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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.

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"It's absolutely preposterous," laughs Donald Blakeslee, an archeologist at Wichita State University in Kansas, referring to one of the book's claims: that ships with "gilded sterns" had sailed up the Mississippi River and into the Missouri. "A seagoing vessel couldn't have gotten close to that area."

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Dennis Reinhartz, who teaches the history of cartography at the University of Texas at Arlington and is a past president of the Society for the History of Discoveries, agrees. "There's a whole genre of this stuff," he says with a laugh. "People are forever saying this line [on a map] represents this or that ... but it's still shaping a square peg to fit a round hole." Much of the evidence Menzies points to - a mysterious tower in Newport, R.I., for instance, and several 15th-century maps - has been used to support other theories.

None of this, however, takes away from the charm of the author or his story. Read it, or better yet, listen to Menzies for a few minutes, and it's hard to resist his enthusiasm. Charismatic, with a delightful British accent, he sounds like a kid who's just worked out the solution to a particularly tricky riddle.

"There's a flood of new evidence," he exclaims, ticking off a list of clues of Chinese settlements in America.

"So, for New York, the first person who got there was Giovanni de Verrazzano, and in trying to find the Northwest Passage he met people he described as Chinese! In Florida, Pedro Menendez de Aviles found wrecks of Chinese junks in the Atlantic. In Peru, Friar Antonio de la Calancha found pictures people had painted of the Chinese cavalry...." He keeps going, enthusiasm unabated.

Unconventional theories

That exuberance may account for some of the book's popularity. "It's a delightful read," says Nancy Yaw Davis, an independent scholar in Anchorage, Alaska. Dr. Davis understands what it's like to have academics attack a pet theory. Most dismissed her book, "The Zuni Enigma," which described the influence of 13th-century Japanese explorers on Zuni Indians. Though disappointed in some of his evidence, Davis admires Menzies.

"He was gutsy," she says, adding, "I was a wee tad envious. I had hoped my book would generate that kind of recognition."

What is it about discovery theories that can so capture the imagination? "It's about rewriting history," says John Steele, an executive producer of the upcoming PBS documentary, "1421: The Year China Discovered the World." Menzies upends Captain Cook's claim to Australia and Magellan's claim to the first circumnavigation, he notes. "But the thing that really gets everyone is discovering America before Columbus."

The Italian-American community, perhaps the fiercest defender of Columbus's legacy, is used to such challenges. "Every nationality claims to have a Columbus," says Adolfo Caso, author and founder of the Internet-based Dante University. "Regardless of who may have been here before or after, the Europeans met the Indians because of Columbus," he says firmly.

If Menzies is correct - what to do about that well-known rhyme? A visitor to his website, www.1421.tv, offers one suggestion:

"In fourteen hundred twenty-one

China sailed there before anyone."

Just don't look for fifth-graders to be memorizing the couplet anytime soon.

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