Were the Spanish conquistadors the first outsiders to discover Mexico, or did the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica have visitors from the East?
Mainstream archaeology does not accept any pre-Columbian contact between the old and new worlds, except for what has been accepted as the Bering Strait theory – please note it is considered a theory – of how the Americas were populated from Asia via the land bridge during the last ice age tens of thousands of years ago. Anything after that initial age of the first migrations to this continent is dismissed by the mainstream. There have been a few mainstream archaeologists who have pondered if other Asian visits occurred based on their many years of study in the field. Two of note were Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Michael Coe. Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born in 1905 in Tomsk, in what was then the Russian Empire, and moved with her family to the US in 1915. She graduated with an architecture degree and was interested in reconstructive archaeology, making drawings of archaeological sites of what they used to look like. Over the years her expertise expanded to Maya hieroglyphs and the art of ancient Mexico. She knew she was on pretty shaky ground when she made her assumptions about Chinese influence, but, like her scientific heir, Michael Coe, she was pretty good at making connections and drawing on multiple disciplines to come to conclusions. Coe, one of the world experts on the Maya, with more publications and field experience in the Maya area than most, once said, “When you get far enough back in time in the New World and look at all the facets of life, not only beliefs but social structure and political organization on a very primitive level, you begin to realize that from the aboriginal United States down to southern South America, there is a deep underlying structure that must have come from Asia.”
So, what evidence do we have? Can we see Chinese contact in the archaeological record? Are there eyewitness accounts in the form of legends in Mexico about visitors from the east? What evidence is there in China of contact with the New World?
There have been at least two times during the history of ancient Mexico in which the Chinese may have made contact: during the Shang Dynasty around 1,500 BC and more recently, during the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s. The possible Shang Dynasty visits strangely coincide with the rise of the Olmec civilization of the gulf coast of Mexico. That’s on the east side of Mexico, not the Pacific side. How the Chinese got to the Olmec area is uncertain, but investigators have made comparisons of Olmec art, ritual practices and societal structure with the ancient Chinese. The use of jade, for example, which was never used before in Mexico, began at this time. So did writing and a structured kingship. Similarities exist in art, with statues of men with pointy beards and Asian-looking clothing. The ancient Chinese and the Olmecs shared a cleft-headed god.
An aside on Shang Dynasty writing… Dr. John Ruskamp has identified over 80 petroglyphs in the American Southwest that resemble the old oracle-bone style of writing found in China from around 1,500 BC. So, if the Chinese influence was in Mexico, it also spread a little to the north, as is alleged by this investigator.
There is DNA evidence throughout Mexico in humans and animals, on the west and east coasts of Mexico. Chinese DNA has been found in the Maya people of the Yucatan, the inheritors of the Olmec civilization. Chinese DNA has also been found in indigenous people from the Pacific coastal state of Nayarit.
There has been research done linking Mexico’s iconic Chihuahua dog to the Chinese. The Chihuahua has long since been accepted as having descended from the xoloescuintle or hairless dogs of the ancient Aztecs, but in addition to showing descent from the scuintles modern-day Chihuahuas have DNA linked to the miniature ancient court dogs of imperial China. Were these Chihuahua ancestors carried on ships to the new world?
Asiatic chickens were also present in Mexico when the Spanish arrived and the ancient Mexicans were using the chickens not only for food but for divination, just like the ancient Chinese. The word in Maya for chicken is ki or chi, depending on the dialect, the word for chicken in Chinese is ji.
The Chinese rose, rosa sinensis, was also found on the west coast of Mexico at the time of the Spanish arrival. How did it get there?
As far as legends in Mexico go, there are many stories of people coming from somewhere else far away. Kukulcan, Votan, Quetzalcoatl and Varicocha in South America all came from across the oceans. There is even a legend from the indigenous people of Nayarit saying that ships as big as houses arrived centuries before the Europeans and those ships were bigger than the European ships.
Some more tenuous evidence is proposed of contact such as the use of lacquerware in central Mexico similar to that of China, the way metal is worked in the same areas, and the use of dyes made from insects, but those cultural practices could have arisen on their own in different parts of the world.
What sort of evidence exists in Asia for contact with the New World? Throughout Chinese history there have been legends and stories of travelers going to far off lands. The locations of many of those lands and how the travelers got there are unknown. Marco Polo, curious enough, reported seeing strange animals in the private zoo of the Great Khan, including a giraffe and a 2-headed deer. The giraffe was from contact with Africa, and that has been well established, but the deer with 2 heads has been interpreted as being a kangaroo. So if the northern Chinese could make it to Australia, it is probable that they traveled beyond.
And now we come to the story of the great Treasure Fleet or the Star Fleet built under the emperor Zhu Di in 1405. This is a historical certainty. Although few, records do exist of this epic fleet. The Treasure Fleet was built to expand the power of the Ming Dynasty, to exact tribute, discover new lands and open up new trade routes with the rest of the world. It was commanded by a Muslim eunuch from southern China who stood almost 7 feet tall named Zheng He. The fleet included 317 ships and over 27,000 men. The largest of the ships measured 400 feet long, which is larger than a football field and almost 5 times the size of ships sailed by Columbus, Magellan and Vasco da Gama, over 70 years later. The fleet went on 7 voyages of exploration between 1405 and 1430 and some believe the fleet was the first to circumnavigate the world. One voyage of the fleet explored the Pacific coast, going up the coast of Asia and down the coast of the Americas and then catching the currents back across the Pacific midway down South America. One voyage is said to have sailed out into the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, skirted the African coast and sailed across the Atlantic to reach the Caribbean and then the mainland of the Americas.
In his book “1421: The Year China Discovered America,” author Gavin Menzies makes the case for these voyages citing Chinese stone monuments and other clues that the Chinese left behind. Some of the author’s most compelling evidence, and the genesis for his original research, came from old European maps that showed lands that Europeans had no firsthand knowledge of. It is the author’s contention that the European explorers I mentioned before – Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama among others – were using copies of older Chinese maps when they were making their own voyages of discovery.
Another curious piece of evidence of contact found in Asia is in the form of a sunken junk found in the Philippines in 1993. The wood used to make the ship was dated to 1410 and it is believed that the junk sank in 1423 during a storm. What was curious was what was found in the 4,722 artifacts recovered. Among them were manos and metates – grinding stones for corn – made of volcanic stone, not found outside of Mexico and South America. They also found a cache of thin ceramics made in the early 1400s from Cholula, Mexico. You have to ask, how did this cargo get on this shipwreck?
There are some things that are missing from the New World that the Chinese could have brought with them that would have markedly enhanced the civilizations of ancient Mexico. I’m thinking of two things here: the horse and the wheel. The lack of the horse and the wheel in the New World at the time of the first European landfalls always poses a problem when one thinks of contact between East and West in ancient times. Something as useful as the wheel would have been picked up and used by the American natives rather quickly, and the horse, too. Strangely, though, the concept of the wheel never made it out of the toy or figurine stage in ancient Mexico. It’s hard to believe, but the ancient Mesoamericans had pull toys for children in the shape of animals with little wheels on them but never used the wheel for any practical purposes in their society as a whole.
REFERENCES (Not a formal bibliography)
1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies
The Aztecs, the Maya and Their Predecessors by Muriel Porter Weaver
America’s First Civilization: Discovering the Olmec by Michael D. Coe
Olmec and Maya Art: Problems of Their Stylistic Relation by Tatiana Proskouriakoff