Crossing the Pacific (long message)

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Wed, 30 Oct 1996 06:33:28 -0600

The thread on possible contact between the Olmecs and China has been
interesting, but something has been missing from the discussion.

I guess it's time for an old fart to recall the long-ago past. Warning:
I'm talking off some old and dim memories of somebody making a strong case
for an idea I have strong prejudices against. I first studied
anthropology with professors who talked as if they believed that H.
sapiens entered the New World naked and empty-handed, and only got in by
passing through a brainwashing machine that left no traces or memories of
Old World culture. They surely believed that, once here, the inhabitants
of the New World never again had any contact with the Asia they had left
behind until Europeans made it possible. So if anything I say here
really grabs you, find some source that's less biased than I am for
further information. I took on my professors' biases with the good parts
of what they taught me.

On with the recollections:

Way back in the mid-1950's, Professor Robert von Heine-Geldern of the
University of Vienna crossed the Atlantic to give a long lecture series
on trans-Pacific contacts at the University of Chicago. When he arrived,
he gave a short presentation as part of the ongoing series of Monday
afternoon colloquia in the Department of Anthropology. (Another name for
it was "the department seminar".) His presentation was met with strong
objections from the anthro faculty, individually and en masse.

Heine-Geldern didn't wither under the nearly scornful attack. Most of
his responses took the general form "Well, wait until I get a chance to
show you more of what I'm talking about in the lecture series."

(I've often wondered, since that first presentation, how in the world he
was invited to give a weekly lecture series that I remember as running for
twelve weeks when the entire anthro faculty rejected anything like his
conclusions. I don't know the answer, except that the lectures may have
been sponsored by the Oriental Institute, not anthropology. The lectures
were delivered in Breasted Hall of the Institute, anyhow. For those who
don't know, the Oriental Institute used to emphasize classical archaeology
concerning Egypt and the Fertile Crescent: art rather than settlement
patterns, to put it another way. They opened their thinking to anthropo-
logical approaches by the 1960's, and even went so far as to appoint
Robert McC. Adams Director -- Bob is an anthropologist above all else.)

Heine-Geldern was, essentially, an art historian, and that's the approach
he used to support his trans-Pacific contact argument. Before you take
the intellectual jump of realizing that the Universitat Wien was the
home of Kulturkreislehre (under the influence of Pater Schmidt), and
then write off whatever H-G might have said as an excess of
Wienerschnitzel, you should know that H-G really didn't like that game.
During another one of those Monday seminars, addressed by some visitor
or another, Heine-Geldern delivered a knockout blow when he said "Even
in Vienna, Kulturkreislehre is dead, dead, dead, and nobody is mourning."
(That sentence so impressed me that I wrote it into my notebook verbatim,
something I rarely do. I even copied it, complete with date and author's
name, onto a sheet of paper that hung over my desk as I was studying for
a history of anthropology exam. It was consoling as I read through the
only U.S. book on the history of our field at the time: Robert Lowie's
incredibly dull book on what felt like an unending series of deservedly
obscure German pioneers of fuzzy thinking.)

In his own lecture series, Heine-Geldern showed hundreds of slides to make
each of his stylistic points persuasive. Week after week, he would begin
with an art element and show a stack of pictures of how it was executed in
different kinds of media so that the audience would have a very clear idea
of what he was talking about. He would then plausibly locate a probable
place of origin (e.g., the Caucasus) based on the archaeological record.
Next, he would show a convincing case tracing how that element spread
across Asia. His evidence (illustrated by a sequence of very clear
slides) was based on known, dated first occurrences of that element in a
spatial sequence.

His developmental sequences didn't stop with the appearance of a design
element in central China. With most of the things he was talking about,
he would document two lines of spread out of China: down through Southeast
Asia (and, often, out to Oceania), in one direction, and north for a ways
along the China coast, on the other. Then he would start showing slides
of what looked like a highly related artistic element in the art of the
Northwest Coast, Mexico, Central America, and South America. He would
place that American element in time and space, and show how it seemed to
fit with the time of the spread of similar objects from China to SE Asia.

Any reasonable sceptic reading what I've said so far would have a pretty
good response available. She could easily say something like this: "What
were those 'artistic elements', anyhow? Remember Goldenweiser's principle
of limited possibilities. For example, there aren't that many ways you
can produce a double spiral. Either you get something in the shape of a Z
or in the shape of an S. So if Heine-Geldern's case depends on tracing
the appearance of Z-spirals to the exclusion of S-spirals, it can't be
that impressive." (By the way, that Z versus S spiral business was one of
the first artistic elements he introduced.)

It has been around forty years since I heard those lectures, and my
specialties don't include knowledge of prehistoric art forms around the
Pacific rim. My non-expert eyes were only impressed with undeniable
affinities in highly complex combinations of things, so that's what I
remember. Here's one example (without slides!) of what stuck with me.
H-G showed photos of several Southeast Asian objects: carved stone
representations of some kind of human male. Their common features
included the fact that the man was seated in a particular and unusual
posture. Unusual, too, was the fact that the figure was represented as
seated on the rhizome of a locus plant, rather than on a leaf or a flower.
That picture was surrounded (or framed, if you will) by a rectangular
representation of a snake with its tail in its mouth. That's a highly
specific and arbitrary combination of elements that have no necessary
logical connection. It doesn't take a lot of convincing to conclude that
two objects that look like that probably have a historical connection to
each other. When the spatial and temporal evidence shows a sequence of
similar objects that easily fits with a hypothesis that the idea of
combining these arbitrary elements started at point A and moved out from
there, it shouldn't be surprising. We know, from well-documented cases,
that such combinations actually spread that way today. It makes good
interpretive sense, and hardly sounds controversial.

What, then, do you make of finding that same combination of elements in
archaeological artifacts from Mexico? They're real: seated man in
unusual posture, on a lotus rhyzome, in a picture framed by a rectangle
formed of a representation of a snake with its tail in its mouth. Then
what if the date of the Mexican objects fit reasonably well with the
dates on the Southeast Asian ones?

Just to be sure that you don't misunderstand me, let me add something.
When I say that the objects are similar in the kinds of details I've given
here, I don't mean that they really look alike. The details of style --
how people in a given place make their art recognizably theirs, no matter
what objects are being depicted -- are clearly recognizable. Their
pattern dominates and overshadows the arbitrary combination of elements
that drew Heine-Geldern's attention in the first place: the Mexican pieces
could hardly be from anywhere else but Mexico, and the Southeast Asian
pieces are immediately recognizable as uniquely Southeast Asian.

Well, it's stretching a lot, but I can imagine arguing that even with the
kinds of evidence I just described, it could still be reasonable to reject
any hypothesis of trans-Pacific contact. Maybe sheer coincidence, not
contact, could explain it all. After all, a seated man is a seated man is
a seated man: OF COURSE two pictures of a seated man are going to look
pretty much alike, even when they're done in highly different art styles.
Any two seated men also look pretty much alike, so what's all the fuss

Remember, though, I said Heine-Geldern was showing his slides and
lecturing his lectures for months. Each time he followed a new
combination of elements, he allowed the possibility that this particular
example could have happened by mere coincidence. But he didn't rest his
case on just one or two such combinations: they piled up in pairs and
threes and tens and scores. Simple coincidence just can't stretch that
far. That's particularly so when somebody presents an alternative that
hangs together, makes use of lots of lines of evidence, and even makes sense.

Let me describe another combination of elements Heine-Geldern used in
support of his picture of transPacific contact. He showed many slides of
pieces that depicted one man standing or sitting on the shoulders of
another. The ones he chose to show us also included a figure of a small
humanoid apparently growing out of the chest of one of the well-stacked
males. The man who provided the base for the appearance of the humanoid,
quite literally the bottom man on the totem pole, was usually depicted as
having a very long tongue. It decends, in a gentle curve, to touch the
top of the head of the human growth. Well, I gave part of the story away:
the easiest place to look at the kind of carving I'm talking about is on
what we call totem poles. The human outgrowth from a male human chest,
who has the tongue of the next man up the pole touching the top of his
head, is a constant N.W. Coast design element. (There are variants
depicting a standing bear, or a raven, rather than a human figure.) Add
this arbitrary combination of elements, appearing on both sides of the
Pacific at about the same time, to what H-G showed about the figure of a
man seated on the rhizome of a lotus surrounded by a rectangular figure of
a snake with his tail in his mouth and you get . . . what?

The other lines of evidence Heine-Geldern threw in weren't matters of art
elements at all. They dealt with known capabilities of different kinds of
vessels sailed by the Chinese at different time periods; with ocean and
wind currents and how they would shape the likely path of deliberate,
repeated voyages; with an attempt to reconcile any hypothesis of regular
transPacific contact moving out from China with extensive documentation
written in China at times when H-G concludes that the contact went on;
and with lots more besides. He even provided a reasonable motivation for
Chinese sailors making repeated voyages to the New World: the need for raw
tin to make bronze. H-G's final picture made it plausible to think of a
route from China, across the North Pacific, touching on the Northwest
Coast around present-day Vancouver or the mouth of the Columbia River,
touching again somewhere along the coast of Mexico (and perhaps Colombia
and/or Ecuador), to eventually pick up Bolivian tin just in time to catch
a seasonal return flow of air and water currents across the South Pacific.
The artistic evidence in the areas of those suggested stopping places,
southbound along the Pacific coast, fits perfectly.

When Heine-Geldern finished his lecture series, he gave a second session
at the departmental seminar before leaving for home. This time the
faculty used an extremely different line of argument: they conceded that
H-G's evidence did make it look like there had been regular contact
between China and the west coast of the Americas at several periods in
Chinese history, reaching back many centuries before Magellan's
expedition sailed around the world. They seemed particularly convinced
by argments dealing with the time of the T'ang Dynasty, which sticks in
my head as a time of a great outpouring of bronze art in China. If the
trips across the Pacific really were to pick up tin, that would be a
logical time for the traffic to hit a peak -- from this non-expert's

Instead of contesting what they granted as "the fact" of transPacific
contact, what the U of C anthro faculty considered after the end of H-G's
lecture series was just how much influence such a trade would have had
on the independent development of Native American cultures. Their
conclusion was that the regular contact had absolutely no effect on the
general sequence of New World cultural development.

Well, here's sporadic contact with no settlements that we know of. In
that situation, it's not too hard to conceive of people seeing art objects
carried by the Chinese and taking visible elements of that art into their
own traditions. You don't have to talk to each other to get that kind of
transmission. But, to take a limited case, all the elements that grow up
to be classic Mesoamerican civilization have a continuous record in situ.
That record reaches much farther back than any possible contact of the
sort Heine-Geldern had been talking about. Despite the "fact" of
contact with the Chinese, you can still logically maintain that what
happened in Mesoamerica really was independent of the Old World.

Another reason you don't get, say, Chinese architecture on this side of
the ocean out of that ancient trade is that there was no reason for the
Chinese to build any. The annual cycle of winds and currents, and the
slow sailing speed of Chinese boats and ships, didn't leave much time for
a crew to build anything much on shore. Besides, when you take on a crew
for an arduous transoceanic trip, you don't choose architects. (Or, pace
Betty Meggers, expert potters, either, Jomon affinities or no Jomon
affinities.) If the whole idea of the voyage is to get back home with a
valued cargo, you don't leave any crewmen behind. If they weren't
essential to making the voyage out, nobody would have carried them as
excess baggage. And if they were essential to the one-way trip out, they
were equally essential to the return trip.

How about that argument? Imagine a regular trade route across the
Pacific in search of tin. Well, if there was such a trade, it must have
been a clearly secondary source of raw material for Chinese bronzes. The
whole proposition is too chancey for bronze-making to have depended on
it. And that implies that trips to the Americas would have been
infrequent in any century. If anyone had been planting colonies, surely
some government official back in China would have had records of it --
and there are no unequivocal records of eastward colonization to anywhere
across the whole ocean out of the Chinese coast.

What about the accidental, unintended consequences of the contact -- where
is there any evidence of that? There's nothing dramatic like the
post-European contact spread of dandelions or Norway rats or zebra mussels
reflected in the archaeological record, as far as I know. But then what
would you expect? If you posit that there was a regular, but extremely
infrequent, contact via ocean-going vessels in search of raw materials to
take home, whether those accidents happen or not is going to be, well,

Of course there is a whole stack of well-known facts about the
distribution of both cultural materials and plants that could easily be
explained as the accidental, unintended consequence of Chinese trips to
and from South America. The best-known example is the puzzling
distribution of sweet potatoes/yams, apparently native to South America,
in Polynesia. Maybe Thor Heyerdahl was right, in a way, but just got the
identity of the sailors wrong: maybe they were just Chinese ocean
voyagers going home with loads of Bolivian tin.

Another kind of byproduct of the kind of repeated trips Heine-Geldern
would have us believe in comes out of the nature of the travelers. I
doubt that Chinese sailors many centuries ago were that different from
anybody's 20th-century sailors. If Heine-Geldern was right about the
existence of some kind of trade, however sporadic, it's a sure bet that
some of the sailors who crossed the ocean left some souvenirs of their
passing in the form of children begotten with Native American women.
If we're right about how the Americas were populated in the first place,
then there is no way to separate the offspring of those late by-blows of
nautical activity from the rest of the New World population. We keep
saying that New World inhabitants started over here from Asia anyhow.

If you have lived in both Japan and Mexico, as I have, you know why it
would be impossible to untangle the ancestry of someone with mixed Asian/
Mesoamerican Indian ancestors dating back to putative Pacific sailors.
Every Japanese person I ever saw would fit comfortably within the range of
variation of phenotypes among Mesoamerican Indians. (You can't invert
that statement, however, because there are far too many Mesoamerican
Indians with phenotypic traits usually associated with Europe -- e.g.,
blue eyes or light hair. They came by them honestly: after the
demographic disaster of the Conquest era, Mesoamerica was repopulated
through some remarkable efforts of the Conquistadores and their slaves of
West African origin, in conjunction with Native American women -- in more
senses than one.)

Putative Chinese scratches on Olmec objects are not where I would look for
evidence either for or against the idea that there were regular contacts
between China and the New World. Even if there are scratches and they do
turn out to be of a sort that can be assigned to a particular variation of
Chinese writing, I would expect them to translate to "Thank God I ship out
for home next week. Boy, will I be glad to get out of this dismal place."
Yes, they could say "In the time of the Emperor X I did sail across the
great Eastern water to land at this place . . . " They might even say
what US News and World Report says was found on real Olmec statuary. But
if I ever got a message like that from the bottom of an Olmec carving, my
first guess as to its origin would be that it's a forgery. And my second
and third and fourth guesses would all amount to the same thing.

Do I believe what Robert von Heine-Geldern said about transPacific
contact? Hell, no, I don't. But the kind of argument he makes is not
really new. Sir Edward B.Tylor, more than a century ago, wrote about the
many, many parallel features between what he called the "Aztec" game of
patolli and the South Asian game of parchisi (or however you spell that).
When he finished, the whole package seemed to be such an arbitrary
combination of elements with no necessary connection that on the evidence
of the two games alone it seemed reasonable to think that there might
have been historic contact. It just doesn't make sense to think

Tylor asked the fundamental question at the end of his article: How many
parallelisms, involving arbitrary combinations of features, do you have
to see between features found in two cultures to be forced to conclude
that they must have been in contact at some time in the past? Is one
case, as complex as that of patolli/parchisi, sufficient? Two or three?

Tylor didn't even consider the possibility that highly detailed
parallelisms could arise directly out of the logic of a situation, with
no historic connection linking them. Both patolli and parchisi use some
lot-casting device (dice, for parchisi) as a central feature of the game.
But if you're going to have a game, there has to be some means of
introducing an element of chance if the outcome is not going to be
predetermined. So there's nothing to be learned about historical
connection from the fact that each game uses a randomizing mechanism.

Another thing that Tylor didn't allow for was the possibility that two
peoples do the same thing in certain situations because there's only a
limited number of possible actions available. Lowie, for example, claimed
that there are only four ways you can set up kinship terms for relatives
on the first ascending generation. (He was wrong. There are five.) If
you have the terminologies of five hundred cultures and you discover that
around 100 of them all use bifurcate merging terminology, you don't have
to imagine a commmon history to explain the fact. That's just what would
have to happen given how few choices exist. That is the point Alexander
Goldenweiser made in the 1920's with his "principle of limited
possibilities", one of the great conceptual advances in the history of
anthropological thought. (Sometimes it takes a real genius to see
something as obvious as Goldenweiser's principle.)

And at this late hour I'm not going to make any advances in
anthropological thought. It just seemed to me that somebody ought to
mention Robert von Heine-Geldern anytime the possibility of transPacific
contact is raised.

--Mike Salovesh <>
Anthropology Department
Northern Illinois University PEACE !