Buddhist Priests in Ancient Arizona
Monument on northeast boundary of the Ironwood National Forest in the Samaniego Hills.
By and large, the genetics literature on American Indians has been confined to small, scattered samples gleaned from modern groups. This morass of information is vast, growing, and inconclusive.
Attempting to present the “peopling of the Americas” from such a reductive approach is like playing a game of Solitaire with important cards missing.
One Brazilian geneticist completely despaired of any solution as long ago as 2002. Francisco Salzano wrote in an article titled “Molecular Variability in Amerindians: Widespread but Uneven Information, that “the present trend of favoring essentially applied research suggests that the situation will not basically improve in the future” (Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, vol. 74, no. 2, p. 1).
It hasn’t, of course. We shall not attempt here anything like a synthesis of the subject, although a later installment in this series will tackle the autosomal DNA story. Only alternative approaches such as alu insertions, human lymphocyte antigens and autosomal DNA can possibly cut the Gordian knot.
Turning from DNA to Actual History
In the meantime, let us continue the thread begun with “Did the Chinese Settle in Northwest Mexico and the American Southwest” (blog post, July 30, 2014). In Part One, we saw that the Mexicans and Chinese retain memories of Chinese settlement in the New World if most Americans do not.
The classic historical reference is a Chinese text about the Land of Fusang, an account redacted in the 14th century describing events going back to the fifth century. It occurs in the 41st Book of Chüan (or Kuen 327) in the 230th volume of the Great Chinese Encyclopedia, a vast imperial compilation known simply as The Chinese Classics. Joseph de Guignes, a learned French Orientalist, sinologist and Turkologist, brought it to the attention of the Western world in 1761.
De Guignes identified the original narrator as Hwui Shen (or Hui Shen), a Buddhist priest from Kabul (Afghanistan, then part of India), who visited ancient Mexico with four or five other priests in 458 C.E. Hui Shen appeared before the Chinese emperor in 499 and gave an exact account of his travels, surviving in several versions (see the summary in Henriette Mertz, Pale Ink, pp. 21-22).
De Guignes’ report on the Chinese in the Americas appeared in the papers of the French Academy of Inscriptions and Royal Society of London and confounded Europe. Savants over the next two hundred years—Julius Klaproth (1831), Dominique Alexandre Godron, Joseph Needham—confirmed Hui Shen’s place in history. In 1885, Edward P. Vining published the provocatively but succinctly titled Inglorious Columbus: or, Evidence that Hwui Shen and a Party of Buddhist Priests from Afghanistan Discovered America (see extensive bibliog. in Stan Steiner, Fusang, p. 240-44).
If Buddhist priests were living in sixth century Arizona, skeptics may charge, they can’t have left much proof of their existence. Their landfall in the Americas was no doubt accidental. They left no enduring mark. It’s as if it never happened. In fact, it probably did not happen. Hui Shen’s story is a charming fairy tale, not a historical account.
Mesoamerican Religious Practices
To the contrary, there are numerous signs of a deep and lasting Asiatic imprint in Mexico. No less an authority than Hubert Howe Bancroft devotes many pages to the bewilderingly diverse forms of religion among ancient Mexican Indians. Of those in Sonora, Sinaloa and Durango, he writes: “They had innumerable private idols, penates of all possible and impossible figures, some being stone, shaped by nature only” (Native Races, vol. 3, Myths and Languages, San Francisco, 1882, p.
Lingams and cross at San Xavier.
He notes that some Western Mexican tribes worshipped a black stone like the Kaaba in Mecca, and that Quetzalcoatl and other divinities were connected with stone-worship (p. 281). One Americanist “even explains the meaning of the name Quetzalcoatl despite the usual definition as ‘twin of a precious stone.'”
If all this sounds like lingam worship, perhaps it is. In our rambles through the Ironwoods National Forest we were surprised to discover an altar we dubbed Bighead in a hidden cove (see photo). When we questioned a Papago elder he recognized the place immediately and said it was one of his people’s most sacred shrines.
The closest member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, as the Papagos are now known, lives in Tucson, thirty miles away, but certain religious leaders still know this now-empty territory like the back of their hand.
We were not completely shocked after this, when we visited the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, which serves as the parish church for the Papagos living around Tucson.There we photographed a collection of Shaivistic lingams placed beneath the giant Christian cross. The heirs of the Hohokam may have adopted the creed of the Jesuits and Franciscans but apparently they cling to some of their old forms of worship.
Some Possible Echoes in Place-Names
Mertz proposes that the very word Sinaloa (in Nahuatl Zineloque) is derived from Chinelos, “foreigners.” She draws attention to the Huichol Indians, who live around Colima, a possible origin point according to a consensus of archeologists for the early Hohokam. These carriers of Arizona’s first advanced native culture arrived around 400 C.E. from the south with a fully formed society, featuring, among other things, distinctive pottery, copper bells, cremation practices and irrigation knowledge.
“The religious nature of the Huichol,” writes Mertz, “and their attendant religious ceremonies, had strong Buddhist characteristics . . . Some Huicholes bore such striking resemblance to the Chinese that the Mexicans called them ‘Chinos'” (p. 73).
Mertz speculates that certain place-names in the Sonoran Desert and West Mexico coast commemorate Asian colonies. The name of Picacho, the hat-shaped landmark that dominates the barren lands between Phoenix and Tucson, may derive from Pi-k’iu (compare Sanskrit Bhiksu “mendicant priest”).
Sacaton, an important Hohokam town, seems to bear the name of the Buddha’s clan—Saka or Sakya. Prince Siddhartha Shakya (5th century BCE) was the founder of Buddhism and came to be known as Gautama Buddha. Related, according to Mertz, are the names Zacatecas and Zacatlan.
Well, that is all fine and dandy, you may say, vague legends and twisted linguistic analogies. Where’s the hard evidence?
An Unusual Petroglyph
Not far from Picacho Peak and Tucson are the Santa Catalina Mountains, and on the Golden Ranch north of the Catalina State Park are the San Ysidro Ruins. Here is located what we suggest is as hard a piece of evidence as you could hope to find. It is a petroglyph of the Buddha meditating in a lotus position. Unmistakable, the iconic figure appears on a rock panel over older, conventional fertility figures and hunting scenes and can be dated to about 1500 years ago (see photo).
If Buddhist priests came to the Hohokam heartland long ago, as recounted in the Chinese Classics, they were hardly idle travelers or adventurers. They were self-described missionaries with a serious purpose. They expected to find people they could communicate with and convert. That the Hohokam and their parent populations already included a sizable Asiatic element is a given.
Asian residents, not mere visitors, are frankly implied in a Chinese poem quoted by Steiner:
Where the sun rises
In the land of Fu Sang
There is my home.
Seeking fame and riches
I came to the land
Of the eternal flowers.
So the “Land of the Eternal Flowers,” Fusang, is West Mexico, from Arizona, California and Sonora to Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit and Michoacán. Hwui Chen went back to the Orient, but obviously other compatriots of his stayed and called America home.
In Nayarit, which appears to be the center of Chinese and Buddhist influence, Bancroft reports that the ancient inhabitants conceived of heaven or paradise as filled with ministering healers “with shaved heads.” After death, he writes, the good Indians “went to a place . . . where they lived under the care of men with shaved heads” (p. 529). They also believed in transmigration of souls (p. 529).
Being for the most part celibate, the men with the shaved heads cannot have left progeny, so it would be fruitless to look for their legacy in the DNA record. But that is not the case for the Chinese merchant who emigrated to Fusang to seek fame and riches. Moreover, Chinese junks were capable of transporting an entire colony numbering in the thousands, including women.
Could there be an autosomal trace of gene flow from the East, if not a Y chromosome or mitochondrial trail? Our next post will examine this possibility.