Were Some Petroglyphs Inspired By Chinese Explorers?

There's a debate brewing over whether some ancient Native petroglyphs were inspired or even written by Chinese explorers, but the evidence is thin.

According to the Epoch Times, an expert on ancient Chinese petroglyphs has recently endorsed a controversial theory that some petroglyphs found in the Americas were written by or inspired by Chinese explorers. The expert, Yaoliang Song, a professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, has come out in support of the work of John A. Ruskamp Jr., a retired Chicago public school science teacher who has championed the idea that certain American petroglyphs are actually Chinese glyphs. Ruskamp has published his views along with photographs of glyphs in a paper, “Asiatic Echoes - The Identification of Ancient Chinese Pictograms in pre-Columbian North American Rock Writing,” released independently in 2013.

Ruskamp’s views have largely been dismissed, if not ignored altogether, by mainstream anthropologists. In a review of “Asiatic Echoes,” in the journal American Antiquity, Nevada archaeologist Angus Quinlan slammed Ruskamp’s analysis, calling it “deductive thinking at its worst,” and that the presumption that American pictographs were inspired by foreigners was “disrespectful of the Native American cultures that used rock art in their sociocultural routines.”

Professor Song has proposed the same theory. His paper, “Prehistoric Human-Face Petroglyphs of the North Pacific Region,” was published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1998, and in it he argued that “east Asian human-face petroglyphs have close counterparts with rock art figures in the Pacific Northwest of North America from Kodiak Island to the Columbia River.”

Courtesy John A. Ruskamp

This Arizona petroglyph site is on private ranch property located miles from any public access or road.

Claims that Chinese voyagers had made it to the Americas long before Columbus are widespread. The location of the legendary land of Fusang, visited by Chinese Buddhist missionaries led by Hui Shen in 500 AD and whose trip is recorded in the 7th-century Book of Liang, is still unknown, but it was long believed to be the Americas, although now it is generally thought to be somewhere on the Asian continent or outlying islands. Despite the many claims, the evidence to support the possibility of such ancient Chinese voyages has been virtually non-existent.

Ruskamp and Song believe that certain petroglyphs recently found on a private ranch in Arizona may be a form of Chinese “oracle bone” writing. Originating around 2,000 BC, the oracle-bone style disappeared by royal decree around 1,000 BC, following the fall of the Shang Dynasty. It remained forgotten until Wang Yirong, director of the Chinese Imperial Academy, recognized in 1899 that the mysterious symbols inscribed on ox or turtle bones were an early form of Chinese writing.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Wang Yirong, director of the Chinese Imperial Academy, [pictured] recognized in 1899 that the mysterious symbols inscribed on ox or turtle bones were an early form of Chinese writing.

It seems the similarities between American Indian petroglyphs and ancient Chinese writing are a matter of perspective, with Chinese scholars, in particular, lending endorsement. In his previous work Ruskamp made heavy use of statistical analysis to bolster his claims that American petroglyphs have Chinese origins. But while there are some similarities between the Chinese and American glyph samples, the glyphs are almost never identical, and in many cases, the similarities are not as obvious as Ruskamp claims. Another problem for Song and Ruskamp’s interpretation is that some of the North American glyphs they examined are estimated to have been created between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, long before the appearance of the Chinese bone script.

A comparison of Chinese glyphs, as presented by Ruskamp in “Asiatic Echoes,” to American petroglyphs in a photo that was shared with the media, shows the resemblances to be highly speculative at best.

Courtesy John A. Ruskamp

Comparing petroglyphs in Albuquerque, New Mexico to ancient Chinese scripts.

Unfortunately, the complexity and the deep religious and symbolic meanings within the American Indian petroglyphs has never been closely examined by academics, who generally refer to them as “rock art.” Attempts by non-academic researchers, such as LaVan Martineau’s “The Rocks Begin To Speak,” published in 1973, to understand the underlying sophistication of this “rock art,” have largely been dismissed out of hand by mainstream ethnologists, despite the evidence Martineau presents that American Indian petroglyphs do represent a form of writing.

The image on the left is a petroglyph from Lianyungang, China, which is shown in Song’s 1998 paper. The image on the right is a petroglyph from British Columbia, Canada.

Mainstream archaeologists also generally dismiss any possible contact between the Americas and other continents before Columbus’s voyage, largely for dogmatic reasons, whereas the evidence shows transoceanic voyages were not only possible, but probable, by ancient voyagers long before Columbus set sail.

Because of this lack of understanding surrounding ancient American Indians and their petroglyphs, it is easy for dubious claims, such as Ruskamp’s, to gain wide circulation, particularly in the Chinese press, where this story is big news. Ultimately, Chinese adventurers may have sailed to the Americas in ancient times, but so far the evidence presented by the petroglyphs does not appear to support this notion.