China was arguably the most sophisticated society on Earth in the 1400s, leaving historians to wonder why the Chinese — rather than Europeans — failed to discover and then dominate the New World.
This August in Sitka, scholars and researchers met to consider the China question — and other ideas in alternative Anthropology — in the ninth annual Paths Across the Pacific Conference.
In 2002 an author by the name of Gavin Menzies argued that the Chinese in fact explored and mapped much of the globe, but the record was lost when China’s emperors became xenophobic, and closed the country to the rest of the world.
His book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World became a best-seller. Two years ago, Menzies advanced his ideas further — this time with a collaborator and co-author named Ian Hudson, in a book called Who Discovered America?: The Untold History of the Peopling of the Americas.
Hudson, a scholar at the Greenwich Maritime Institute in London, was one of this year’s featured speakers at Paths Across the Pacific in Sitka.
“There are thousands of people all over the world who are in agreement that the Western History we’re taught at school is not quite right,” Hudson said. “Something’s missing.”
What’s “not quite right” is the Euro-centric explanation of the “discovery” of the Americas. Although originally uninhabited, the American continents — by the time Europeans arrived — already were populated by diverse cultures who may have had extensive interaction with people from other parts of the world, especially Asia.
For Hudson, and other proponents of the China theory, it starts with maps of the Atlantic coastline that pre-date 1492, the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
“Columbus had a map of the Americas, which he later acknowledged in his logs,” Hudson said. “Indeed, before his first voyage he signed a contract with the king and queen of Spain which appointed him Viceroy of the Americas… So, how do you discover a place for which you already have a map?”
Citing the work of Menzies, Hudson suggests that there is strong evidence that the pre-Columbian maps originated with the Chinese. And not just one or two Chinese explorers, along the lines of Magellan or a Captain Cook.
Hudson said that China’s effort to conquer the world in 1421 was massive, even by modern standards. Hundreds of sailing junks, most over 400-feet long, sailed from China over the course of two years to spread imperial authority across the globe.
“This amazing armada of Chinese fleets that was commissioned by the emperor in the Ming Dynasty — there were seven naval expeditions that were ordered — with basically view to send boats out around the world to the ends of the earth and bring the world into this tribute system that China had established,” Hudson said.
Critics of this theory argue that everything but the maps is based on circumstantial evidence. That the historical record of such a massive undertaking could have been completely suppressed by Chinese officials seems a stretch. And no conclusive genetic link between the Chinese and Native Americans has been identified, and no conclusive connection established between animal and plant communities in the New World and those of China.
So far, anthropologists have detected only similarities between Native American and Asian art. Nancy Yaw Davis coordinates the Paths Across the Pacific Conference. Her book, The Zuni Enigma, describes the Japanese-American link in pre-Columbian art and culture of the Zuni. She’s also been the subject of harsh criticism.
She reminded Hudson of this in her introduction.
“They’re also very mean,” Davis said. “They were mean to Gavin the way academia has been mean to me. So when you have new ideas and have fun discovering them and share them — at high risk — I think you folks have a lot of fun.”
So, what’s not to love about turning the history of modern western civilization on its head? Hudson told Paths attendees that dramatic improvements in genetic technology, the discovery of still more eerily accurate maps, and more thorough Chinese scholarship are all slowly bringing the idea of Chinese world exploration into better focus. But it wouldn’t hurt to actually lay hands on a junk.
“If we can find a shipwreck in the New World and have it dated to pre-Columbian times, and find out that it originated from somewhere other than Europe, it would be quite an important thing to find,” Hudson said.
Hudson said that Chinese exploration remains poorly funded, and efforts to locate a wreck have been relatively small. “Nevertheless,” he said, “it remains our holy grail.”