An old map makes new news

Five years ago, a Chinese lawyer bought an old map from a dealer in Shanghai. Today, that map is at the center of the debate over who came to America and when.

The Chinese map, dated 1763, shows North and South America in a fair amount of detail. No surprise there. However, an inscription on the map says it is a copy of an earlier map, from 1418. If correct, that means the Chinese visited America more than 70 years before Columbus.

Chinese Map of the World
Photo by Liu Gang

Historians have long known that Chinese Admiral Zheng He sailed all over Asia in the 1400s, and even got as far as the east cost of Africa. However, most doubt he ever reached the Americas—let alone explored them in the amount of detail this map suggests.

The map is currently being tested to see if it really is as old as it says it is. But even if the tests come back positive, the debate will not be settled. Even if the map is authentic, it is still only a copy—drawn in 1763, and supposedly based on an older map which no one has ever seen. It could just as easily be based on a map from, oh, 1762.

(One interesting feature the article does not dwell on is the fact that the map also shows Australia—small and not in the right place, but it's there. Australia was not visited by outsiders until 1770. If the map really does date from 1763, then it may have a lot more to say about the history of Australia than the history of America.)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

I wonder what methods they are using to test whether the map is genuine or not. I can't find any specific information on what techniques they are using, or even information on who is doing this testing.

This reminds me of the controversy surrounding the Vinland map. The Vinland map, which was found in the 1960s but was probably drawn in the 1400s, suggests that the Vikings explored North America in the early 1000s hundreds of years before any other Europeans like Columbus traveled there.

The scientific community seems to accept the Vinland map as real these days, but it took nearly 40 years of scientific testing and debate to get there. The map was analyzed using carbon dating to test the age of the parchment, chemical analysis to look at the composition of the ink, and grammatical and typographical study to find out whether the writing matched up with the time it should have been written.

So although the map is currently being tested it may be some time before we have any conclusive evidence as to whether Admiral Zheng He explored the Americas or not.

posted on Sat, 01/21/2006 - 2:23pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I was born in China\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

posted on Wed, 03/29/2006 - 10:32am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

An episode of the PBS show NOVA compiled a lot of evidence to indicate the Vinland map was a modern forgery. OTOH, Wikipedia treats its authenticity as an open question.

posted on Thu, 11/09/2006 - 5:27pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i have never moved out of the united states but i would love to travel to different country and stuff.

posted on Sun, 01/22/2006 - 1:46pm
bryan kennedy's picture

I added an image of the map to this story that should let you zoom in on the image. Does a closer look more you think this is real or not?

posted on Tue, 01/24/2006 - 11:17am
bryan kennedy's picture

National Geographic is reporting that experts are dismising this map as fake because of its similarity to a 17th-century French map and because the map does not place China at its center.

posted on Tue, 01/24/2006 - 8:58pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Well, I am certainly not a map expert. But a) China is pretty much at the center of this map; and b) not all maps put "home" at the center. Old European maps often focused on Jerusalem for religion reasons, and the ancient Egyptian astronomer Ptomley put his native country at the bottom of his maps, because most of world he knew of lay to the north and west.

posted on Wed, 03/29/2006 - 10:10am
Mohamed's picture
Mohamed says:

Zheng He was a Muslim Chinese. Columbus seemed to have had a 'map' when he was exploring America. Columbus most probably had Arabic as second language like many Spaniards of the time(until Inquisition stopped that later). Chinese and Spanish then might have had it from same sources earlier but none could exploit it 'commerically' before Columbus. A Eurocentric view of America would make it 'unthinkable' to believe non-Europeans could have done it before Columbus. Inquistions were pretty strong at the time and it's almost certainly would have dismissed any relation of Columbus' adventures with anything before him specially if it was related to Muslims of any race.

posted on Fri, 02/17/2006 - 7:55pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

According to this blogger, the map is using Chinese words and characters which would not have existed at the time the map was made. Thus, it is likely a forgery of some sort.

posted on Thu, 11/09/2006 - 5:47pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw0jmvdh.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options