In the early 15th century, Imperial Chinese mariners under the eunuch admiral Zheng He made great voyages of discovery in enormous ships. Then the Hongxi Emperor decided that what they had found on far shores was underwhelming, the whole fleet was scuppered and the Chinese paid no further attention to seafaring. In 2007 I discussed a silly story about alleged descendants of Zheng He’s non-eunuch crew in Kenya who had suddenly remembered their Chinese heritage, which was convenient since the Chinese were interested in local mining rights.

Now the Guardian has news about the Kenya – Zheng He – China connection, relayed to me by Aard’s Chinese reporter who happens to share my bed and board. A well-funded group of Chinese maritime archaeologists plans to spend three years searching for the wreck of one of Zheng He’s ships off the Kenyan coast. According to the newspaper, the impetus of the project is “Kenyan lore” about a shipwreck taking place in the 1400s. If so, then I am very sorry for my Chinese colleagues. They have a “likely shipwreck site”, but no actual shipwreck yet.

I hope the project does find a 15th century Chinese shipwreck. But if they do, then this will in no way validate the suddenly remembered folklore. It’s a ridiculous product of current Afro-Chinese economic relations, and I’m sure no well-educated Kenyan or Chinese archaeologist believes one word of it.

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Comments

  1. #1 Birger Johansson
    July 29, 2010

    A factoid about something completely different: The recent discovery of a “second Stonehenge” near the first one was made possible by a georadar device (the whole rig looks like a lawn mower) designed by Malå Geoscience, a company in a very small town in Västerbotten, north Sweden. Remarkable to find this kind of technological competence in the local analogy to the Australian “outback”. :-)

  2. #2 Martin R
    July 29, 2010

    Cool! Without the Internet they probably couldn’t have afforded marketing their device.

  3. #3 ArchAsa
    July 29, 2010

    Everytime something like this surfacces I am strengthened in my conviction that any talk about “all stories are truth” is stupid and dangerous. People can of course keep their religious and ideological beliefs, but they have no place in real research and science.

  4. #4 Richard
    July 29, 2010

    The Guardian article to which you linked says that the Kenyan story is

    reportedly backed by recent DNA testing

    .
    Admittedly it doesn’t give any references, but are you saying that this is not true? If so, how do you know? I don’t see what’s so outrageous and obviously false about the story, the Chinese were definitely in the area at the time, no one disputes that.

  5. #5 Janet Newton
    July 29, 2010

    Couldn’t agree with your conclusions more! How ‘convenient’ for vaguely-referenced DNA tests (where, when, who was tested, and where did the analysis take place?) to have been performed that produced one (one?) Kenyan female of purported Chinese descent. As we say in the states, “yeah, right.”

    Let us hope the Chinese archaeologists and staff are savvy enough to employ lots of the locals and spread around lots of money while they are engaged in the search for the fabled shipwreck.

  6. #6 Richard
    July 29, 2010

    Janet, the Guardian article doesn’t say that only “one (one?) Kenyan female of purported Chinese descent” was found. It says that one woman whose DNA showed Chinese ancestry was given a scholarship to study Chinese “medecine”.

    In Siyu village they conducted DNA tests on a Swahili family whose oral history and hints of Chinese facial features led them to believe they were descendants of Zheng’s shipwrecked sailors. The tests reportedly showed evidence of Chinese ancestry and a 19-year-old woman called Mwamaka Shirafu was given a full scholarship to study traditional medicine in China, where she remains.

    Wouldn’t you be more surprised if a fleet which visited the area on more than one voyage (they made seven voyages in total) and (according to reliable reports) was comprised of tens of thousands of sailors away from home for years hadn’t left any offspring? Even if they weren’t from these reportedly shipwrecked sailors I would expect that the Chinese left decendants wherever they stopped along the East African coast. I doubt that Chinese sailors are/were any different from any other sailors in history.
    Why so dismissive? Have you conducted DNA testing of the entire East African population and found no evidence at all of Chinese ancestry? That would seem to be the only way you could justifiably be so certain that it’s all fantasy.

  7. #7 codero
    July 30, 2010

    But strong claims require strong justification. It is not up to the critics to prove some conjecture false. In fact, that is downright impossible with many claims. It pays to be double-sceptical whenever certain results are highly desirable to certain parties. Think about archaeology in Jerusalem.

  8. #8 Lassi Hippeläinen
    July 30, 2010

    Study of history has been dominated by humanists who don’t understand technology, and who project their non-understanding to the ancient people they are studying. For example, the sea has always been an aid to moving around, not a hindrance. The Polynesians populated the Pacific Ocean using only stone age technology. Their ancestors left SE Asia maybe 6000 years ago. Something of their sailing skills must have remained behind, and be available to the Chinese long before Zheng He.

    The Malagasy of Madagaskar are of Malesian descent. They managed to cross the Indian Ocean some 2000 years ago.

    Even if the Emperor decided not to go sailing, there were still lots of other Chinese who could do it on their own. Like all the traders, who had set up bases outside China. I’d be surprised if there were no genetic traces of Chinese influence all over the Indian Ocean.

  9. #9 kevin
    July 30, 2010

    I don’t know enough to comment on the particulars of this story but it is increasingly clear that the history I was taught–that the America’s were unknown and isolated from the the rest of the world prior to Columbus–was as fictional as you believe this story to be.

    Local folklore may offer little more than a starting point, but if it leads to DNA testing, archaeological research, linguistic studies and other means to determine credible historical connections, then I see it as worthwhile

  10. #10 Martin R
    July 30, 2010

    Richard, let’s assume that DNA tests have indeed shown that people in the area have some Chinese ancestry. This does not validate the local folklore.

    1. What is the overall population like, genetically? Maybe everybody there has a bit of Chinese regardless of whether they profess to have folklore like that or not.

    2. When did they acquire their Chinese genes? It would be impossible to narrow this date down exactly to Zheng He’s day.

    3. Where was the Chinese ancestor when he made the squirt in question? The genetic material may very likely have hopped a short stretch of coastline with each generation.

    4. When was the local folklore first documented?

  11. #11 Sandgroper
    July 31, 2010

    Lassi – You could have said that late Pleistocene people made it to Australia 45,000 years ago, necessarily by sailing, which was pretty impressive technology for the time. Someone (can’t remember who) commented that at the time they must have been the most technologically advanced people in the world, to have made that journey.

    It’s hardly surprising that some Africans show ‘hints of Chinese features’, or more correctly that Chinese show hints of some African features. So do we all, and our DNA shows evidence that we derived from Africa.

    So what? Oral histories are just not credible. Australian Aboriginal people retain no collective memory at all that they arrived in Australia in sailing canoes, although they undoubtedly did. Their oral history is that the landscape was created by a giant rainbow coloured snake. Pretty credible, no? But cultural anthropologists insist this history must be respected and treated as truth, despite the fact that it is obviously not true.

    I think it is extremely unlikely that the Chinese ‘researchers’ will find any evidence of a 15th Century ship wreck. But even if they do, it proves nothing.

  12. #12 Geoff Carter
    July 31, 2010

    Just to lash some of these floating points together; It should be pointed out, that the “second Stonehenge”, or “..It’s a timber equivalent to Stonehenge” [Prof Vince Gaffney on BBC website], is a good example of modern archaeological story telling.
    The evidence from the geophysics is that it is round, and it is near Stonehenge;QED?
    It’s a Prehistoric mystery story at best!

  13. #13 Lars
    June 27, 2011

    Lite mer artiklar om eventuella kontakter:

    Coins point to early Chinese trade with Africa
    http://www.numismaster.com/ta/numis/Article.jsp?ad=article&ArticleId=13956

    Ancient Chinese coins found in Kenya
    http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90782/7116283.html

  14. #14 kn
    March 9, 2012

    this article by R. Martin does not point to the fact that recent DNA eveidence points to an oriental genetic marker that links some native coastals in the Lamu Islands to the Chinese.