Ask most people in Southern China and they'll tell you that Shenzhen didn't exist at all until the area was made a Special Economic Zone in 1979. When you ask what there's to visit in terms of historical sites, they'll tell you that Shenzhen has no history. They're partially right, at that time a couple hundred thousand people lived there. Now there's over ten million people, counting non-permanent residents. That doesn't mean that it was previously uninhabited, or that no history occurred on the site.
In fact, the paucity of historical sites is simply an assumption. Certainly, there's no Great Wall, no Forbidden City. Your friend who's recently been showing you 17th Century temples in Hong Kong will continue to tell you that there's just no history there. That seems to be the consensus. What they won't tell you is that the area has been inhabited for 7,000 years, that it was the center of the salt trade starting somewhere around the 4th century. And what they certainly won't know about is a fascinating stone discovered in 1996 during the excavation stage for a construction now known as High Tech Park.
The stone itself is a basalt slab and average of 1.25 feet thick, 4 feet wide and 6 feet long. When it was uncovered none of the workers thought much of it. It wasn't until an excavator started tearing it out of the ground and it flipped over did anyone get curious. One side, the side originally facing up. is covered with swirling ridges, the "hump" of each ridge about an inch wide. The other side is carved with grids of squares filled with symbols. During the excavation, the slab broke relatively cleanly into three pieces lengthwise. One is a foot and a half, the middle three and a half, the other end about one foot.
A First Look
The subcontractor in charge of the excavation had an agreement with Beijing University to ship them any cultural artifacts, human remains, etc. after a local professor or two had looked them over to make sure they were worth preserving. The stone was set aside next to a variety of pottery pieces and shards and so forth discovered near it.
The local university was called and two professors of Chinese history decided to stop past the excavation site on their lunch break. They were excited, as they were told there was a slab of rock with old-looking writing on it. Hoping that it was something terribly significant like a tomb marker for the Emperor that supposedly was buried in the region in the 13th century they were excited.
What they saw when they arrived confounded them. The truly curious thing about the carving was that no one at all could read it. Any of it. To modern Chinese readers, ancient Chinese writing is almost impossibly inscrutable. But after some squinting and head shaking, at least a few characters can be figured out, usually the most simple and common characters like "middle"(中) or "man" (人.) For history professors, rather than linguistics professors, they'd expect to be able to make out a decent chunk of the writing. This was something else entirely.
The professors supervised crating and shipping the pieces of the stone as well as the pottery and clay shards dug up around it. From the standards of an archaeologist, it was slightly sloppy, but no one knew it was going to be a dig site, much less a contentious one.
The Experts Begin
When select faculty at Beijing University finally got around to looking at it, the stone caused a mixture of bafflement, curiosity, and apathy. Experts that could read 4,000 year old characters written on burnt and cracked turtle shells looked at it and dismissed it immediately. Not their field, obviously not Chinese. There was far too much repetition for this to be Chinese of any date.
In written Chinese, each character represents a word. Always has. This isn't written in Chinese, so why are you bothering me about it?
At first, only the Chinese history, linguistics, and archaeology faculty really looked at it. The historians tended to view it as an oddity, the Chinese language experts as Not Chinese, and the archaeologists as an absolute mess.
You're honestly trying to tell me that this thing was pulled out by a backhoe with pottery from the 9th century? Seriously? Where's the site photographs? Which was above or below what? Was all this stuff busted up before some random guy whacked it with a shovel? Give me a break.
Pieces Start Fitting
When Jia Ming Zi (假名字) returned from a year stint lecturing linguistics at the University of Hawaii, things started coming together. Jia was a linguist in world languages and had been in Hawaii studying the linguistic shift in the descendants of 19th and 20th century immigrants that still used their ancestors native language in their home and community. He was focused on the descendants of Chinese immigrants, but spent time looking at others.
When he finally heard about the oddity the University had he was curious, but had other priorities after being away for a year. Several months later, he finally got around to checking it out with one of his fellow graduate students. When he saw the stone, he turned slightly white.
His immediate assessment was that the writing wasn't Chinese and he couldn't immediately identify it. What shocked him was that he knew exactly what kind of stone he was looking at. It was a volcanic rock. The ropey, fingerprint-looking pattern was something he'd seen in volcanically active parts of Hawaii. He even knew that the locals called it "pahoehoe." He knew exactly what phone calls he needed to make.
The first call was to a professor of linguistics at Shanghai University. With a detailed description of the carvings and their layout, the language expert promised to get back to him.
The second call was to the professor at the University of Hawaii that he was closest with. Jia gave him a brief explanation and asked him to give him the name of the best geologist/vulcanologist at the University. 10 minutes later, he was on the phone with Pekeng Pangalan of the geology department.
Pekeng Pangalan was initially nonplussed by the call. Calls that start with things like "I'm looking at a rock. It looks volcanic. How can I tell where it came from?" tend to annoy Pekeng. Once Pekeng knew who had told Jia to get ahold of him, started getting details about where the was found, that the surface hadn't significantly eroded, etc. etc. he got more interested.
Pekeng told Jia that it could have come from a huge variety of volcanoes, but if his description was accurate that is almost certainly was pahoehoe lava or the local equivalent. And then, he dropped some science.
If your basalt was still in place, we could give you massive range of dates based on the effect the magnetic pole had on the iron when it cooled. If it was definitely from Hawaii relatively recently, I could give you a rough but pretty close date based on our historic data on phenocryst size and a steady decrease in quartz content over the last couple of centuries. If you're looking at just some chunk in some random place and it still has very well defined ridges, I can tell you that it's either very fresh or was very well preserved. Buried in dirt makes sense. If I had a big batch of samples from the slab, I and a few experts from all over the world could tell you with about 95% certainty roughly where it came from based on its rough composition. So, if you can get me about 500 grams for me to spread around, I might be able to tell you something.
Jia agreed, thanked the professor and hung up. While trying to think of recent volcanic activity in China, he got a call back from the linguistics professor in Shanghai. The professor went on a bit about worrying about his colleague's sanity before breaking the news. The best guess...if it could be called best...was Mayan.
Silence on the line while Jia processed and the professor waited for the laughter he anticipated. Finally Jia asked him how sure he was. The professor sighed and gave him the number of his presumably contagiously crazy colleague.
A Contentious Team
Falsa Nomo was first and foremost an expert in Pre-Colombian permanent expression. From vast structures in deserts only visible to planes, to knot tying, to things etched into canyons in New Mexico, to Mayan and Aztec carvings, he'd studied all of it. The description of the carving fell in his lap, and his first instinct was that it sounded like it was Mayan. His second instinct was that this was a prank. When he got high resolution copies, he decided it was at least a good prank. After a decent period of brushing up on his Mayan script, he started the laborous process of trying to produce some kind of translation, punctuated by side projects, sabbaticals, etc.
Pekeng Pangalan was reluctant to even send these samples around. It all smelled slightly idiotic. His most casual test lead him to believe that the lava was from Hawaii based on the relatively unique composition of the mantle under the islands. He had some perverse idea that not sending samples off to colleagues he'd already talked to about testing against things they'd studied would mean they'd ask too many questions and he'd have to admit he'd fallen for some prank out of Beijing. He did have some harsh words with Jia's friend at the University of Hawaii. He went ahead with trying to date the sample out of the same perverse instinct that made him pass the samples on to other people.
Jia Ming Zi was a busy bee indeed. Doing the sort of shallow-deep research that only an academic outside of their field can do, he cast a wide net. Determining the number of volcanoes on the west side of the ring of fire that had ever been recorded spewing anything that looked like pahoehoe lava. Talking to experts about the pottery found somewhere around the stone. Generally trying to get his knowledge up to the point that he could even attempt to have a real conversation with Pekeng or Falsa about their fields.
As things tend to happen, time passed slowly.
Eventually, Pekeng came back with a bored-sounding prognosis. The rock was almost certainly from Hawaii. Odds are that it's from round about the 7th/8th centuries. Sarcastically curious about where you'd get a slab from an outflow of that era that wasn't eroded, you liar.
Some time later Falsa came back with a frustrated translation. The actual writing must predate the first recordings of the Conquistadors of the written language by a large amount of time. Certainly it has something to do with a sea voyage. Very little of the rest makes real sense. There's a load of crazy talk that must just be mistranslation.
Jia, however, had been building a unifying theory. On the strength of it, he convinced Pekeng and Falsa to arrange to come to Beijing University in 2006.
A Controversial Team
Confronted with a couple of coherent theories, and the very impressive physical evidence for one person intimately familiar with Hawaiian lava and one person an expert not just in Mayan script but in pre-Colombian carving techniques, the effect of seeing the physical evidence in person was transformative. Suddenly, everyone agree on things. The other two had been doing their own research, however.
The facts fully believed by the trio:
- A slab stone was cut from Hawaii from lava extruded in the 7th/8th century.
- One side if the stone was covered by relatively fragile ribbing.
- That stone was minimally eroded, meaning that it must have been harvested and protected in a way that protected it from erosion for, at least, 50 years of its existence.
- The other side of the stone was covered in writing that the best experts agree is Mayan.
- There's some disagreement, but it is at the very least consistent with Mayan writing around the 8th century.
- Oh, by the by, the Classic Maya collapse happened round about that time
- The carved text on the stone go on at some length about a voyage, though much of it is unintelligible jargon.
- That stone somehow made it from Hawaii to Shenzhen.
- That stone was buried with pottery near it that dates from the 8th century.
- That stone was recovered in Shenzhen in the late 1990's and properly examined in the 2000s.
A Team Divided
The trio started shopping around various theories and discussing them with other academics. All three true believers, they surprisingly quickly divided their peers into four camps.
1: The sceptic camp believes that the entire thing is a hoax on the level of the Kensington Runestone or Drake's Plate of Brass. Either the trail of evidence of the slab getting torn up by a construction crew, or the translation work, or pinpointing the date of a lava flow in Hawaii seems suspect to this group. To say nothing of the more academically significant issues.
2: The Sino-explorer camp believes that the evidence says that a Chinese voyage must have headed east. They must have traded with the early Polynesian settlers of Hawaii on their way for food or fresh water. At that point, the ship must have taken on some number of slabs of volcanic rock for ballast. They must have continued to the New World far before Columbus and traded with the Mayans. Either a Mayan must have attempted to write down their story on one of the stone slabs in their ballast, or they must have taken some number of Mayans back to China with them who subsequently carved the story into a discarded stone from the ship's ballast.
3: The Mahalo camp believes that some part of the wave of migration from the Polynesian islands that landed in Hawaii around that time must have continued on to the America. As the outrigger canoes they used had no use for ballast, it's unlikely they would have brought slabs of rock to the Americas, but it could well have been some sort of rite involving Pele. Either way, they must have gotten literal Mayans to a slab of volcanic stone, and then gotten it to southern China.
4: The Mayan camp believes that a group of Mayan explorers sailed west. On their way, they stopped past Hawaii. They got a slab of volcanic rock for some reason or another and continued west. They eventually hit the Pearl River Delta, someone wrote on the slab, and then it was left. This has the advantage of making slightly more sense in the ship ballast sense.
Noone can agree with each other, and the academic sparring continues without publication. If everyone could agree to publish the facts it would be a matter of record by now, but all parties are delaying publication until they have a solid case for their pet theory. Whoever is right, even if it's the skeptics, there's an interesting story to be discovered.
A few notes: I apologize for not taking certain corrections, but I was attempting to invoke a certain style of writing. There were a few unintentional typos that I fixed, but the rest is meant to evoke aspects of subtly unreliable writing you find on the Internet. Also, I would like to note that the three scientists in this work of fiction are all named Fake Name. One in Mandarin, one in Filipino, one in Esperanto.