1421 theory

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This Chinese map, produced in 1763 and claimed by the unidentified author to be based on a 1418 Chinese map, has produced much controversy as to how much knowledge Medieval China had of the Americas and Antarctica.[1]

The 1421 hypothesis suggests that during the Ming Dynasty of China, from 1421 to 1423, ships commanded by the Chinese captains Zhou Wen (周聞), Zhou Man (周滿), Yang Qing (楊慶) and Hong Bao (洪保), in the fleet of Emperor Zhu Di's (朱棣) Admiral Zheng He (鄭和), travelled to many parts of the world unknown to contemporary Europe. The suggestion was put forward by former British Royal Navy submarine commander Gavin Menzies in his book, , first published in 2002.

The hypothesis proposes that the Chinese discovered Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Antarctica, the northern coast of Greenland, and the Northeast Passage and that the knowledge of these discoveries was subsequently lost because the Mandarins (bureaucrats) of the Imperial court feared the costs of further voyages would ruin the Chinese economy. When Zhu Di died in 1424, the new Hongxi Emperor forbade further expeditions and to discourage further voyages the Mandarins hid or destroyed the records of previous exploration.

The 1421 hypothesis has proven somewhat popular with the general public, but has been dismissed by Sinologists and professional historians.[2][3][4][5] Criticisms refer amongst others to Menzies' "reckless manner of dealing with evidence", leading him to propose hypotheses "without a shred of proof".[5] Some critics have also questioned whether Menzies has the nautical knowledge he claims.<ref name>1421 exposed article on Menzies, see in particular note 5 in the appendix


The hypothesis is based on interpretations of evidence from shipwrecks, old Chinese and European maps, a translation of an inscription set up by Zheng He, Chinese literature that survives from the time, and accounts written by navigators such as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. The hypothesis also includes claims that unexplained structures such as the Newport Tower and the Bimini Road were constructed by Zheng He's men.


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The Kangnido map describes the entirety of the Old World, from Europe and Africa in the west, to Korea and Japan in the east, with an oversized China in the middle.
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One of the inscriptions on the Fra Mauro map relates the travels of an Asian junk deep into the Atlantic Ocean around 1420.
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Detail of the Fra Mauro map relating the travels of a junk into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420. The ship also is illustrated above the text.
Several maps were used by Menzies in creating this hypothesis:
  • The Kangnido map (混一疆理歷代國都之圖 or 疆理圖) (1402), used to demonstrate an extensive geographical knowledge of the Old World (and particularly of the contour of the African continent) by Eastern Asian countries, even before the time of Zheng He's expeditions.
  • The Pizzigano map (1424)
  • The Fra Mauro map (1459), showing a general knowledge of Africa and Asia that predated European circumnavigation of Africa. Menzies believes that the coasts had already been charted by Arab or Chinese sailors. The Fra Mauro map also relates an expedition by an "Indian" ship into the Atlantic Ocean around 1420. To 15th century Europeans, "India" referred to the entire continent of Asia, and Menzies suggests that the ship being called a "Junk" (Zoncho in the original), was Chinese:
:"About the year of Our Lord 1420 a ship, what is called an Indian junk (lit. "Zoncho de India", "India" meaning Asia in 15th century Europe), on a crossing of the Sea of India towards the Isle of Men and Women (close to Socotra), was diverted beyond the Cape of Diab (Cape of Good Hope), through the Green Isles, out into the Sea of Darkness (Atlantic Ocean) on a way west and southwest. Nothing but air and water was seen for 40 days and by their reckoning they ran 2,000 miles and fortune deserted them. When the stress of the weather had subsided they made the return to the said Cape of Diab in 70 days and drawing near to the shore to supply their wants the sailors saw the egg of a bird called roc."[6]
  • The Cantino map (1502)
  • The Waldeseemüller map (1507)
  • The Piri Reis map (1513). Menzies believes the Piri Reis map is proof that Admiral Hong Bao charted the coast of the southern landmass (said to be Antarctica) 70 years before Columbus as part of a larger expedition under Zheng He to bring the world under China's tribute system.
  • The Johannes Schöner globe (One was made in 1515 and another in 1520)
  • The Jean Rotz map (1542)
  • The Wu Pei Chi (Wu Bei Zhi; 武備志) map (redrawn after Zheng He's maps in 1628)
  • The Vinland map, redrawn in 15th Century from a 13th century original.
  • Also presented on Menzies website is the De Virga world map (1411-1415), as evidence of the propagation of eastern cartographic knowledge before the European Age of Discovery.

Detailed claims

Claims made by Menzies (and contested by scholars) include:
  1. Eruption of Soufrière, La Citerne and L'Echelle volcanoes on Pizzigano map, twice between 1400 and 1440 (1424 chart)
  2. Wrecks with gilded sterns: Chinese junks in Mississippi near Quivira (Coronado 1550) and in Caribbean (Mafeo) and North Atlantic (Menendez);gilt does not last, so junks wrecked relatively recently.
  3. Chinese people not intermarried seen in California, Mexico, Texas and Florida by Coronado, Acosta, Menendez and Mafeo (1550s)
  4. Ming porcelain dated either by Cobalt or by Zhu Di's stamp — 1403 to 1421 — found in Americas, Africa, Australia
  5. Hull wood of junks carbon dated: Pandanan 1410, Nanjing 1406, Sacramento 1410, Turiang early 1500, Bakau c.1410, Santa Cruz (Philippines) 1500, Byron's Bay [sic] (Australia) 1410 — and some of these contain evidence of voyages to America
  6. Jade figurine at Darwin, Australia dated by shape of Canopus head to early Ming, between 1008 and 1523 (Professor Wei's evidence)
  7. Zeng He states '3,000 countries large and small' visited; Liu Shia Chang, Chian Su (unveiled 1431) — Duyvendak first translation
  8. Pope's letter, 1448, about Chinese/Asians in Greenland 'about 30 years ago', viz. c.1421/2; Chinese DNA in Greenland people of Hvalsey
  9. Columbus's records (1447), '70 years before, people from Cathay in Orient' (Greenland)
  10. Fra Mauro's map, 'about the year 1420', ship or junk from India
  11. Zhu Di coins (1403-24) found in wrecks dated by hull wood, for example Pandanan
  12. Chinese star charts (Wu Pei Chi) dated by precession of Polaris to 1420± 20 years
  13. Mao Kun map Chinese dated 1422, shows Australia (Sun Shuyun)
  14. Chinese records give dates fleet set sail, dates returned, and ambassadors brought — Ming Shi (MS), Ming Shi W (MSL); Hsi Yang Fan Kuo Chih (HYFKC); Kio Ch'veh; Hsu Chiao Min Tung; Chein (MTC), all early Ming Dynasty ...
  15. Illustrated Record of Strange Countries published 1430 featuring animals from across the world
  16. Chinese official records (Qing) listing countries visited by Zheng He's fleet includes America and Australia
  17. Newport Round Tower mortar (post 1409)
  18. Bimini hull ballast (after last 600 years) (evidence of Admiral Zheng Ming)
  19. Dating of Pizzigano, Piri Reis, Jean Rotz, Waldseemüller, Cantino charts, and Vinland map (2002 radiocarbon dating); Portuguese master chart of world dated 1428; Brazilian chart showing route to China (1501).

Other evidence

Additional claims made by Menzies (and contested by scholars) include:
  • DNA studies showing "recent" DNA flow from China to indigenous people of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and other explored land masses. Dr Annabel Arends and her colleagues are continuing the pioneering work begun by her father, Dr Tulio Arends, and Dr Gallengo into the DNA (transferrins) of the Indians of Northern Brazil, Venezuela, Surinam and Guyana, proving that these tranferrins are otherwise unique to natives of Kwantung province in China.[7][8][9][10][11]
  • A drawing of an animal in a book reportedly published in China in 1430 showing what Menzies claims is an armadillo, an animal found only in the New World.
  • Hundreds of plant species, e.g. Bananas, plantations of rice — a crop foreign to the Americas — seen along the banks of the Amazon by Francisco de Orellana, 1541, and cotton genetically identical to species from the Americas found on Cape Verde Islands by the first Europeans, long before Columbus.
  • Horses, flightless ducks and Asiatic chickens and pigs in the New World prior to Columbus's arrival.
  • Carved stones with Asian writing found in places such as the Cape Verde islands, South America and New Zealand.
  • Artifacts such as Chinese porcelain and jade found in the Americas which Menzies claims predate the arrival of Europeans.
  • Diseases such as smallpox appearing before the arrival of Europeans.
  • Place names in Peru and Chile bearing linguistic similarities with Chinese, e.g. "Peru" means "white mist" and Chile ("Ch-Li") means "dependent territory" in Chinese.
  • Accounts of European explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and João Rodrigues Cabrilho indicating Chinese settlements.
  • Wrecks of Chinese junks were present in the New World before European explorers.
  • The accounts of Bartolomé de las Casas of two dead bodies resembling Indians on Flores in the Azores. De las Casas said he found that fact in Columbus' notes, and it was one of the reasons that led Columbus to assume India was on the other side of the ocean.
  • A 7-cm diameter plain brass medal found in North America with an inscription reading "Authorized and awarded by XuanDe of Great Ming"[12]


Menzies' methodology has been criticised on many grounds. Robert Finlay writes:[5]

Unfortunately, this reckless manner of dealing with evidence is typical of 1421, vitiating all its extraordinary claims: the voyages it describes never took place, Chinese information never reached Prince Henry and Columbus, and there is no evidence of the Ming fleets in newly discovered lands. The fundamental assumption of the book—that Zhu Di dispatched the Ming fleets because he had a “grand plan,” a vision of charting the world and creating a maritime empire spanning the oceans (pp. 19–43)—is simply asserted by Menzies without a shred of proof. It represents the author’s own grandiosity projected back onto the emperor, providing the latter with an ambition commensurate with the global events that Menzies presumes 1421 uniquely has revealed, an account that provides evidence “to overturn the long-accepted history of the Western world” (p. 400). It is clear, however, that textbooks on that history need not be rewritten. The reasoning of 1421 is inexorably circular, its evidence spurious, its research derisory, its borrowings unacknowledged, its citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous. Still, it may have some pedagogical value in world history courses. Assigning selections from the book to high-schoolers and undergraduates, it might serve as an outstanding example of how not to (re)write world history.

The historians who have responded to Menzies' hypotheses have been strongly critical:
  • "Examination of the book's central claims reveals they are uniformly without substance."[5]
  • "These myriad flaws do not make Menzies' book completely useless to teachers of world history. Rather, it might be used to teach students about the use and misuse of historical evidence."[14]
The 1421 hypothesis is based on some documents of debatable provenance (e.g., the Vinland map[15]) and on novel interpretations of already accepted documents (such as the Fra Mauro map, de las Casas) as well as uncategorized archaeological findings.

Some critics focus their skepticism on the conspicuous absence of an explanation of why these Chinese fleets seemed to touch every coastline of the world except that of Europe. The absence of any European records corroborating such an exploration is glaringly absent. Such a record, if it existed, would certainly have been handed down. On the other hand it is a given fact that Chinese-European contact existed as early as 100 CE.

While it represents a minor part of Menzies' argument, some critics also maintain that the linguistic evidence cited by Menzies is itself questionable. It is inevitable that similarities between words taken from any pair of languages will exist-- even if only by pure chance. Thus, the short lists provided by Menzies are considered by some to represent unsatisfactory evidence. Furthermore, none of the alleged Chinese words listed by Menzies as similar to words of the same meaning in the Squamish language of British Columbia is an actual Chinese word. Similarly, the presence of Chinese-speaking people in various locations in the Americas could be explained by immigration after Columbus, yet Menzies cites no evidence that these communities existed prior to Columbus.[16]

Menzies' critics note that throughout the book he displays a lack of chronological control e.g. p138 with a story of a map dated to 120 years before 1528; Menzies dates the map to 1428 not 1408. Critics also claim many true but irrelevant facts are included presumably to confuse the reader. In other cases, they say supposed relevant facts are due to mistranscriptions.

Another criticism is that Menzies did not consult the most obvious source of information on the Zheng He voyages, namely the Chinese records from the period themselves. Menzies asserts that most Chinese documents relating to the travels of Zheng He were destroyed by the same Mandarins responsible for the closing of China's borders in the years following 1421. While it can be supposed that some records have been destroyed, other records remain in extensive form, including the account by Ma Huan published in 1433 and other information in the Ming dynastic histories. These records have even served as the basis for previous historical accounts of the Zheng He voyages, such as that by Louise Levathes.[17]

Some critics have also questioned whether Menzies has the nautical knowledge he claims.[18] Some feel that his unsubstantiated claim to have actually sailed the same seas is suspect, particularly while commanding HMS Rorqual. Menzies and his publisher have also been criticised for misrepresenting his background as an expert on China. The dust jacket of 1421, states that Menzies was born in China. In fact he was born in London.[19]

Menzies makes another argument both in his book and also in a PBS program based on what he claims to be similarities between appearance of Native Americans and Chinese. Menzies claims that Columbus believed until he died that he had reached China because he saw Chinese people (who were actually Native Americans) in the New World and not because he thought the globe was much smaller than it actually was. Menzies uses this statement to claim that Columbus saw the previously settled Chinese "colonizers" from Zheng He's voyage. Columbus actually believed he had reached India and he thought the people he saw were Indians. This attack is not without its own flaws, though, for in Columbus' time China was referred to as "India" by Europeans.

An additional problem posed by the theory of Chinese-Native American contact is that of the lack of Native American immunity to Eurasian diseases. According to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, advanced agricultural societies living in dense populations develop immunities to and carry diseases not found in the sparser populations of the New World. There are no indications of any die-out consistent with Eurasian-American contact prior to Columbus's landing. Should the Native Americans have been exposed to such a catastrophe prior to 1492, they would have been prepared for it with immunities and not suffered such hideous losses.


Menzies cites several stone structures in and around Sydney and Newcastle as evidence of pre-European contact with Australia by the Chinese. These structures in fact do not exist, or if they do Menzies has failed to provide sufficient detail for people to locate the structures and verify the accuracy of his claims. On page 203 of his book, Menzies writes of the 'Chinese' ruins in Bittangabee Bay. According to the commemorative association AOTM, these are more likely to be a structure built for the Imlay family in the 1840's than ancient Chinese. On page 220 there is the claim that "A beautiful carved stone head of the goddess Ma Tsu...is now in the Kedumba Nature Museum in Katoomba." In fact no such museum actually exists. There once was a curio stand in Katoomba called "Kedumba Nature Display" but it closed down in the 1980s. Later on in the book, Menzies recruits "a local researcher", Rex Gilroy, for his valuable discovery of a Chinese pyramid in Queensland: the Gympie Pyramid.

Menzies claims that the Gympie pyramid is "the most direct and persuasive evidence of the Chinese visits to Australia". However, this is the same Rex Gilroy who at one time ran the "Kedumba Museum" and purportedly found the Chinese carved goddess Ma Tsu from the Chinese Fleets, a connection which Menzies fails to mention. Menzies also fails to mention that Gilroy himself used the Gympie Pyramid as evidence of the Egyptian discovery of Australia. Rex Gilroy is also well known in Australia as the "father of Yowie research", Australia's Bigfoot.[20] The Gympie Pyramid has been researched independently and found to be part of a retaining wall built by an Italian farmer to stop erosion on a natural mesa on his property.[21]


1. ^ The Economist, January 12, 2006
2. ^ The 1421 myth exposed
3. ^ Zheng He in the Americas and Other Unlikely Tales of Exploration and Discovery. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
4. ^ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. The Asian Review of Books.
5. ^ Finlay, Robert (2004), "How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America", Journal of World History 15 (2): 241, <[1]
6. ^ Fra Mauro map, Inscription 10, A13
7. ^ Gavin Menzies, 1421, p460
8. ^ Tulio Arends, M. L. Gallango, W. Carey Parker & Alexander G. Bearn A New Variant of Human Transferrin in a Venezuelan Family (Abstract)
9. ^
10. ^ Professor Norvick, et alia, 'Polymorphic Alu Populations' in Human Biology (vol. 70)
11. ^ Polymorphic Alu insertions and the Asian origin of Native American population Human Biology, Feb 1998 by Novick, Gabriel E, Novick, Corina C, Yunis, Juan, Yunis, Emilio, et al
12. ^ Article on a brass medal found in North America
13. ^ Finlay, Robert (2004). "How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America". Journal of World History 15 (2). 
14. ^ Wills, John E. (2004). "book review". World History Connected 2 (1). 
15. ^ Discussion of the Vinland map
16. ^ Bill Poser (2004-02-01). 1421. Language Log. Retrieved on 2007-03-08.
17. ^ Levathes, Louise (1997), When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405 – 1433, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press
18. ^ 1421 exposed article on Menzies, see in particular note 5 in the appendix
19. ^ Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview with Menzies.
20. ^ Rex Gilroy's statement on his status as the father of Yowie research
21. ^ Skeptic's webpage on the Gympie pyramid


  • Levathes, Louise, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433, Oxford University Press, 1997, trade paperback, ISBN 0-19-511207-5
  • Ma Huan,''Ying-yai Sheng-lan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores (1433), translated from the Chinese text edited by Feng Ch'eng Chun with introduction, notes and appendices by J.V.G.Mills. White Lotus Press, reprint. 1970, 1997.
  • Menzies, Gavin (2002). 1421, The Year China Discovered the World. London: Bantam Press. ISBN 0593050789. 

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