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The Pinta, Santa Maria, and a Chinese junk?

A new book claims the Chinese discovered America in 1421, but historians refute thesis.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2003

To the Norsemen, the Japanese, and the Carthaginians; to the Irish, the Africans, and a long list of others who, it is claimed, crossed the oceans to America long before 1492, add one more: the Chinese.

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They toured up and down both coasts of the Americas, established colonies, made maps, and left behind chickens. That, at least, is the theory posed by former British naval officer and amateur historian Gavin Menzies.

What is surprising is not so much the claims themselves but the buzz they've created in popular culture both here and in Britain - especially given that few professionals in the field find his case convincing.

Mr. Menzies's book, "1421: The Year China Discovered America," has sold more than 75,000 copies since it hit British shelves in October. It debuted in the US at No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list earlier this month. Mr. Menzies, who reportedly received an $800,000 advance from Bantam, has appeared on TV and radio. He's been profiled in the New York Times magazine. A PBS documentary is close behind.

"He's come up with a story people want to believe in," marvels Gillian Hutchinson, curator of cartography at London's National Maritime Museum who heard Menzies give a lecture last spring at the Royal Geographic Society. "There was almost a religious fervor in the audience."

This isn't the first time a tale of preColumbian discovery has captured the popular imagination. Thor Heyerdahl's 1950 book "Kon-Tiki" claimed that ancient Peruvians crossed the Pacific by raft - and documented his own attempt to emulate them. Then there was Harvard marine biologist Barry Fell, who translated scratches on rocks as ogham script, claiming evidence of Asian, African, and Celtic exploration. And many an Irishman insists the first person to reach America was none other than Brendan the Navigator, a 6th-century Irish monk.

Before Christopher Columbus was born

But Menzies's tale, which looks at a well-documented voyage by a Ming Dynasty fleet in 1421, is more specific in its assertions than most theories. In his version, a fleet led by admiral Zheng He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and then split up. One group explored South America, Antarctica, and Australia, while other ships toured Central and North America, circled Greenland, learned to measure longitude, and established settlements. Menzies says all records of the voyages were later destroyed.

For evidence of his theory, Menzies casts a broad net, citing shipwrecks, anchor stones, language, and maps that he says helped guide Columbus and Magellan. The historian points to a map the Portuguese had by 1428 that suggested some Caribbean islands long before any European was known to have traveled there. Menzies believes the chart was derived from Chinese explorations.

The book is more detective novel than history, with Menzies as the Hercule Poirot who pieces together the clues, helped by his navigation experience. "If I have found information that escaped [eminent historians]," he writes, "it is only because I knew how to interpret the extraordinary maps."

There's just one problem: Mainstream historians consider the book hogwash.