Wednesday, February 11, 2009

1421: An Introduction

I have terrible news for all of my readers who come for the refreshing lack of discussion of the topic of history. On my way home from work today I stopped and picked up a copy of Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered America. I've been aware of the book and its fairly obvious thesis for a while and haven't really bothered to care. For those who don't know, the author posits that the Chinese discovered America seventy-one years before Columbus. There's really nothing wrong with this proposition. The Chinese of the Ming Dynasty were fine sailors with skills that exceeded any comparable European sailors save the Vikings. We know that Polynesians in outrigger canoes managed to cross and colonize vast swaths of the Pacific, so certainly Chinese sailors could have reached America if they'd put forth the effort. All in all, it's an interesting theory, but one that's not overly attention grabbing unless you're in to that sort of thing. Over the weekend I was watching an old episode of Ancient Discoveries on The History Channel. Ancient Discoveries is a great show. It's like Mythbusters for the history nerd. They find some crazy account of a historical device, then have some historians, military experts, and other helpful people try to figure out if it was possible. So they go out and try to re-create Greek Fire (which they did, it was awesome. Greek Fire was one of those, "We'll never know how they did it, ah, well," things, too) or use vinegar and fire to try to destroy rocks to prove whether or not Hannibal's engineers were able to cut a path down a sheer rock face over the course of a few days (also totally awesome). Most of the time they find out that ancient people were totally ingenious and that the things historians claimed happened were possible. Then I saw an episode on Chinese super ships. For the most part it was fascinating. The Chinese had a unique set of problems related to control of inland waterways and may well have solved their unique problems with truly bizarre ships that were basically floating citadels. It was all very credulous. Until they brought in Gavin Menzies, his 1421 theory, and Chinese junks the size of cruise liners. I then began to learn that the 1421 theory went far, far beyond showing up and planting a flag. Supporters of the theory spoke breathlessly about how if they could prove it, the discovery that did it would turn history on its head. I'm also not entirely certain, but I think that someone tried to make the claim that the colonization of America by ancient people via the Bering Strait land bridge was preposterous and it made a hell of a lot more sense to say the Chinese colonized America. By boat, apparently. A few decades before Columbus showed up. To their credit, the Ancient Discoveries people brought in a real expert. They interviewed Dr. Stephen Davies, the Director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Davies pointed out interesting things, like the fact that modern Pacific Ocean currents and weather patterns would actually have to have been moving in exactly the opposite direction in the 1400s for the 1421 theory to hold. Like any good historian, however, he allowed that the view we have of history is ever-changing. Those who wish to change the picture, however, need actual evidence, not flights of fantasy and mostly fictional accounts. And when I say "flights of fantasy," I mean it. The tail end of the episode was dedicated to the search for a 15th Century Chinese shipwreck in Oregon. The lead guy in the field team showed up at a likely spot (for the life of me I can't figure out why that spot was regarded as likely) and started walking around with divining rods while a lackey followed him and planted red flags every couple of feet. They then pulled out some equipment and drilled for a core sample forty feet down. They were looking for wood. You know, from a Chinese junk. Forty feet below an Oregon sand dune. That they'd been exploring with divining rods and, apparently, dead reckoning. This is not how history is done. It's not how archaeology is done, either. Gavin Menzies and his people apparently regard themselves as latter-day Heinrich Schliemanns. For those who don't know, ol' Heinrich was an amateur historian and archaeologist from the 1800s who had this crazy idea that the Troy of the Illiad was real. So he followed clues in Homer's work and, lo and behold, found Troy. Emboldened by this discovery, he went over to Greece and found Mycenae, too. Nobody believed him until he did it. He left a crazy man and came back a legend. The guy on the dune in Oregon left a crazy man and went back home one, too. They found some bits of wood forty feet down in that dune. There wasn't enough to be tested in a lab. So what did they do? Two other guys got out the divining rods, walked around, and confirmed that, yup, the first guy got it right. So they must have just had the misfortune to drill in to a really thin part of the decking of the Chinese ship that was most assuredly buried down there. Did I mention that this isn't how history or archaeology is done? Either way, when you're basically inventing your location out of thin air and wishful thinking because the evidence you have on hand is less conclusive than Homer's Illiad, you're doing something terribly, terribly wrong. Oh, Dr. Davies mentioned, too, that there are probably lots of wrecked Chinese junks littering the west coast of the United States. There was a pretty big wave of Chinese immigration to the United States in the 19th Century, you see. So even if they had found a junk in that dune, they would have had the burden of proof on them to make sure it didn't have a much more mundane and recent explanation. Either way, this combination of bad history, bad archaeology, relentless self-aggrandizement, and the distinct odor of bat-shit crazy True Believers piqued my curiosity. I figured I'd pick up 1421, leaf through it, and compare it to, shall we say, respectable history. I think I'll make a series of it, something like Left Behind Fridays and not like my series on Wild at Heart. I'm thinking I'll actually pick a day and do a weekly post, but probably not on Fridays... History is, by its very nature, chronological. I'm going to actually go through 1421. I haven't read the book myself yet, so it will mostly be first impressions. And, I hope, snark. Hang on and enjoy the ride. And try to get over your shock that there's actual historical content here at Accidental Historian...


peanutsnraisins said...

Holy crap. I haven't read the book or seen the show (I hadn't even heard of the theory until this post), but it all sounds pretty entertaining, in the train-wreck sort of way that bad science is capable of.

I have to ask, though- are you kidding about the divining rods? Is that a euphemism for hokey "scientific" equipment (like ghost hunters), or are we talking serious dowsers here?

PersonalFailure said...

Divining rods? Seriously? No, really?

The first clue you are not engaged in science is that you are holding divining rods in your hands.

Geds said...

I'm dead serious.

The man was standing in front of the camera holding two sticks. He explained matter-of-factly that his subconscious mind was aware of where the wood was buried forty feet below the dune and his subconscious mind directed his hands to move the sticks. This, combined with the fact that they didn't find anything remotely useful but were still sure they'd find something, gave me the distinct stench of True Belief.

There are plenty of stories that go, "They didn't believe in us, but look what we found," in archeology, but there are plenty of people who moved a lot of dirt and found nothing. It's okay to believe and follow your belief, but there has to be some logic and system behind it. It's why I bring up Schliemann as a believer whose faith was justified.

The entire shipwreck theory is bizarre, too. It's based on the idea that an asteroid hit somewhere off New Zealand at the same time Zheng He was approaching the west coast of the United States and the resulting tsunami hit Oregon just in time to lift one of the ships up to the top of the dunes. The scenario in and of itself is not particularly preposterous. But there is a minor problem in that the likely asteroid impact happened around 1500 CE.

Check the first speech listed here and you'll see an abstract of what a member of the Geological Society of America had to say about the very same event. It's far from exhaustive research on my part, but apparently it's more than the guy with the divining rods did. And I'd tend to trust a geologist over a crazy dude.


Geds said...

Wait. I just had a thought. A horrifying thought.

They might have discovered more than they realized. It's possible that they've actually uncovered the greatest threat the planet has ever known:

Time traveling tsunamis.

They could strike anywhere. At any time.

No one is safe. Unless, of course, they live at least a mile from the shore.

hapax said...

Bad History is even MORE fun than Bad Science, because enough of the really crazy loons are intimidated by mathematics to avoid the latter.

But hey, everybody knows that "history is bunk", so why not Make Shit Up? (Yeah, Dan Brown. I'm looking at YOU)

Srsly, I used to tell people that my principal research interest was in "medieval nuns", until I got so sick of *every* *single* *person* saying, "Oh, yeah, and how about those underground sex tunnels between the convents and the monasteries ?"

So then I switched to "institutional history of female religious" and then I would here, "Yeah, it's like every third nun was floating off the floor, right?"

So then I started adopting nice German compound words like "mittelalterische Nonnegeschichte", watch their eyes glaze over, and change the subject to, "Hey, how 'bout them Yankees?"

Uh. I don't know where that tangential rant came from. Anyways, looking forward to it. How does Menzies deal with Hong Xi's edicts against exploration?

Geds said...

Rants are a-ok. As long as they're at least tangentially related to the topic and non-trollish. Although I am thinking of putting a ban on future evangi-posters. At the moment they amuse me, though...

I'm actually going to get to the whole edict in post three. I've got a couple of background things to work through on the way to the meat and potatoes. Suffice it to say, Menzies used Hong Xi's edict as evidence for his wild cover-up conspiracy theory. It's convenient for the debunker of Dave Cantor's Oregon shipwreck, however, since Menzies would have to admit that there were not Chinese ships off the coast of North America in 1500.

It also makes his follow-up book, about a Chinese fleet that went to Italy and kicked off the Renaissance in 1434 a bit of a head scratcher. He's kind of like Ken Ham, but instead of using Noah's Flood to make insane postulations about non evolution, he uses the closing of Chinese society to make insane postulations about vast Chinese fleets no one else has ever heard of.

GailVortex said...

Time traveling tsunamis.

They could strike anywhere. At any time.

No one is safe. Unless, of course, they live at least a mile from the shore.

Good thing we're in Chicago, huh?

Geds said...

Yeah. The time-traveling tsunamis on Lake Michigan generally come in the form of snow. Annoying, yes. Prone to vast amounts of destruction, not so much.