Saturday, December 20, 2014
Did the Ancient Chinese Make Contact With Native Americans?
It is commonly held that Native Americans are descended from people who traveled across the what is known today as the Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska, some 10,000 years ago. At the time, water levels were low and a land bridge emerged, connecting the continents. It is also commonly held that from the time of this crossing until about 1000 A.D. when the Vikings arrived, no expeditions brought explorers or colonists from the Old World to the New.
Yet some say that puzzling artifacts, as well as the results of recent DNA studies performed on Native Americans, may suggest contact between ancient China and North America.
John A. Ruskamp Jr. is a research analyst who has compared ancient Native American glyphs with ancient Chinese pictograms, finding what he says is a sure match between the two. The glyphs and pictograms date to a period long after the Bering Land Bridge crossing and long before modern contact between Chinese and Native American cultures. Geneticist Dr. Donald Yates has studied Native American DNA, finding what he believes may be genetic links to colonists from China’s ancient or medieval periods of history.
Yates hypothesizes that Native American genealogy is not as simple as commonly held. He says the ancestors of today’s Native Americans may not have come in a single migration. He thinks other boats may have landed on the shores of the New World, carrying explorers unknown to historians today.
We will briefly look at some of Ruskamp’s and Yates’s findings here.
Ruskamp has used the Jaccard Index of Similarity to compare Native American glyphs to Chinese pictograms. This index was developed by 19th century botanist Paul Jaccard and it is used to statistically compare similarity and diversity in sample sets. On his website, Ruskamp shows a list of 53 ancient Chinese pictogram-glyph pairings. Using the Jaccard Index, he calculated that in all 53 pairings, it is more than 95 percent likely that the glyphs match the pictograms. In other words, the chances that the glyphs formed independently—and that it’s just a coincidence they look like the pictograms—is less than 5 percent, according to Ruskamp. In most cases, it’s less than one percent.
A glyph found in New Mexico, for example, forms a traditional Chinese oracle-bone prognostication, wrote Ruskamp in an article on his website. The New Mexico glyph, if interpreted using the ancient Chinese pictograms, reads: “The next 10-day period will be auspicious.” Ruskamp has studied many more glyph-pictogram pairs than those in the list of 53 discussed here, and he continues his research.
“This is a classic example of a Chinese oracle-bone era divination. The presence of such a message in North American rock writing indicates that ancient Asiatic people were present in the Americas about 1000 B.C., for oracle-bone writing fell into disuse around this time and it was not until 1899 A.D. that it was rediscovered and subsequently deciphered in China,” Ruskamp wrote. “Hence, these old and repatinated glyphs (age confirmed by senior NPS [National Park Service] staff) could only have been made by ancient Chinese explorers shortly after the end of the Shang Dynasty, when the script became lost to human memory for the next 2,900 years.”
Ruskamp continued: “Noteworthy is the fact that both Native Americans and Asiatic people followed 10-day sacred calendars. This most curious fact was noted by Michael Zeilik in his 1986 treatise titled, ‘The Ethnoastronomy of Historic Pueblos, II Moon Watching.’ Here he wrote that the Native American 10-day calendar is ‘a tradition also found among arctic and subarctic peoples in Asia.'”
At the request of Yates’s organization, DNA Consultants, Ruskamp analyzed the markings on an intriguing artifact known as the Thruston Tablet. The tablet was exhumed in a Mississippian period (800–1600 A.D.) mound near Castalian Springs in Sumner County, Tenn., by archaeologist Gates P. Thruston in 1870. Interpretations of the scenes it depicts are varied, ranging from warfare between Native American bands, to Native American myths, to a meeting between the Old World and the New.
Ruskamp identified what could be Chinese pictograms on the Thruston Tablet. He noted that one of the purported pictograms could, however, be a sort of stick man, and it’s hard to tell with an artistic depiction of an ancient scene.
Quoted in a DNA Consultants blog post, Ruskamp wrote of the detail within the red outline in Fig. 1 above: “The four horizontal lines may be for the number four ‘Si.’ If so, this is one of the oldest styles of Chinese script used for writing 4.” He wrote of the part within the green outline: “The stylized X-shaped stick-man could be a figure of ‘Wen,’ which in this case looks as if it is holding a fishing pole with a forked end of the line. Or it could just be a drawing of a stick-man.” He wrote of the part within the blue outline: “There appears to be the Chinese symbol ‘Mi’ for thread or rope.” The blog post notes that similar glyphs are found on other parts of the artifact.
In 2005, archaeologist Vincas P. Steponaitis at the University of North Carolina, co-authored an analysis of the artifact titled “Iconography of the Thruston Tablet.” Though he did not come to the same conclusions as Ruskamp, he did note the odd nature of the parts analyzed above.
He clumped together the detail shown in Fig. 1 above with two other portions of the drawing into what he called “background group 3″ (see this group in Fig. 2 below). He divided parts of the drawing into groups like this one based on how shallow or deep the incisions were in the stone, unity of theme, and other factors that made them similar or set them apart from others.
The strangest interpretation of the stone, by Steponaitis’s estimation, was put forth in the 1960s by Ruth Verrill and Clyde Keeler. Verrill and Keeler said it depicted a battle fought between local Native Americans and Vikings. Steponaitis wrote: “Among the engravings they saw glyphic inscriptions, a Phrygian helmet, and a Viking longboat.”
In Fig. 2, (a) has been said to resemble a Viking longboat. Steponaitis wrote of this interpretation: “[It is] an idea that we may safely set aside as being historically implausible. One might also interpret it as a canoe, yet it bears little resemblance to the one definite canoe image we have from Mississippian times. … As an alternative, we would suggest that this may be a depiction of a medicine lodge.”
Yates asks whether the scene might depict the arrival of a Chinese expedition that transported colonists to the New World.
Little else is said of background group 3 in Steponaitis’s paper. He wrote: “There seems little to say about this strange composition … The meaning of this design is unknown.”
He proposes that the tablet “relates not to historical events but rather to beliefs about the cosmos and the beings that inhabited otherworldly realms.”
The conventional view of Native American genetic lineage holds that five haplogroups provided the foundation. The term haplogroup refers to a genetic population group stemming from a common ancestor. These five haplogroups are thought to have come over the Bering Land Bridge with the first settlers of the New World.
Yates has compiled data he says may indicate Chinese genetic material entered the Native American population at a much later date, but long before modern admixture. For instance, he cites a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science titled “Mitochondrial Haplogroup M Discovered in Prehistoric North Americans,” co-authored by Ripan S. Malhi, PhD, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Malhi studied DNA from two people buried in China Lake in the province of British Columbia, Canada, about 5,000 years ago. These people belonged to mitochondrial haplogroup M, a type widely found in Asia today but which is not one of the founding five haplogroups. Malhi wrote: “This study provides evidence that the founding migrants of the Americas exhibited greater genetic diversity than previously recognized, prompting us to reconsider the widely accepted five-founder model that posits that the Americas were colonized by only five founding mtDNA lineages.”
Yates also explores the implications of a particular allele (the word allele refers to a specific DNA sequence) found in high freqency among the Salishan Indians of British Columbia, Canada. It’s frequency among this population is about 30 percent, though it is found on average across American Indian populations at about 12 percent.
It is relatively low or non-existent among European, Middle Eastern, and other populations, but it has an apparent ancient center of diffusion in Taiwan, according to Yates. It is highest among the Atayal tribe of Taiwanese aborigines, with a 52 percent frequency. Yates is unwilling to draw conclusions from this one allele; he says further evidence and studies are needed, but he finds it interesting in light of other connections he sees between the ancient Chinese and Native Americans civilizations.
A Chinese account from 2200 B.C. describes the land of Fusang, which some say refers to North America. Charlotte Harris Rees has spent many years researching this connection, and she has delivered speeches on it at the Library of Congress in the United States, the National Library of China, and other locations around the world.
The ancient account, titled Shan Hai Jing, describes flora and fauna found in North America. These include, according to Rees, the opossum, armadillo, peccary, pronghorn, coyote, bald eagle, elephant seal, and appaloosa horse.
The directions given to travel from China to Fusang would indeed take one to Alaska. Fusang is said to be 20,000 li (li is a form of Chinese measurement; in ancient times, one li was equivalent to about 1/4 mile) away, which is roughly how far North America is from China. Rees said in her speech delivered to the Library of Congress in 2005: “Tong Fan Tso (who lived around the third century B.C.) stated that Fusang is 3,300 miles wide and is bounded by vast oceans and has huge trees. That is almost the exact width of America. How could someone in China that long ago have known this?”
She also noted that the large trees found on the west coast of Canada and the north-western states could correspond to this description.
Rees gave too many examples of how Fusang correlates with North America to name here. She also looked at archaeological evidence that may suggest an early swapping of some flora and fauna between China and North America. For example, a variety of sweet potato from North America spread to Asia; Rees wrote, “It had reached Polynesia by 800 A.D. and even had the same name there as in America.”
She continued: “Chicken bones in America dated to 900 A.D. are very similar to those from southeast Asia. Even what some American Indians called chickens is almost identical to their Chinese names.” For many of these examples, she cited George Carter (1912–2004), an American professor of geography who taught at Johns Hopkins University and later at Texas A&M University. Carter also had a background in anthropology and conducted some archaeological excavations in the United States. He was a proponent of the theory that various colonists came to North America over the ages.
Some say, however, that Fusang is a mythical location. Rees argued that some of the ancient maps showing Fusang are government maps with practical uses (including the mapping of well locations, et cetera), and would thus be unlikely to show imaginary land masses. The inclusion of sea monsters and other such elements on equally serious ancient maps, however, often calls into question their total veracity.
While the evidence for ancient contact between China and the New World remains controversial, and neither Yates nor Ruskamp may hope to change the history books right away, these researchers and others continue to compile what they see as compelling evidence and call for further discourse on these connections.