We are all living in a narrow interglacial period of an ice age which has been going on for more than 2,000,000 years. In all likelihood, another glacial period is just around the corner and the frenetic fixation on “global warming” will be followed fairly soon by a concern about “global cooling” as glaciers again start to march down Canada into New England and the ancient isle of Britton surrenders itself to the ice.
15,000 years ago, when the last glacial period started its slow thaw, there were likely few humans. There might have been a highly civilized nation, small and advanced, living in one of the more temperate areas by the equator. Plato thought so; so did Moses; and it’s in the Epic of Gilgamesh too – to say nothing of so many other myths and legends. But nothing really lasted from that period, and that shouldn’t surprise us. Unless something is built in andesite or granite, it is unlikely to endure. “Oh, it should last 70 years,” my realtor said of my $400,000 house in Arizona – now sold. Seventy years?
We don’t even remember the great accomplishments which have happened during our sliver-thin interglacial period. The Hittites? Archeologists said they were a myth, until their capital was discovered in Turkey and it was found to be dominating, powerful – the most imposing empire of its period. King David? The most important Hebrew King? Only recently have people found an old stone with his name on it, the only non-Biblical source for his story (I’m not sure what’s wrong with the Biblical stories – but atheists will be atheists). Who built Tiwanaku? Who were the Olmecs? Who constructed the Antikythera device?
It doesn’t help that we’re always burning our libraries and burying our history. The Library of Alexandria? The House of Wisdom? The Mayan codices? Bonfires for the stupid. Even today, we’re in a new era; knocking down statues and cancelling our classical prose. “Never again” the book burners say, as they light a match. They mean “I will selectively protect only what I think others should know.” Did you know that, right now, as you read this, there is an ancient library of 500,000 books and scrolls from the 30 private libraries of Timbuktu, rescued by an unsung hero (WHO I HAVE MET!), that are molding in a warehouse beside the Niger River? Turns out that, far away from the Timbuktu Sahara, the delicate pages can’t handle the moisture. What is in the books – from that 700 year old city where a book was more valuable than a bar of gold? Who knows, they are written in ancient Bambara, Songhai, Tamasheq and Arabic using classical Arabic script. Do you know how many people can read old Songhai and Classical Arabic? — 4 —
What is my point? Gavin Menzies wrote a book called “1421 – The Year China Discovered America”. His assertion was that during the waning years of the Zhu Di reign of the Ming Dynasty in China, a fleet of massive Junks were sent out by the ambitious emperor to explore, make contact with foreign nations, establish relations, establish trade networks, and bring them under Chinese supervision. But, due to overextending himself financially and the incompetent management of palace intrigue (and a pre-mature death as he was chasing down the remnants of the Mongols), the adventure was aborted even while the boats were on the water, and the conservative “deep state” in his court burned all the books and scrolls and maps about the voyage.
Is this possible? Sure. Menzies makes a good case, not scientific necessarily, a lot of it is anecdotal and weaves together multiple anomalies into one tapestry (if one more conspiracy theorist claims that THEY KNOW WHO BUILT THE BIMINI ROAD, I’m gonna scream). Nevertheless, it certainly is plausible. Heck, it is only in my lifetime the archaeologists (a conservative lot indeed) admitted the Vikings had reached the new world. I imagine there was probably a lot more happening in our thin interglacial period than we care to admit – we are an amnesiac lot after all. And there is still a lot to learn about what we’ve forgotten even about our recent history. Which is why this was a fun read.
I think the valuable part of this book was the approach to discovery using cartography. There’s lots of ways to think of the past. Archeologists study what they stumble across buried in the ground; philologists look to ancient words hidden in our language and where they come from; mythologists study our old stories. Pulling these together, and trying to untangle what really happened is fun.
Last point. There are certain unknowable things; that everybody takes credit for. The Rhode Island Tower; the Piri Reis Map – and everybody sees their truth in these mysteries (confirmation bias, or ‘if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail’). That is where these types of analyses fall down; make one massive leap of conjecture and build a castle atop it. For Menzies – the Chinese sailed around the world in 1421. Every anomaly and mystery met along the way, was left there by them. But that’s OK.
P.S. My favorite part of this book is the ‘discovery’ of a conspiracy orchestrated by Christopher Columbus and his brother to defraud Ferdinand and Isabel of lots of money by leading them to believe the new world had not been discovered when in fact the Portuguese already had colonies as far as Puerto Rico. It might be true – but if so, wow, that was the greatest fraud of all time!!!