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Did Ancient Drifters 'Discover' British Columbia?

Legends and bits of evidence tell a story of Asians arriving here long, long ago. Part one of two.

By Daniel Wood 3 Apr 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Daniel Wood is a Vancouver-based journalist. A version of this article first appeared in the Georgia Straight.

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A 1,500-year-old Chinese legend recounts the journey of adventurer Hwui Shan's sail across the Pacific, along the coast of British Columbia, and beyond.

"Even pale ink is better than memory." -- Chinese proverb

As the tide creeps over the sand flats of Pachena Bay south of Bamfield, it brings ashore the flotsam of the Pacific that -- on occasion -- hints at extraordinary travels and a mystery of historic proportions. Amid the kelp, in decades past, hundreds of green-glass fishing floats would arrive intact on the Vancouver Island coast, having ridden the powerful Japanese Current in year-long transits from Asia. But on rare occasions, entire ships would arrive -- like the derelict, Hokkaido-based, 54-metre squid-fishing boat located recently 260 kilometres off Haida Gwaii, part of the estimated 5 million tonnes of debris headed this way from last year's Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

Even more rarely, these ghost ships would carry survivors of this slow drift, men who spoke Chinese, or Japanese. Such was the case of the Hyojun Maru that was left rudderless in a typhoon off Japan and drifted for 14 months before being washing up in 1834 on the 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 wrecks that are purported to have yielded strange artefacts 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.

Legend of Fu Sang

No one knows how to factor in the source of early iron implements in the Pacific Northwest -- where iron was unknown; 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 it is the 1,500 year-old Chinese legend of Fu Sang could have come about. It recounts the journey of Chinese adventurer Hwui Shan, who claimed to have sailed across the Pacific, along the coast of British Columbia, then southward to a sub-tropical 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 old myths, once viewed as fantastical, have proven true. Not long ago, no one guffawed when school teachers intoned Gutenberg had invented the printing press and Columbus had "discovered" America. Believing these 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's Newfoundland's L'Anse au Meadow 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, with 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 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 fishing floats entangled in their nets, and the equally provocative anthropomorphic petroglyphs at nearby Thorsen Creek. To Heyerdahl's mind, the big-eyed, stone creatures were identical to ones he'd seen previously in Hawaii and Easter Island, far out in the Pacific off Chile. Could it be, he asked himself, the east-flowing ocean currents that were bringing Japanese fishing floats to Bella Coola have also carried early westbound native Americans to Polynesia? Perhaps the Pacific was not a impediment to prehistoric mariners, but -- with its endlessly circling currents -- an invisible river? With his successful east-to-west journey of Kon-Tiki, the door to 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.)

Urned credibility

In the late summer of 1979, captain Mike Tyne, then 31, was fishing with his trawler Beaufort Sea above Big Bank, a shallows off Pachena Bay in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, when his drag net 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 speculations began -- and continue 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. Archeologists appeared.

Over 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, it was probably 300 years old; 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, and was fired by the anthropologist's conviction the Pacific was a crossroads of ancient travel. Beasley learned to dive, studied maritime histories and Pacific Northwest folklore, joined the Underwater Archeological Society of B.C., and came to believe the B.C. coast held myriad untold secrets. In 1983 in Tofino, searching for the sunken 19th century fur trading vessel Tonquin, he watched as a man appeared with a barnacle-covered Chinese pot that he claimed came from a second Asian wreck in nearby Clayoquot Sound. Tofino forestry employee and diver Robert Pfannenschmidt refused, however, to reveal the location of his alleged discovery, claiming he was keeping the shallow-water site secret in order to extract its artefacts at a time lucrative to him. (Pfannenschmidt was informed then that pillaging a historic shipwreck in B.C. is illegal, and has since rejected all requests for interviews.) Not long after that, two more old Chinese pots appeared in trawl nets off Tofino, prompting reports of a third Asian wreck.

'It will be found!'

To Beasley's mind, these underwater pottery finds were further hints 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 both 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 to the myths. Fu Sang's like the old Norse sagas describing Vinland. Now... with L'Anse au Meadow, 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 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 the History of the Liang Dynasty, recorded almost 1,500 years ago, the story is told of an itinerant monk named Hwui Shan 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 Japanese 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. Hwui Shan then sailed 2,700 kilometres further east to a land of "mile high" trees where people's wooden houses were surrounded by decorations. He called the place the Great Land of Rushing Waters. In distance, direction, and details it sounds like British Columbia.

Turning south, the men journeyed 10,600 kilometres to a country the monk called Fu Sang, named after local trees that produce 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. Hwui Shan returned to China in 499 A.D. only to find his homeland wracked by civil war.

Some elements of the Fu Sang story are, however, so odd that critics dismiss the account as the product of imagination. Hwui Shan 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 to dogs. Such is the nature of myth. But no less an authority than the late British sinologist Joseph Needham counted, on visits to Mayan Mexico, over 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.

Tomorrow: Where researchers are looking for evidence of ancient Asian visits to our part of the world.  [Tyee]

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