Courtesy John A. Ruskamp
John A. Ruskamp stands near petroglyphs that he says match ancient Chinese script in Nine Mile Canyon, Utah.

Were Some Petroglyphs Inspired By Chinese Explorers?

Alex Ewen

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.”

This Arizona petroglyph site is on private ranch property located miles from any public access or road. (Courtesy John A. Ruskamp)

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.

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. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Comparing petroglyphs in Albuquerque, New Mexico to ancient Chinese scripts. (Courtesy John A. Ruskamp)

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.

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Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
Regardless of location, interpreting petroglyphs is an art. In some cases, the people who made them are long gone; in others, the cultural milieu has changed so that the current meanings of the glyphs aren't the same as when originally carved. Why were they made? Which ones were carved for ritual purposes? Which tell stories? Were the artists also the holy men/women, or did the stone-carvers follow drawings on the rocks? Without knowing those things, there's no way to determine if there are any foreign influences -- even without the dates that pre-date Chinese writing systems. And can we admit that Native Americans have been here for around 20K years and invented their own arts, languages, and religions?

JohnRuskamp's picture
Submitted by JohnRuskamp on
It appears that Alex has not read the full scientific report detailing these findings titled "Asiatic Echoes - The Identification of Ancient Chinese Pictograms in pre-Columbian North American Rock Writing, 3rd edition." In this article he fails to note that multiple renown sinologists such as Dr. David N. Keightley of UC-Berkeley, YuZhou Fan of Nanjing University, Baochun Ma of Capital Normal University in Beijing, and other experts such as Lung-Chung Chen of Taipei have confirmed that indeed the study's petroglyphs are readable ancient Chinese writings. Significantly, they employ patterns of recognizable literary syntax associated only with the historical period when these ancient scripts were commonly employed in Asia. In addition, Alex makes no mention that Dr. Michael Medrano, the former chief of Natural Resources for the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque for over 25 years, personally evaluated the writings at that location and declared, "These images do not readily appear to be associated with any local tribal entities," and they "have antiquity to them" which dates to a time long ago and before their ancient style of Chinese writing became lost to humanity (between 1046 BC and AD 1899). And although the Monument has a mandate to identify the petroglyphs within its jurisdiction, to date no local Native tribe claims these particular images nor can they provide any information about their meaning. And, as far as the factually deficient negative review written by Angus Quinlan about these findings, an item expressly solicited for publication in "American Antiquity," readers should be advised that Quinlan has no known understanding, much less expertise, in the reading or interpretation of ancient Chinese writing. So before dismissing these most important rock writings by fiat it would be good to fully read and understand the now published reports, which are confirmed without bias by independent experts from around the world, that provide in detail scientifically demonstrable proof that indeed literate ancient Chinese left their scripts upon the rocks of North America long ago.