Ivan Van Sertima: They Came Before Columbus
By Spencer Mays
It seems difficult even for historians to understand how civilizations develop their traditions and cultures. We see cultural symbols such as the Pyramids around the world and human nature tells us to connect the dots somehow, instead of giving each civilization independent authority. There are extreme ideas of aliens creating Pyramids and other landmarks around the world and giving humanity technology. At the same time there are marginally more legitimate alternative history theories worth researching, that the ancient world exchanged cultures across continents to a much greater extent than we are aware of. Those who support the idea of transcontinental cultural exchanges in antiquity are labeled cultural hyper-diffusionists. One of the most well known and respected cultural diffunionists is Ivan Van Sertima, who believes Egyptians of the twenty-fifth dynasty, sailed across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic ocean to the Americas, where they had enormous influence on civilizations of Mesoamerica, including the Ancient Olmec. Van Sertima put his research into They Came Before Columbus in 1976. Van Sertima uses biased sources, which infects his evidence with bias; there are also major problems with his theory.
Theories that Aliens had to do with the building of the pyramids around the world are rampant on the Internet. After typing, “aliens built the pyramids” into a Google search there are over 700,000 results. These websites have a wide spectrum of theories and details in alien contact theories. Most are extremely informal in appearance and content, and don’t seem to try to be factually sound, with phrases like “according to Wikipedia.” Many credit aliens with using humans to build pyramids around the world including Egypt, China, and the Americas, as well as other ancient structures such as Stonehenge. The most common arguments these websites use is that the Pyramids are too complex to be built by Ancient humans. For example many websites point out that on the first day of summer solstice, the sun sets directly in the middle between the two Pyramids of Giza from the view of the Sphinx and also they align with stars on the Orion’s belt. The placing and building of the pyramids required the Ancient Egyptians and Mesoamerican civilizations to have a large amount of knowledge on astrology, and complex mathematical concepts such as pie. According to the writers of these websites these concepts could not have been discovered until thousands of years later. There are many theories on why the aliens built pyramids. Some say it was for a place to store their radioactive waste, and others say they were used as landmarks, as if Aliens need landmarks on earth after traveling across galaxies to get here. Theories are synthesized with other conspiracies like the Pharaoh’s curse, and Atlantis. Of course governments around the world hide evidence of ancient alien contact. Many websites seem to have the notion that people in Ancient Antiquity were primitive cave and hut dwellers that could not possibly have figured out how to create such complex structures. They are both overrating their intelligence and underrating ancient people’s intelligence. Theories of alien contact with ancient civilizations are on the ridiculous side and there is absolutely no undisputable evidence for it.
On the less ridiculous side, are theories of cultural diffusion in ancient Mesoamerica. Betty Meggers and Mike Xiu had many works supporting the theory that Chinese of the Shang Dynasty originated the Olmec civilization in Central America. Theories on the origins of the Olmec began in 1862 with Jose Melgar, who was part of a team that discovered the Olmec stone heads, which he explained in two essays had distinctly African features (Montellano 201). In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a trend of cultural hyper-diffusionists in the United States led by Leo Wiener, a Harvard professor of Slavic literature (201). Wiener wrote a three volume work called Africa and the Discovery of America in 1922 (202). Wiener’s evidence for African contact with Mesoamericans concentrated on similarities in language (202). Works by Leo Wiener and others were quickly dismissed but picked up again in the late 1960’s during the Black Nationalist movement. Ronoko Rashidi has many Afrocentric essays about Ancient Africans and their role in civilizations in Europe, Asia and the Americas (202). Clyde Ahmad Winters had one of the most extreme stances in the African-Olmec cultural diffusionist theory saying the Africans taught the Olmec everything they knew in architecture science, and astronomy, and agriculture (202). The most well known writer on African-Olmec cultural diffusion was Ivan Van Sertima, with They Came Before Columbus.
Dr. Ivan Van Sertima was a well-respected prolific writer and professor at Rutgers University. He was born in Guyana, South American and went to London University and Rutgers University (JAC). He has degrees in anthropology and African Studies (JAC). Van Sertima is a successful literary critic and served on the Nobel Committee to nominate Nobel Prize winners in literature from 1976 to 1980 (JAC). He has published many books mostly on African history including The Golden Age Of the Moors, African Presence in Early Europe, and Egypt Revisited. Van Sertima is also a poet and lecturer, and has traveled to Universities around the world (JAC). In 1987 Van Sertima spoke in front of the U.S. Congress against the celebration of Columbus Day, saying at the end of his speech “You cannot really conceive of how insulting it is of Native Americans…to be told you were discovered” (JAC).
In They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima claims that explorers from Egypt’s twenty-fifth dynasty made their way to the Americas. Egypt during the twenty-fifth dynasty was ruled by the Nubian Kushite Empire, which ruled Egypt from 760 to 656 BCE (“Shabaka”). The two most important rulers of the dynasty were King Piankhi, who ruled from 741 to 712 BCE, and his brother Shabaka who ruled from 712 to 696 BC (“Shabaka”). The major events in the twenty-fifth dynasty include the preservation of northern and southern Egypt after a succession, and a growing tension between the Kushite Empire and the Assyrians, who were growing more powerful. Shabaka incited the Palestinians and the Syrians to revolt against the imperial Assyrians but they were put down (“Shabaka”). In preparation for war with the Assyrians, the twenty-fifth dynasty Egyptians had an advanced Navy with many fleets of ships (“Shabaka”).
The other civilization Van Sertima claims to have traveled to the Americas prior to Columbus was the Mali Empire, also called the Mandingo Empire. The West African Empire ruled from 1230 to 1600 A.D. and was one of the wealthiest and largest Empires in world history (“Mali”). The height of the Mali Empire was the 1300’s and during that time they had regulation over all trans-Saharan trade routes (“Mali”). The Mandingos traded their gold for salt, slaves, figs, horses, copper, sugar, and other commodities. Two-thirds of the worlds gold originally came from the region of the Mali Empire. (“Mali”)
The Olmecs are America’s oldest civilization, and existed between 1200 and 300 BCE (Reilly). Their domain ranged ninety miles of the south eastern shore of the Mexican Gulf Coast in the modern Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco (Reilly). They had three major urban centers call San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes (Reilly). The Olmecs had such a large amount of public works, such as pyramids, and huge carved stone heads, that there must have been a certain amount of complex social class structure, with a large working class (Reilly). The Olmec also began a huge project in reshaping a natural hill into a plateau, which required mass amounts of fill (Carmack 50). Originally the Olmec civilization was considered the “mother culture,” and it was theorized that the practices and traditions of the Olmec spread throughout Central America and even South America (Reilly). But relatively recently this theory is less accepted, since there are civilizations out of the Olmec reach with similar cultural features (Reilly). The Olmec are the civilization that Ivan Van Sertima focuses on in his theory that Nubian and Mandingo travelers influenced Mesoamerican cultures.
The Olmec are best known for their colossal stone heads. These heads were skillfully carved out of volcanic basalt (Carmack 53). These large stones would have either had to be carried or floated down the river miles from the query (Andrea). There are seventeen heads total and each is unique in facial features and detail of the helmets they are wearing (Andrea). The largest head is nine feet tall (Andrea). The facial features of the Olmec stone heads are a huge argument Van Sertima uses to attempt to prove Nubian and Mandingo explorers diffused with Olmec culture.
Van Sertima seems to be motivated by the need to prove his theory of African-Native American diffusion instead of interpreting facts objectively and judging by is rhetoric he is less critical of his writing then he should be. In the introduction to They Came Before Columbus Van Sertima writes about how he found out about the theory of Africans and Phoenicians traveling to the Americas prior to Columbus and influencing the Native culture when he found Africa, the Discovery of America by Leo Wiener in a Princeton professor’s library in 1969 (Sertima xiii). He then writes about how he was at first skeptical of the theory but extremely excited to learn more about it (xiv). He called the theory “fascinating” and “revolutionary.” (xiv) He knows the theory changes our basic knowledge of the history of ancient civilizations. Throughout the book Van Sertima seems to be enthusiastically trying to prove a theory that he is personally excited about. He uses phrases such as “There is no doubt” and “There is no question whatsoever” when making judgments based on evidence, and calls the evidence “overwhelming” (Sertima 23) “remarkable” and “undisputable.” These phrases show Van Sertima is not especially critical of the evidence he uses or the assumptions he makes from the evidence.
Besides letting enthusiasm for the idea blind him, Van Sertima seems to have a nationalistic agenda behind his work. By sponsoring a Black Egypt and Nubia that advanced other culture’s civilization, Van Sertima is attempting to strengthen his race’s pride. The reason this theory is so popular in the African-American community is that it intensifies the African-American heritage and pride in the race. As an Afrocentric historian, Van Sertima seems to want to force African history where it does not go. He may be researching this theory in order to better understand his own African history. At times he may let his race pride bias him when understanding the superiority of African civilizations compared to Mesoamerican civilizations.
Of the many sources Van Sertima cites, several of them are outdated when he could be using more modern and accurate works by researchers who actually worked in the excavation. A large part of his argument for cultural diffusion between Ancient Egyptians and Olmec is their cultural similarities. But when he argues about the cultural similarities he cites sources written before most knowledge of Olmec civilization even existed. He cites Leo Wiener’s Before Columbus written in 1925, Donald Mackenzie’s Myths in Pre-Columbian America written in 1923, Grafton Elliot Smith’s works from 1915 through 1923 in his chapter titled “African-Egyptian Presences in Ancient America.” Smith is cited throughout Van Sertima’s work, which tears apart its credibility. Smith not only believed that civilization originated from White rulers of Egypt and then spread throughout the world, but that certain races, such as aboriginals of Australia were racially inferior (Cooke). The problem is that details on the Olmec ruins were not published until a 1925 expedition by Tulane University (Carmack 26). La Venta was not fully excavated until 1943 by Mathew Sterling (Carmack 27). In this chapter he mentions La Venta, one of the two most important Olmec ruins, and information on Olmec and Mesoamerican myths, dances Olmec culture yet, knowledge on La Venta was not fully developed until the 1940’s. Van Sertima strings general information on Mesoamerican culture together with Olmec culture using sources that do not apply to the Olmecs. It appears to be a misleading attempts to use evidence of one topic and applying it to another. Also, at the time Wiener and Mackenzie wrote, there were no definite dates on Mesoamerican civilizations. Van Sertima should have used works from the previous forty years, which had a more accurate timeline of ancient civilizations.
As well as outdated sources, Van Sertima also cites a few works that have the same agenda as he does, which takes away from his objectivity. Van Sertima frequently cites Wiener, Mackenzie, and Smith were all considered cultural hyper-diffusionists who tried to prove Mesoamerican civilizations had influence from ancient African and Arab cultures. He also cites a piece called “”African Explorers in the New World” by Harold Lawrence, which was published in The Crisis, a magazine connected with the NAACP that leans towards heavy Black nationalism. Van Sertima relies on these sources as evidence to prove his theory. He should cite less biased and well accepted texts. In order to use accurate facts, in a non-biased manner Van Sertima should have used sources that were not attempting to prove such an unaccepted historical theory.
A defining example of Van Sertima’s outdated and biased sources is his use of a letter written from a priest to a historian. The letter was written by Abbe Hervas, to Clavigero in 1780. The letter is about how Hervas noticed similarities between the Mayan calendar and the Egyptian calendar of the same time period. He uses this as evidence and even quotes it to prove his point (Sertima171-2). The Mayan calendar was not closely studied by experts until the 1930’s (Melton). This is 150 years after the letter Van Sertima cites was written. This means the Mayan calendar was not fully understood until then. It is not very scholarly of Van Sertima to cite such an outdated source just to prove his point.
Van Sertima’s theory has a few crucial historical inaccuracies, including chronological problems. Sertima claims the Olmecs built a specific types of Pyramids, called stepped pyramids, and smooth sided pyramids because of the influence of Egyptian transcontinental travelers. The problem is that the times in which these two civilizations built this type of Pyramid do not match up. Van Sertima says Olmecs built smooth-sided or stepped pyramids at La Venta because of Black Egyptian sailors who arrived between 800 and 680 B.C. (132, 155-6). The last smooth triangular-sided pyramid was built in Egypt for pharaoh Khenjefer in 1777 B.C. (Vol. 4. 216). The last stepped Pyramid in Egypt was built around 2630 B.C (Vol. 4 118). This means the Egyptians taught the Olmec about how to build structure that had not been built in their region for 1,000 and 2,000 years earlier.
Also, the civilization that inhabited Egypt was at that time of Van Sertima’s “contact period” was a different one than the one who built these pyramids. They were what Petrie calls the Ptolemaic Dynasty and what Van Sertima calls the Nubians. How and why would a civilization travel across the Atlantic to teach another civilization an extravagant funerary building that even another civilization did at least 1,000 years earlier? Also, how would they even know how to build such extremely complex objects? Van Sertima acknowledges this counter to his theory on page one-hundred and fifty-six, saying “the heyday of the Egyptian step-pyramid was long over.” In order to explain, he writes that simply living next to these Pyramids that were built at least 1,000 years earlier inspired them to spread the tradition to other civilizations in Mesoamerica (Sertima 156). The idea that the Nubians worked on, or maintained these previously made Pyramids is found nowhere. He also says the Nubians built Pyramids of the same style, just on a much smaller scale (156). This statement is not exactly true. The 6th and 5th century B.C was the Twenty Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. (vol. 3 page 4). During this time the Egyptians buried their dead in secret, with small tombs with pyramids that had pointy tops as the case for Ramessu who was unnamed and unwrapped in his tomb (4). This however is not, as Van Sertima claims, similar to the Pyramids built by the Olmecs, even on a smaller scale. The Olmec Pyramids were as the Encyclopedia Of Latin American History and Culture describes, “a fluted cupcake” (Miller). Historians suggest the pyramid’s shape was inspired by the shape of volcanoes of central Mexico (Miller). The Olmec pyramids were flat at the top not pointed as the Nubians pyramids were. The Nubians neither taught the Olmec how to build their Pyramids, nor the ancient Egyptian’s pyramids.
Van Sertima continues with the chronological inconsistencies. On page 155 Van Sertima claims Egyptian step pyramids were built with influence from Egyptians in Teotihuaca and Cholula. These pyramids were built in 150 A.D. and 700 A.D. These are even more ridiculous claims then the Olmec one since there is an even greater time disparity between the buildings of this type of pyramid. For the Teotihucana pyramid was built over 2,000 years earlier and the Cholula Pyramid was built at least 2,400 years earlier.
In Chapter Six, Van Sertima claims Mandingo traders of ancient Africa influenced Mesoamerican Language. He focuses on the Ancient Olmec and their hypothetical contact with Africans. However, as proof of linguistic similarities, Van Sertima compares many words in Mandingo and Nahuatl. Nahuatl, or Nahua, was spoken by Ancient Aztecs, which reach their peak in the 16th century C.E., 1800 years after the Olmec. The Olmec spoke a Mixe-Zoquean dialect, which is not linguistically connected to the Nahua (Andrea) and (Carmack 52). It does not make sense to argue the Olmec language was influenced by Mandingo language by comparing Mandingo and Nahua language since there is no connection. Also, we still know very little about Ancient Mesoamerican languages (Andrea), so it is premature to attempt to compare them to other ancient languages. Language taught to the Olmecs would not influence the language of the Aztecs.
In Chapter Nine Van Sertima uses cultural practices by the Olmec sand the Ancient Egyptians as evidence of cultural diffusion. He writes about cultural attributes such as what he calls “kettle-caps,” which the Olmec warriors are depicted in art wearing and ancient Phoenician warriors are described as wearing (Sertima 153). He also compares the traditions of royalty among Mesoamerican civilizations and the Ancient Egyptians. These include the use of the color purple, and mock beards (164). These vague similarities of course can all be attributed to coincidence and human nature. Obviously beards are going to attributed to wisdom and experience, just as they are in many other cultures besides the Olmecs and Egyptians.
One of Van Sertima’s biggest pieces of evidence for cultural diffusion are the colossal Olmec head statues, which he says, have uniquely “Negroid” features such as full lips and broad noses (Sertima 142-144). Van Sertima says these heads were built to resemble the twenty-fifth dynasty Egyptian trans-continental travelers. He goes so far as to say these Egyptians were worshipped as deities (153). First of all, these stone heads may very well have been built before Van Sertima’s “contact period” of 800-680 BC. Both the World History Encyclopedia and The Legacy of Mesoamerica (Carmack 50) say the Olmecs were a “thriving” and “flourishing” civilization by 1200 BC and these stone heads could have been built between 1200 and 300. It is true these sculptures were probably built to resemble “political leaders, economic leaders, deities, athletes, or others who made notable contributions to the community” (Andrea). Van Sertima neglects logical explanations for the features of the stone heads that are more likely than his theory. It is overly-Afrocenric to Full lips and broad noses are not exclusively African features. Asiatic ethnicities such Filipinos and eastern Asians contain these traits at once and in mixture. Furthermore, the Olmecs themselves could have looked exactly like this. Van Sertima does not take into account that the Native population in Central America dropped from 15 million to 1.5 million between 1492 and 1600, due to disease and Spanish violent colonization (Cook 5). This means Native ethnic groups had been entirely swept off the face of the earth. An ethnic group with the exact physical features that the Olmec stone heads display could very possibly have existed. There are many other explanations for the features of the Olmec stone heads. The Encyclopedia Of Latin American History says factually that the stone heads were built to resemble infants in the elite ruling family. The Olmec made many pieces of art, which had infants such as the many terracotta figures (Reilly). These figures also resemble people with oddly shaped limps and heads, as well as half human half-jaguar figures (Reilly). Clearly, the Olmec did not always sculpt art as realistically as they could, and they definitely exaggerated human features, and idealized human features in their art. This means it is not possible to analyze ethnic traits in their art and come to a proper conclusion. While the evidence of cultural influence on the Olmec or other Mesoamerican civilizations can be dismissed as coincidence or other given more reasonable explanations.
Evidence that Olmec and Mesoamerican culture were influenced by African cultures is extremely unconvincing. Although, given how advanced the Kush Empire and the Mali Empire were it is plausible they made their way by sea to the Americas. Any map of oceanic currents shows that there is a strong current that flows from the Ivory Coast of West Africa, straight to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Ivan Van Sertima makes sure the reader is aware of this many times. However, it does not make sense to claim that a boatload, or even a fleet of Africans could drastically influence the practices and traditions of a civilization that lasted almost 1,000 years. If they did have such a huge influence, then the evidence would be obvious. Van Sertima is certainly working very hard to attempt to draw cultural similarities when if his theory were true it would be easily done. If the Egyptians did spread their cultural traditions then it would be traditions of their own time, not of Egyptians 1,000 years previous to them. Not only is this theory unrealistic but also it is also insulting to the Mesoamerican cultures.
The theory of They Came Before Columbus has insulted the history and culture of Native-Americans by diminishing their role in their own history. Van Sertima writes about the idea of a small number of Africans, relative to the number of Native Americans having a huge influence on their civilization’s history. This is insulting because it almost implies Mesoamericans were basically inferior, and far less advanced than the rest of the world. Van Sertima implies the African travelers were so far advanced that the Olmecs stopped everything they were doing to carve out their faces on Volcanic rock and transport them miles to the Olmec cities. On a smaller scale he writes of a few Africans being immediately accepted as leaders by the Natives. For example he accepts the idea of “a group of seventeen Negroes shipwrecked in Ecuador…who in short order became governors of an entire province of American Indians” (Sertima 33). Van Sertima responds to this criticism a couple times. He says “Fusion is the marriage-not the fatal collision-of cultures” (Sertima 147). A “marriage” of civilizations takes away from the independence, and individual accomplishments of each one. Phrases like these are simply disclaimers by Van Sertima and their meaning does not show through in the general message of the book.
Understanding for Van Sertima and other Afrocentric historians must be given. They are a product of two factors. The first being an education system, that remains Eurocentric even until today. African, Asian, and Native-American history is dangerously neglected and even distorted. African civilizations such as the Kush Empire and the Mali Empire are never mentioned in schools, elementary through secondary. While European history is emphasized like it’s the only history there is. Up to the 1960’s American public education taught students that African-American slaves were happy while being slaves. These factors not only cause a distrust for established history, but causes people of non-European races to seek knowledge of their own race’s history, and then overcompensate by possibly exaggerating and imposing their history on the history of other races. The second factor is habitual accepted radical Eurocentric history. Theories by Historians like Grafton Elliot Smith, who believed the rulers of Egypt must have been European, as well as rulers of Asian civilizations, may cause Afrocentrism, by again, forcing non-Europeans to overcompensate in their race’s history.
Other than the sympathy of Afrocentric historians, the lesson received from researching They Came Before Columbus, was that such researched and meticulous historical concepts needs to be given a respectful and professional response. Van Sertima was not claiming aliens built pyramids around the world. He was claiming a possible although unlikely theory. Right after They Came Before Columbus was published, a flood of articles came out childishly criticizing the piece. One example is a 1977 New York Times article by Glynn Daniel, in which in the first sentence calls it a “rubbish book.” He then continues to trash Van Sertima’s work throughout, saying his theory is based on “fantasies” in the last sentence, and has very little actual, content based, historical criticism (Daniel). Ironically Daniel quotes Grafton Elliot Smith (Daniel), who has just as little credibility as Van Sertima. Van Sertima’s work at least should receive intellectual, professional and thought out criticism. Immediate name calling and dismissing of the work simply reveals a conservative historian, who has a closed mind. Critics like Daniels are unwilling to figuratively sit at the same table, and dispute plausible historical theories methodically. Van Sertima is neither a holocaust denier, nor an Alien abductee and he deserves a respectful, and academic response.
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