Saturday, June 4, 2011

In Search Of... Chinese Explorers

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a History Channel special that you can watch HERE called, Who Really Discovered America? Over 2 hours it examined various claims that the Chinese, Vikings, Polynesians and others may have made landfall in North America centuries before Columbus. As it turns out, the 1970s TV show In Search Of... aired an episode in February 1981 called "In Search of....Chinese Explorers," examining the possibility that a Chinese monk had sailed to America in 570 AD, almost a thousand years before Columbus.  You can watch it HERE.

"About 1500 years ago a sudden cultural surge occurred in Central America which has mystified the world of archaeology for many years," explains narrator Leonard Nimoy. "Some believe this may have been brought about by contact with China... In China we filmed many serpent heads, only to find identical figures in Central America... The Mayans believed these serpents to be the representation of the man-god who brought them knowledge.  Is it possible that this contact with Chinese culture accounts for the Mayan's remarkable knowledge of astronomy?"  (I suppose that's a slightly less insulting possible explanation than attributing their cultural achievements to contact with space aliens.)

"Recent discoveries from the ocean floor may provide answers to some of these questions," Leonard Nimoy concludes. "Bob Meistrell and Wayne Baldwin have discovered what are believed to be Chinese stone anchors."  These are purportedly stone anchors from ancient Chinese ships dating to the 6th Century, the show posits.  In Search Of... then includes a brief interview with both divers wherein they explain how they found the stones in 1972 while diving for lobsters off Palos Verdes, California

As 2010's  Who Really Discovered America? makes clear, however, as it turns out, while these stones were in fact anchors from Chinese ships, they are from fishing vessels that crossed the Pacific in the 19th Century, not the 6th Century.

As an aside, I thought it interesting that Bob Meistrell had actually co-founded Body Glove in 1953, after he and his brother invented the first practical wetsuit.  I also thought it noteworthy that interviews with two different experts were featured extensively in this episode of In Search Of: one with a marine archaeologist named Larry Pierson and the other with a professor of history and archaeology from the University of San Diego named James Moriarty III.  It goes unmentioned, however, that in 1980, just months before this episode first aired in February 1981, the two had co-authored an article published in the Anthropological Journal of Canada arguing that these stone anchors were convincing evidence of this earlier arrival by the Chinese.  As an epilogue, Larry Pierson still lives and works in San Diego today.  Both he and Bob Meistrell were interviewed on camera again 30 years later for Who Really Discovered America? Though in this 2010 interview, Pierson has ditched his full beard and also makes no assertions about what century these Chinese stone anchors date to.

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