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The Pinta, Santa Maria, and a Chinese junk?

A new book claims the Chinese discovered America in 1421, but historians refute thesis.

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To the Norsemen, the Japanese, and the Carthaginians; to the Irish, the Africans, and a long list of others who, it is claimed, crossed the oceans to America long before 1492, add one more: the Chinese.

They toured up and down both coasts of the Americas, established colonies, made maps, and left behind chickens. That, at least, is the theory posed by former British naval officer and amateur historian Gavin Menzies.

What is surprising is not so much the claims themselves but the buzz they've created in popular culture both here and in Britain - especially given that few professionals in the field find his case convincing.

Mr. Menzies's book, "1421: The Year China Discovered America," has sold more than 75,000 copies since it hit British shelves in October. It debuted in the US at No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list earlier this month. Mr. Menzies, who reportedly received an $800,000 advance from Bantam, has appeared on TV and radio. He's been profiled in the New York Times magazine. A PBS documentary is close behind.

"He's come up with a story people want to believe in," marvels Gillian Hutchinson, curator of cartography at London's National Maritime Museum who heard Menzies give a lecture last spring at the Royal Geographic Society. "There was almost a religious fervor in the audience."

This isn't the first time a tale of preColumbian discovery has captured the popular imagination. Thor Heyerdahl's 1950 book "Kon-Tiki" claimed that ancient Peruvians crossed the Pacific by raft - and documented his own attempt to emulate them. Then there was Harvard marine biologist Barry Fell, who translated scratches on rocks as ogham script, claiming evidence of Asian, African, and Celtic exploration. And many an Irishman insists the first person to reach America was none other than Brendan the Navigator, a 6th-century Irish monk.

Before Christopher Columbus was born
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