Book Review: Secret Maps of the Ancient World

I was watching the show Ancient Aliens, and in one episode they noted how ancient cultures from opposite sides of the globe shared some common traits despite being hemispheres apart. Although I'm a fan of the show and the ancient astronaut theory, I never take what they say too seriously. One problem with ancient astronaut theorists is that they downplay the ingenuity of ancient peoples. Here's what David Hatcher Childress said about a Mayan statue on an episode of Ancient Aliens:

This is one of the curious dragon sculptures here at Copan, of which there are many. In fact, these very Oriental statues would look right in place in China or some other Oriental country. Some archeologists believe that there are elephants on either side of this Copan ruler. So why would there be here in Copan such Asian motifs such as elephants and dragons in a place in Central America that is so far away from China and Southeast Asia? Is there some kind of extraterrestrial connection between the Mayans and the Chinese and origin for both that comes from the stars?

So what conclusion did these ancient alien theorists come up with? That aliens facilitated pre-Columbian transpacific contact with flying saucers and that the Chinese and the Mayans are descended from aliens.

We're aliens?! No wonder Asians are so smart!

What's more likely? That aliens abducted ancient Chinese and dropped them off in the Mayan empire, or that the Chinese and other Asians built ships and explored and settled in the Americas before Columbus? People would rather believe in ancient aliens than Gavin Menzies' modest theory that the Chinese discovered America in 1421.

But there is overwhelming evidence that the ancient Chinese and other Asians explored and settled the Americas for thousands of years, long before Columbus. That's the topic of Charlotte Harris Rees' book Secret Maps of the Ancient World:

Charlotte's father, Hendon Harris Jr., owned several old Asian maps which depicted the world and named America as Fusang. The oldest of these maps is dated to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). These maps, however, are replicas of a much older map, which accompanied the ancient text Shan Hai Jing. This was a 32 volume book that detailed Chinese expeditions all over the world at the time of the Xia dynasty (2000-1520 B.C.). Harris' maps were studied for three years at the Library of Congress and then were moved to a secure location.

Since the book is titled Secrets Maps of the Ancient World, one would expect to find lots of pictures of the Hendon Harris maps themselves in full color and detail. That, however, is not the case. What few pictures there are of the maps are in black and white and are small in size. Unless you're a historical cartographer who can read Chinese, then you won't know if the maps are overwhelming evidence.




Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book which does compile every bit of evidence out there that the Chinese and other Asians had been coming to and settling in the Americas for thousands of years prior to Columbus and prior to Zheng He. Maps by themselves are often subject to interpretation, but it is very hard to argue against the preponderance of circumstantial evidence from several different fields of study: cartography, ancient texts, common cultural practices, out of place artifacts, architecture, agriculture, maritime technology, cultural motifs, oceanography, microbiology and genetics.

In fact, Rees compiles so much evidence that the book really becomes more of a laundry list of evidence rather than a critical analysis. There are other books than provide a more in-depth analysis of the evidence for Chinese in pre-Columbian America, but they tend to focus on a specific topic. For example, Nu Sun by Gunnar Thompson focuses on common cultural motifs between the Shang dynasty Chinese and the Mayans.

So why was there a Chinese presence in Mayan society? There are different theories as to how the Chinese influenced Mayan civilization, but the one theory that diffusionists subscribe to is that at the fall of the Shang Dynasty in 1122 B.C. a quarter of a million Chinese left China by ship and sailed east to avoid persecution. These ships followed the ocean currents which led them to the Americas.

Now there is some debate as to whether these Chinese were assimilated into Mayan culture or into the Olmec culture, which is the mother culture to all ancient Meso-American cultures, including the Mayans. Archeologists have found Chinese writings at Olmec sites. The Olmecs, like the Chinese, were quite fond of jade, despite the fact that there were no jade quarries in Mexico.

What is clear is that some of these ancient American civilizations seem to have popped up in full bloom. In other words, the Olmecs and Mayans developed a very high level of cultural sophistication in a relatively short period of time. The foremost expert on pre-Columbian cultures Professor Walter Krickeberg characterized it this way:

"The oldest advanced American civilizations appear on the scene seemingly without roots, without preliminary stages: the Olmec culture in Mesoamerica, the Chavin culture in Andean countries. This remarkable phenomenon can be satisfactorily explained only if we assume one or more impulses that worked on America from the outside. Otherwise it is difficult to understand how primitive circumstances could have endured for 15,000 to 20,000 years with few changes, and then within a span of 2000 to 3000 years storm through the whole series of stages up to advanced civilization. In the case of the two oldest advance American cultures, there is not even a trace of this ascent: suddenly they are simply there."

Could this outside cultural impulse on ancient Meso-American cultures be ancient aliens? I think not.

Here's an interview Charlotte Harris Rees:

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