The ‘Christopher Columbus Of China’ May Have Visited Kenya, A New Find Reveals

Kenya
An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.

A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.

The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.

Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.”

Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.

Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.

While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.

In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.

[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]

Terra Nova Expedition Ship Discovered


The ship that gave the name to Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition has been found in the waters off Greenland, the Schmidt Ocean Institute reports.

The SS Terra Nova took Scott’s British team to Antarctica in 1910. They raced to be the first to the South Pole but were beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team by only a matter of days. On their way back, bad weather set in and Scott and several team members died.

The SS Terra Nova continued to work in Arctic and Antarctic waters before finally getting damaged by ice and sinking off Greenland in 1943. A ship from the Schmidt Ocean Institute was testing its multibeam mapping echo sounders when it discovered the ship deep in the frigid waters.

The testing was being carried out in preparation for a undersea survey planned for next year. Who knows what else they’ll discover!

[Photo of Terra Nova expedition courtesy NOAA]

Terra Nova

Admiring Greenland From The Air While Freaking Out An Air Marshal

Greenland
Intercontinental flights are usually pretty dull. The route between London and Chicago, however, is one I always look forward to. That’s because it flies over the southern tip of Greenland. The airplane heads northwest over Ireland, then arcs across the North Atlantic, barely missing Iceland before crossing Greenland.

I always seem to be lucky with the weather and get a clear view of the jagged coastline of fjords and glacial screes. The last time I flew that route the weather was especially fine. The water below sparkles a pale sapphire, reflecting the sun so brightly that it stings my eyes. Scattered across the ocean are the white dots of ice floes. Some are surrounded by water colored an emerald green. At first I don’t know what I’m looking at until I see several white dots clustered close together, with emerald both between and surrounding them, and I realize that I’m seeing icebergs, their tips white and their submerged parts green in the sea water.

Further inland, massive glaciers glint in the sunlight. There are no roads or buildings on the land, and no boats on the water. No people anywhere.

“Are you looking at the other plane?” a voice asks behind me.

“Huh?” I reply, not too eloquently. Then I notice another plane a little above us and far off to our right. I frown at it like it’s an unwelcome intruder. I don’t want to see evidence of people here.

“Um, no, I’m looking at Greenland,” I reply with a bit more coherence.

I’m standing at the emergency exit door looking out the porthole because the grumpy guy sitting at the window seat in my row is more interested in watching an inflight movie and wants the window closed.

“Why do you need to stand here to do that?” the person standing behind me asks.

After griping about the idiocy of the guy in my row, I launch into an enthusiastic monologue about how I’ve always wanted to go to Greenland, how I’ve eagerly read explorer’s tales and Inuit folklore, that this was one of the few truly wild places left on Earth and it’s my dream to someday trek across it.

“Really.” His response comes out flat, suspicious.

I turn around and look at the person I’m talking to for the first time. Behind me stands a burly man with a buzz cut. He’s studying me closely.

This is an air marshal, I realize, and while everyone else is sleeping or watching movies I’m standing by the emergency exit.

Suddenly I see the situation from his perspective. He’s trying to decide whether I’m an eccentric nutcase or a terrorist. I prefer to have him think I’m an eccentric nutcase. I launch into an even more enthusiastic monologue about Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s first skiing expedition across Greenland in 1888, and the Norse settlements there that served as a base for Viking exploration of North America. Then I talk about the natural history of the island. My hopes of making it to the United States as a free man rise as I watch his eyes glaze over.

“Whatever,” he says with a shrug and walks off. He hasn’t even glanced out the window.

I go back to watching the glaciers below and dreaming of my next adventure.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

St. BrendanToday is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Visiting The Royal Geographical Society, London

Royal Geographical SocietyWhile London isn’t exactly known as an adventure travel destination, unless you’re crossing Elephant and Castle late at night, it is a place where adventure travelers gather. The British are some of the best explorers in the world and their Royal Geographical Society is a meeting place and resource for those who want more out of travel than a cruise to the Bahamas.

The society was founded in 1830 to further knowledge of the world and its cultures. It has sponsored numerous expeditions, including famous ones led by heroes such as Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary. This work continues today.

I popped in there for the first time earlier this week to use their archives. I’m planning a trip to a remote castle in northern Ethiopia that hasn’t been properly explored since 1868, and of course the folks at the Royal Geographical Society had the original maps! Thanks to them, now I won’t get lost when I head into the Ethiopian highlands – well, hopefully not.

The archives are a great resource for travelers planning their next adventure. There’s also an excellent series of lectures and exhibitions. Currently there’s an exhibition on the castles and monasteries of medieval Serbia.

So if you’re in London but pining to ride an elephant through Borneo or climb the mountains of Antarctica, check out the Royal Geographical Society.