Wednesday, January 18, 2006

1421 and all that

Here we go again. It's the Vinland Map all over again.

By now you have probably heard about the newly discovered Chinese map of the world, purportedly copied in 1763 from a map drawn in 1418. The original supposedly is based on the worldwide explorations of the great Chinese navigator Zheng He.

Already the internet is abuzz with those who think the map is authentic and those who think it's a fraud.

Put me down in the latter camp.

Why? I would love for the map to be authentic, just as I was thrilled in 1965 when Yale University published the supposedly authentic Vinland Map of the 15th century, showing conclusively the Viking discovery of North America.

We now know (from archeological evidence) that the Vikings did in fact reach Newfoundland, but the provenance of the Vinland Map is still debated. Only the Shroud of Turin evokes more heated controversy on the web.

We'll leave the Vinland Map to the experts; it is plausibly authentic. But I'd bet my last dollar that the Shroud is a medieval fraud. And I'd bet a pretty dollar that the Chinese map is a forgery too.

It just falls too neatly into the theories proposed a few years ago by Gavin Menzies in his best-selling book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. I read the book, and thought it one of the best examples of the selective use of evidence I'd come across since Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods. Every unexplained phenomenon Menzies could find anywhere in the world -- including the Newport Tower in Rhode Island and the so-called Bimini Roads here in the Bahamas -- he attributed to Zheng He, even though those phenomena have perfectly reasonable alternate explanations that Menzies conveniently ignored. Menzies wouldn't recognize Occam's razor if it was held to his throat.

The new map just has too many striking evocations of post-Columbian exploration to have the ring of truth. (The Ring of Truth. by the way, was Philip Morrison's title for his wonderful TV series on science.)

It is terrific that we in the West are finally learning about the remarkable voyages of Zheng He. He did apparently sail through southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. It is unfortunate that we must burden the great man with a overlay of fantasy.

As in most matters of this sort, my default position is skepticism. But, hey, I'm willing to be convinced.