Who were B.C.’s first seafarers?
Even pale ink is better than memory—Chinese proverbChinese myths and tenuous archaeological evidence offer hints that explorers came here from the Far East long ago.
As the tide creeps over the sand flats of Pachena Bay south of Bamfield, it brings ashore flotsam of the Pacific Ocean that—on occasion—hints at extraordinary travels and a mystery of historic proportions.
Amid the kelp, in decades past, hundreds of green glass fishnet floats arrived intact on Vancouver Island’s west coast, having ridden the powerful Japan Current in yearlong transits from Asia. But on much rarer occasions, the current and tide have brought to North America’s west coast the boats of unintentional Asian voyagers, most of them dead—the victims of dismastings 10,000 kilometres away.
Even more rarely, these ghost ships carried survivors of this slow drift, men who spoke Chinese or Japanese. Such was the case with the Hy?jun Maru, which was left rudderless in a typhoon off Japan and drifted for 14 months before washing up in 1834 on Washington state’s Cape Flattery headlands, just across from Pachena Bay. It contained three fishermen.
It is, in fact, one of 100 known Asian drift boats that have crossed the Pacific accidentally. (The last one to arrive came ashore on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1987, empty.) But no one knows what to make of the evidence hauled up from the wreck that lies 16 kilometres off Pachena Bay in almost 150 metres of water, or the two supposed wrecks that are purported to have yielded strange artifacts from beneath nearby Clayoquot Sound. For all three have produced barnacle-covered Asian pots—probably Chinese—whose age may predate the earliest European visitors to this coast.
No one knows how to explain the source of early iron implements in the Pacific Northwest—where iron was unknown to its inhabitants—or the origin of the 100 Asian plants and human parasites that suddenly appeared in Latin America a few millennia ago, or the recently revealed linguistic similarities between early Chinese and Mayan words.
How did the bones of chickens—an Asian fowl—get into a prehistoric American midden? What explains the similarities between Japanese and Zuni blood types? And no one can figure out how the 1,500-year-old Chinese legend of Fu Sang could have come about.
It recounts the journey of Chinese adventurer and Buddhist missionary Hui Shen, who claimed to have sailed across the Pacific, along the coast of what is today called British Columbia, then southward to a subtropical place he called Fu Sang. Many of the details in his chronicle of this 40-year journey are breathtakingly accurate.
Where does coincidence end and incident begin? Were people crossing the Pacific long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic?
In the past 100 years, a lot of Eurocentric views of history have collapsed, and a lot of stories once viewed as fantastical have proven true. Not long ago, no one guffawed when schoolteachers intoned that Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press and Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Believing these things was part of the conceit of European superiority.
This view extended to old myths and legends that 20th-century academics dismissed as the imaginings of primitive minds. The Vinland saga was a tale told by uncouth Vikings, and nothing more. Atlantis was something Plato dreamed up. A lost Incan city somewhere in the Andes? How romantic.
But today there are Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows and the Greek island of Santorini and Peru’s Machu Picchu to remind the dogmatic that the ink of history is not indelible, that history is, in fact, a palimpsest of rewritings, as new discoveries obscure old beliefs.
No person has been more influential—or, in his conclusions, more wrong—in exploring the possibility of early trans-Pacific travel than the late Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. He’s the man behind the 1947 Kon-Tiki raft expedition, widely considered one of the greatest feats of human endurance in history.
Few know that Heyerdahl’s famous ocean-crossing raft journey had its origins in Bella Coola, B.C., in 1939, when the young anthropologist spent the winter there looking for evidence that might link Natives of the Americas to ancient cross-Pacific human migrations.
Curiously, the first clues to this supposition were reports he heard from Bella Coola fishermen of glass Japanese fishnet floats entangled in their nets, and the equally provocative anthropomorphic petroglyphs at nearby Thorsen Creek. To his mind, the big-eyed stone creatures depicted there were identical to ones he’d seen previously in Hawaii and on Easter Island, far out in the Pacific off Chile.
Could it be, he asked himself, that the endlessly circling ocean currents that were bringing Japanese fishing floats to B.C.’s central coast at Bella Coola had also carried early westbound Native Americans to Polynesia? Perhaps the Pacific was not an impediment to prehistoric mariners but an invisible river?
With his successful east-to-west, 8,000-kilometre journey on the Kon-Tiki, an important new vista opened for scientific investigation: people could have utilized primitive vessels to cross the Pacific. (Heyerdahl’s error—and it was a huge one—was to assume these ocean migrations originated in the Americas, not in Asia.)
In the late summer of 1979, captain Mike Tyne, then 31, was fishing with his trawler the Beaufort Sea above Big Bank, a shallows off Pachena Bay at the western border of Juan de Fuca Strait, when his dragnet hauled up an unusual catch. Amid the cod and sole were pieces of rotten wood and a large, intact, brown-glazed pot, its exterior encrusted with marine-worm casts and its interior holding an octopus.
The three-man crew discussed the likelihood they’d snagged an unknown shipwreck 150 metres below. The wood was promptly discarded, but Tyne told himself the urn would make a good planter for his wife, Patsy, and brought his find back to Ucluelet. Word got around town that Tyne had pulled up an old, Chinese-looking pot, and speculation began—and continues to this day—that Tyne had found the first evidence of an ancient Asian shipwreck on the North American coast. There were stories in the local paper. An American visitor offered him $2,000 for the pot. Archaeologists appeared.
During the next few years, as news of the 75-centimetre-high urn circulated, three institutions provided differing assessments of its age. According to Tyne, the British Museum in London said, based on photographs, that it was probably 300 years old; both the University of Toronto and UBC, using carbon dating, said it could be 700.
However, no one could confirm its significance. Even if it were a very old Chinese urn, there was no proof the wreck itself was the same age. With an estimated 2,000 sunken ships along the B.C. coast—most unsurveyed—the old pot could have been carried on an unknown 19th-century vessel that foundered off Pachena Bay. But uncertainty about the pot’s origins did little to deter interest.
As a boy in Grade 5, Tom Beasley, now 54 and a Vancouver lawyer, read Thor Heyerdahl’s famous book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft and was fired by the anthropologist’s conviction that the Pacific was a crossroads of ancient travel. Beasley learned to dive, studied maritime histories and Pacific Northwest folklore, joined the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C., and came to believe that the B.C. coast held myriad secrets.
In 1983 in Tofino, searching for the sunken 19th-century fur-trading vessel Tonquin, he watched as a man stepped onto his tugboat with a barnacle-covered Chinese pot. Robert Pfannenschmidt, a Tofino forestry employee and diver, claimed that it came from a second Asian wreck in nearby Clayoquot Sound. He refused, however, to reveal the location of his alleged discovery, saying he was keeping the shallow-water site secret in order to extract its artifacts at a later date.
(Beasley and others informed Pfannenschmidt at that time that pillaging a historic shipwreck in B.C. is illegal, and he has since rejected interview requests.) Not long after that, two more old Chinese pots appeared in fishnets off Tofino, prompting reports of a third Asian wreck.
To Beasley’s mind, these underwater pottery finds were further clues that Chinese voyagers reached North America long ago. And he lists a few of the other curious linkages: B.C. Native myths of non-European strangers arriving from the sea; conical hats common to Asians and local Natives; the use of mortuary poles on both sides of the Pacific (and nowhere else); and the profoundly odd story of Fu Sang.
“The story line is wonderful,” he says of the mounting evidence that ocean-crossing Asian travellers did, in fact, venture here. “All we’ve got so far is pieces of the puzzle. We have to follow the myths. Fu Sang’s like the old Norse sagas describing Vinland. Now”¦with L’Anse aux Meadows, we know the sagas were correct: the Vikings got to the New World 500 years before Columbus. But here”¦we haven’t found the Holy Grail: the shipwreck. But it will be found!”
The idea that the Chinese may have reached the New World at least 500 years before the Vikings and 1,000 years before Columbus is as tantalizing as it is controversial. In Liang-shu (Records of the Liang Dynasty), set down almost 1,500 years ago, the story is told of an itinerant monk named Hui Shen who set sail with his four Buddhist companions on a four-decade-long, trans-Pacific odyssey with the intention of introducing their religion to the peoples they encountered across the “Great Eastern Sea”.
Utilizing the Japan Current, the legend reports, the men travelled from China 4,000 kilometres northeast, to a land where people had striped faces. The direction, distance, and details fit remarkably with the tattooed Aleuts of southern Alaska. Hui Shen then sailed 2,700 kilometres farther east and south to a land of “mile high” trees where wooden houses were surrounded by decorations. He called the place the Great Land of Rushing Waters.
Again, in distance, direction, and details, it sounds like British Columbia. Continuing south, the men journeyed 10,600 kilometres to a country the monk called Fu Sang after local trees that produced a red, pear-shaped fruit. The people, he reported, had a rich culture, with an aristocracy, a writing system, complex rituals, and domestic animals that today suggest Mayan Mexico. Again, things fit almost perfectly. Hui Shen returned to China in AD 499, only to find his homeland racked by civil war.
Some elements of the Fu Sang story are, however, so odd that critics dismiss the account as the product of imagination. Hui Shen reported he heard stories in Fu Sang of a nearby society composed exclusively of Amazonian women who took snakes as husbands and nursed their children from nipples on their shoulders.
He said he saw deer pulling wheeled carts, and dog-faced men. Time and transcription can, of course, turn gods into dogs. Such is the nature of myth. But no less an authority than British Sinologist Joseph Needham counted, on visits to Mayan Mexico, more than 100 parallels—in complicated rain-making ceremonies, in the construction of suspension bridges, and in a belief in the magical properties of jade—that indicated the two civilizations had ancient links.
Until quite recently, most North American archaeologists would get nervous at the suggestion that ancient Asian mariners crossed the Pacific in travels to the Americas. Trapped in a scientific orthodoxy—not so different from the one dictating that early-20th-century geologists reject the new (and now firmly established) theory of drifting continents—archaeologists have claimed that the early cultures of the Americas evolved untainted by any outside influence.
This belief had its roots in a sort of í¼ber-nationalism of western scientific thought: unlike the mongrel cultures of Asia, Melanesia, and Africa, so the argument went, there was no foreign miscegenation in the Americas. This smug, isolationist idea held sway for most of the 20th century.
A map of North American that was created in France in 1792 contains the intriguing words Fousang des Chinois in the area where B.C. exists today.
So Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki demonstration of an alternative theory—that the Pacific may have been a highway of ancient American-Asian diffusions—was greeted with derision by academia. Then came Gavin Menzies’s best-selling 2002 book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, describing alleged Oriental visits to the New World almost 600 years ago. Historians and archaeologists went ballistic.
Menzies is a liar, they said. Worse, he’s a charlatan. What often got lost in the tirades against Menzies and his mistaken predecessor Heyerdahl—they did get important things wrong—was this increasingly accepted premise: early Asian and, perhaps, American peoples had been crossing the Pacific for centuries, perhaps for millennia, before Europeans appeared on the scene.
This paradigm shift can be traced, in part, to a series of recent discoveries that demonstrate early mariners had both the capacity and an interest in trade that regularly propelled them out of Asia and to the New World.
When, for example, Victoria coastal archaeologist Daryl Fedje announced a few years ago that he’d found datable 13,000-year-old human artifacts on the Queen Charlotte Islands, his discovery was part of a growing belief that prehistoric Asian nomads had the boats and skills to navigate the B.C. coast.
Virtually gone today is the scientific concept of the Bering Strait land bridge as the sole entry point for human migrations into Ice Age North America. That theory is now an anachronism—as dead as the one that once said God set the universe in motion on Wednesday, October 22, 4004 BC. Why cross several thousand kilometres of tundra and ice when there’s plentiful fish, game, and dry land within reach of boats on ice-free, Pacific coast promontories?
When archaeologists recently analyzed some buried ship’s planks on California’s Channel Islands, they discovered that the sawn wood likely had its origins in the Gilbert Islands, 7,500 kilometres to the southwest, in the western central Pacific. And the wreck was 1,600 years old. When other researchers reported that New Mexico’s Zuni Native blood types, religion, and language have unmistakable Japanese links, or that old Mayan had common linguistic roots with old Sino-Tibetan—and that these Asian influences appear to have arrived abruptly within the past 1,500 years—it was a sign the iconoclasts of Asian dispersal had overwhelmed the bastion of American uniqueness.
David Burley, chair of SFU’s department of archaeology, finds himself, like most others in his field, having to assimilate this new, often discomfiting information. It runs counter to a lot of preconceptions.
“The evidence clearly shows now,” he admits, “people moved from west to east across the Pacific. If the Polynesians hit tiny Easter Island—and they did—they had to hit South America. If they got to Hawaii—and they did—they got to the Pacific Northwest. I have no doubt, in fact, Hawaiians settled the Bella Coola Valley.”
There are Ainu ceremonial poles from northern Japan, he adds, that are almost identical to West Coast poles. There’s old Polynesian bark cloth that’s identical to Native cedar cloth here. And then there are those strange Bella Coola petroglyphs.
Even more provocative, however, than the petroglyphs that inspired Heyerdahl in 1939 is last year’s announcement by one of Burley’s own doctoral students, Alice Storey, that DNA in 600-year-old chicken bones found in Chile pinpoint the bird’s genetic origins in Samoa, almost 8,000 kilometres across open ocean to the west.
It had been assumed by Eurocentric archaeologists that Atlantic-crossing Spanish—not Pacific-crossing Polynesians—brought this Asian bird to the New World. And to further the trans-Pacific argument, it’s now also understood that these same maritime traders brought the previously unknown sweet potato and the bottle gourd to Polynesia from the Americas.
But when the issue of early Chinese travellers to British Columbia comes up, Burley admits he has never heard of Fu Sang. This is difficult to grasp, given the role that myths have often played in major archeological breakthroughs. After all—and to mention just a few—Hiram Bingham followed the trail of Quechuan rumours to Machu Picchu, and Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine, followed the 1,000-year-old Norse sagas to L’Anse aux Meadows.
Could this lack of curiosity among many North American archaeologists be testament to a lingering 20th-century bias that has downplayed Asia’s influences on the West? Burley says of Fu Sang: “Anything’s possible. Most myths have some kind of root basis in events.”
B.C. archaeologist George MacDonald, 70, director emeritus of the Bill Reid Foundation, is one of those who didn’t succumb to the scientific conceit of the Americas’ isolation from Asia. He has believed all along that Asian traders and ideas have come to these shores since”¦ well, forever.
“It’s harder to explain why they did not come than why they did. The first emperor,” he says, referring to a different Chinese myth dating to 210 BC, “sent his fleet across the Pacific to find the ”˜land of immortality’. Those ships disappeared. Then came Fu Sang. There had to be Chinese ships that came here!”
MacDonald has dug evidence of Bronze Age (3000 BC) Japanese-style armour from a site near Prince Rupert. He has seen ancient, folded birchbark boxes from Siberia that are mimicked by the traditional, curve-sided cedar boxes of B.C. coastal Natives. He has seen how the raven myth has survived among tribes on both sides of the Pacific.
He believes the circum-Pacific peoples have—despite the distances—known about each other for millennia, traded and fought regularly, and exchanged their ideas, their products, and their genes in a traffic that helped shape the rise of the great cultures of the Americas. He believes it’s time to follow the old myths.
“Most legends have some point of historical origin. But the old stories get warped in time. The challenge in archaeology is to take the warp out of it—to find the key sites and evidence and date them. I’d say maybe one-tenth of one percent of B.C. archaeological sites have been dug. Under the ocean”¦less. The day will come when we search the ocean off B.C. If you were looking for Chinese remains, you’d get results. Of course, it’s a needle-in-the-haystack situation. There’s a lot of coastline, a lot of water. But if you’re not looking,” and he points down, “you’re not going to find proof.”
The resolution to this mystery may well lie in one of several B.C. places today. The first is the cabinet-filled archaeological-collection room in Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum. It is presided over by its garrulous, 60-year-old curator, Grant Keddie, who acknowledges that he has seen a dramatic shift in his field toward seeking connections between Pacific cultures rather than trying to dismember diffusion theorists and their theories.
And the more Keddie looks, the more he believes the proverbial “needle” will soon be found. He pulls out a bunch of old perforated Chinese coins dug in B.C. and dated by him to around AD 1100. But, he says, there’s no proof these coins—like the old Chinese pots found off Vancouver Island—arrived here new.
Traditionally, Native people wore old coins as good-luck charms. Keddie points out that the 550-year-old “Ice Man” found frozen in a B.C. glacier in 1999 was carrying iron tools at a time when iron smelting was well known in East Asia but unknown in the Americas. So where did the iron come from? He repeats B.C. Native myths of people arriving long, long before the appearance of the first Europeans.
These strangers purportedly ate “maggots”. Could that have been rice? He extracts from a drawer a six-centimetre-high figurine—with a topknot, and of apparent Asian origin—found amid potsherds and slate beads in a Native midden on Saturna Island. Could it be proof Asians got here, or is it merely a trade artifact? He says he’d like to get a piece of the wood that fisherman Mike Tyne tossed overboard the day his crew found the Chinese pot off Pachena Bay. Carbon dating could determine the age of the shipwreck. “Discussion is afoot,” Keddie acknowledges. “The paradigm is changing. Scientists are now looking for the evidence to establish China’s role in history.”
A second place to look would be the old office of the former director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, James Delgado. As an archaeologist and host of the long-running TV series Sea Hunter, he knows that myths and isolated artifacts cannot alone make the case for Chinese mariners coming to the B.C. coast long ago. For that, you need a shipwreck, he said in an interview before he left the museum to take a job in the U.S.
“If you take the accounts of the Chinese at face value, they did get here. The Fu Sang story says so. But there’s been a tendency in the West to dismiss the influence of the East. We’ve pretty much discarded that view now. And that,” he said, pointing dramatically across his desk and downward toward the floor, “that fits our postmodern view. We’re rejecting Eurocentric world history and the idea of American uniqueness and beginning to accept historic Asian ties to the Americas.”
His fingertip aimed at one of the two intact Chinese pots pulled from 1,200 metres of water off Tofino, the location of the latest purported Asian shipwreck. The half-metre-high pot was covered with swirling, white tunicate worm casts atop its beer-brown glaze. Delgado studied the almost calligraphic casts as if trying to read an illegible script. “If we discover an Asian shipwreck off this coast,” he added, “it would be one of the most significant discoveries in North American archaeology.”
A third place to look is the living room of Michelle Morelan’s suburban Steveston home. She’s the daughter of Mike Tyne. On the floor in the corner, covered in white worm casts, is the very Chinese pot her father hauled up off Pachena Bay years ago. Curiously, balanced atop the upright pot’s mouth is a large green glass Japanese fishnet float, identical to those that once inspired Heyerdahl. To hold this giant Chinese pot, to run one’s fingers over the rough, raised worm casts, is to sense the proximity of mystery. “If only the pot could talk,” Morelan says.
More than a century ago, B.C. ethnologists recorded a story from the Loht’a people of Pachena Bay, describing a great flood that had swept away their village long before and had submerged the summit of nearby 1,817-metre Mt. Arrowsmith.
For 100 years, this tale was considered nothing more than a myth. Then a decade ago, a Japanese seismologist, analyzing records of local tsunamis, uncovered reports of a great wave that had inundated the Japanese coast on January 27, 1700. But he could find no accounts—despite a Russian presence in Alaska and a Spanish presence along most of the west coast of the Americas—of a big earthquake.
The only gap in reliable reporting at that time was the still-unconquered Pacific coast of Canada. Archaeologists began digging along coastal B.C. and soon found that a 10-metre tsunami had swept into Pachena Bay that day and had obliterated the village there. The old Loht’a myth had its roots, it is now known, in British Columbia’s last great earthquake.
It is widely believed today—after a century of denial—that evidence of ancient Asian travellers along this coast is out there somewhere, and that the remarkable Chinese myth of Fu Sang and the gathering weight of local artifacts and Native stories are pointing the way to a new understanding of the past. It shouldn’t come as a surprise—considering the likely direction of 21st-century history—that the metaphorical tsunami headed across the Pacific from an ascendant China in the decades ahead may duplicate, in many ways, the cultural tsunami that swept the Pacific coast of the Americas millennia ago. Myths are history’s pale ink. One Chinese shipwreck found, and history changes.