John L. Sorenson
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A Long-Lasting Aspect of my Academic Career:

Transoceanic Voyaging

This topic has been of professional concern to me for most of 65 years. Here I will try to explain why. Even as a child I had a romantic interest in geography, the seas and remote islands. In the military in WWII, my training as a meteorologist (at the U. of New Mexico and Cal Tech) daily exposed me to maps of the oceans. In the military I was also given a chance to travel to my first island. I was sent to northeastern Brazil with the Army Airways Communication Service and in the course of that assignment was posted for six months to Ascension Island, the British possession half way to Africa. Postwar, I reached New Zealand for my mission after a two-week sail only to be re-assigned to the Cook Islands (Rarotonga), 1500 miles to the northeast. I reached there in a week by traveling on a little diesel- powered boat that carried six passengers and a crew of four. Missionaries to Polynesia held a quasi-official tradition about the Book of Mormon boat-builder Hagoth, who was reported to have disappeared with one of his ships. Many Latter-day Saints in the Polynesian islands at that time thought that he and his crew had  actually reached Polynesian islands, thus linking the native people there into Book of Mormon descent (I think no one says anything about this idea any more). That notion always struck me as pretty far-fetched, yet there was enough possibility in it to justify some interest in the idea of an American connection. That latent interest was built upon by Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki expedition. In 1947 his crew of six traveled on a replica of early Ecuadorean native rafts some 4,000 miles from Peru to the Society Islands, thus establishing that ancient rafts could have so voyaged. While I was a missionary in Rarotonga, one evening in 1947 I visited a local (New Zealander) ham radio operator as he contacted the Kon Tiki raft crew while they were en route (I had held a ham radio license since 1942 when I was an engineering student at the USAC in Logan). Understandably this experience piqued my interest in a general way in the possibility of long- distance native sailing capabilities. Moreover I lived for two years on Rarotonga in the village of Muri Enua located alongside the very lagoon from which N. Z. Maori tradition reported that their ancestors had departed to settle New Zealand many centuries earlier. Incidentally my physician in Rarotonga-the only one there—Dr. Tom Davis, a half-Maori from New Zealand, who was very proud of his nautical heritage, a few years later with his young family and a crew of two sailed a small boat from N.Z. across the South Pacific to Peru, then on through Panama and north as a cheap way to reach Massachusetts where he had a post-doc award awaiting him at Harvard (his wife Lydia published a series of three articles about the trip in the Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1953). He later became a famous Pacific Islands medical administrator for the U.N., and was knighted, "Sir Thomas Davis." He became New Zealand's (political) Commissioner over the Cook Islands. An associate of mine from Provo once met him in N.Z. and observed to him that he knew me, at one time a 25-year-old Mormon missionary in Rarotonga, whereupon Davis modestly remarked, "I remember him; I have wondered if he would remember me"! In 1951-52, at BYU studying archaeology, I picked as an M.A. thesis topic "Evidences of Culture Contacts between Polynesia and the Americas in Pre-Columbian Times." That effort put me in the middle of the theoretical literature on the controversial topic of transoceanic "diffusion." (My thesis, by the way, was in important ways substantively and critically superior to the work Heyerdahl published.) Since that time I have continue to fight battles against the scientifically orthodox claim that there was no significant communication across the oceans before Columbus. This business was not part of my normal professional research and writing, which was in applied anthropology, the application of aspects of the discipline to modern problems, yet I continued on a hobbyist basis a strong minor interest in my old topic. A number of minor publications later, in 1969, when I was employed at General Research in Santa Barbara, I was invited to participate in a special session at the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology (the major professional archaeologists' organization in the USA) in Santa Fe on ancient transoceanic crossings, pro and con. My paper, published in 1971 in the resulting volume ("The significance of an apparent relationship between the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica," in Man across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts. Carroll L. Riley, J. C. Kelley, C. W. Pennington, and Robert L. Rands, eds., 219-241. Austin: University of Texas Press) broke entirely new ground. Hardly anyone dared comment thereafter, either pro or con, on that unorthodox but very strong piece of research, obviously related potentially to the issue of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, although of course not mentioning it. In 1990 I published (co-edited by Martin Raish, an art history professor at BYU) at Research Press (an arm of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) the two-volume Pre-Columbian Contact with America across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography. An expanded second edition of 1200 pages in two volumes followed in 1996. It provided annotations or summaries of over 5,000 books and articles on the topic, pro and con. It has become the definitive source for the minority of researchers who take the problem seriously. I thought the subject would become a topic for mainline anthropological/archaeological discussion on the basis of that huge bibliography, but that was not the case. Perhaps 1200 pages were too big a lump to digest, or perhaps the work was too expensive or too obscurely published to be distributed widely. In any case I felt I needed to try again to make an impact with my extensive data. When I learned in 2000 that a conference was being planned for the next year in Philadelphia on "Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World," I arranged with the organizer, noted Chinese scholar Victor Mair, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to participate. Up to that point most of the evidence for contact across the oceans cited had consisted of cultural parallels, many of them very striking, but critics usually said, well, people think up similar ideas all over the world (dead wrong, they don't very often). What they insisted on was "hard" data, unmistakable parallels that couldn't just be "thought up." So I set out to demonstrate that the same organisms existed in both the Old World and the Americas. Obviously you can't "think up" an identical organism. I was already aware of a dozen or so plants that qualified (although even those were typically ignored by the critics, who claimed there were none). It seemed a good idea to involve a non-Mormon researcher so that I couldn't be accused of fudging the data to favor the Book of Mormon, which reports ocean travel. My choice was Carl Johannessen, an emeritus professor of (plant) geography at the U. of Oregon, who had all the right complementary ideas and a healthy supply of self-assurance. (We are the same age.) He agreed readily. Throughout our thirteen-year collaboration, I have supplied 80% of the information, usually from obscure printed sources, while he furnished language and cautions from the field of botany plus lots of professional contacts made in extensive travels (at least half a dozen trips to China and India and others too to Latin America and Europe). By the time of the Philadelphia conference we could assert definitively that at least 35 plants and a dozen infectious organisms were present in both the Old and New Worlds prior to Columbus's day, and there were still more for which data were insufficient. (The earliest assured contact was documented by the presence of two species of Asiatic hookworms dated more than 5000 BC by radiocarbon dating; they were found inside preserved human corpses in interior  Brazil, whose native population still is infested with them.) Dr. Mair was terribly impressed overall and remarkably open with regard to our work (he is the only scholar ever to report to me that he had read my big bibliography in full!) In 2004 he enthusiastically published an interim expansion of our material on an on-line website he personally was editing. (See Sorenson and Johannessen. "Scientific Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages to and from the Americas." (Sino- Platonic Papers No. 133.) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, 2004.) (PDF version accessible at Meanwhile he was editing a volume reporting the conference, but it would be 2006 before it came out. We kept expanding our data; Mair generously said, you can use as many pages as you need; our paper ran to 60 pages. (See Sorenson and Johannessen. "Biological evidence for pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages," in Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Victor H. Mair, ed., 238-297. (Perspectives on the Global Past, 2.) (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006). By then our data had established over 80 species of plants and 15 infectious organisms as unquestionably present on both sides of the ocean and surely transmitted, one direction or the other, by voyagers, in addition to further possibilities. Many of those plants consisted of species know to botanists to be of American evolutionary origin that had been carried to the Old World before Columbus, 65 of them to India! No such idea had ever been suggested before, let alone demonstrated. We continued to expand our list of transmitted organisms, although with declining enthusiasm (after all, how many would be "enough" to satisfy the critics?!) While I had done a majority of the labor in producing the study to that point, Carl undertook to promote the idea and the product. He relentlessly attended professional scientific meetings and gave papers and discussions on our work. He tried manuscripts on commercial and university publishers, but they all demurred because their "expert" reviewers considered our work "too speculative."  At length he arranged to publish our material as a book (World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492, 2009. 593 pp) at iUniverse of Bloomington, IN, and New York. In addition to a 90-page section presenting the essential argument, the publication consisted of a 360- page appendix in which we summarized data from archaeology, art history, ancient documents, standard botany and zoology sources, epidemiology, linguistics, and other fields, organism by organism, that led us to assign the degree of surety we settled on for each species. Another 150 pages contained various other listings, indexes, illustrations, and a huge bibliography. (Carl spent considerable money of his own to complete the editing of the manuscript.) Attempts to get the book reviewed in professional journals all failed; they do not review "self-published" books, as ours was classified.  The publisher did nothing toward placing/selling the book. In 2013 Johannessen decided to re-edit and republish it as World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492. Revised and Expanded Edition. (Eugene, OR: Carl L. Johannessen.) (Print and Kindle editions available through Amazon). The count of species unquestionably taken across the oceans now stands at 126 with another 86 tentative cases. We are both reconciled to waiting for years until the old paradigm of two independent hemispheres collapses under the weight of our evidence. There are some indications that a few experts agree with our position but are reluctant to "come out of the closet." For instance, Michael D. Coe, one of the most prominent Mesoamerican archaeologists (and an old friend), said in a personal letter to me (Jan. 3, 1910) acknowledging receipt of a copy of World Trade I had sent to him: "It's an enormously impressive piece of scholarship. …. So much of this evidence, I think, is irrefutable …. If I had another life, I'd devote much of it to proving the interlace between the religions and cosmologies of Southeast and South Asia and those of Mesoamerica, but I am now 80." (I was then 86!) Johannessen, with an editorial assistant, has written a popular version of our material, and they are looking for a publisher. I too have written a different work that is more to my taste. The 125-page manuscript is called Transoceanic Voyaging: How Ancient America Became Civilized. Gavin Menzies, the widely published and sold (over a million copies of his first book, in over 20 languages) British author of diffusionist books (1421; 1434 ; and in October 2013, Who Discovered America?) has offered to help arrange for a major publisher for my book. So it might yet appear in print. (He recently wrote, "In my opinion anyone who has read Johannessen's and Sorenson's books, yet still believes Columbus discovered America, is in need of psychiatric help.") At the same time I have continued work on the subject of Near Eastern- Mesoamerican contacts that I began in Man Across the Sea in 1971. In 2009 I finally published on Mair's website "A Complex of Ritual and Ideology Shared by Mesoamerica and the Ancient Near East." (Sino- Platonic Papers, No. 195). 134 pages.  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Dept. of East Asian Languages and Civilizations). (PDF version accessible at [link].) In it I present upwards of 300 parallels between Mesoamerican religion and those of the ancient Near East (often in excruciating detail). The only plausible explanation for the similarities is that voyagers from the latter area traveled to Mesoamerica, apparently in the first millennium BC. In 1951 when I chose my master's thesis topic, little did I know how little I knew, or how many virtual nautical miles my investigations would carry me. But it has all been challenging and even fun, and I have been blessed through the labor to interact with many stimulating minds (and, yes, the opposite too). I have particularly enjoyed confronting fuddy- duddy "experts" and showing that they haven't known what they were talking about. I think that process is called Science. I am about done now. I hope some passing sailors will give me a tow ashore.
Reminiscenses by John L. Sorenson