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Seductions of Pseudoarchaeology: Bogus Books Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Eric A. Powell

A bestseller promotes a voyage of exploration too exciting to be true.


Whatever else you can say about 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, there's no denying it's fun to read. Written by Gavin Menzies, a former nuclear submarine commander in Britain's Royal Navy, the book was this past year's breakout hit in the history category, even though the bulk of its claims could be described as speculative at best. If you found yourself caught up in the media feeding frenzy surrounding 1421--you might have heard Menzies on NPR or read an interview with him in People--you probably already know that Menzies' thesis, simply stated, is that the Chinese discovered the New World before Columbus. The book is packed with cartographic and archaeological evidence (including misplaced "Chinese" artifacts and long-standing pseudoarchaeological "mysteries" like the Newport Round Tower in Rhode Island and the Bimini Road rock formation in the Bahamas) that suggests a fleet of massive Chinese junks circumnavigated the globe and reached not just the Americas but Australia, Antarctica, and even the North Pole, mapping the world and scattering Chinese settlements along the way. According to Menzies, memory of this incredible voyage of discovery faded after a new emperor, uninterested in exploration, came to power in Beijing.

It's too soon to say whether 1421 will become an enduring monument of pseudoarchaeogical publishing, but if it does, Menzies will have some company. There is no single, reliable way of getting accurate numbers for books sold, but journalist Graham Hancock says his books investigating a lost Ice Age civilization have sold more than four million copies. According to Zecharia Sitchin, who says Sumerian texts include passages about extraterrestrials, his books have sold five million copies. But the champion of pseudoarchaeological publishing is without a doubt Swiss journalist Erich von Däniken. His books purporting to show alien involvement in early civilizations, including the bestseller Chariots of the Gods?, first published in 1967, are said to have sold more than sixty million copies worldwide.

Eric A. Powell is an associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America