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Zheng He in the Americas and Other Unlikely Tales of Exploration and Discovery

Mark Newbrook

Skeptical Briefs Volume 14.3, September 2004

In his 2002 book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, Gavin Menzies proposes that both shores of the Pacific were extensively traveled and surveyed by the Chinese in late medieval times, principally by the famous admiral Zheng He. This, the author claims, was the culmination of a centuries- old tradition of advanced science in ancient China. His main evidence involves maps whose date, origin, and cartographic details allegedly prove all this.

Several established scholars have already stated the view that Menzies at the very least overstates his case. He is not without expertise in navigation, though some might suggest that this is heavily slanted in the direction of hands-on experience rather than technical knowledge. He has also obtained support from some academic sources, notably an American astronomer, John Oliver of the University of Florida, who vigorously endorses some of his ideas. But I fail to see how the ancient and medieval Chinese, for all their possibly underrated astronomical prowess, could have “recorded pulsars . . . and neutron stars.”

Menzies is one of a group of writers who have recently argued that telescopes and other optical equipment were invented or perfected much earlier than orthodox historians of science believe; Robert Temple, David Hockney, and Philip Steadman come to mind. There may possibly be some truth to some of these claims, although in my view, Temple—whose work (e.g., Temple 2000) I know best—does not do enough to demonstrate his case. However, even standard nineteenth-century optical telescopes would have been of limited use for locating pulsars or neutron stars.

It must also be pointed out that Menzies puts forward a very one-sided case. For example, he ignores the objections (familiar to regular readers of skeptical books and journals; see e.g., Richardson 1999, 2001; Story 1978) to the views that the Dieppe Maps (sixteenth-century French maps based on sailors’ charts) show Australia and the Piri Re’is Map shows Antarctica (see McIntyre 1977, Hapgood 1996). In fact, he thinks Australia is on the Piri Re’is Map too.

Vinland Map

Vinland Map

The small amount of linguistics in the book is not impressive. In one case, Menzies simply takes the word of a nonexpert source (an Indian bank employee!), who states that a sample of script “looks like” Malayalam and that Malayalam has largely ceased to be spoken. The latter is wildly wrong, and expert sources are readily available. On Australian wrecks and “ruins,” he identifies the Mahogany Ship (supposed to be buried in the sand on the Victorian coast but never actually found; see Loney 1974, McIntyre 1977, Nixon 2001, Nickell 2003) as Chinese. Most writers who believe in that ship think it is probably Portuguese, a relic of that nation’s sixteenth-century voyages to Australia, though the reality of these voyages is itself disputed. As noted, the Portuguese also allegedly provided input to the Dieppe Maps, which are said to show Australia, named “Jave la Grande” there (see again McIntyre 1977).

Menzies even takes the maverick Rex Gilroy seriously on his “Gympie Pyramid” theory (Gilroy 1995). To set the scene: in Australia and New Zealand, there are many unidentified nineteenth-century ruins as well as many rock formations identified by some as ruins. Many of these are proclaimed by Gilroy and others as Egyptian or Phoenician in origin; they accept a diffusionist account of early history rather like that of the early twentieth century’s “Manchester School” of archaeology. One such ruin, in Queensland, is the Gympie Pyramid. This is probably the remains of nineteenth-century vineyard terracing, but Gilroy and his associates, including a local author called Brett Green (Green 2000), believe that the ruinous structures which survive and photographs of now- vanished structures—together with artifacts associated with the site or with neighboring areas—do indeed suggest early settlement of the region by seafaring peoples from Asia and Europe. But—though he is better than Gilroy—Green is very uncritical in handling evidence, including linguistic evidence. Like so many other such writers, Green relies heavily on impressionistic comparisons of isolated, superficially similar forms, in this case, forms in local Aboriginal languages on the one hand and in ancient Mediterranean and Indian languages on the other.

Piri Re'is Map

Piri Re’is Map

Gilroy himself and his counterpart from New Zealand, Ross Wiseman (Wiseman 1998, 2001), actually think that they have found Egyptian and Phoenician inscriptions around Australasia. Some of these are natural formations which they are over-interpreting; others are “genuine” but contain undergraduate-level errors and are surely fakes.

In this context, it is interesting to note that the English-born arch-epigraphist Barry Fell, who is known to American skeptics from his time at Harvard, spent many years in New Zealand and continues to inspire local diffusionist accounts of the early history of that country. Many New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha (nonindigenous New Zealanders), are reluctant to accept the archaeological evidence that human settlement goes back only 1,200 or at most 2,000 years. Some also refuse to accept that pre-nineteenth-century settlement of New Zealand was entirely Polynesian. But so far, no finds have confirmed the diffusionist theories, and the same can be said for Australia.

On the other hand, Gympie is not far from Sarina, where the somewhat more scholarly but eccentric Val Osborn claims to have found a Phoenician port. We may yet hear more of the ancient seafarers who supposedly reached Australian shores long before the seventeenth-century Dutch or even the dreaded sixteenth-century Portuguese (if these ever did reach the Big Brown Land).

Menzies has been joined by Peter Dickson, who had an article in the journal Mercator’s World (Dickson 2002) linking the history of European maps and associated exploration around 1500 c.e. with Menzies’s claims. And, speaking of maps, James Enterline and Kirsten Seaver (the latter of “Vinland Map” fame; while others argue that the map is of genuine medieval origin, she is a leading and highly qualified proponent of the view that the map is indeed a forgery) have been having something of a battle, also in Mercator’s World, about Enterline’s prima facie rather implausible theory that maps of the Arctic originally of Inuit origin circulated in Viking Europe and had major influence on early-medieval voyaging in the area (Enterline 2002a, 2002b, Seaver 2002a, 2002b). Each of them has harsh words to say about the other. My own sympathies are with Seaver, but this too is an ongoing saga.


Mark Newbrook

Mark Newbrook studied classics at Oxford and linguistics at Reading, taking his Ph.D. there in 1982. He has worked as a lecturer and researcher in linguistics in Singapore, Hong Kong, Perth (Western Australia), and Melbourne, and for several years has been the linguistics consultant to Australian Skeptics.