1421: The Year China Discovered the World topped bestseller lists when it was released. I confess that I was one of those gullible readers who contributed to its financial success. I still have the book somewhere at the back of my shelf. The great Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He’s epic voyages around the Indian Ocean make for the kind of history that excites and electrifies. Menzies takes it one giant step further by postulating that the Chinese also visited Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Antarctica, pretty much the entire world. He presents all sorts of spurious archaeological evidence as proof for his runaway theories. You can read all about it at this site – set up wholly to discredit Menzies. A couple of years later, he wrote a sequel to 1421 about how he believed that a Chinese visit to the Mediterranean sparked off the Renaissance.
Now, he’s back with The Lost Empire of Atlantis. I was curious about what new academically baseless fantasy he was going to expound. The book starts innocently enough on Crete, once home to an advanced sea-faring civilization people by the Minoans named for the legend of King Minos famed for his labyrinth within which dwelt the Minotaur. He goes on to talk about the island of Thera, now called Santorini, where a cataclysmic volcanic eruption destroyed much of the island. Menzies marvels at the culture, trade and technology of the Minoans and makes remarks that beg you to question his intelligence like “That meant that from around 1425 BC there would have been Minoan travellers in Egypt: a pretty staggering idea.” Why is it a staggering idea that a sea-faring trade-based people would visit the nearest landmass to the south of their island?
However, all of this is just an irrelevant build-up. The full blow of his dodgy hypothesis doesn’t hit you till page 136 when he states “My theory that Minoan ships could cross the Atlantic depended on one thing: navigation.” And here I’d thought that great sea voyages depended on the quality of calico cats on board. In a nutshell, Menzies would have us believe that Minoans, headquartered on Crete and Santorini, ran an expansive trade empire that stretched from India to the Great Lakes Region of North America. True to his style, he bases this on spurious evidence. Much of his theory rests on the quality (not the chemical composition) of copper found in Cretan sites for which he claims North American origins. “The copper ingot found at Lothal (a Harappan port in Gujarat, India) was of over 99.8 percent purity. The only mines which produced copper of that purity in 2500 BC were the mines of Isle Royale and Lake Superior. Ships must have brought that copper, crossing the Atlantic to do so.”
Interestingly, Menzies spends a lot more time discussing the Minoan connection to India than directly supporting his hypothesis which is approached from the perspective of “BTW, the Minoans were also in America.” Among some scientific material, he cites some strange sources: “The Rough Guide to Kerala has a very good summary that illustrates that lure Kerala would have had for any enterprising foreign traders.” He often uses superficial similarities in culture to support his arguments. “By now I was convinced of the Minoan presence in Kerala during the Middle Bronze Age ... There was some interesting evidence of bull-leaping in the annual celebration of ‘Jellikatta’. However, though bull-leaping appears an odd and unlikely custom, this in itself could be a coincidence. It seems less so when you consider that this is a Hindu society, where cattle are considered holy, objects of veneration. This custom has clear similarities to those in ancient Crete.” Jallikattu is not bull leaping and it has very ancient origins in India pre-dating the veneration of cows, which is a relatively new phenomenon in Hinduism. Besides, many cultures have traditions that involve manhandling cattle. Menzies then turns his attention to the stone circles of South India. “How strange that a European-style prehistoric ceremonial circle should have been found in Kerala and that it should be so close to the river that I was sure the Minoans had traversed.” Cairns and stone circles are found at Neolithic sites all over the world from Egypt to China. There is nothing European about them. He then presents us with what he believes to be conclusive archaeological proof. “In India, I’d discovered that beautiful rock art carvings and paintings of American bison have been found on the borders of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, near the point where the Periyar River rises. They were dated to the 2nd millennium BC. I had to ask myself how Keralan (sic) artists of 4000 years ago had any knowledge of American bison.” I believe Menzies is referring to petroglyphs close to the Edakkal Caves in Wayanad. They are not images of American bison but of gaur or Indian bison who lived and continue to live in the Western Ghats.
The only bits where I’ll give Menzies the benefit of the doubt are alleged representations of New World flora in Indian religious art. I’ve read about this before and it is quite intriguing. Menzies cites two examples: a statue of a god holding maize from a Hoysala temple in Karnataka and sunflowers at a Jain cave shrine in Udayagiri in Orissa (both of which are supposed to be native to the Americas and couldn't have been known in India until the 17th century). But, these are in no way proof that the Minoans travelled up the Mississippi to the Great Lakes and mined cooper from its shores!
One of Menzies’ favourite expressions is “solid proof or evidence”. “By now, I was running to catch up. I’d got solid proof that the Minoans had travelled through most of Europe and that they had explored a large part of North America.” He frequently proclaims that he has “solid evidence” for all manner of things when he really only has conjectures and coincidences. I reckon that he shouldn’t have gone the non-fiction route at all. This is delicious material for a work of fantasy or a paperback of the Clive Cussler variety.