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Who Really Discovered America?

Updated on March 9, 2011

Did Columbus Actually Discover America?

As a kid, most of us were taught that Columbus discovered America in 1492. Later on, many of us learn that the Vikings actually landed in North America several hundred years before that, so we alter our perceptions and say things like "Columbus discovered North America for Europe". After the Vikings landed in North America, the Little Ice Age occurred, and people stopped traveling to the area.

In reading The Discoverers a couple of years ago, a question popped into my mind: why did the Europeans believe that there was another continent below the equator? They thought that there must be a continent down there to "balance out" the continents in the North. Why were some of the maps from that era so accurate? I knew that they believed in the Bible, but I didn't see anything in the Bible that suggested that there was a continent where Australia was.

Just recently, I read a book that answered these questions, and changed my idea of history. I discovered that Columbus did not discover America, even for the Europeans. Someone else discovered America, and some Europeans knew about it. My questions were answered by this little piece of the puzzle.

Columbus Ship Replicas photo courtesy of E. Benjamin Andrews.

Chinese Junk from Qing Dynasty
Chinese Junk from Qing Dynasty

China Discovered America!

The truth is that China discovered America. While it hasn't been common knowledge in the west, the fact is, it hasn't really been a secret. It just hasn't been highly publicized. There are several reasons why we don't know about the discovery (I'll get into them a little bit later). To see how China could discover America, we have to go back to the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s.

In 2009, I was listening to a series of lectures from The Teaching Company called "From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History" (see below). Most of us in the west really don't know all that much about Chinese history. We know that they have an old culture, and some of us who like shows like Ancient Discoveries on the History Channel realize that they had a lot of technology that was later lost for centuries. I learned that during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor, Zhu Di, sent out a great number of ships. They had a "tribute system" where they would go to different nations in the local area and shower them with gifts; in exchange, the nations gave them a lot of gifts back. This was very expensive for the Chinese, and ended up hurting their economy. When Zhu Di died, his son Zhu Gaozhi decided to stop the tribute system. China turned inward. We wouldn't hear much from them until several centuries later.

While I knew all this about China, what I didn't know of was that in Zhu Di's reign, he sent out a fleet of treasure ships to take in tribute from around the globe. They ended up discovering not only America, but Australia and Antarctica, and mapped out much of the world that we now know.

Detail of Fra Mauro Map showing Chinese Junk
Detail of Fra Mauro Map showing Chinese Junk

China's Amazing Voyage

In 1421, an enormous fleet of ships left China in a voyage of discovery. There were hundreds of ships in the fleet. They divided up into four groups, headed up by ship captains Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Ching. Most of the ships never made it back. Many ships wrecked around the world. They sailed to North and South America, through the Straight of Magellan, around Africa, to Australia and New Zealand, and even to part of Antarctica. They sailed around Greenland and north of the continents of Europe and Russia. Only a handful of ships made it back.

The book describes how the Chinese left some people in locations all over the world, leaving colonies in locations when some of their ships wrecked.

Not everybody believes that this happened. Some people believe that the evidence in the book is not conclusive enough. It has me convinced, but there are still people that are looking into this.

Read the Book for Yourself

1421: The Year China Discovered America
1421: The Year China Discovered America

This book makes quite a case for the Chinese discovering America... from DNA evidence, transplanted plants, and stories from natives about men in long robes making stops. It's a fairly easy read, and quite interesting.


Evidence of the Chinese Voyage

All over the world, there is evidence that the Chinese sailed around the globe before Columbus:

  • Chickens that lay blue eggs that represent Asian hens are found in South America and Mexico; they are not found in Europe, but they were there when the Europeans arrived.

  • Maize arrived in Asia before Columbus's voyage.

  • Australian Aboriginal carvings depict foreigners wearing long robes (Europeans did not wear long robes)

  • Wrecks of ships that age to about 1421 have been found off the coast of Australia.

  • Medieval Chinese anchors were found off the California coast.

  • Remains of a Chinese junk (with rice in the hold) found in the Sacramento river.

  • Lacquering was known by the Chinese, with nearly identical procedures conducted in Mexico (the only difference was the materials used).

  • Several maps from the early days of exploration show details of areas before the Europeans visited them.

  • A stone tower was found in Rhode Island when the first Europeans arrived; Native Americans typically did not build with stone, but the Chinese did.

  • DNA evidence shows that the Navajo, Incas, Sioux, Ming Ho, Maori, Gunditjmara Aborigines, Cree Ojibwa, and other Native peoples have Chinese ancestry.

And more...

Zheng He's Voyage

The Song dynasty occurred before the Ming...

So What Happened?

Shortly after the Chinese treasure fleets set off for their voyage around the world, the Chinese decided to close themselves off from the world. All ocean-going ships were eventually destroyed. It was illegal to sail outside of the area of China, and illegal to teach Chinese to foreigners. So what happened?

Zhu Di's grand dreams cost a lot of money. Forests had to be cleared to build the grand fleets of ships, as well as the Forbidden City, which was also built around the same time. The economy was damaged so badly that some of the peasants ate grass to survive.

This was China though, and the emperor had absolute power. He was believed to have the Mandate of Heaven. That Mandate seemed questionable on the night of 9 May 1421. Lightning struck the palace in the Forbidden City, and a huge fire burned. It seemed that Heaven no longer smiled on his grand plans.

China became isolated after Zhu Di's death as a result. Evidence of the voyages were destroyed when it was found.

Jean Rotz Map
Jean Rotz Map

The Portuguese Get Map Information

At the time that the Chinese went on their trip, a Venetian named Niccolò da Conti was also travelling in the East. Da Conti was a trader that converted to Islam in order to be allowed to travel in the area of the Indian Ocean (which was banned to Christians at the time). He spent time aboard a Chinese junk, and had access to much of the navigational information.

Prince Henry (later known as the Navigator) conquered the Islamic city of Ceuta in 1415. Controlling the city not only helped enrich Portugal's coffers; it also helped Europeans find out the truth about the world beyond Europe. There were no blue elephants, or unicorns, or boiling seas as you approach India. Henry's brother, Dom Pedro, most likely had contact with Niccolò da Conti, who was returning to the West around that time, with new information about the navigation of the world.

The Chinese are Forgotten

In the Age of Discovery, maps were state secrets, like our nuclear codes today. The Portuguese were fortunate to come upon the wealth of information that they did when they found the Chinese map information, and they weren't willing to share.

Although the Portuguese knew about the previous explorations, they had no reason to publicize information about these voyages. In a letter from Paolo Toscanelli to Christopher Columbus, he writes that there were "other merchants who have long trafficked in those parts, men of great authority." (see page 322 of Toscanelli and Columbus, available in the public domain) As da Gama and others explored, the Chinese discoveries were forgotten. It had never been widely known among the general public, although the explorers knew that they were not voyaging in uncharted territory.

Columbus's Map
Columbus's Map

What's Up with Columbus?

How did Columbus come up with his information, in a world where maps were so secretive? He just happened to marry the daughter of the governor of an island that the Portuguese settled. He was able to see the charts that showed the world. Then why was he so wrong about the size of the world and reaching the "Indies"?

When Portugal backed Vasco da Gama to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Indies, Columbus may have felt that his hopes for fame had been dashed. Luckily for Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella were just finishing up their conquest of Spain and had a little extra money on their hands. They also had absolutely no way to know what those world maps looked like, because they had never seen them. Portugal had them.

Columbus and his brother Bartholomew had a plan though. What if you make the ocean between Europe and the Indies a lot smaller, make the Cape of Good Hope look a lot larger, and stick in a fictitious piece of land so that it looks like the Portuguese will never actually reach their goal of getting to the Indies? No wonder Columbus had such a hard time finding funding for his journey! The Spanish had their doubts, but they decided to back him anyway.

In Columbus's logs, he says things like "I should steer west-south-west to go there... and in the spheres which I have seen and in the drawings of mappae mundi it is in this region." (1421, p. 425) He knew exactly what he was headed towards, and it wasn't the Indies. He had seen these islands on a map before. I'm not sure why he decided to call them Indians; perhaps he felt that he had to keep up with his charade for one reason or another.

So Who Really Discovered America?

Forget that the Vikings landed in America long before Columbus or the Chinese. Who was responsible for discovering the Americas in the 1400s?

Who discovered America, the Chinese, or Columbus?

The Debate Remains

Whether you believe that the Chinese sailed around the world in 1421, or this is an unproven theory that is probably a fabrication, all the ideas that we grew up with regarding the discovery of America seem to be up for debate today. It will be interesting to see the work done in this area in the future.

More About Chinese Discovery

1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (P.S.)
1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (P.S.)

I don't have this book yet, but I hope to add it to my list of books to read. I know that there was one more sailing by Zhong He before China was completely closed off. It would be interesting to see what this book says. It was developed in response to some of the feedback that the author received after publishing 1421.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

I have this book, but I still have to read it. It's by a different author, but it would be interesting to see if there are any aspects of the native Americans that have something to do with Chinese culture.

1421: The Year China Discovered America
1421: The Year China Discovered America

Don't have time to read a book? See the video.


What do you think? Is this a nutty theory, or does it have some credibility? You do have to be a member of Squidoo to comment, but you can join Squidoo for free.

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Whilst the thought of the Chinese setting foot on North American soil to give/extract tribute (or even Australia) sounds a bit silly, maybe we shouldn't altogether deny them landing across the 'Pond' in 1421.

      However, the Norsemen made landfall long before the 15th Century. Leif Eiriksson landed - according to the Vinland Saga (Penguin Classics) in AD 1001 to explore. He sailed back to Greenland and settled there near his father. Nine years later young Thorfinn 'Karlsefni' took ship and landed on L'Anse aux Meadows in the St Lawrence River, to settle and build stone walled homes with a walled 'paddock' for their bull (!?) which somehow got loose during an attack by the 'skraelings' (Norse word for 'wretches') and gored some of them before being cut down by arrows. Thorfinn left soon after because their original welcome had been worn out (now where have I heard that one before?)

      Anyway it was Cuba Columbus landed on. I read it was fellow countryman Amerigo Vespucci who made landfall on the mainland. Hence the name, 'America'.

      Keep up the good work Brooke.