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The Curious Case of Gavin Menzies

January 28, 2015

The last book I read in 2014 was Who Discovered America? The Untold History of the Peopling of the Americas by Gavin Menzies. If you’d seen me reading in the last few days of the year, you’d have seen me alternating between hysterical laughter and flabbergasted outrage. Why? Because while Menzies might be aiming at a good and interesting point, he manages to miss his claims by miles on too many occasions to count. It was an enjoyable read overall—I haven’t laughed that hard at a book in at least six months.

First off, context. The world I’m writing in at the moment is grounded in the history of North and South America, and other bits of the past that intersect with said history. Because I’ve always been interested in conspiracies and fringe theories, from an academic standpoint, I’m incorporating some of said theories into the world as well, because it makes for a more interesting (and more diverse) foundation. Also, I don’t see why some of those theories can’t have happened, so there’s that, too.

This means Menzies’ book is pretty much ideal for me. (I was actually gifted it by people who know where my project is headed.) For those of you who don’t know, he’s a British naval officer turned controversial but bestselling historian. The reasons for the controversy should become obvious as you keep reading.

Who Discovered America? is the fourth of Menzies’ books, if I’m counting right. It’s basically an addition to the previous ones, as far as I can tell, which is both good—new info!—and bad—refers to previous work too much! He’s got a host of genetic, species, and cultural data that “prove” an extensive Chinese presence all over the Americas and wants to tell us all about it.

I admit, some of his data is compelling. The plants, animals, genes, and diseases that he claims flowed from China to North and South America are, with a couple exceptions, something I’m prepared to accept. Ditto some of the linguistic evidence, and maybe the similarities in artistic traditions (Olmec figurines look like Chinese figurines of the same era, for example, though he doesn’t show the Chinese ones). He claims there are traditional Chinese anchors off the coast of Los Angeles, Chinese writing on Olmec monuments, and European maps showing the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas before those were mapped by Europeans. All this I’m prepared to accept at, or close to, face value.

But then things get tenuous.

See, a lot of his evidence is either personal opinion and experience, or is explained poorly, or contains leaps of logic, or is just as easily explained by convergent evolution of cultures. This sort of thing is what had me laughing hysterically—and that’s before we hit the random bits of travelogue and the chapter-long side notes about the Egyptians and Minoan Crete.

I’m not a historian myself and I freely admit that I haven’t looked at the articles he cites or done research to verify his claims. It’s too soon into my research and writing process for that, I think. But it does mean that yeah, okay, I might be poking the wrong sort of holes in his argument. I don’t think so, though.

Menzies claims the theory that indigenous Americans crossed the Bering Land Bridge, and that widely-held belief that the Silk Road spanned the whole of Asia, are both complete hokum. They must be, because he, in the 21st century, could not manage it and because nobody would want to make those trips when they could be set upon by bandits at any time. This is, of course, assuming that the incentives didn’t outweigh the danger, and the merchants couldn’t fight and didn’t own weapons. Oh, and the Bering Land Bridge would’ve been “too cold to survive.”

He says that because the Chinese and the Central Americans both built step pyramids and had feline cults (tigers, jaguars), there must have been contact. That because there are similarities of dress, medicine, religion, and mythology, there must have been contact. Never mind that the pyramids are only superficially similar, that if you live near large cats you’re probably going to think they deserve respect, and that people on two separate continents could, conceivably, think red was an important color independent of each other….

He points out that indigenous American DNA is similar to Eastern Asian DNA, and says this is evidence of Chinese presence. I’m more of the opinion that the two populations were one (Asian) population before the Land Bridge migration.

He has an almost unreadable map “drawn by Marco Polo“, and several other maps drawn before the “official” history, but which I’ve seen alternate explanations for. I also think he’s assuming that everything written on medieval and renaissance maps was absolutely true to reality, and that nobody ever invented land masses, Northwest Passages, or renamed things for political ends.

He claims his species and genetic evidence supports thousands of Chinese people settling the Americas over hundreds of years. I have no idea how he got to that number. His evidence really doesn’t support it, unless we’re assuming that nobody south of the Arctic Circle walked there and that everyone came by boat from China—within the last 2500 years or so, since that’s when China first had ocean-going capabilities. Funny that we’ve got evidence of wide-spread indigenous settlement long before that, eh? He doesn’t mention where they got the boats for that.

He points to an area of northern Peru where all the local place names seem to translate nicely into medieval Chinese but have no connection to other local languages, and says there was a city there that the Spanish called “the City of Chinese Silk” because the locals were trading in that when the Spanish got that. That’s all quite interesting, and I’m all for a Chinese-influenced trading port, but the place names …

Okay, so I majored in linguistics in university. There are these things called language isolates, meaning languages with no connection to surrounding tongues and which grew in isolation—hence the term. There’s nothing saying this language wasn’t one of those and the Chinese connection is wishful thinking. That’s actually what I’m leaning towards, because he also says the totem of totem pole sounds like a Chinese word of similar meaning and that this is evidence of connection. Except that totem pole is what White people call them, and we got the word from the Ojibwe, not the Salish peoples.

He says the Mormon story of American settlement, that one of the Tribes of Israel came here, was driven out by invaders, and the Mormons are reclaiming the land, is evidence of Chinese presence, the Chinese being, obviously, a Tribe of Israel. I’m fairly sure that story arose wholesale in the 1820s, though. (Or, I don’t believe that Joseph Smith found and translated a book that contained that story.)

And so on, and so on. What really gets me about the book, apart from the fast and loose approach to facts and logic, is that he’s essentially saying that the indigenous peoples of the Americas could not have had their own civilizations without Chinese help, that they were incapable of being more than hunter-gathers before the Chinese taught them about stone buildings, religion, medicine, etc. I may be white and therefore unqualified to talk about race, but … that seems racist.

To sum up: some interesting theories and artifacts turned up in the book, some or all of which I might use in my world-building at some point because why not, but I am going to research the heck out of anything I use because I wouldn’t trust Menzies’ facts to be genuinely factual. (Good policy on anything, but, I think, especially with Menzies.) Unfortunately, to get at the good stuff one has to sift through a whole lot of weak arguments and irrelevant passages, and any critical mind is, well, this critical mind just wrote almost 700 words poking holes and it was just covering the stuff that got under its skin.

Don’t regret reading the book. Wish he’d stuck closer to facts and steered clear of opinion and personal bias.

Oh well. Moving on.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    February 7, 2015 7:18 am

    Too bad Menzies was so sloppy! Thanks for the review.

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