Menzies and Amateur Scholars
January 5, 2003 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Is Gavin Menzies the Stephen Wolfram of history? That's the question today's New York Times (login: dr_mabuse, pw: mabuse) suggests in a Menzies profile. Menzies has a new book out, 1421, which claims that the Chinese discovered America seven decades before Columbus did. Some people have made similarly precise claims about this planet's developments. Others have seen their amateur claims initially mocked and later proven to be correct. Is Menzies onto something or is he a crank? And how do we place the passionate amateur within the realm of scholarly pursuits?
posted by ed (17 comments total)
He's making to much money to be trusted.


He could be right though. Fact is, we don't know a lot about history.

[strikeout]FIRST POST!![/strikeout]
posted by KettleBlack at 3:57 PM on January 5, 2003

Even assuming he's right, this is more like a datum than a theory. Wolfram's conjecture is a lot more basic to physics than any given historical fact is to history.

I'm inclined to believe, but it doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot, because although the Chinese might have discovered the Americas (both Americas?) before the Europeans did, but long after the Pacific Islanders whose decendants became the American Indians, they went back to China and did nothing about it.

It's a turning point, an "interesting time", in world history, like the ministry of Jesus or Napoleon's decision to invade Russia or, probably, the sinking of Atlantis. If it hadn't happened how it did things would be dramatically different today. But it did happen how it did. Once an event has happened, its probability of happening is 100%.

Given the circumstances of the Chinese visit, archaelogists can't even expect to find much Chinese trade goods in the Americas (although I recall reading about some that were discovered a few decades ago), let alone the remnants of a settlement. So, great. As historical discoveries go, it's kinda neat, but the upshot of the whole thing is that the Imperial Chinese were doing pretty well until they stupidly decided to cut themselves off from the world. But we knew that before this guy came along.

It's just bugging me that the poster is breathlessly comparing him to Wolfram. Crank or not, Wolfram's theory is a new way of looking at the universe. It's akin to this: we've always watched the universal program run. We've been able, on occasion, to deduce elements of the machine code, like F=ma and chemical compounds and the theory of evolution and so on. Wolfram says "the universe is a simple program, what we see are complex consequences deriving from iterations of the program's rules". Something analogous for history would be discovering some kind of order and predictability in it. Asimov's psychohistory, for example.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:47 PM on January 5, 2003

Umm... you know, it would probably be more interesting if anyone still thought Columbus was the first outsider to visit America. Even in 1421, the Chinese would have been four centuries after Leif Erikson visited North America.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:00 PM on January 5, 2003

Bah. The Welsh discovered Amercia in the 10th century. Maybe.
posted by homunculus at 6:11 PM on January 5, 2003

Though the point is that, whether they were here or not, it had zero effect on world history. The same goes for Erikson. As for Columbus, though - I can't think of anything since Alexander the Great that's even comparable. Polo, He and Battuta all had great journeys, but the effects were still short-term. Columbus literally changed the world, whether he intended to or not.
posted by Kevs at 6:19 PM on January 5, 2003

Wether he's right or not, the interesting thing is that a discovery doesn't benefit a society if it is not prepared to accept it.

The journey to America was to difficult and perilous for the vikings to perform on a regular basis, and the chinese decided they wanted no part of the outside world, therefore their discovery of America meant little in the long run.

The same goes for discoveries even today. Is our society prepared to take advantage of genetic engineering and cloning, or will we choose the 'chinese solution'?
posted by spazzm at 10:41 PM on January 5, 2003

i'll be buying this book, even if it's bogus it looks interesting. will i be buying it as eagerly as i did ""? no. history is all about who's writing it, and the truth of most any historical fact lies in what you are willing to believe or accept.
posted by cachilders at 11:49 PM on January 5, 2003

but long after the Pacific Islanders whose decendants became the American Indians

I thought the American Indians were descendants of the settlers who came over the Siberia/Alaska route and then migrated south?
posted by PenDevil at 12:34 AM on January 6, 2003

There's a good review of Menzies book here

He is a master of the subjunctive; the Ming ships might have, would have, could have. These cautious grammatical usages soon give way to what the voyagers did, saw and encountered; supposition becomes fact. He does the same thing with material evidence.

Nice, if somewhat unlikely, contribution to alternative history.
posted by grahamwell at 1:50 AM on January 6, 2003

PenDevil: I don't know. They could have come from all over the place. Here's a reference.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:41 AM on January 6, 2003

According to, Menzies based his proclamation in part on the results displaying the possible celestial formation in 1431, which he generated with the use of a software called Starry Nights published by Menzies was also interviewed by bbc. The book took Menzies 14 years to research & he had obtained "secret maps". I'm puzzled as to why the Chinese did not know or seem to care about Zheng He's feat, if indeed he made it beyond the southern tip of Africa?
posted by taratan at 6:52 AM on January 6, 2003

Nice, if somewhat unlikely, contribution to alternative history.

I too couldn't help making the connection between Menzies' claims and Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. But in a few cases, Menzies' claims resemble those of a desperate numerologist's. From the Times article:

The East Coast evidence turned out to be the squishiest of all. The Chinese astronomical tower and the Chinese writing, it seems, are the Newport Tower in Rhode Island and the Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. As an amateur historian of amateur historians, I have to say that the tower and the rock are two of the greatest Rorschach monuments in American history. At one time or another people have claimed the Newport Tower to be an Indian lookout, a Viking outpost, an Irish oratory. The Dighton Rock is covered in indecipherable scratches that are apparently of human origin, and you would be hard pressed to find a culture that hasn't claimed these petroglyphs as its own.

And KettleBlack may be onto something. Menzies does seem to impart his publishing plan more readily than most authors.
posted by ed at 7:13 AM on January 6, 2003

homunculus: Don't you mean Mercia?
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on January 6, 2003

More discussion and links from threads in November and in March.
posted by mediareport at 12:29 PM on January 6, 2003

I've finally gotten around to reading this article. Jesus, what a load of crap. Even the reporter makes fun of the guy. He claims to see San Francisco and Los Angeles in a randomly placed line of conventional mountains; he claims the Chinese visited Kansas; he thinks Peruvian Indians still speak Chinese! The man's a crackpot, plain and simple, and I'm depressed that the legendary skeptics of MeFi respond with "W[h]ether he's right or not..." and "Even assuming he's right..."—not to mention "...even if it's bogus it looks interesting." How can "history" be interesting if it's bogus?
posted by languagehat at 7:47 PM on January 6, 2003

languagehat: For the same reason that Turkish automatons Feejee mermaids and pyramid scams are so interesting. If Menzies is wrong, then it will be fascinating to see how many people he dupes. Come on, man, it's downright unAmerican to be uninterested in hoaxes and the characters who perpetuate them.
posted by ed at 11:04 PM on January 6, 2003

Well, sure, as long as that's what we're talking about; I love reading about hoaxes. I just get the queasy feeling that a lot of people either don't grasp that it's a hoax or don't think that there's much difference between hoaxes and history, which worries me. But bring on the Feejee mermaids!
posted by languagehat at 12:49 PM on January 7, 2003

« Older ?   |   Messaging ogling Google lobby Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments