Geotagged at the Royal Geographical Society, London (51.50113,-0.17544)

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

Old maps can be valuable. Old maps that show key parts of history, such as "I got here first", are valuable. Old maps that seem to show that someone else got there first are extremely valuable and can verge on priceless. The prospect of large amounts of money and potential fame can make faking a map that says "you didn't get there first, someone else did" a very attractive proposition. But if you're going to fake a map, there's right ways to do it and there's wrong ways to do it.

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?.


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.


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

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user