This shift has come primarily from the realization that ancient peoples navigated the oceans to a greater degree than we gave them credit for. In hindsight, it seems rather arrogant of us not to have recognized this before. The evidence hasn’t been entirely lacking. Our problem seems to have been a culturally imposed historical myopia – a myopia that developed with the modern age.
We are shocked today at the naiveté of these early evolutionary anthropologists who proposed (and occasionally implemented) eugenic practices. And we recoil at the ideas of cultural evolution that largely justified so many crimes against humanity during the two World Wars. But these errors also manifest themselves in lesser, more subtle ways. In the study of ancient history they have led us to believe ancient cultures were all very primitive and that we moderns have been the only sophisticated ones.
But things have changed – at least in our understanding of early America – and we are starting to recognize the cultural diversity that existed here long before 1492. And we are starting to see that America was colonized anciently by more than one group. We will probably never know the precise number but it must certainly be more than just a few.
A good example of this change in understanding is Gavin Menzies’s and Ian Hudson’s recent book Who Discovered America?. This is Menzies’s fourth book dealing with pre-Columbian cultures and colonization. And his primary focus is to show the extent of China’s maritime exploration before Columbus. In his first book 1421, Menzies argued that a Chinese fleet under the direction of Admiral Zheng He sailed from China and discovered many lands, including America several decades before Europeans did so. In Who Discovered America?, the authors continue this argument and bring up several more lines of evidence that have come to their attention since the earlier publication. This evidence is interesting to say the least and the authors are to be congratulated for shedding light on a largely forgotten chapter in the history of exploration.
These books, however, have not freed themselves from the single colonization myth. One gets the sense, after reading them that no influence was of much significance in the New World except that of the ancient Chinese. This is a shame. The authors would stand to gain a great deal from aligning themselves within the larger context of recent research. Instead, they carry on the tradition of so many previous writers that have argued for only a single major influence in the New World. Ultimately, the importance of Menzies’s work will be as a chapter in this larger understanding. While it is true that Chinese artifacts and influences can be seen in ancient America, it is also clear that other influences were present. Let me give an example of what I mean.
The Olmecs of ancient Central America were one of the earliest peoples in the New World to leave behind a significant record in stone – enabling us to get a glimpse of their world. Menzies and Hudson point out the recent findings of Mike Xu that many Olmec glyphs show significant similarities to Shang era characters from China. This is an important finding that needs to be better understood. But it also needs to be clarified that the Olmec connection to Shang, China is not new with Mike Xu, as Menzies and Hudson suggest. Betty Meggers pointed this out several years ago in an article she wrote for the American Anthropologist based on jade artifacts uncovered at La Venta[i].
Unfortunately, one gets the impression in chapters 7 and 8 of Who Discovered America? that the Chinese were the only influence on Olmec civilization. This is the same sort of mistake that earlier authors have made but for different cultural influences. For example Ivan Van Sertima in his book They Came Before Columbus argues that Olmec civilization was a product of African colonization. This makes more immediate sense than does a Chinese colonization if one goes simply on the evidence of stone monuments from Olmec sites (pictures of which are absent in Who Discovered America?). Many of these monuments are clearly African in appearance.
Or consider Geoffrey Ashe’s argument in Land to the West, that Olmec glyphs clearly show a European influence. His evidence is the well-known basalt stele from La Venta (Mexico) showing the “Uncle Sam” profile of a man with a long beard and aquiline nose.
I am not trying to minimize the importance of any of these findings. On the contrary, I find them all very important. My point is that we are building enough evidence now to form a more complete view of ancient America – in this case of Olmec civilization – and that arguments of single colonization events are no longer enough. Menzies and Hudson have popularized research about a Chinese influence. What we need now is a better story about how Africans, Europeans (or perhaps Mediterranean peoples) and Chinese were interacting in the Americas – all in the same area at about the same time. This work has yet to be undertaken.
Another line of evidence used by the authors is DNA, or genetic, evidence. Menzies and Hudson have sifted through a growing body of literature to show that some Native American populations have as much as 40% of their genetic material similar to Asian peoples. The authors suggest in one instance that this similarity may be as high as 96%.
This can be misleading without a little background in genetic evidence. Let me start with the evidence from maternal (mitochondrial) DNA studies. The authors correctly show that both Asians and Native Americans have A, B, C, and D genetic markers (or haplogroups). The temptation when seeing these similarities is to assume a parental relationship. But the similarity of these haplogroups does not establish this. What it suggests is that some of the peoples of Asia and America share a common ancestry. And it suggests that the common ancestry had these same haplogroups.
This, perhaps simple, distinction becomes important when one considers the antiquity of American groups and the realization that early American remains do not fall neatly into established “Asian” and “American” types. The famous Kennewick Man, for example, was an ancient American (uncovered in the Columbia River drainage of the Pacific Northwest) that shows many anatomical features more likely European or Mediterranean than Asian. Did this individual also have A, B, C, and D haplogroups. We will probably never know but it seems likely.
Realistically, the DNA evidence doesn’t really help Menzies’s and Hudson’s argument for a Medieval Chinese discovery of America. The relationships are just as easily explained by the standard argument of contact via the Beringian land bridge.
There is other conflicting genetic evidence that is only partially mentioned by the authors such as that coming from male (Y chromosome) DNA studies. DNA haplogroup Q does, in fact, show similarities between Asia and America (as mentioned by the authors) but other groups in Greenland and the Middle East do too. The R1 haplogroup (not mentioned by the authors) which shows up frequently in Native Americans from eastern North America also shows up frequently in the Middle East and Europe.
And importantly, a presence of Asian haplogroups in modern Native Americans does not clearly establish what this means demographically. For example, a landing of a few Asian men in a culture with a few nubile girls – assuming reproductive success in their descendants – could easily account for the presence of Asian markers in most of the people making up that culture in later generations, even though only a few Asian immigrants actually settled initially. This sort of thing is what geneticists refer to as a bottleneck and it is a well-established phenomenon. Claims that a high percentage of Asian markers proves an exclusive (or near exclusive) genetic relationship (including many large colonizing fleets) is stretching what we can know from these findings.
On another topic, Menzies and Hudson uncover a bit of evidence that is quite interesting. It involves the research of Jerry Warsing on Machado-Joseph disease. This is a congenital disease that exists in Yunnan China as well as among some Native Americans of Eastern North America. Warsing has evidence that the disease existed in America before the Portuguese (having picked it up in China) could have brought it to America. This deserves to be looked at more closely. One possible explanation might be that the Portuguese brought the disease to the Azores from which it was taken to America quite early in the 16th Century. But it may also be a real bit of evidence of a Chinese presence in pre-Columbian America.
Another interesting part of the book is the travel narratives given by Menzies. These show up in a couple of the chapters and are, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the book. In fact I wish that more time had been spent discussing these trips, especially the museum and archaeological stops in Asia Minor. Some of the conclusions drawn from these trips are difficult to accept outright, but they need further exploration. If Menzies and Hudson are right, it will change a good deal about how we see the ancient world.
For example, one of Menzies’s trips involves the retracing of the Silk Road. He does so in order to discount the importance of this ancient highway connecting Asia and the Middle East. This denial is then used to bolster the importance of Chinese seafaring as an alternative means of exploration and trade. Menzies, after only giving brief details of his various stops, comes to what he calls the end of the Silk Road at a place called Jiayuguan. He then claims that the extension of the ancient Silk Road beyond this point is dubious.
For anyone the least bit interested in the Silk Road, this denial of a complete land route between the Middle East and Asia will come as a bit of a shock. There is a vast literature and substantial archaeological evidence establishing its existence and its extent. That the authors can so summarily dismiss this significant body of evidence is unfortunate.
The authors might instead have looked more closely at the maritime silk route which is becoming better understood in recent decades. This route extends along a handful of coastal cities extending from southern China around India and to Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Menzies is well aware of this route. He has contributed to our understanding of it in his previous books. Significantly, the maritime route is one of the least controversial parts of his Chinese paradigm and it doesn’t need to be bolstered by denying the importance of the overland routes.
If Menzies has a better argument for downplaying the overland route, I would like to see an enlargement of his claims. Such an effort would need to draw upon the extensive literature already available and include more firsthand knowledge of Asian geography (which he has already started).
More plausible are the arguments Menzies and Hudson make about the importance of early seafaring in the Mediterranean. Here there is a growing body of evidence that aligns nicely with the authors’ claims that ancient seafaring was more widespread than we used to think.
In Chapter 5 (Mastery of the Oceans Before Columbus) the authors reproduce four Minoan seals showing ancient watercraft. Their conclusion is fairly straightforward: this kind of evidence establishes the fact that early man could have ventured into the Ocean. And by extension, the Chinese could subsequently have done so as well.
I would like to add a little bit to this view, however. The Minoan seals do, in fact, establish a very early Mediterranean maritime tradition. But they do more than that. They also suggest that this tradition may have been established in Egypt before it was established in Crete. This is important because there is evidence that ancient Egyptians made it to America before Columbus – and probably before the Chinese.
Menzies and Hudson argue that the Minoan vessels would have been made of cedar and oak. I would argue differently, that they show evidence of being made by reeds – or at least that they are shaped in a way that was established by reed predecessors.
The Minoan seals show a concave shape of the hulls with ropes that extend from the center to the ends of the ship. Thor Heyerdahl argued many years ago that this is the required infrastructure for reed boats. Such watercrafts are made by bundling together hundreds of dried reeds. These bundles are themselves tied together in even larger bundles and secured together to form the base of the boat.
A corollary of this form of vessel is that the ends tend to taper off and are less strong in open seas – tending to fall apart. To avoid this, ancient ship builders devised the method of strengthening the ship ends by securing them to a rope extending from a pole or structure in the middle of the craft. This arrangement also tends to give the vessel a concave shape. This is all quite apparent in these seals. For a full account see Heyerdahl’s book Ancient Man and the Ocean.
In recent years, new evidence has emerged to make this Egyptian presence in America seem likely. Svetla Balabanova discovered a few years ago that New World cocaine and nicotine are present in some Egyptian mummies. And it has been known for some time that interesting similarities exist between Micmac writings, the Davenport Stele, and other New World inscriptions and Egyptian hieroglyphs. So, while I agree with the conclusion dawn by Menzies and Hudson (that the Minoan seals are evidence of early maritime activity) I also think that this evidence should be seen in the larger context of multiple colonization events in Ancient America.
Finally, I would like to comment briefly on the more controversial pre-Columbian Chinese map that Menzies and Hudson have uncovered showing essentially the entire continent of North America. This map, discovered by a Chinese lawyer Liu Gang (and subsequently named the Liu Gang Map), is a dual hemisphere map showing the Old World in the left hemisphere and the New World in the right.