Did the Chinese beat Columbus to America?

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 admĀ­iral 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.