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Image: Painting of John and Sebastian Cabot
Bristol's City Museum and Art Gallery
"The Departure of John and Sebastian Cabot from Bristol on their First Voyage of Discovery in 1497," as painted in 1906 by Ernest Board.
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updated 5/3/2012 9:19:44 PM ET 2012-05-04T01:19:44

An investigation worthy of a Dan Brown novel has shed new light on the voyages of John Cabot,‭ ‬the Italian navigator and explorer, revealing that he may have‭ ‬had‭ ‬knowledge of European expeditions to the‭ "‬New World‭"‬ that predated Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage.

Although commonly credited with "discovering" America, Christopher Columbus would not reach the mainland of the New World until 1498, when he sailed to South America.‭

Farther north, Cabot became the first European since Leif Ericson and the Vikings to land on North American soil when he made three voyages ‬for England's Henry VII between the summers of‭ ‬1496‭ ‬and‭ ‬1498.‭ ‬The second of‭ ‬these expeditions,‭ carried‭ ‬out in‭ ‬1497,‭ ‬resulted in the European discovery of North America — at Newfoundland‭.

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Now a brief entry in a‭ ‬yellowed accounting ledger has revealed an unexpected European dimension‭ ‬to Cabot‭'‬s discovery:‭ ‬In April‭ ‬1496,‭ ‬the Italian-born explorer received financial backing from an Italian bank — the Bardi banking house in London.

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The notation — found through some serious sleuthing of the works of Alwyn Ruddock, a deceased, secretive historian — would also suggest that Europeans may have discovered the New World decades before both Cabot and Columbus set sail.

Found in a private Florentine archive,‭ ‬the document records that a‭ payment of‭ ‬50‭ ‬nobles sterling was made to‭ "‬Giovanni Chabotte‭" (John Cabot‭) of Venice so that‭ ‬he could undertake expeditions‭ ‬"to go and find the new land.‭"

"This brief entry opens a whole new chapter in Cabot scholarship.‭ ‬It shows that the Bristol voyages were part of a wider network of Italian-supported exploratory enterprises,"‭ ‬historian Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli,‭ ‬of the University of Florence,‭ ‬told Discovery News.

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Guidi Bruscoli,‭ ‬who detailed his finding in the scholarly journal Historical Research,‭ ‬noted that the short entry referred to‭ ‬"the new land‭" ("‬il‭ ‬nuovo paese‭" ‬in the original Italian version‭)‬ and not to‭ "‬a new land‭" (‬or‭ ‬"un nuovo paese‭")‬.

"The use of the definite article‭ ('‬il‭' ‬— '‬the‭') ‬rather than the indefinite‭ '‬a‭' ('‬un‭' ‬in Italian‭)‬ is indeed puzzling,‭" ‬Guidi Bruscoli said.

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The phrasing might imply that the money was given to Cabot so that he could find a land whose existence was already known.‭ ‬The Bardi,‭ ‬far from being disinterested patrons,‭ ‬would have had a sound economic reason to finance what would have been an almost certain discovery.

Since Cabot's royal patent only applied to lands‭ "‬unknown to Christians‭,"‬ ‬it seems unlikely that‭ "‬the new land‭" ‬referred to here was that which Columbus had found four years earlier.

As such,‭ ‬the note‭ ‬may revive claims that Bristol merchants had discovered North America at an earlier time.

"Unfortunately,‭ ‬we only have clues.‭ ‬While the entry implies that the Bardi‭ ‬believed in a prior discovery,‭ ‬we can't assume this had occurred," Guidi-Bruscoli said.

The speculation receives some support, however, from a letter written in the winter of 1497/8 by an English merchant named John Day to the "Lord Grand Admira" almost certainly Christopher Columbus.

Discovered in the 1950s, the letter discussed Cabot's recently completed 1497 voyage to Newfoundland, adding it was "considered certain" that men from Bristol had already "found and discovered in the past" the said land, "as your lordship well knows."

Even more compelling evidence appeared to have existed in the archives investigated by the late historian Alwyn Ruddock, a leading expert on the Bristol discovery voyages.

According to University of Bristol historian Evan Jones, Ruddock made finds that "promised to revolutionize our understanding of Europe's engagement with North America in the three decades after 1492."

She claimed, for instance, to have found proof in Italian and Spanish sources that Bristol merchants reached the New World sometime before 1470, and that Cabot didn't die on the 1498 expedition as widely believed, but returned to England in 1500.

"She had made some extraordinary finds, but she ordered in her will the destruction of all her research following her death," said Jones, who founded the Cabot Project research initiative.

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That was done in 2005, when the fiercely secretive Ruddock died aged 89. Her unpublished work — 78 bags of notes, letters, photographs, and microfilms — ended up in a shredder.

Another of Ruddock's claims was that Cabot was financed by an Italian bank. Following an invitation to visit the deceased historian's house in 2010, Jones and his co-researcher, Margaret Condon, discovered the source of her information — in the form of a sticky label on an old shoe cupboard: "The Bardi firm of London" (an Italian bank).

"The Bardi firm of London — that was all we needed to work out the identity of the Italian banking house that Ruddock kept secret for almost half a century," Jones said.

Jones and Condon contacted Guidi-Bruscoli in Florence, who was then able to locate a brief entry in the private archive of the Guicciardini family.

"Without Ruddock's sticky label, finding that small entry would have been a rather difficult task," Guidi Bruscoli admitted.

Meanwhile, Jones and his associates continue their investigation into Ruddock's secret findings.

"I have an enormous respect for Alwyn Ruddock as a scholar. But I can't respect her decision to destroy all her work. She did what is the antithesis of everything that historical research is about — she sought to destroy all her findings. I can't and don't accept that," Jones said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Seven deep mysteries of history

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    What happened to Amelia Earhart?

    Amelia Earhart raised the spirits of Depression-era America as she soared into the aviation record books with feats of altitude, distance and endurance. The mood took a gloomy turn, however, when she and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during a much-heralded attempt to fly around the world. Their fate remains one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries.

    Theories abound: They ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They survived, and Earhart lived out her life as a housewife in New Jersey.

    A prominent theory with tantalizing clues holds that they survived the crash landing and but perished as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the republic of Kiribati. An expedition to the island in 2010 recovered pieces of a pocket knife and a glass jar that may have belonged to the castaways. If DNA analyses on these and other items match Earhart's, the mystery may finally be resolved.

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    According to legend, his burial party killed anyone who saw the procession. The slaves and soldiers who attended the funeral were also killed. Horses then trampled evidence of the burial, and a river was diverted to flow over the grave, which is thought to lie somewhere near Genghis Khan's birthplace in Khentii Aimag.

    Expeditions to locate the tomb have been aborted due to concerns that the excavations would disturb the site and destroy the soul that serves as its protector. In 2004, archaeologists uncovered Genghis Khan's palace, shown here, and they suspect the tomb lies nearby.

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    The legend is a harrowing tale of survival: A group of pioneers headed for California in 1846 got stuck on a mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada and resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter. But the claims that they feasted on human flesh may have been exaggerated, based on an analysis of bones found in a hearth along Alder Creek, where at least some of the Donner Party passed the time.

    The analysis shored up accounts that the family dog, Uno, was eaten, as well as a steady supply of cattle, deer and horse. No human bones were found at the site. While cannibalism may have occurred, if it did, the bones were treated in a different way. Perhaps the bones were buried. Or perhaps they were placed on the hearth last and have since eroded, according to project scientist Gwen Robbins, a professor of biological anthropology at Appalachian State University.

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    DNA analysis of bone fragments from the Seville remains and those of Columbus' brother Diego, also buried in the city, are a perfect match. When researchers announced those findings in 2006, they declared that the century-old dispute was resolved. But DNA from the Dominican remains has yet to be studied, leaving the case not quite fully shut.

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