[This book review has been published directly on the collected-writings website in March, 2014, without first being published elsewhere.]
Who Discovered America? The Untold History of the Peopling of the Americas
Gavin Menzies and Ian Hudson
William Morrow, 2013
This is Gavin Menzies’ third book since his 2002 best-selling 1421: The Year China Discovered America. We are told by one reviewer that “virtually all historians believe that Menzies’ theories about [Chinese admiral] Zheng He discovering the Americas” are “bunk, the equivalent of Elvis sightings.” Now, more than a decade later, Menzies himself tells us that “my books have been strongly disliked by ‘professional’ historians.” Nevertheless, he has again thrown down the gauntlet, and has even expanded his thesis: instead of discovering America in 1421, Zheng’s fleet was just the last of many waves of Chinese sea-going exploration and settlement going back more than 4,000 years. He cites voluminous evidence of Chinese presence in the Pacific, the west coasts of North and South America, and even along the east coast of North America and as close to Portugal as the Azores.
What are we to think of Menzies’ thesis? Is it an elaborate and fascinating fantasy fraudulently or mischievously presented as fact? The product of a good-faith but mistaken effort? Or a genuinely sound and earth-shaking reexamination of the world’s history before Columbus? If it’s the latter, it will force a vast expansion of our intellectual horizons. Menzies challenges the commonly held “Bering Strait theory” that the Americas were settled by Asian peoples who came across that strait and gradually moved south. But, of course, it isn’t just that theory that will be upset; there will be a wholly new way of conceptualizing the Inca, Olmec, Toltec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations as well as the indigenous peoples of North America; and Europe’s “Age of Exploration” that began with Columbus, though not diminished in significance for what it was, will be made a subset of a much larger historical context.
A threshold issue is whether Menzies’ theories, and the body of evidence supporting them, are to be taken seriously. If they are, we can expect the many aspects to be worked over by archaeologists, historians, geographers, linguists, DNA experts, cartographers and many others over a period of years to arrive at a new consensus, doing so over the objections of any who cling too tenaciously to what is presently the conventional wisdom. Until that is done, those of us who are not experts in any of those areas will be well advised to hold our tongues and await the outcome.
In law, the concept of a “prima facie case” involves asking whether there is sufficient evidence of something to consider it proved unless it is satisfactorily rebutted. At a preliminary hearing in a criminal case in the United States, the court is called upon to determine whether there is “probable cause” to believe the charge. If we apply the same sort of thinking to Menzies’ theories, we see that it applies on two levels. First, does he adduce evidence of a quantity and quality that will allow a general reader –including a reviewer such as the present one – to take his work seriously? And second, is his evidence sufficient to call upon the various experts to give it full consideration?
It would certainly seem that he makes a rather compelling prima facie case at the first of these levels – i.e., the one for general readers. This in itself should, we think, prompt “professionals” to examine the matter seriously, if for no other reason than to prevent the educated layman from being misled. More importantly, they will need to look into it to satisfy themselves. Is there a prima facie case at the expert level? Dismissing Menzies’ thinking out of hand, as preposterous on its face, won’t suffice. Menzies’ Who Discovered America was published quite recently, in October 2013, so it is still too early to tell what the various experts will ultimately do.
So far, we have accepted the generalization that professionals reject his findings. That generalization is not, however, the full story. As we read the book, we find Menzies citing all sorts of experts as the sources for much of what he says. There is an extensive bibliography at the end of the book that lists these sources, broken down by topic areas such as for “DNA evidence” relating to “China in the Americas.” Menzies, in fact, calls himself a mere “popularizer” of information gathered by others (although he is actually more than that, doing much on-the-ground investigation himself). He speaks of Carl L. Johannessen, emeritus professor of geography at the University of Oregon, and John L. Sorenson, emeritus professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University, who have co-authored a recent book Biology Verifies Ancient Voyages. This book follows up on a work by Sorenson that Menzies considered his “bible” in writing his first book. In concluding that “China had the capacity to send massive fleets from Asia to the Americas,” Menzies relies in part on the 1997 book by Prof. K. Gang Deng of the London School of Economics, Chinese Maritime Activities and Socioeconomic Development, c. 2100 B.C.—1900 A.D. For the DNA analyses showing East Asian DNA in the indigenous people of both North and South America, he lists eight studies in leading academic journals such as Science and the American Journal of Human Genetics. One of Menzies’ sources is the books by anthropologist Dr. Gunnar Thompson, including Nu Sun that “tells the story of Asian voyages to America from 500 B.C. to 900 A.D.” By mentioning these, we have just scratched the surface, since Who Discovered America? makes repeated reference to academic sources. Since a respective source may pertain to just one part of Menzies’ overall picture, it shouldn’t be assumed, of course, that each of them will necessarily agree with his larger thesis; they may or may not.
Co-author Ian Hudson has been assisting Menzies since 2002. He has set up the Menzies website, and manages the research team. Menzies himself, of course, has been the prime mover. He’s not an academic historian, but a best-selling author from London who has travelled extensively and served for several years as a navigator and operations officer in the British Royal Navy’s submarine service. His series of four books started in 2002 with 1421: The Year China Discovered America, which, as we’ve mentioned, told of Admiral Zheng He’s fleet’s voyage to America 71 years before Columbus. This was followed by 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, the title of which is self-explanatory. Next came The Lost Empire of Atlantis, a study of Minoan civilization and its destruction in the enormous volcanic eruption of 1450 B.C. As we have seen, the final volume returns to and expands upon the subject of Chinese voyages that, he avers, continued for thousands of years until China withdrew into itself for some 500 years. (Menzies says “we have gathered a mountain of new data” since the first book.) Even if readers were to read these books purely as adventure yarns, they would find them captivating.
If the Chinese exploration and settlement thesis is to be taken seriously, it is essential to recount Menzies’ many forms of evidence. We find that the expression “the devil is in the details” didn’t originate with Shakespeare as we had supposed it might, but it nevertheless has a good application here.
1. Menzies has what seem to be persuasive reasons to reject the presently-accepted Bering Straits theory. Even though “scientists continue to claim that America was populated by waves of people crossing the Bering Strait from Siberia,” he says “only armchair academics could believe” this. “It is a thousand-mile trek across Siberia to reach the strait – without fruit or berries or trees for wood to make water from ice.” This raises for Menzies “the obvious question: Why should people head north to ever colder regions…? Why not travel by sea with the current to America?” Citing DNA studies, he argues that if multitudes had come down from the north, “one would have expected the intervening peoples between Alaska and the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean to have DNA that gradually mutated” from the one to the other. However, “this is not the case.” The settlement across the strait was said to have started no longer than 12,000 years ago, but an archaeologist at the University of New Mexico has discovered “the Sandia Cave,” with “clear evidence that the site had been occupied as early as 27,000 B.C.” Additional sites, including the Pedra Ferada site in northeastern Brazil, “have pushed back the reliable evidence on human habitation of the Americas to about 40,000 B.C.,” based on “accepted carbon dating.”
2. Modern science has vastly extended the investigatory tools for historians and archaeologists, just as it has in so many areas. One of these is DNA comparisons allowing a “tracing of genetic inheritance.” Menzies cites a 2006 book by an Australian plant geneticist which reports that “more than seven thousand DNA samples were procured, from 175 recognized indigenous Native American peoples,” showing that “96.5 percent of indigenous Native American people “ had maternally-inherited DNA from four lineages “found only in Asian populations and nowhere else in the world.” Menzies says that while “no indigenous American DNA has yet been found in Chinese people,” a Dr. Tony Frudakis reported in 2005 that there is a “substantial and statistically significant East Asian admixture in the DNA of Indigenous American peoples….” We are told that “the Inca people of Ecuador have significant East Asian DNA.” The admixture among the Incas is so great that “their DNA could almost be called Chinese.” The “perfectly preserved frozen body” of a young girl killed in a ritual sacrifice in about 1440 A.D. “was taken to Tokyo University for DNA tests and carbon dating,” which showed “substantial Chinese (Taiwanese) admixture.” East Asian DNA has also been found among the indigenous peoples on the east coast of what is now the United States, and among the native peoples of the Azores. Japanese, Menzies says, sailed with the Chinese fleets, with the effect that, as reported by Dr. Nancy Yaw Davis in her book The Zuni Enigma, the Zuni Indians of New Mexico and Arizona have DNA that “shows remarkable closeness to Japanese DNA.” (Davis also tells of biological and linguistic parallels between the Zunis and Japanese.)
3. Menzies points to a number of instances in which plants and animals of East Asian origin were present in the Americas before Columbus:
. “The skeletons of melanotic chickens indigenous to Southeast Asia had been found by the first conquistadors to reach Peru – but they had also turned up in tombs or burial grounds dated long before the conquistadors arrived.”
. He says that Sorenson and Johannessen, judging by pollen testing and DNA analysis, consider it “decisive evidence” of pre-Columbian voyages that 99 plant species indigenous to Asia were already present in the Americas. The transference from Asia included disease organisms, which they say could not have been carried by wind or ocean currents.
. “Hookworm infestation,” Menzies says, “has long been traced to Asia, and later to Africa,” but “work by Samuel Taylor Darling and Olympio da Fonseca showed that hookworm had infested Amazon Indian populations prior to the arrival of Columbus….” Menzies writes of “the presence of hookworm in a Peruvian mummy dating to 900 A.D. Other studies of mummies and fossilized human excrement also indicate this… One study by Brazilian scientists, in fact, traced hookworm to remains found in Brazil and dated to before 5000 B.C.”
. He writes that “various strangely anomalous plants and trees of Chinese origin were found in Virginia and North Carolina before they could have been propagated by the first [European] settlers.” Across the continent, in California, “there is a huge selection of foreign plants and animals found along the coastline. Not least are Chinese roses and hibiscus… Monterey pines, indigenous to China… The peach [that] originated in China… Asian-type wild horses….”
4. There is evidence, Menzies says, that diseases indigenous to Asia were brought to the Americas and elsewhere. A parasitic infection known as Tokelau Disease, centered on the Malay Peninsula and present across the Pacific and in several parts of China and Asia, was found “in 1928 among native Indian people of the Mato Grosso area in Brazil” extremely isolated far up the Amazon River. Menzies also discusses the “Machado-Joseph disease, an often fatal, autosomal dominant motor disorder,” which is passed by a defective gene and which was “prevalent in the south-central Chinese province of Yunnan.” He says a researcher has found that “the Mingo and Melungeon people of the Southeastern United States” have had “a very high incidence of Machado-Joseph disease.” Even such a thing as fleas, a prominent disease-carrier, has come under study. The fleas carried by Asian pigs, which “differ markedly from the fleas on European pigs,” have been found on wild pigs on Kangaroo Island off South Australia, again illustrating the reach of Asian exploration.
5. Menzies points to many overlaps between Asian culture and the ancient civilizations of the Americas. “There are Chinese customs practiced across thousands of square miles of Central America: worshipping ancestors; killing black chickens; making paper ornaments; the children’s tale of the rabbit in the moon; the ceremonial use of jade; the same colors used to denote cardinal points of the compass; red clothes worn at funerals; making alcohol by chewing and spitting grain; the use of Chinese stills; using backstrap looms.” He says “Olmec and Mayan art in its various glorious forms is almost indistinguishable from Chinese art of the Shang and Han dynasties in all manner of media – superbly carved jade; funerary objects; animal heads on human bodies; jade plugs between the teeth of the deceased; jade face masks made of small rectangular jade pieces; small axes used for money; lions with expressive teeth; Olmec pottery with Shang dynasty inscriptions; the feline cult; concave mirrors; tripod cooking vessels….”
He adds to these that “in both China and Chile… they make similar types of lassos; and the Chinese and Peruvian method of treating smallpox is the same: they cover pockmarks with milk.” Moreover, “the Peruvian use of quipu strings – a system used for accounting – is the same as in China.”
We could go on at considerable length with similar evidence given by Menzies, all of it fascinating and instructive about the many aspects of the varied cultures. Our purpose, however, cannot be to do more than to give our readers an idea of the sorts of evidence Menzies cites. The book is brief (only 308 pages including the Index and long sections of endnotes and bibliography) and engagingly readable.
Is there enough to call upon experts to take the thesis of long-term Chinese exploration and settlement of the Americas and elsewhere seriously? It would appear so.
Dwight D. Murphey