The Piasa and the City of the Dead – Mark and Laurie Nickless
The Piasa and the City of the Dead
On July 4, 2005, Laurie and I presented a paper to an academic forum in Nanjing, China, in which we presented solid evidence that the original Piasa, first documented by Father Marquette in 1673, was Chinese. Our paper was well received because we helped fill a gap in Chinese history from an era in which most official records had been either suppressed or destroyed.
It turns out we were not alone in concluding that Ming-era Chinese explorers visited the St. Louis area before Columbus set sail. Local history buffs alerted us to two researchers who had reached the same conclusion decades ago. Around 1880, George H. Dougherty discovered jade items he believed to be Chinese in a burial mound along Piasa Creek, in Illinois. He was also aware of Marquette’s original description of the Piasa. In 1924, E. W. Payne, a Springfield, Illinois, banker and amateur anthropologist, said this about the Piasa: “A superficial examination of the painting shows that it is undoubtably a Chinese dragon …”. Payne believed the Chinese reached the Midwest using Indian trails from the West coast. His uncertainty about their route stemmed from the same deficiency hampering our research. There appeared to be no surviving Chinese accounts describing a crossing of either the Atlantic or Pacific during the Ming era, let alone one of a journey to an identifiable location in the St. Louis region.
In September, 2006, we purchased Louise Levathes’ When China Ruled The Seas. Laurie found a mention of an account of Chinese exploration, authored by Luo Mao Deng. Levanthes included his fantastic description of a strange city beyond the Western Ocean. Even in that abbreviated reference, much was eerily familiar. It seemed to describe an American location well known to us.
In the months following this discovery, our research took on a new focus and renewed excitement. Laurie fielded a short piece to our academic colleagues explaining our new hypothesis. However, we had to see Luo’s full account for ourselves. It took some string-pulling, and a long wait. But, in mid-February of 2007, we received a copy of the book we eagerly sought (possibly the only copy in the USA). Though it was transcribed into modern Mandarin characters, it was still in an archaic dialect. One which had become so outdated and obscure over the years that only dedicated scholars could still read it, and then only with a stack of dictionaries. We found no evidence that any one had attempted a full English translation. After a careful internet search for some very good Chinese dictionaries, Laurie started translating. She has been working over a year now, and has uncovered enough to verify that this book indeed contains a Chinese account of pre-Columbian America.
Luo Mao Deng’s so-called Voyages of the San Bao Eunuchis no longer well-known in China, and is virtually unknown in the West. Written in 1597, it purports to be an account of the near- legendary Admiral Zheng He’s voyages of world exploration between 1405 and 1433. “Voyages” includes an account of the seventh journey, the one for which there is no surviving official account. The suppression of all records of Zheng He’s final two voyages created a vacuum so complete that, by the 16th century, all surviving accounts were labelled fiction. This seventh voyage has become our focus of attention.
Levanthes knew of Luo’s account because of the work of Anne Swann Goodrich. In 1932, Ms. Goodrich, a missionary to China, translated parts of Voyages of the San Bao Eunuch and incorporated it into her Chinese Hells, a study of Buddhist beliefs. She interpreted Luo’s work from the pre-conception that Voyages was a Buddhist moral fable — a paternalistic Western attitude toward China which was typical in that era. A superficial perusal of her version of The Voyages of the San Bao Eunuch would seem to support her position.
According to Goodrich, the Chinese sailed West from Arabia, through a cold and foggy sea. After months, they arrived on the coast of a snowy land. An officer, Wang Ming, was sent out to explore. Eventually his command arrived at a strange walled city with grotesque inhabitants. Incredibly, as he approached that city, Wang met his wife who had died ten years before. In horror, he concluded that he too was dead, and in the underworld.
But that is Goodrich’s translation. Laurie has carefully examined the passage about Wang’s wife, and found a much less fanciful alternative — Wang Ming simply met his former wife, whom he had left for dead ten years before during a previous visit to that strange land. In fact, she clearly assures Wang that he is not among the dead, but in a land of the living. And here the tale turns from hellish fantasy to fact. It is about real people in a real, but strange, place.
Laurie uncovered further evidence for this in a major elephant-in-the-living-room clue. In Chinese, Luo’s work reads An Account of the Three-Jeweled Court Eunuch’s Western World Travels. The complete title sheds a radically different light on the book’s contents!
Here are details of Luo Mao Deng’s city and its people, from Laurie’s translation, one based on the theory that this is a largely factual account: In italics, we have included a parallel description of an ancient pre-Columbian American city, as it has been described by archaeologists.
Wang Ming’s command reached a wide river near the city. The American city was located close to the Mississippi River.
Luo’s city was protected by a wall 12 feet tall and 18 inches thick; it had the “aspect” of stone. The American city was surrounded by a palisade wall nearly 15 feet tall, that was plastered with dried mud.
Along the wall were regularly-spaced guard towers. Along the log palisade were regularly-spaced guard towers.
The inhabitants were tall, red people, some with painted faces. The inhabitants were Native Americans (Indians), and their use of body art is well-documented. The Osage, who are counted among the descendents of this culture, are well-know for their tall stature.
There was a central plaza in the city. There was a central plaza in the city.
Ghost Serpent, the despotic Supreme Ruler of the city, lived in a palace on top of a terraced mountain to which there was only one way up or down; all of this was located within the city wall. The god-chief lived in a great house on top of a terraced mound with one ramp/stairway leading to the summit; all of which was located within the city wall.
The lesser lords lived in eight elegant halls. There were eight smaller mounds, each with a house on its top, where the lesser nobles lived.
One lord of the city was in charge of an “ever-changing wheel. The city’s seasonal activities were guided by a priesthood using a large wheel-shaped celestial calendar, made of upright poles arranged like Stonehenge.
Human sacrifice is alluded to vaguely. Evidence of human sacrifice has been found in numerous burials on site.
Within the city were two mountains of “punishment”. One is referred to as involving heat, and the other cold. Near the main gate of the city are two mounds. They show evidence of practices similar to those of later tribes known to be survivng remnants of Mississippian culture. These practices included preparing bodies for burial by exposing the bodies to smoke, then drying them.
While crossing a small stream, just outside a city gate, Wang Ming was bitten by a gold, silver, gray and copper-colored snake with a “bite of iron” that made him extremely ill and sweaty, but did not kill him. The copperhead snake, common in the Midwest, has a body colored in patterns of gray, silver and copper. It’s bite causes extreme pain, profuse sweating, and nausea, but is usually not fatal to an otherwise healthy adult. There is at least one small stream just outside the city wall of the American city.
On the other sideof that stream Wang Ming saw fields of millet. Pearl millet, grown throughout much of Asia, develops a grain head that resembles a small ear of maize–American corn. Pre-Columbian maize was smaller than modern corn. Maize was grown in vast fields near the American city.
Here, late in chapter 87, we pause. Luo’s An Account of the Three-Jeweled Court Eunuch’s Western World Travels describes a Western city which corresponds precisely to the great pre-Columbian American city of Cahokia. Cahokia is 17 miles from the Piasa, which we had established, and then corroborated, as having a Chinese origin. Can any now doubt that the Ming Chinese visited America? And, there are 13 more chapters in the manuscript Laurie is translating. Preliminary work already done on chapter headings and selected passages promises even more dynamite.
Our thanks to Scott Maruna, author of The Curious Person’s Guide to the Piasa Bird, (Swamp Gas Book Co.) who alerted us to the research of E.W. Payne.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, in Collinsville Illinois, includes an Interperative Center whose lobby is graced by a large-scale model of the ancient city. It sits directly across the road from what is now known as Monk’s Mound — the former home of Cahokia’s god chiefs. Cahokia can also be visited on-line at www.cahokiamounds.com
Related galleries: Cave art