The map clearly shows South Africa's Drakensberg mountain range and what may be an attempt to depict Lake Victoria and the River Nile. Picture: AFP

The unveiling in South Africa's parliament of a replica of an ancient Chinese map of the then known world which includes a recognisable outline of Africa is raising intriguing questions of which foreigners first explored the continent.

"The idea is to take us beyond what we have been ... brainwashed into believing" declared Speaker Frene Ginwala at the opening of the exhibition, which includes other maps and rock art.

The “Da Ming Hun Yi Tu”, the Amalgamated Map of the Great Ming Empire, dates back to 1389, decades before the first European voyages to Africa. Among recognisable features are the Nile River and South Africa’s Drakensberg mountain range.

The map also shows a great lake, covering almost half the continent’s land mass. Researchers suggest it may have been drawn on the basis of an Arab legend that stated “farther south from the Sahara Desert is a great lake, far greater than the Caspian Sea”.

“We have the world’s best researchers working on it,” said parliament’s senior researcher Heindri Bailey, who was hesitant about drawing conclusions from it. “Until we are able to gain the knowledge we won’t speculate on it.”

The original of the map is housed in Beijing where it has remained wrapped up, sealed and stowed behind a locked door since the fall of China’s last emperor in 1924. Fewer than 20 people have had access to it since then.

The digitised reproduction of the map on silk is almost four metres (around 12 feet) high and more than four metres across. Place names are written mostly in Manchu, a now virtually extinct language, and still in need to be translated.

Karen Harris of the historical and heritage studies department at the University of Pretoria said that as early as the 1st century AD records had been found in China mentioning places in Africa. “They had the capability, definitely,” she said. “There’s not so much evidence to prove it, but it isn’t a closed book yet.”

Harris said that at the time the Chinese were seeking tribute and not trade for the emperor and therefore would not have set up bases or left behind significant markings as was the case with Europeans. This, she said, would make it difficult to uncover evidence in support of Chinese having been there, adding: “You wouldn’t find human remains because the Chinese took their bodies back to their ancestral lands.”

But Bailey said some circumstantial evidence existed in South Africa to suggest the Chinese had navigated around Africa long before Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. “Chinese pottery has been found in (South Africa’s northern) Limpopo Province dating back to around the 13th century and there’s rock art in the Eastern Cape depicting Chinese-looking characters,” Bailey said.

British amateur researcher Gavin Menzies, a submarine engineer, argues in “1421”, a book which came out this month, that Chinese admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the globe between 1421 and 1423, 100 years before the crew of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was killed en route.

Zheng He, a eunuch who never travelled with fewer than 300 ships, the biggest carrying 1,000 people, is long known to have visited Asia, India, Gulf countries, and Somalia, from where he took back giraffes and lions.

The official history also mentions “Franca” (France and Portugal) and Holland, with the Hollanders described as tall people with red hair and beards. To meet them in their homeland, Zheng He would have had to sail round the southern tip of Africa.

This is the first time that a copy of the map has been shown outside China. The original is a derivative of an even earlier one dated 1320, which was believed to have been destroyed. That was before Zheng He’s birth (he lived from 1371 to 1435), which deepens the mystery.

Some of the later European maps on show in parliament illustrate dragons, snakes and one-eyed monsters in the inland regions.

The story was published by: BBC news “Africa’s oldest map unveiled”