As the drifting mass of debris from last year's Japanese tsunami, including an intact fishing boat begins to reach the west coast of North America, it's revived discussion of theories that Chinese vessels made it here same way a thousand years before Columbus.
The Tyee, a Vancouver-based news site, has a fascinating two-part series that looks at tantalizing evidence ancient Asian mariners came to the West Coast, willingly or unwillingly.
For decades, B.C. fishermen have found Japanese green-glass fishing floats caught up in their nets, brought by the Japanese Current.
In 1834, the Japanese fishing boat Hyojun Maru, disabled in a typhoon, drifted for 14 months before washing up on Cape Flattery on the Washington side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca with three men aboard. A hundred such incidents of drifting boats have been recorded over the years, Daniel Wood wrote, the last in 1987 when an empty boat came ashore on the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii).
In 1979, fisherman Mike Tyne pulled up rotten wood and a mysterious urn in shallow water off Pachena Bay in Juan de Fuca Strait. Archeologists have studied the pot and estimated it could be between 300 and 700 years old, and perhaps of Chinese origin. But even if it was, it could have been carried on a 19th-century vessel that sank.
There are other pieces of evidence: iron implements found among Pacific Northwest aboriginal sites, where the metal was unknown, the sudden appearance of Asian plant species and human parasites in Latin America a thousand years ago, linguistic similarities between early Chinese and Mayan words and Asian chicken bones found in a prehistoric American midden.
One of the most compelling items is the 1,500-year-old Chinese Legend of Fu Sang, about a Buddhist monk and four companions who undertook a 40-year odyssey around the "Great Eastern Sea" to spread Buddhism.
Their voyage, using the Japanese Current, brought encounters with people resembling tattooed Aleuts of Alaska, "mile high" trees that sound like B.C.'s forested coast and, further south, people with a sophisticated society that suggests pre-Conquest Mayan civilization.
The theory that the monk explored North America has been discounted because parts of it are fanciful but the parallels have kept people interested.
In the second part of The Tyee story, Wood wrote that new archeological evidence is making harder to ignore theories regarding ancient trans-Pacific contact, both east-west and west-east.
From the Legend of Fu Sang to a Chinese myth from 210 BC about a Chinese fleet that set sail across the Pacific and vanished, stories about Asian voyagers persist.
B.C. Archeologist George MacDonald said the similarities between Asian and aboriginal artifacts, from totem poles to burial boxes, make it harder to reject the notion of contact.
"Most legends have some point of historical origin. But the old stories get warped in time," he told Wood.
"The challenge in archeology is to take the warp out of it. To find the key sites and evidence. And date them. I'd say maybe one-tenth of one per cent of B.C. archeological sites have been dug. Under the ocean ... less."