For centuries, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus has been credited with the discovery of America. However, new evidence has been discovered to topple this theory.

Ancient Chinese markings carved into rocks across the US could necessitate the rewriting of history. Researchers believe that the ancient scripts show the Chinese might have already discovered the country well before the Europeans. The claims are that the pictograms etched on rocks around America that are probably in ancient Chinese script.

This has led to a controversial debate about who discovered America first. One historian argues that Muslims were the first to see America. But people were quick to question his status as a historian.

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Background to America’s Discovery

In 1405, a Chinese Muslim eunuch, Zheng He, launched the first of seven voyages towards the west across the Indian Ocean from China. The Ming emperor funded Zheng and given command of the world’s largest fleet. Over the next 30 years, the admiral sailed to the east coast of Africa and into the Persian Gulf.

A map or general chart of the integrated world was found later which suggests he may have travelled further than this. An 18th-century copy of the Chinese 1418 map could prove that it was Zheng who discovered America first. If this provocative claim is true, then Zheng circumnavigated the globe and discovered America 70 years before Columbus.

Gavin Menzies and the Map

The 18th-century map was brought to the public’s attention by a Liu Gang, a Shanghai lawyer after he bought it from a local bookstore for around $500. He got it out of his private collection in 2006 and showed it to Beijing journalists after reading a book about it.

According to the author of the book Liu read, the map is proof that Zheng navigated through the waters around both poles, the Mediterranean, the Americas and also Australia. The controversial historian, Gavin Menzies, argues in his 2002 book 1412: The Year China Discovered the World that only the Chinese Empire had the resources at that time to make such expeditions.

Looking at the outlines of the continents on the map, you will instantly recognise them. Also, a good number of the depictions are characteristically Chinese. For example, the blue, fan-like waves that appear on the map are part of the cartographic tradition in China. The plan includes textual descriptions of places, and the annotations and detail on the map are quite impressive.

The two hemispheres of the world are clearly represented and are the conventional way of representing the spherical globe on paper in two dimensions. The South and North American contours are quite clear as are the rivers that run from far inland. The Himalayas are marked as the highest mountain range in the world and, incidentally, Zheng was born in the foothills of these mountains.

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What do Historians Think About These Claims?

Historians and scholars are engaged in fierce debate about Menzies’s claims in this and his other books. It is surprising that even chauvinistic Chinese scientists have also rubbished the findings. Their primary concern is with the cartographic portrayal of the Earth as two circles on a flat sheet which, to them, is strikingly European. They also point out the error of depicting California as an island which is the same mistake the Europeans made in their 17th-century maps. For example, a map in Portugal also showed California to be an island. Also, the Arctic first appears on a Chinese map much later in 1593 and the world’s largest mountain range was only identified as such in the 19th century.

Menzies does not only claim that the Chinese explored the world well before Columbus and other Europeans, but he also says the Europeans used the original Chinese maps to circumnavigate the globe on their voyages. He says they built structures and exported fauna too.

Dr Geoff Wade, a historian with the National University of Singapore, has critically addressed many of Menzies’s claims his book and even filed a complaint against the book’s publishers for marketing it as history rather than fiction. Wade highlights several major flaws in Menzies’s research and debunks his evidence.

Wade says the map does not depict the world as a sphere, and neither did the Chinese at the time of the Ming Dynasty know about latitudes and longitudes. Also, the representation of China on the map is inaccurate, so if the map was drawn by the Chinese then is their country represented so poorly?

Wade believes the map was artificially created in the 21st century to back up Menzie’s bizarre theory and was based on old maps drawn up by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. If this can be proved, then Menzies’s theory holds no academic weight. Menzies wrote that shipwrecks from Chinese explorations are scattered across the ocean, but none have been found. Buildings and observation towers were also supposed to have been built by these explorers in places as far as Australia and the Caribbean, but there is no archaeological evidence for this yet.

In the end, discovery and history require verifiable facts. All scientists at the time were geographers at heart so maps in some ways are sacred tools of science. If somebody fabricates maps, as Wade claims, they threaten the cause of knowledge.

The raging debate over the authenticity of the 1418 map forms part of the current arguments regarding China’s pivotal role on the global stage. President Xi acknowledges Zheng He as one of the great innovators from China and a representative of ancient China’s early and peaceful exchanges abroad. The President says little about the claims that Zheng discovered America, but he is vocal about the voyages as they were an inspiration for the new maritime silk road that is currently bring promoted, and which will help China expand its trade and influence abroad.

One thing is clear, though, most historians are probably not in a hurry to rewrite Chinese and European history unless better evidence is found. Concerning this, Dr Geoff Wade said ‘There is no need to rewrite anything except the history of 21st-century charlatans.’ So who do you believe?

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