Did the Chinese beat Columbus to America?

Christopher Columbus Image Gallery A caravel under sail, which was part of Christopher Columbus' (1451 - 1506) first letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, after he had set sail to find the New World. See more pictures of Christopher Columbus.
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In his bestselling book, "1421: The Year China Discovered America," British amateur historian Gavin Menzies turns the story of the Europeans' discovery of America on its ear with a startling idea: Chinese sailors beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas by more than 70 years. The book has generated controversy within the halls of scholarship. Anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and linguists alike have debunked much of the evidence that Menzies used to support his notion, which has come to be called the 1421 theory.

But where did Menzies come up with the idea that it was Asians, not Europeans, who first arrived in America from other countries? It's been long held by scholars that it was people from Asia who first set foot in North America, but not in the way that Menzies describes. Sometime 10,000 years ago or more, people of Asian origination are believed to have crossed over the Bering land bridge from Siberia to what is now Alaska. From there, they are believed to have spread out over the course of millennia, diverging genetically and populating North and South America.

But Menzies' 1421 theory supposes much more direct influence from China. Rather than civilization evolving separately in the Americas and Asia, under the 1421 theory, China was directly involved in governance and trade with the peoples of the Americas with whom they shared their ancestry.

So what evidence does he have to support this notion? It's Menzie's belief that one merely has to refer to certain maps to see the light.

A full 30 years before Gavin Menzies published his book, Baptist missionary Dr. Hendon M. Harris perused the curiosities in a shop in Taiwan. It was there he made an amazing discovery: a map that looked to be ancient, written in classical Chinese and depicting what to Harris was clearly North America. It was a map of Fu Sang, the legendary land of Chinese fable.

Fu Sang is to the Chinese what Atlantis is to the West -- a mythical land that most don't believe existed, but for which enough tantalizing (yet vague) evidence exists to maintain popularity for the idea. The map the missionary discovered -- which has come to be known as the Harris map -- showed that Fu Sang was located exactly where North America is. Even more amazingly, some of the features shown on the map of Fu Sang look a lot like geographical anomalies unique to North America, such as the Grand Canyon.

As if the Harris map weren't suggestive enough, other maps have also surfaced. It's a specific map that Menzies points to as definitive proof that the Chinese had already explored the world long before the Europeans ever set sail in the age of exploration. This map, known as the 1418 map -- so called for the date it was supposedly published -- clearly shows all of the world's oceans, as well as all seven continents, correct in shape and situation. Even more startling is the map's accurate depiction of features of North America, including the Potomac River in the Northeast of the present-day United States.

Menzies believes that not only had the Chinese already explored the world before Columbus and other European explorers, but that it was with Chinese maps that the Europeans were able to circumnavigate the globe. Armed with the map as his flagship evidence, Menzies points out plenty of other artifacts that point to Chinese pre-Columbian occupation in the Americas. Read the next page to find out what supports his theory.­

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Physical Evidence for the 1421 Theory

A tourist visits a model of a Medieval Chinese junk during the 600th anniversary celebration of Zhang He's famous voyages.
A tourist visits a model of a Medieval Chinese junk during the 600th anniversary celebration of Zhang He's famous voyages.
Courtesy Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

During the Ming Dynasty, a great adm­iral named Zhang He (as well as other notable admirals) sailed out of China to explore the world. Under the behest of Emperor Zhu Di, He and the Chinese Fleet (made up of 28,000 men) made their way from Asia to the Middle East and Africa, eventually reaching as far as Indonesia. But did the fleet continue west all the way to the Americas?

Perhaps the more logical possibility is that the fleet returned to China and then again set sail, this time eastward, across the Pacific to the west coast of North America. Either way, Menzies says that evidence of their arrival is scattered throughout the tradition, custom and art of American Indian tribes. And he's not alone. "1421" has created a stir among its readership, generating scores of additional submissions of evidence of a Chinese presence within the Americas before the Europeans set foot on the continents. To Menzies and his supportive readers, one need merely look at the rich cultural tapestry of the peoples of the Americas to find what they believe is the evidence of Chinese influence there.

Before the arrival of Europeans, neither North nor South America had a horse roaming upon it. This is the idea held by historians -- the horse is not indigenous to the Americas, and it wasn't until the Europeans brought the horse that the species found its way to the new world. But this is contradicted by some pre-Columbian native art found at Cofins Cave in Brazil and at Trujillo, Peru that depict horses, and in one case, what is thought to be Chinese cavalry on horseback. The Chinese were experienced horsemen for centuries, if not millennia, prior to the European age of exploration, and it's logical that were they to make an expedition to the Americas, they would have brought their valuable horses with them.

Indigenous legend and folklore is also fraught with what Menzies believes are stories about encounters between native tribes and Chinese explorers. The leaders of the Inca tribe -- a vast, powerful mountain tribe in the Andes Mountains of South America -- are thought by Menzies to have been governed by Chinese admirals. The leader Montezuma, ruler of the Aztec empire in Mexico, is believed by Menzies to have mistaken the conquistador Cortez for his grandfather, returned again from his home in the East. The Cherokee Indians of the southeastern United States possess lore that tells of their accepting and warring with visiting Chinese travelers by sea.

But what of physical evidence? If the Chinese had landed in the Americas -- let alone traded with and governed the people they found there, wouldn't direct evidence of their presence remain? Menzies and the proponents of the 1421 theory say it does exist. In the Pacific Northwest of the present-day United States, investigations at eight different sites have uncovered Chinese coins. A garment from the Nez Perce tribe of present-day Idaho that's dated at over 300 years old has woven ornaments into it that are believed to be Chinese beads. And in the Florida Keys and off the coast of Big Sur, Calif., artifacts of pre-Columbian Chinese jade have been unearthed from a riverbed and the sea floor.

But despite all of this evidence (and even more), historians aren't rushing to rewrite the history books. Find out why some consider Menzies' 1421 theory to be questionable.

The 1421 Theory: Junk History?

At L'Anse aux meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, a Viking settlement discovered there in 1961 has been reconstructed to its former state.
At L'Anse aux meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, a Viking settlement discovered there in 1961 has been reconstructed to its former state.
Courtesy David McLain/Aurora/Getty Images

From its introduction in 2003, Gavin Menzies' 1421 theory has come under assault. The writing that seeks to disprove Menzies is at least as long as his book. One question perhaps looms largest when approaching the 1421 theory: If the Chinese had a presence in the Americas prior to Christopher Columbus, then why isn't their mark left indelibly on the face of American civilization?

The Norse, who sailed as far west as Newfoundland in their travels across the Atlantic, left remnants of their visits to North America. Their folklore includes accounts of the Vikings' encounters with Native Americans. The crumbling remains of the stone outposts they built during their stay can still be seen. This was 1,000 years ago, and 500 years before Columbus' voyage. Yet the Vikings brief settlement in North America is still evident. If the Chinese had such a thorough impact on societies in the Americas just 70 years before Columbus' arrival, then why isn't evidence of their presence everywhere?

What's more, there's a distinct lack of cross-cultural pollination between the new world and China. When the Europeans arrived in the Americas, they brought with them things that have never before been seen in the continents, like steel and horses. But more importantly, they took back exotic treasures from the new world. Maize and tomatoes, along with vast amounts of plundered gold, found its way to Europe upon the ships of returning explorers. Where's the Incan gold or the corn of the Aztecs in China?

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The 1418 Map of America

Engraving depicting the fleet of Christopher Columbus approaching the New World, 1492.
Engraving depicting the fleet of Christopher Columbus approaching the New World, 1492.
Lambert/Getty Images

Perhaps the evidence that's been most attacked is the 1408 map itself. Dr. Geoff Wade, a historian with the National University of Singapore, has written extensively in an effort to debunk Gavin Menzies and the 1421 theory, even going so far as filing a complaint in the United Kingdom against the publishers of Menzies' book for marketing it as a history.

Wade points out several flaws with the 1408 map which suggest it's a fake, chief among them is that the map shows the world based on the idea that it's a sphere. This notion was unknown in Ming Dynasty China. He also points out that China is poorly represented on the map, and wonders why, if the map's creators were Chinese, their nation would be drawn clumsily.

It's Wade's belief that the 1408 map was created within the 21st century, possibly even to support Menzie's 1421 theory. Wade believes that the map is based on old maps created by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. He points out that California is shown as an island and China is located at the center of the map, both examples of Jesuit cartography. He also says that some of the text has clearly been translated into Chinese from old Jesuit maps.

If the map is fake, then the entire 1421 theory falls apart. But isn't there any easier way to determine if the Chinese ever sailed to the Americas? Why not just ask? Here's where the story takes a turn that may maintain the 1421 theory's status as debatable for years to come. After the invading Manchu rulers took over China following the Ming Dynasty (establishing the Qing Dynasty), the foreigners took great pains to wipe out any reminders of the previous rule. This included destroying all accounts of the great fleet's extensive voyages. As these documents burned, any evidence, contradictory or supportive, of a Chinese presence in the Americas was lost forever.

For more information on maps, as well as links to Menzies' and Wades' discourse, visit the next pages.

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Sources

  • "Junk History." 4 Corners/Australian Braodcasting Corporation. July 31, 2006. http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2006/s1699373.htm
  • Lovgren, Stefan. "Frist Americans Arrived Recently, Settled Pacific Coast, DNA Study Says." National Geographic. February 2, 2007. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/02/070202-human-migration.html
  • Menzies, Gavin. "1421: The Year China Discovered the World." http://www.1421.tv/index.asp
  • Poser, Bill. "Language Log." February 1, 2004. University of Pennsylvania. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000409.html
  • Seaver, Kristen A. "Walrus Pitch and Other Novelties: Gavin Menzies and the Far North." The 1421 Myth Exposed. http://www.1421exposed.com/html/walrus_pitch.html
  • Wade, Dr. Geoff. "Liu Gang's Statement on the Purported 1418 Map." The 1421 Myth Exposed. http://www.1421exposed.com/html/wade_challenge.html