from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as those from all other areas outside of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East’s typical wine-growing regions.

Sebastian Munster’s Map of the New World, first published in 1540: A colorful map of what the German cartographer, Munster, and his contemporaries believed the Americas looked like during the European “age of discovery.”

The word “New World” (“Mundus Novus”) was invented by Florentine adventurer Amerigo Vespucci in a letter written in the Spring of 1503 to his friend and former patron Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici and released (in Latin) in 1503–04 under the title Mundus Novus. Vespucci’s letter is arguably the first clear statement in print of the idea that the lands explored by European navigators to the west were not the edges of Asia, as Christopher Columbus asserted, but rather an entirely separate area, dubbed the “New World.”
         According to Mundus Novus, Vespucci knew he was in a “New World” on 17 August 1501, when he landed in Brazil and contrasted the country’s existence and inhabitants to what Portuguese sailors had taught him regarding Asia. Indeed, a prominent chance encounter between two separate expeditions occurred at “Bezeguiche” (the Bay of Dakar, Senegal) – Vespucci’s own outgoing expedition, on its way to chart the freshly discovered Brazilian coast, and the vanguard ships of Pedro lvares Cabral’s Second Portuguese India armada, returning from India. Vespucci, having already toured the Americas in previous years, presumably struggled to equate what he saw in the West Indies with what returning sailors told him about the East Indies. When anchored at Bezeguiche, Vespucci wrote a preliminary letter to Lorenzo, which he returned with the Portuguese fleet, voicing only mild puzzlement regarding his conversations. Vespucci was eventually persuaded when he embarked on his mapping exploration in 1501–02, which included a vast stretch of eastern Brazil’s coast. Amerigo Vespucci wrote the Mundus Novus letter in Lisbon to Lorenzo in Florence in the spring of 1503, after his return from Brazil. I have written extensively to you in recent days regarding my return from new countries discovered and visited with ships at the expense and order of this Most Serene King of Portugal; and it is permissible to refer to it as a new country, for none of these countries were known to our forefathers, and to those who learn about them, they will be completely new. For the ancients believed that the majority of the planet outside the equinoctial line to the south was not ground, but only sea, which they dubbed the Atlantic; and even though they admitted the existence of a globe, they provided several explanations for denying it was occupied. However, this is a mistaken opinion that is diametrically contrary to the facts. My most recent voyage founded this, as I discovered a continent in that southern area that is more animal-filled and populated than Europe, Asia, or Africa, and much more temperate and friendly than any other region known to us.
Vespucci’s letter generated a publishing phenomenon in Europe and was subsequently (and repeatedly) reprinted in a number of additional countries.

Although Amerigo Vespucci is often credited with coining the word “New World” (Mundus Novus) for the Americas in his 1503 message, which undoubtedly gave it its famous cachet, related words had been used and applied prior to him.
Alvise Cadamosto, a Venetian adventurer, used the word “un altro mundo” (“another world”) to refer to Sub-Saharan Africa, which he visited for the Portuguese in 1455 and 1456.  This, though, was a poetic flourish, not a hint of a modern “fourth” world. Cadamosto was well conscious that Sub-Saharan Africa was an integral part of Africa.
       Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, an Italian-born Spanish chronicler, often takes credit for Vespucci’s designation of the Americas as a modern world. Orbe Novo (literally, “New Globe,” but sometimes rendered as “New World”) was the title of Peter Martyr’s 1511 account of the exploration of the Americas in its entirety (cosmologically, “orbis” as used here refers to the whole hemisphere, while “mundus” refers to the land within it). Since 1493, Peter Martyr had been writing and distributing private letters reporting on Columbus’s findings. From the outset, Martyr questioned Columbus’s claims to have entered East Asia (“the Indies”) and therefore coined alternate names for the area. Just a few weeks after Columbus returned from his first voyage, Peter Martyr wrote letters referring to Columbus’s discovered lands as the “western antipodes” (“antipodibus occiduis”, 14 May 1493), the “new hemisphere of the earth” (“novo terrarum hemisphaerio”, 13 September 1493), and Columbus as the “discoverer of the new globe” in a letter dated 1 November 1493. (“Colonus ille novi orbis repertor”). Peter Martyr returns to the marvels of the New Globe (“Novo Orbe”) and the “Western hemisphere” a year later (20 October 1494). (“above the occidente hemisphero”).
        Christopher Columbus first set foot on the continent of South America during his third voyage in 1498. In his own 1499 letter to the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Columbus describes how the vast waters of the Orinoco delta flowing into the Gulf of Paria indicated the existence of a previously unknown continent. However, in accordance with the classical tripartite division of the universe, Columbus abandons the theory and suggests that the South American landmass is not a “fourth” globe, but rather the terrestrial paradise of Biblical tradition, not a previously unknown “present” part of the world, but a land already “established” (but with an unknown location) by Christendom. Columbus refers in another letter (written in 1500 to the nurse of Prince John) to having entered “fresh heavens and worlds” (“nuevo cielo é mundo”) and to having brought “another realm” (“otro mundo”) under the dominion of the Kings of Spain.

The Vespucci passage above extended the term “New World” to just South America’s continental landmass. At the moment, the majority of North America had not yet been explored, and Vespucci’s remarks did not rule out the likelihood that the Antilles islands discovered earlier by Christopher Columbus remained the easternmost reaches of Asia, as Columbus insisted before his death in 1506. Leonardo da Vinci’s 1504 globe shows the New World without North or Central America. The Spanish monarchs convened a conference of navigators known as the Junta de Navegantes at Toro in 1505 and continued it at Burgos in 1508 to absorb all available knowledge regarding the Indies, reach consensus about what had been found, and define the possible objectives of Spanish exploration. Amerigo Vespucci attended both conferences and seems to have exerted a disproportionate amount of influence—at Burgos, he was declared the first piloto mayor, or head of Spain’s navigation. Although the Toro-Burgos conferences’ proceedings are absent, it is almost likely that Vespucci addressed his fellow navigators there with his latest ‘New World’ thesis. It was during these conferences that Spanish officials seem to have eventually agreed that the Antilles and the known portion of Central America were not the Indies they had sought (despite Columbus’s insistence), and developed a new objective for Spanish explorers: to discover a sea passage or strait through the Americas that would enable them to sail to Asia proper. The word ‘New World’ was controversial in English use and was only embraced relatively recently.

The World Map by Portuguese Diogo Ribeiro (1529) labels the Americas as MUNDUS NOVUS. It traces most of South America and the east coast of North America.

A Geographic Map Representaion

The Americas are labelled MUNDUS NOVUS on Portuguese Diogo Ribeiro’s (1529) World Map. It stretches through the majority of South America and the eastern seaboard of North America. Though it became widely recognised after Vespucci that Columbus’s findings were not in Asia but in a “New World,” the physical connection between the two continents remained unknown.
The recognised presence of massive continuous sea along the East Asian coasts suggested the existence of a huge ocean between Asia and the Americas. Given Eratosthenes’s estimate of the scale of the Earth, this left a significant gap between Asia and the newly found lands.
Even before Vespucci, some charts, for example, the Cantino planisphere of 1502 and the Canerio chart of 1504, depicted a vast open ocean between China on the east and the inchoate, mostly water-surrounded North and South American discoveries on the west. They did, though, show a finger of the Asian landmass extending over the top to the eastern side of the map, implying that it extended into the western hemisphere (for example, the Cantino Planisphere refers to Greenland as “Punta d’Asia” – “edge of Asia”). According to Ptolemaic authority and Columbus’ claims, certain charts, such as the 1506 Contarini–Rosselli chart and the 1508 Johannes Ruysch map, depict the northern Asian landmass extending far into the western hemisphere and overlapping with established North America (Labrador, Newfoundland, etc.). These maps locate Japan close Cuba and leave South America – Vespucci’s “New World” proper – disconnected and floating below alone. The Waldseemüller map of 1507, which accompanied the famous Cosmographiae Introductio volume (which includes reprints of Vespucci’s letters), comes closest to modernity by depicting a completely open sea (with no stretching land fingers) between Asia on the eastern side and the New World on the western side (which is depicted twice on the same map in two different ways: with and without a sea passage in the middle of the world). Martin Waldseemüller’s 1516 version, on the other hand, retreats significantly from his earlier map and returns to classical authority, incorporating Asia into North America (which he now refers to as Terra de Cuba Asie partis) and secretly dropping the “America” name from South America, referring to it as merely Terra incognita.
Vasco Nez de Balboa explored the western coast of the New World – the Pacific Ocean – in 1513. However, it would be another several years until another Portuguese – Ferdinand Magellan’s 1519–22 voyage – established definitively that the Pacific created a single wide body of water dividing Asia and the Americas. It will take some more years for the Pacific Coast of North America to be surveyed, putting to rest some remaining questions. Until the 17th century, there was no definitive proof that Asia and North America were not linked, and several 16th-century European maps continued to show North America as connected to Asia by a land bridge (e.g., the 1533 Johannes Schöner globe).

In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano used the expression in a journal entry for his journey down the Atlantic coast of North America, territory that is now part of the United States and Canada.


  1.  “America.” The Oxford Companion to the English Language(ISBN 0-19-214183-X). McArthur, Tom, ed., 1992. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 33: “[16c: from the feminine of Americus, the Latinized first name of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). The name America first appeared on a map in 1507 by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, referring to the area now called Brazil]. Since the 16c, a name of the western hemisphere, often in the plural Americas and more or less synonymous with the New World. Since the 18c, the name of the United States of America. The second sense is now primary in English: … However, the term is open to uncertainties: …”
  2.  Mundus Novus: Letter to Lorenzo Pietro Di Medici, by Amerigo Vespucci; translation by George Tyler Northrup, Princeton University Press; 1916.
  3.  “Real Differences: New World vs Old World Wine”Wine Folly. 21 August 2012.
  4.  The letter says 17 August 1501, although translators variously rendered it also as 7 August 1501, 10 August 1501, or 1 August 1501. Canovai, Stanislao (1832). Viaggi di Amerigo Vespucci. p. 158. Bonari, Bruno (July 2013). Amerigo Vespucci. p. 222. ISBN 9788890695681.
  5.  This preliminary letter from Bezeguiche was not published but remained in manuscript form. It is reproduced in F.A. de Varnhagen (de Varnhagen, Francisco Adolfo (1865). Amerígo Vespucci, son caractère, ses écrits … sa vie et ses navigations … pp. 78–82 – via Google Books.).
  6.  English translation of Mundus Novus as found in Markham (Vespucci, Amerigo (1894). The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci and Other Documents Illustrative of His Career. Translated by Markham, Clements. pp. 42–52 – via Google Books.)
  7.  Varnhagen, Amerígo Vespucci (1865: pp. 13–26) provides side-by-side reproductions of both the 1503 Latin version Mundus Novus, and the 1507 Italian re-translation “El Nuovo Mondo de Lengue Spagnole interpretato in Idioma Ro. Libro Quinto” (from Paesi Nuovamente retrovati). The Latin version of Mundus Novuswas reprinted many times (see Varnhagen, 1865: p. 9 for a list of early reprints).
  8.  Cadamosto Navigationi, c. 1470, as reprinted in Giovanni Ramusio (1554: p. 106). See also M. Zamora Reading Columbus, (1993: p. 121)
  9.  de Madariaga, Salvador (1952). Vida del muy magnífico señor Don Cristóbal Colón (in Spanish) (5th ed.). Mexico: Editorial Hermes. p. 363. “nuevo mundo”, […] designación que Pedro Mártyr será el primero en usar
  10.  J.Z. Smith, Relating Religion, Chicago (2004: p. 268)
  11.  E.G. Bourne Spain in America, 1450–580 New York: Harper (1904: p. 30)
  12.  Peter Martyr, Opus Epistolarum (Letter 130 p. 72)
  13.  Peter Martyr, Opus Epistolarum, Letter 133, p. 73
  14.  Peter Martyr, Opus Epistolarum (Letter 138, p. 76)
  15.  Peter Martyr Opus Epistolarum, Letter 156 p. 88
  16.  “if the river mentioned does not proceed from the terrestrial paradise, it comes from an immense tract of land situated in the south, of which no knowledge has been hitherto obtained” (Columbus 1499 letter on the third voyage, as reproduced in R.H. Major, Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, 1870: p. 147)
  17.  J.Z. Smith, Relating Religion, Chicago (2004: pp. 266–67)
  18.  Columbus 1500 letter to the nurse (in Major, 1870: p. 154)
  19.  Columbus’s 1500 letter to the nurse(Major, 1870: p. 170)
  20.  F.A. Ober Amerigo Vespucci New York: Harper (1907: pp. 239, 244)
  21.  S.E. Morison The European Discovery of America, v.2: The southern voyages, 1492–1616.(1974: pp. 265–66).
  22.  Missinne, Stefaan (Fall 2013). “A Newly Discovered Early Sixteenth-Century Globe Engraved on an Ostrich Egg: The Earliest Surviving Globe Showing the New World”. The Portolan, journal of the Washington Map Society (87): p. 8–24.
  23.  For an account of Vespucci at Toro and Burgos, see Navarette Colección de los viages y descubrimientos que hicieron por mar los españoles desde fines del siglo XV(1829: v.iii, pp. 320–23)
  24.  C.O. Sauer The Early Spanish Main. Cambridge (1966: pp. 166–67)
  25.  Sobecki, Sebastian (12 November 2015). New World Discovery. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935338.013.141.
  26.  Verrazzano, Giovanni da (1524).“The Written Record of the Voyage of 1524 of Giovanni da Verrazzano as recorded in a letter to Francis I, King of France, July 8th, 1524” Archived 8 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine. Citing: Wroth, Lawrence C., ed. (1970). The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524–1528. Yale, pp. 133–43. Citing: a translation by Susan Tarrow of the Cèllere Codex.

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