Conventional wisdom that the Americas were discovered by Christopher Columbus has been cast into doubt by centuries-old maps and documents suggesting that Marco Polo got there first.
According to Smithsonian magazine, a fresh analysis of 14 parchments by experts has prompted speculation that Polo could have set foot on Alaska during his 24-year odyssey through Asia in the middle of the 13th century.
The maps were studied by Benjamin Olshin, author of the "Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps".
"I have been looking at these for maps for over 10 years," he told the Telegraph. "I am the evidence guy and there are a lot of maps.
"They are interesting in that they show that there was a deeper knowledge that Marco Polo may have got from a variety of sources.
"He could have sailed there," Prof Olsen said, But sounding a note of caution, he added: "He also could have been told that there was land on the other side of the strait."
The traditional Polo narrative, he added, made no mention of a voyage across the strait, Prof Olsen added.
“A number of the maps here are suggestive of knowledge of the farthest reaches of northeast Asia -- and perhaps beyond -- in a very early period, before the later, well-documented explorations by Europeans in that area.”
Written on sheepskin, the documents include what appears to be a map detailing the Alaskan coast.
If they are verified as genuine, the records would suggest Polo, a Venetian merchant, could have discovered the New World two centuries before Columbus, and the Bering Strait, the 51-mile stretch between Alaska and Russia, more than 400 years before Danish explorer Vitus Bering.
The Travels of Marco Polo, a 13th century account of his epic travels through Asia, which started when he left Venice in 1271 and ended in 1295, was ghostwritten. It contained riveting details of Polo’s adventures and meeting with Kublai Khan, but no maps.
But that gap may have been filled following a detailed examination of 14 parchments discovered in a trunk in the Thirties that belonged to Marcian Rossi, an Italian immigrant who arrived in America in 1887.
Rossi, who worked as a tailor in San Jose, California, donated the documents to the Library of Congress. They include an account, said to have been written by Polo’s daughter Bellela, that describes how Polo met a Syrian trader on the Kamchatka peninsula on the eastern edge of Asia and sailed across what became known as the Bering Strait to Alaska.
There he came across a land where natives were clad in seal skins, and lived on fish in homes “under the earth”.
The documents also contain 10 maps including what appears to be one of the Strait and the Aleutian Islands, a string of islands off the west coast of Alaska and the Alaskan coastline itself.
While the cache gives substantial factual detail, its authenticity still has to be confirmed. Some were signed by Polo’s daughters, Fantina, Bellela and Moreta, who said that the accounts were based on letters they received from their father.
A radiocarbon study of one of the maps suggests the sheepskin dates back to the 15th or 16th century, which would mean it is a copy of an original document.
While Polo’s ghostwritten account says nothing of lands beyond Asia, the explorer did once boast: “I did not tell half of what I saw.”