If Columbus Or The Vikings Didn’t Discover America, Maybe The Chinese Did? Or Maybe Not

It seems that maps that show that Columbus didn’t get to the Americas first hold a particular fascination for map faking. Back in June of this year I wrote about the debunking of the map of Vinland which purported to show that a Norse expedition, led by Leif Ericson, got to Newfoundland in the 11th Century.

Of course the Vikings didn’t discover the Americas 300 years before Columbus, it was the Chinese some 70 years before Columbus. At least that’s what the somewhat controversial historian Gavin Menzies claims in a book which doesn’t pull any punches in its title … Who Discovered America?.

zheng-he-map-whole

Although this particular tale of cartographic controversy first arose in 2006, it’s only now that Menzies has published his book; this is what Menzies has to say about the map.

It was found in a second-hand bookshop in Beijing by attorney and antiquities collector Liu Gang. The map is an 18th century copy of a map made in 1417 by Admiral (and eunuch) Zheng He. The map clearly shows North American rivers and coasts and the South American coastline. The map was authenticated by Christie’s auction house who attest that it’s very old (my emphasis). Menzies had the text on the map analysed and based on this analysis, he concludes that it was written during the Ming Dynasty, which lasted between 1368 and 1644.

So there you have it. Conventional history is wrong. Columbus didn’t get to the Americas first, nor did the Vikings, it was the Chinese all along. Time to rewrite all those history books and update Wikipedia.

But not so fast. The proof of a theory is that it stands up to scrutiny. How does the copy of Admiral He’s map fare on this count? Enter Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore, Dr. Geoff Wade. Dr. Wade takes a slightly differing stance and certainly doesn’t mince his words on this map.

I remain convinced that this “1763/1418” map is a 21st-century fake. It was certainly produced by someone educated in simplified characters (meaning under the PRC in the last 50 years) and the purpose of the map is to support the Menzies thesis (and so it was produced within the last four years).

That’s a fairly strong statement. You would hope that Dr. Wade can back up this rebuttal. It turns out he can.

zheng-he-map-detail

Firstly he points out that the map shows both hemispheres of the world, but that this is a tradition exclusive to European cartographers. The map also shows California as an island, a cartographical error which was almost universal in European maps of the 17th. century.

If you have a map with two hemispheres, this shows an underlying belief that the world is a sphere. To unroll a sphere onto a flat map, you need knowledge of map projections. But no other maps from the Ming period show such a belief or the use of projections.

There’s a lot of detail in the map such as rivers, lakes and mountains. How would a maritime cartographer know of all of these? The map does fit in the sphere of European knowledge but is an anomaly when compared to other Chinese maps of the same period.

If the map is produced in China, why is the detail of that country so poor? Why are the Himalayas marked as the highest mountains in the world on a map purportedly made in 1417 when this fact only became known in the 19th. century?

Why does the map use Chinese names for places that either had been changed by 1417 or hadn’t come into existence at that time? Such as the Great Qing Ocean used to describe the seas off of the coast of China combined with the fact that the Qing Dynasty didn’t start until some 230 years later?

According to Dr. Wade at least, this copy of Admiral He’s map is plainly a fake. To be fair, the jury still seems to be out on this particular piece of cartographical history.

Gavin Menzies says it proves the Chinese got to America before Columbus. Dr. Wade takes the proof and rips it apart.

So who did get to the Americas first? There continues to be growing evidence that Columbus wasn’t the first. But who was? It may have been the Vikings, although the Vinland map’s authenticity looks shaky. It may have been the Chinese, though Admiral He’s map probably isn’t genuine. Someday empirical and genuine proof may emerge; I get the feeling that whoever did discover the Americas, it wasn’t one of the current cast of suspects.

Image credits: Liu Gang via io9.com.
Written and posted from the Royal Geographical Society, London (51.50113, -0.17544)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.

8 Comments

Vanessa Murdock

Nice piece! …although the word “discover” is a funny word as North and South America were well populated at the time…

Gary

Of course, this is extremely European-centric and betrays the school of thought that a country couldn’t possibly be considered discovered unless it’s by a European colonial power.

It does remind me of the scene from Eddie Izzard’s Dress To Kill

But in America, it was different. The founding fathers landed in 16 ( mumbles ). They set off from Plymouth and landed in Plymouth! How lucky is that? “This is Plymouth? We’ve just come from Plymouth! We’ve gone round in a circle. Lads, back on the boats.” They finally got there and said, “Ah, this is where our God has brought us to! We can practice our religion here, we can raise a family. There’s nobody here! Excuse me… There’s nobody here! Yes, a land empty of human existence… Who the fuck are these guys? ( mimes the headdress) What’s all this, please? No, we don’t want any of your food, thank you very much! Just put some clothes on!”

Meanwhile, that winter… “Excuse me, do you have any food?(mimes the headdress) I love all this, love the idea! ( chuckles ) Yes, I’m sorry, we were a bit brusque when we first arrived, we didn’t realize you owned the entire country! But you have no system of ownership? Mmm, interesting! Maybe that can come in useful later… Food! Thank you very much, very nice… Yes, there’re more of us coming but we’ll keep our promises.” So the American government lied to the Native Americans for many, many years, and then President Clinton lied about a relationship, and everyone was surprised! A little naïve, I feel!

… but then again, a lot of things remind me of Mr. Izzard.

Bad Boy Scientist

People quibble over the meaning of the word discover – How could you discover a land that is inhabited? How could a Hollywood producer ‘discover’ a new movie star who is a person that’s been wandering around for years? How could I ‘discover’ a great ‘new’ tapas bar?

Maybe we need to use a lower-case discover to mean learning something new (to you) without being told by others – this usage covers students discovering scientific principles through inquiry-based learning as well as Columbus discovering the New World … and also my discovering great places to eat.

Then, of course, we need a capital ‘D’ Discover that means being the first to learn or find something.

Using these terms, sure Columbus discovered the Americas but they were Discovered over 10,000 years ago. The sundry others who discovered this land in between the first Discovery and Columbus’ discovery are interesting but certainly not worth all the attention they get.

Gary

You’re absolutely right and I referred to that settlement in my post on the Vinland map; indeed the Wikipedia article you mention says that (dating to around the year 1000) L’Anse aux Meadows remains the only widely accepted instance of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. Is a single instance sufficient to prove this? To my mind, probably, but of course, not everyone agrees and I’m pretty comfortable predicting that this topic will run and run for a good few years yet.

andrew zolnai

… of course your story – a very good one at that – is euro-centric. I thought the amerindians got there first LOL tho that in itself is a whole other kettle of fish (sans maps, um afraid LOL2)

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