I’ve received a few emails about Gavin Menzies’s new book, Who Discovered America? (William Morrow, 2013), which claims new evidence that the Chinese discovered America in 40,000 BCE and again in 1417. (This revises down the date from Menzies’s 2002 bestseller 1421: The Year China Discovered America). I have not read the book and therefore can’t comment on all of Menzies’s claims. However, as reported in The Daily Mail, the primary evidence he offers is the following map, which he claims is an eighteenth century copy of a 1417 original, based on a scholar’s assertion that the language used dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
As you can see, there are a few issues that immediately call into question this claim. Notice that Baja California is shown as an island. Were Chinese navigators half as great as Menzies claims, they would not have made this error. The error, in fact, derives from a Spanish myth, that of the “Island of California” which existed west of the Indies. The earliest mention of this fictional island came in 1510 and was later applied to Baja. Despite Spanish reports that Baja California was a peninsula in the 1530s and 1540s, the myth of the “Island of California” was so strong that Spanish cartographers depicted it as an island into the 1600s. Therefore, the dating of the Chinese map’s text to before 1644 and the depiction of Baja California as an island, also from the 1500s and 1600s, all but confirms that this Chinese map is derived from a Spanish original, unless one wishes to believe that the Chinese were either terrible mapmakers or otherwise could not tell an island from a peninsula despite having surveyed the entirety of America, as Menzies claims.
Update: We do not need to resort to mere facts to criticize the map. As Caleb points out in the comments below, scholars who examined the map have declared it a fake, probably produced after the release of 1421 to support the book and Menzies. Of course, that could be the academic conspiracy at work!
As for his other claim, there were no ethnically Chinese people 40,000 years ago and therefore no way of declaring Native Americans the descendants of ancestral Chinese. Menzies seems to have misunderstood the idea that modern anthropology suggests that Native Americans descend from successive waves of migrants from Asia, some of which originated deeper in the continent than others at one time or another.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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