Just in time to coincide with Netflix’s release of a new Marco Polo television series, America Unearthed plans to investigate whether the Venetian traveler to China learned of America from his hosts in the Middle Kingdom during his Asian travels from 1271 to 1295. While some mainstream historians have questioned whether Polo ever actually traveled to China (or just collected traveler’s tales), fringe historians have cited Polo in support of a plethora of interesting and unusual ideas.
The subject of whether the Chinese came to North America before Columbus is so well worn that I’m not entirely sure how to summarize it without turning this background section into a book. The story begins, more or less, with European speculation that crossing the Atlantic would eventually cause someone to reach Asia. Columbus originally thought that he had reached India when he landed in the Caribbean. From this idea came the conclusion of some early Iberian explorers and writers that the peoples of the Americas seemed Asiatic and therefore likely came originally from Asia. By the eighteenth century this idea was widely accepted; Thomas Jefferson described it in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “the resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia, would induce us to conjecture, that the former are the descendants of the latter, or the latter of the former.” Because in those days, the reigning history texts claimed that the Flood of Noah was the starting point for discoverable history, the incursion couldn’t have happened that long ago, perhaps within five hundred years (c. 1200 CE) according to scientific literature of the time.
Now here is where the trouble starts. If East Asians came to America, then it stood to reason that various Asian peoples could have come to America at various times. The most famous of these claims is among the earliest. In 1761 the French orientalist Joseph de Guignes proposed that a myth from the Chinese Liang Shu of Yao Silian (c. 635 CE) about the journey of a Buddhist monk to a far eastern land called Fusang in 499 CE was actually an account of a voyage to America, particularly the area now known as British Columbia. He also argued that the Chinese were really Egyptians and that therefore Egypt discovered America. So persuasive were his claims that Fusang appeared on many European maps of America in the late 1700s. The claim fell out of favor until 1875 when Charles Godfrey Leland revived it in his book Fusang: The Discovery of America by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century. Leland placed Fusang in Mexico on the strength of the now-discredited idea that the Maya religion was pacifist and similar to Buddhism. I’ve covered Fusang in more detail here, but the bottom line is that Gustaaf Schlegel pointed out in 1892 that the story cannot be taken literally and that earlier authors ignored crucial disconfirming details like the presence of horses, not seen in America before the Spanish Conquest. Nevertheless, in 1913 Alexander M’Allan wrote Ancient Chinese Account of the Grand Canyon to argue that the Fusang text and an analysis of Chinese language proved that the Chinese explored the Grand Canyon. Today, John Ruskamp advocates the position that geometric Native American petroglyphs in the Grand Canyon are remnants of this Chinese incursion into America on the basis that they bear a slight similarity to random Chinese pictograms. Chinese writing relies on precision, yet none of the petroglyphs is an exact match.
While some people still promote the Fusang legend as a true account of an American voyage, by and large the story has faded into the recesses of fringe history due to a lack of supporting evidence. The Chinese seem to have had no record of the New World; two of the most important geographic works written in the century before Marco Polo—the Ling-wai tai-ta of Chou Ch’a-fei (1178) and the Chu-fan-chi of Chau Ju-Kua (1225) make no mention of the Americas, and the references to them to Mu-lan-p’i (likely southern Spain) claimed by fringe theorists and the president of Turkey to be references to the Americas are attributed not to Chinese prowess but to Arab sailors. It’s quite clear this land isn’t America since Chou Ch’a-fei talks about how the country’s “ships are the biggest of all. One ship carries a thousand men; on board are weaving looms and marketplaces” (trans. Friedrich Hirth and W. W. Rockhill).
On a separate track, in 1827 John Ranking proposed that America had been conquered by “the Mongols, accompanied with elephants,” during the thirteenth century, and that these hordes of the Khan had sailed the Pacific, ravaging American and taking over Mexico and Peru, thus accounting for the “Chinese” characteristics of Central America. He claimed that the Mongols had conquered as far as Rhode Island. In terms of evidence, he suggested that the remains of the mastodon and mammoth, so recently a sensation in America, were in fact the historical remains of the Khan’s elephant army. Further, these elephants were carried on Chinese junks. After reading Marco Polo’s claims about the failure of the Mongols to take Japan, he said it was probable that they continued on to America. He cites Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Inca (9.9) to the effect that the Peruvians retained a memory of the Chinese or Mongols arriving.
This is an interesting case and worth a brief note: Ranking used the non-literal 1688 translation of de la Vega by Sir Paul Rycaut, and in it, the translator states that the story tells (in modern spelling) of “men of an extraordinary size, which arrived at that country in great junks.” Here, though, the “Chinese” junks are an artifact of translation. De la Vega was quoting Pedro Cieza de Leon (Chronicle of Peru 1.52), and in more accurate translation by Clements Markham (which I confirmed with the Spanish original) gives it as “boats made of reeds, as big as large ships.” And the Chinese disappear. (If you’re interested, these “Chinese” giants are the same giants used to support Nephilim theories and famously executed by God for public sodomy; Rycaut, unlike Victorian translators, kept in the sodomy.)
In 1831 the Asiatic Journal summarized Ranking’s book succinctly: “we can only express our utter astonishment that a person capable of appreciating the nature of evidence of any kind, could have ever imposed upon himself so far as to imagine he had adduced one single fact in support of his theory.” Nevertheless, the idea of the Mongols being involved in an Asian incursion to America did not entirely die. The anthropologist Alice Kehoe supports a version of this idea in part with her belief that that the Athabaskan language is Chinese and came to America as a result of the Mongols pushing the Western Xia dynasty out of China. These Chinese, she says, became the Navajo and other Athabaskan-speaking peoples.
All of this is prologue, of course, to the big gun in the field, Gavin Menzies, who has made his career arguing that the Chinese visited America in the fifteenth century, starting with his 2002 book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. In it, he (or, rather, the 130 [!] publisher’s staff members who according to Australia’s ABC rewrote, revised, and produced the book under his name) claimed that between 1421 and 1423 Admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the world and his crew impregnated women worldwide. Menzies’s evidence was paper-thin, relying on a fanciful interpretation of maps (involving “decoding” them to reveal America, Australia, and Antarctica), an argument from ignorance, and (frankly) racist assumptions that “slit-eyes” indicated Chinese people anywhere in the world and that Victorian descriptions of “Mongoloid” bones represented actual Mongolians. Menzies then asserts that the whole expedition was covered up and evidence destroyed to protect imperial China’s economy. I wrote about some of the exasperating efforts to evaluate Menzies’s rapid-fire mistakes back in 2003 and 2004. No documents exist and no artifacts have ever been unearthed to support Menzies’s theory; however, last year Menzies tried promoting anew an eighteenth century Chinese map showing the Americas as a genuine copy of a fifteenth century original. As I pointed out at the time, the map shows the mythical Island of California, a Spanish mistake made in 1510, and therefore cannot be the result of an actual Chinese navigation of California in 1417-1418. Experts, in fact, declared the map a fake made within the last 50 years.
Anyone interested in why Menzies is wrong can visit the very detailed 1421 Exposed website.
Most recently, as I wrote about earlier this week, the historian Benjamin Olshin has revived interest in a map he believes might be an eighteenth century copy of a depiction of the Pacific Ocean and Alaska brought back from China by Marco Polo. Olshin was unable to authenticate the map even after extensive analysis, and the fact that it was delivered to the Library of Congress by Marcian Rossi, a science fiction writer with a track record of creating apparent hoax documents (including Pliny the Elder’s map and manuscript depiction of the Caribbean!), casts serious doubt on the authenticity of the chart. I’ve outlined some other objections to the map’s authenticity in my review of Olshin’s book on the subject. Interestingly the supposed Marco Polo map makes use of the same Fusang claims that were all the rage around the time Rossi first began exhibiting the map in 1904.
Our specific claim tonight on America Unearthed involves the question of whether in the time of Marco Polo the Chinese and/or Mongols built the Berkeley Mystery Walls (also known as the East Bay Walls), a series of disconnected, low, and crude rock walls in the Bay area. Reaching a maximum of five feet in height, these walls all together run at least twenty miles. The only archaeologist who has commented publicly on the walls, Russell Swanson (of whom I can find no information), connected them to rock walls as far as San Jose, fifty miles away, according to fringe history books, suggesting that there was a widespread wall-building effort. In 1997, Swanson wrote in Bay Area Rock Art News (15.7, June 1997):
In the past twelve years, I have visited over forty miles of these stone structures. To call them walls is something of a misnomer. Some do go in a straight line, others twist like a demented snake up a steep hillside, others come in a spiral two hundred feet wide and circle into a boulder with a six-inch knob carved on the top of it. Some are massive, over six feet tall and run for miles.
Virtually no work has been done on them, and little is known about them except that fringe history sources say that they have been reported since the earliest European visits to the San Francisco Bay area. The description Swanson gives, though, suggests that they had some symbolic religious or astronomical purpose; however, while some walls may be Native constructions, local history and legend says many are from the colonial period nd were used to mark land grants and to help clear ranch land.
In 1904 Oriental languages professor John Fryer of UC-Berkeley proposed that the Chinese built the walls, while others attributed them to the Mongols, mostly by comparison to the Great Wall of China. America Unearthed says in its promotional materials that “The only historical precedent for a miles-long, manmade, ancient wall is the Great Wall of China,” which must be quite funny to the people who live near the Long Wall of Quảng Ngãi in Vietnam (16th to 19th centuries), which is almost 80 miles long; the Antonine Wall (40 miles, c. 150 CE) and Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland (73 miles, c. 122 CE); the Roman limes of Germany (353 miles, 1st to 3rd centuries CE); the Walls of Ston in Croatia (about 5 miles, 15th century); the Classical “long walls” of Athens, Corinth, and Megara; etc., etc. There were a lot of walls all around the world. In fact, some of you might even remember (as the show does not) that Wolter “investigated” a supposedly miles-long dry-set stone wall in Hawaii last season, the Menehune Ditch, or Kikiaola.
Is it so difficult to think that the native people of California could also pile rocks into a wall? The argument against it is that the native people built no other permanent structures. Yet in the Old World, the people of Göbekli Tepe and other prehistoric sites in the Near East worked monumentally in stone while living in non-stone buildings, or none at all.
We open with the claim that in 1433 “a powerful empire” launched a fleet in search of “new lands” and that “some” believe they reached America all the way from China. I have no idea where this date comes from since Zheng He died in 1433, at the end of his seventh and last voyage. Then the opening credits roll. After the credits, we travel to San Francisco, California, to view the East Bay Rock Walls (Berkeley Mystery Walls). Wolter says he received a tip about the walls, he wonders why we know so little about these walls. Wolter destroys part of the wall with an hammer (with permission from the same National Park Service he last year accused of conspiring against him) and then examines the damage with a loupe to determine that it was limestone. He then talks with Olav Phillips, who tells Wolter that no professional has studied the wall. (This is true: I asked several archaeologists, and I couldn’t find one who had even heard of the wall.) Wolter concludes from the weathering on the rocks that it is at least 200-300 years old, which is actually somewhat younger than documents suggest that the wall might be, if we can trust 1980s newspaper stories that say that Spanish mission records make mention of it in the colonial period.
Phillips tells Wolter that there are many hypotheses about the walls’ construction. These include Native American builders, the Lemurians of the island of Mu (this is connected to ancient aliens, Mt. Shasta, and Theosophy—don’t ask), and the Chinese. At least Wolter admits Mu was not real.
Wolter suggests that the East Bay walls are “similar” to the Great Wall of China, though to what end I can’t imagine. Wolter says he tested stone boat anchors in San Francisco Bay to see if the Chinese left them “thousands of years ago” but he couldn’t prove they weren’t what they seem to be, Victorian.
Then we go to commercial.
After both an on-screen and verbal recap, Wolter goes back to Minnesota to study Chinese navigation with (Joe) Gunnar Thompson, a fringe theorist described here as an anthropologist. He holds a PhD, but his dissertation was on affirmative action compliance systems, and his PhD is in rehabilitation counseling. (He did work for his master's degree on speech symbols in aboriginal art and has a 1968 bachelor's in anthropology.) Thompson believes Marco Polo visited Seattle. I studied one of his books years ago, and it’s crap. Just dumb, dumb, crap. His modus operandi is to misinterpret texts and maps to conform to speculative hypotheses and then ignore any contrary evidence. He gives Wolter a history of Zheng He’s expeditions, and he shows Wolter a map of the Chinese view of the world, and he claims that the mythical ring of land around the ocean is assumed to be the Americas. It’s a stretch. He shows another Chinese map of the Americas made in the 1600s, but Thompson falsely claims that it is from the 1400s. The reproduction map is clearly labeled as being from the 1600s on the damn map.
After a recap, Wolter misunderstands the Chinese map as mentioning Marco Polo, whereas Thompson claims that the map is based on Polo’s work. Thompson thinks that the Pope assigned Marco Polo to spy on the Chinese and map North America. This would be a neat trick considering that the Chinese neglected to do so.
Thompson believes that the Ortellius map shows the west coast of North America, but neither Wolter nor Thompson cares to mention that Ortellius drew his maps in the late 1500s—after the exploration of America and 300 years after Marco Polo! Most of his world maps show California, and that is no mystery. Here is the map Thompson shows. It is a 1603 printing of a 1570 original. You can clearly see that California and the “Red Sea” (the Gulf of California) are labeled with their correct Spanish names (while the rest of the map is in Latin), an obvious indication that the American portion was drawn from Spanish—not Marco Polo’s—data. Oh, yeah: The continent is also labeled America. (Full size here.)
There is no evidence whatsoever that Polo—who brought no known maps back from China—had anything to do with these maps.
Based on these lies, Wolter travels to China to visit the Ming-era sections of the Great Wall, constructed 200 years after Marco Polo. The earlier walls, from before the Mongol invasion, were located elsewhere. There is, of course, the logical question of why the Mongols would build a Great Wall in America modeled on the one they overran to get into China in the first place. Surely they recognized that it wasn’t very effective!
After an on-screen recap and a verbal recap, Wolter asks about the less beautiful sections of the Great Wall of China, the sections from before the Ming dynasty. The oldest sections of the wall, from 200 BCE or so, are also built of piles of dry set stones—but Wolter calls his “hard evidence” when it is not hard evidence at all. It’s a stylistic comparison, and one could equally well make the same comparison to the Vietnamese Long Wall I referenced in the background section, which uses the same technique. Wolter visits a restricted area of the Great Wall by special permission of the Chinese Communist government, which means that even dictatorships are actively not suppressing his work, contrary to his repeated claims that governments around the world are in cahoots with his enemies.
This trip to China, however, produced no results other than a few glamour shots of Wolter on the Great Wall, so Wolter moves on to learn about Zheng He.
After yet another on-screen and verbal recap, Wolter now asserts as fact that Marco Polo was a spy for the Pope, and announces his belief that Polo reached America. Wolter emphasizes the “map evidence” that doesn’t really exist, and he then tries to learn about Zheng He and his alleged voyage to America, a voyage fabricated from spare parts and chutzpah by Gavin Menzies in 2002. “All that’s missing is physical proof!” Wolter says. As though that’s a small thing! In real life Zheng He traveled to Africa, which would be amazing enough on its own, but Africa just isn’t sexy enough for American television. A Chinese admiral tells Wolter that he thinks Zheng’s fleets might have made it to America around 1433, but even he admits there is no evidence for this. Wolter says that it’s a “good point” that there is no physical evidence, but he is “more convinced than ever” about Chinese voyages because “the map evidence is strong.” He is still unaware that he hasn’t actually seen a pre-Columbian Chinese map of America
Back in the United States, Wolter travels to Columbus, Ohio’s Heartland Bank to follow up on a tip about a piece of physical evidence. In a safe deposit box, Wolter views an artifact owned by a Dr. Lee. And then we go to commercial.
After a verbal and on-screen recap Dr. Siu-Hueng Lee shows Wolter a disk with Chinese characters of the Emperor Xuande from the fifteenth century. According to Lee, the medallion was found in the Appalachian Mountains in 1993. But with no provenance, there is no way to prove the claim. Lee shows Wolter another piece of evidence, a 1602 map of the world by Kunyu Wanguo that is traditionally believed to have been based on European knowledge gained from the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. (The copy seen on the show is a later Japanese copy.) Lee believes that the absence of Florence and the Papal States on the map proves it had to have been drawn long before, and consequently North and South America (which appear on the map) must have been known centuries—or even thousands of years—earlier. This is frankly ridiculous. The text on the map, written by Ricci himself, reads: “In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica, but a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them.” Somehow the Chinese were OK with adding that coda to their great discovery! Wolter ignores this and declares the map conclusive proof that the Chinese discovered America before Columbus and then waited until after Columbus to tell anyone about it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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