Monday, March 03, 2008

Don't Know Much About History

"In fourteen hundred ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue..."

Thus begins the little rhyme designed to help schoolchildren learn Important Dates in History. Our focus on Columbus as the "discoverer" of America completely ignores the Norsemen who made the same discovery five centuries earlier. And, according to British author Gavin Menzies, it also discounts the Chinese who beat Columbus here by over 70 years.

Ancient maps, pre-Columbian Chinese beads, Native American folklore, and even the upheaval that accompanied a change in Chinese ruling dynasties are all cited to support the "1421 theory" that Menzies proffers in 1421: The Year China Discovered the World his bestselling book.

Of course, for every historian who embraces the idea, there are hordes of scholars who are slavering to debunk it.

Which just goes to show that no matter how much you think you know, there will always be someone waiting in the wings to prove you wrong. Regardless of one's expertise, regardless of the study, research, blood, sweat, and tears one pours into an endeavor, there will be someone else willing to invest the same amount of effort to show the chinks in the argument's armor.

It's the yin and yang of truth.

No matter what we believe, we can never be 100% SURE. What is true may be absolute. (Whether or not history ever remembers his name, someone commanded a ship that discovered North America and brought it to the attention of the rest of the world.) But that doesn't mean people will ever buy into it and accept it without argument.

Whether or not you subscribe to the 1421 Theory, it's a fascinating undertaking for someone to pour so much time and energy into questioning the veracity of such a historical behemoth. It's the amateur historian David against the Goliath of conventional wisdom. And it reminds us that though we expect the future to surprise us, our past is just as much a cypher.